Tolstoy’s Favorite Choir
They’re a band beyond description, like Jehovah’s favorite choir
People joining hand in hand while the music played the band,
They’re setting us on fire.
—”The Music Never Stopped”
Besides shaggy beards, what do Leo Tolstoy and Jerry Garcia have in common? One devised an influential theory of art and the other played lead guitar in a band that brought that theory to life. In his 1898 essay “What is Art?” Tolstoy says that real art communicates feelings of the artist to the audience, uniting all who take part into a community of fellow feeling (Tolstoy on Art [New York: Haskell House, 19731). Jerry Garcia, and the Grateful Dead as a group, communicated feeling, uniting audience members into an incredibly close-knit community. Tolstoy thought real art was usually the product of ordinary people. From folk music and dances to clothing, dolls and decorations, the works of common people in nineteenth century Europe tended to convey more feeling to Tolstoy than the works of the most esteemed artists of his day. This makes Tolstoy a populist when it comes to art—he has little tolerance for the elitism of high art, preferring the mundane but powerful works of ordinary people.
In 1965 a group of otherwise ordinary people formed a band that evolved into the Grateful Dead. This band, more than any