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The dictionary where Jerry Garcia got the phrase ‘Grateful Dead’
03:50 pm


The Grateful Dead

In 1965, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Phil Lesh were in a Bay Area outfit called the Warlocks. (Quite astonishingly, the band that would become the Velvet Underground was also operating as the Warlocks at that exact same juncture.) The first show where the band performed as the Grateful Dead occurred on December 4, 1965, in San Jose, at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.

The story of Jerry seeing the words “Grateful Dead” in a dictionary is a well-established part of Deadhead lore. Jerry saw the words in a dictionary and a sunbeam splashed on the page and the words on the page glowed in a beatific halo or whatnot.

Actually, here’s the story, as recounted in Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life:

It was sometime in November 1965, while the band and a few friends were sitting around Phil’s apartment on High Street [Seriously, people? High Street??] in Palo Alto, smoking DMT and thumbing through a gargantuan Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, that the group’s name was revealed (cue biblical trumpets!). As Jerry said in his oft-quoted 1969 description of the episode, “There was ‘grateful dead,’ those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y’know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was grateful dead. Big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ And that was it.” Later, he noted, “Nobody in the band liked it. I didn’t like it, either, but it got around that that was one of the candidates for our new name and everyone else said, “Yeah, that’s great.” It turned out to be tremendously lucky. It’s just repellent enough to filter curious onlookers and just quirky enough that parents don’t like it,” he added with a laugh.

But haven’t you ever wondered just what kind of dictionary has an entry for “Grateful Dead,” anyway? It seems like an awfully weird term to stick in on the same page as gravel.

The Warlocks in action, 1965
There’s a pretty solid piece of reporting on the Grateful Dead’s official website that does a good job of explaining how this came about. It’s not a straightforward story, and (as befits the mindset of, say, a lexicographer) the details matter.

Some Grateful Dead fans did spend significant time trying to track down the dictionary that Jerry might have been perusing, but to no avail. And in fact the lack of any such dictionary popping up in these searches may have led to the rise of an alternate theory about The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which does in fact feature the phrase “grateful dead” as well—but had nothing to do with Jerry’s idea for the name, at least not directly.

As the Dead’s website tells it, a Deadhead named Kimball Jones finally found the elusive dictionary, which turned out to be the 1955 edition of The Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition:

Jones contacted the band’s office, providing photocopies of the entry and title page; images of those pages would eventually appear in The Official Book of the Deadheads, finally laying the question to rest. Jones donated his copy of the dictionary to the Grateful Dead Archive, where it is currently on display.

As the article asks later, “The esoteric nature of the entry, and its rarity, raise an interesting question: how did such a specialized entry come to appear in a popular dictionary?”

The reason “Grateful Dead” was in the dictionary derives from a woman named Maria Leach, who worked for Funk and Wagnalls and had made lexicographical contributions “in the fields of folklore and mythology” and was also “the editor of the company’s Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, which has the other appearance of the grateful dead as an entry. ... in a real way, Maria Leach can be considered the godmother of the Grateful Dead.”

One wonders if Maria Leach ever even heard of the Grateful Dead before her death in 1977, when she was in her eighties. It seems quite likely that a lexicographer who was publishing books in 1949 (the year that Funk and Wagnalls came out with Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend) would almost certainly, twenty years later, not even be aware of all those “younguns” with their loud guitars and such. In fact, Maria Leach was born in 1892 and attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, whose curriculum was largely shaped by the teachings of the Quakers, so you know, it doesn’t seem too probable.

Even more interestingly, her (quite substantial) bio on Wikipedia does not mention her considerable role in the naming of one of the biggest acts in rock and roll history. Her Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, which sounds utterly fascinating, can be acquired on Amazon for a surprisingly reasonable sum.) 

Here’s a scan of the 1955 edition of the dictionary, followed by the text of the entry (click on the image for a larger view):


GRATEFUL DEAD: The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts. He gives his last penny, either to pay the man’s debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours he meets with a travelling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune or saves his life. The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the hero had befriended.(Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary).

