Every Grateful Dead Song Annotated in Hypertext: Web Project Reveals the Deep Literary Foundations of the Dead’s Lyrics

Dead Last Show Poster

Just about twen­ty years ago, on July 9, 1995, the Grate­ful Dead played their last show with Jer­ry Gar­cia. Nei­ther the fans, nor the band knew this would be so, but any­one pay­ing atten­tion could have seen it com­ing. Gar­ci­a’s cocaine and hero­in use had long dom­i­nat­ed his life; despite inter­ven­tions by his band­mates, a few stints in rehab, a dia­bet­ic coma, and the death of key­boardist Brent Myd­land, the singer and gui­tarist con­tin­ued to relapse. Exact­ly one month after that final con­cert, he died of a heart attack.

And what a poignant show it was. (See the tour poster above, hear the entire set below, and see a setlist here), open­ing with the band’s come­back hit “Touch of Grey” and clos­ing with a fire­works dis­play set to Hen­drix’s “Star Span­gled Ban­ner.”

Gar­cia sounds frail, his voice a bit thin and ragged, and the lyrics—penned by Robert Hunter—strike a painful­ly iron­ic note: “I will get by… I will sur­vive.” Just last night, twen­ty years after that moment, fans once again said good­bye to the Dead, as they played their last of three final con­certs with­out Jer­ry at Chicago’s Sol­dier’s Field, the same venue where Gar­cia last sang “Touch of Grey“ ‘s fate­ful words.

The Grate­ful Dead­’s offi­cial out­put may have been uneven at times, marred by excess and tragedy, but the band’s words remained con­sis­tent­ly inspired and inspir­ing, each song a poet­ic vignette filled with oblique ref­er­ences and wit­ty, heart­felt turns of phrase. We most­ly have Robert Hunter to thank for those hun­dreds of mem­o­rable vers­es. An accom­plished poet and trans­la­tor of Rain­er Maria Rilke’s Duino Ele­gies and Son­nets to Orpheus, Hunter served, writes Rolling Stone, as the band’s “pri­ma­ry in-house poet.” In a rare and mov­ing inter­view with the mag­a­zine, the reclu­sive writer mus­es on his for­mer role, and hedges on the mean­ing of his songs: “I’m open to ques­tions about inter­pre­ta­tion, but I gen­er­al­ly skate around my answers because I don’t want to put those songs in a box.”

Hunter’s reluc­tance to inter­pret his lyrics has­n’t stopped fans and schol­ars of the Dead from doing so. There have been uni­ver­si­ty exhibits and aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ences devot­ed to the Grate­ful Dead. And true stu­dents of the band can study the many lit­er­ary ref­er­ences and allu­sions in their song­writ­ing with The Anno­tat­ed Grate­ful Dead Lyrics, an online project begun in 1995 by UC San­ta Cruz Research Asso­ciate David Dodd, and turned into a book in 2005. The exten­sive hyper­text ver­sion of the project includes edi­to­r­i­al foot­notes explain­ing each song’s ref­er­ences, with sources. Also includ­ed in these gloss­es are “notes from read­ers,” who weigh in with their own spec­u­la­tions and schol­ar­ly adden­da.

If you have any doubt about just how steeped in poet­ic his­to­ry the pre-emi­nent hip­pie band’s cat­a­log is, see for exam­ple the anno­tat­ed “Ter­rapin Sta­tion,” a song that reach­es back to Homer and alludes to Lewis Car­roll, William Blake, Pla­to, and T.S. Eliot. Or, so, at least, say Dodd and his read­ers, though some of their inter­pre­ta­tions may seem a bit ten­u­ous. Hunter him­self told Rolling Stone, “peo­ple think I have a lot more inten­tion at what I do because it sounds very focused and inten­tion­al. Some­times I just write the next line that occurs to me, and then I stand back and look at it and say, ‘This looks like it works.’ ” But just because a poet isn’t con­scious­ly quot­ing Homer does­n’t mean he isn’t, espe­cial­ly a poet as dense­ly allu­sive as Robert Hunter.

Take, for exam­ple, “Uncle John’s Band,” which con­tains the line “Ain’t no time to hate.” One read­er, Aaron Bibb, points us toward these lines of Emi­ly Dick­in­son:

I had no time to Hate—
The Grave would hin­der Me—
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish—Enmity—

Woven through­out the song are ref­er­ences to Amer­i­can poet­ry and folk music—from Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” to the Gads­den Flag, to an Appalachi­an rag. Anoth­er of the band’s most pop­u­lar songs, “Friend of the Dev­il,” cribs its title and cho­rus from Amer­i­can folk singer Bill Mor­ris­sey’s song “Car and Driver”—and also ref­er­ences Don McLean’s “Amer­i­can Pie.” Draw­ing as much on the West­ern lit­er­ary canon as on the Amer­i­can song­book, Hunter’s writ­ing sit­u­ates the Dead­’s Amer­i­cana in a tra­di­tion stretch­ing over cen­turies and con­ti­nents, giv­ing their music depth and com­plex­i­ty few oth­er rock bands can claim.

The online anno­tat­ed Grate­ful Dead also includes “The­mat­ic Essays,” a bib­li­og­ra­phy and “bib­li­og­ra­phy of song­books,” films and videos, and discogra­phies for the band and each core mem­ber. There may be no more exhaus­tive a ref­er­ence for the band’s out­put con­tained all in one place, though read­ers of this post may know of com­pa­ra­ble guides in the vast sea of Grate­ful Dead com­men­tary and com­pendi­ums online, in print, and on tape. The band may have played its last show twen­ty years ago, and again just last night with­out its beloved leader, but the pro­lif­er­at­ing, seri­ous study of their songcraft and lyri­cal genius shows us that they will, indeed, sur­vive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Grate­ful Dead’s “Rip­ple” Played by Musi­cians Around the World

10,173 Free Grate­ful Dead Con­cert Record­ings in the Inter­net Archive

The Grate­ful Dead’s “Ulti­mate Boot­leg” Now Online & Added to the Library of Con­gress’ Nation­al Record­ing Reg­istry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Barb says:

    What are you talk­ing about?

    “Friend of the Dev­il,” cribs its title and cho­rus from Amer­i­can folk singer Bill Morrissey’s song “Car and Driver”—and also ref­er­ences Don McLean’s “Amer­i­can Pie.”

    Amer­i­can Beau­ty was released in Novem­ber 1970
    Amer­i­can Pie was released in 1971
    Car And Dri­ver copy write is 1989 Bill Mor­ris­sey was quot­ing Robert Hunter’s song and the next line quotes Bar­low’s Looks like Rain
    although I do not know what the Amer­i­can Pie ref­er­ence could be oth­er than the men­tion of a levy in both songs .
    Seri­ous­ly poor fact check­ing

  • August West says:

    Barb — the Anno­tat­ed Lyrics cor­rect­ly note that these songs are or could be ref­er­enc­ing the Hunter lyrics, not the oth­er way around. This seems like an inno­cent mis­take by some­one less music lit­er­ate than you and I.

  • Sam says:

    August, Are you out there? I have a ques­tion regard­ing The Dead. Seem­ing­ly sim­ple. Per­haps total­ly fool­ish, yet sin­cere. Too much of a Lud­dite to track some­one else down. I am not par­tic­u­lar­ly musi­cal­ly lit­er­ate. Huge fan. Dodd’s Anno­tat­ed Lyrics phe­nom­e­nal. My ques­tion is this. Has any­one tried to explain or shed light on the musi­cal vs. the lyri­cal aspects of the songs in a some­what com­pre­hen­sive eru­dite and col­lo­qui­al fash­ion? Thanks Sam

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