Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings

By Robert G. Weiner | Go to book overview

The Grateful Dead Onstage in ‘‘World Music’’

Thomas Vennum, Jr.


THE GRATEFUL DEAD, WORLD MUSIC, AND THE ‘‘POPULAR IDIOM’’

On one Washington, D.C., visit, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, and Mickey Hart had agreed to testify on behalf of ‘‘Rainforest Action’’ before a House subcommittee on environmental matters. Knowing their proclivity to explore new musical opportunities, I arranged with the Smithsonian’s Curator of Musical Instruments for them to visit the collections at the National Museum of American History following their congressional appearance. Like children in a toy store they immediately loosed themselves on the wide variety of curious and rare objects contained in the large American History storage chamber. While Bob tried out a Stradivarius violin, Mickey thumped his fingernails along the heads of a row of nineteenth-century marching band drums, settling finally on banging the floor with a ‘‘Jingling-Johnny’’ (percussion stick) to activate its bells and metal crescents.

Jerry, meanwhile, was fingering his way through one after another of the many historical guitars and banjos hanging from storage pegs in the collection. Taking up an 1857 Martin guitar, he commented on its clear and sweet (‘‘not punchy’’) tone and finally picked up a fretless banjo made by Kyle Creed in Galax, Virginia, in the early 1960s for Fred Cockerham. Performing some nice folk licks on its formica-veneered fingerboard, he furtively glanced over his shoulder and quipped, ‘‘Yes! This is the one to take!’’ A few minutes later, trying out a 1617 virginal, he expressed consternation that the bottom few notes on the keyboard, when depressed, sounded tones progressively lower than they should have. The curator explained that this ‘‘short-octave’’ arrangement was a seventeenth-century solution to space

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