There’s a book that was written in 1908 by Gordon Hall Gerould under the title The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story that relates to this myth—occasionally people buy it with the idea that it’s about the band, but it still is probably a rewarding read.
via Little Hippie

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Grateful Dead guide to dealing with a bad LSD trip

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test soundtrack with The Grateful Dead and The Merry Pranksters

My feelings about the Grateful Dead are not complicated. I like a lot of their music just fine, but it was their audience that turned me off.

I never got into that whole spinning hippies/Hacky Sack patchouli vibe, but I love the shit out of Workingman’s Dead, Anthem of the Sun, American Beauty, Live Dead and Terrapin Station. Notwithstanding the above, what I did like about Deadheads was when the tie-died circus came to the New York area, all of sudden there would be plentiful amounts of blotter acid, quality mescaline, DMT and opium around for weeks afterwards…

Drugs. Which brings me to the media below, recordings made of The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters at the infamous San Francisco “Acid Tests,” as immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s classic book of “new journalism,” The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

This is the Dead in 1966, some of the earliest recordings that exist of the group, but what makes these tapes of even greater historical interest is that this is the soundtrack, essentially, of the “early adopters” of the psychedelic culture getting turned on together, as large groups gathered together in one place.

On that level, the recordings go from being merely an early period Grateful Dead bootleg and become something weirder, deeper and of Smithsonian Institute-level historical importance. Incidentally, today, April 16th,  is the 70th anniversary of Dr. Albert Hofmann’s 1943 discovery of LSD.

The sound can be ropey, but here it is…

This early film of the group playing at an “Acid Test” in Los Angeles on March 19, 1966 at Carthay Studio is some of the earliest footage that I’ve ever seen of the Grateful Dead:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Steal Yer Money: ‘Grateful Dead Kennedys’ tee-shirt

“Hey, you got a hippie jam band in my punk rock peanut butter.”

Two great tastes that would taste terrible together in a Bay Area musical mash-up from Hell: Introducing “The Grateful Dead Kennedys” tee-shirt!

You can get one here for $20.00.

Via The World’s Best Ever


Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
‘Gimme Shelter’ outtake: The Grateful Dead, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts

In this footage shot by the Maysles brothers on December 6, 1969 for the film Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead wait for a helicopter on a pier in San Francisco to take them to the Altamont Speedway.

Jagger, in not so sympathetic devil-mode, foppishly preens and sashays like rock royalty, much to Jerry Garcia’s amusement, while attempting to force an unyielding Charlie Watts to bestow a kiss upon a groupie’s forehead. As Jagger continues to egg Watts on, Charlie responds with the classy retort “Love is much more of a deeper thing than that.. it is not flippant, to be thrown away on celluloid.”

Later that day, the whip would come down.

This footage never appeared in the final cut of Gimme Shelter. It did eventually turn up on DVD as part of the Get Yer Ya Ya Yas Out boxset.

Michael Azerrad has written an insightful piece on The Gimme Shelter outtakes on his blog.

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Documentary filmed in The Haight Ashbury during the Summer Of Love


Filmed during the Summer Of Love (1967) in the Haight-Ashbury, this groovy documentary features commentary from visionary poet Michael McClure, footage of The Grateful Dead hanging out at their Ashbury Street home, a visit to The Psychedelic Bookshop, The Straight Theater, scenes from McClure’s play The Beard and rare shots of the bard of The Haight, Richard Brautigan, walking through Panhandle Park in all of his glorious splendor.

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Ken Kesey: A brief interview

Ken Kesey died 10 years ago this month, on the 10th November. In memory of the great man who was “too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie”, here is a brief film interview with the Merry Prankster, where he discusses the characters he met through the Acid Test; the Grateful Dead and The Beatles and the Power of Music; looking for the crack that brings the magic and the Deadheads - what Fame meant and their Legacy.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

Ken Kesey: The Merry Pranksters’ Magic Trip

Ken Kesey hits back at critics of ‘One Flew Over the Cucloo’s Nest’


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment