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Celebrating Jerry Garcia’s 80th Birthday With 10 Songs That Defined the Grateful Dead Sound

The legendary singer and Grateful Dead frontman would have turned 80 this week. We look back at 10 of his compositions that capture the essence of the cult band

Narendra Kusnur Aug 01, 2022

Jerry Garcia. Photo: Carl Lender/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0

Formed in Palo Alto, California, in 1965, the Grateful Dead are one of the world’s most prominent cult bands. They have millions of dedicated fans, often referred to as Deadheads, but at the same time, there is also a large chunk of classic rock lovers who never really got into them.

Among Deadheads and other followers of 1960s West Coast sounds and counterculture, the band’s late vocalist, guitarist and composer Jerry Garcia is a hero. He would have turned 80 on Monday this week, and to celebrate that occasion, here’s our pick of 10 songs that are representative of the Grateful Dead sound. Rather than being a greatest-hits collection, though some popular tracks have been included, this list intends to be an introduction for new listeners.

We begin with a few upbeat tunes, slow down the tempo by showcasing some folk-rock numbers, then explore a few other styles and end with a fan favorite.

All these songs have been written by lyricist Robert Hunter, who officially became a part of the band from their third album Aoxomoxoa in 1969. Most of the tunes have been composed by Garcia, though rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart have contributed to some.

The Dead were known more for their live shows than for the 13 studio albums they released. Very often, the band played extended jams of their songs, with Garcia and Weir combining with Lesh and other members on the improvisations.

Garcia passed away on August 9, 1995, at the age of 53, following various health issues. Besides the Grateful Dead, he had also formed the Jerry Garcia Band and was earlier part of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage for a brief period, playing pedal steel guitar and banjo. He also played pedal steel guitar on the Crosby Stills & Nash song “Teach Your Children,” apparently on the condition that they teach him how to write vocal harmonies.

With this background in mind, it’s time to let the music play.

1. “Help On The Way / Slipknot” – Blues For Allah (1975)

The twin tracks opened the Blues For Allah album and were played together, with the first being a vocal number and the second an instrumental. If there’s one example to highlight Garcia’s guitaring genius, it’s this. Garcia’s vocals were clear too, and the lyrics were filled with imagery and truisms. The opening line, “Paradise waits, on the crest of a wave, her angels in flames/ She has no pain, like a child she is pure, she is not to blame” were typical of lyricist Hunter, while the entire band wrote the music. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux had a key role in “Slipknot.” The song was followed by the popular “Franklin’s Tower” and at shows, they were often played at a stretch.

2. “West LA Fadeaway” – In The Dark (1987)

Garcia sang and composed the song with lyrics by Hunter. Speculation was that it was written in memory of actor John Belushi, a friend of the band, but what stand out are the traces of humor and its reference to the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. The song began, “I’m looking for a chateau, 21 rooms but one will do/ I don’t want to buy it, I just want to rent it for a minute or two”. The song was first played live in 1982 but made it to In The Dark in 1987. And though this album was known more for “Touch Of Grey” and “Black Muddy River” (both recommended for new listeners), “West LA Fadeaway” is special because of its blues influence, steady groove and Garcia’s solos.

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3. “Ripple” – American Beauty (1970)

After two numbers showcasing Garcia’s electric side, it’s time to go acoustic. “Ripple” is one of the most popular Dead numbers, with Hunter’s philosophical lines talking of joy, darkness, loneliness, peace and the power of music. One of the classic lines was, “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty, if your cup be full, may it be again/ Let it be known, there is a fountain, that was not made by the hands of man.” The harmonies, shared by Garcia, Weir and Lesh, were a special feature, and so was the mandolin by David Grisman. Fans have often felt the studio version is irreplaceable, and the band is said to have played it live only 40 times, often dropping it from set lists. Yet, it’s on the top five of most Deadheads.

4. “Uncle John’s Band” – Workingman’s Dead (1970)

The song opened the 1970 album Workingman’s Dead, where the band shifted to an acoustic folk sound after pursuing a psychedelic sound in their earlier albums. The ‘Uncle John’ was a reference to John Cohen of New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time band that Garcia and Hunter both loved. The song is noted for its close harmony singing, bluegrass-inspired folk arrangement and acoustic guitar work, and critics have noted a similarity to the Crosby Stills & Nash sound. The main line “Come hear Uncle John’s Band playing to the tide, come with me or go alone, he’s come to take his children home” was a singalong favorite, whereas “It’s the same story the crow told me, it’s the only one he know/ Like the morning sun you come, and like the wind you go” were said to talk of life and death.

5. “Casey Jones” – Workingman’s Dead (1970)

It would be unfair to mention “Uncle John’s Band” without talking of “Casey Jones” from the same album. Both these songs reflected the folk-rock side of Grateful Dead, and were hugely popular. The music was by Garcia, and the lyrics were by Hunter. Apparently, Hunter wrote the line, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones, you better watch your speed” just for kicks, after reading about a railroad engineer whose overspeeding almost led to a train wreck. Only later, Hunter felt it made for good song material. The track was perceived as a druggie song, with various members getting into addiction at the time the album was released, though its actual meaning was different.

6. “Althea” – Go To Heaven (1980)

Another favorite of Deadheads, this seven-minute song was somewhat reminiscent of JJ Cale’s Tulsa style. Garcia came up with one of his most memorable guitar lines, and his fluid vocals and infectious groove were a perfect foil. The name “Althea” was said to mean someone with healing power. Apparently, Hunter was inspired by the Greek word ‘althos,’ which means ‘healing.’ The song was a dialogue between Jim, the narrator, and Althea. He tells her that “treachery was tearing me limb to limb,” and she tells him to “settle down easy,” also reminding him that there “ain’t nobody messing with you but you, your friends are getting more concerned.” The song inspired some fans to name their daughters Althea.

7. “Fire On The Mountain” – Shakedown Street (1978)

This song was composed by drummer Mickey Hart, with Hunter writing the lyrics. It evolved from various tunes that Hart had written for his side projects. Garcia’s vocals were spot-on, and the catchy rhythm acted as a perfect foil to Garcia’s guitar work. The solo between the choruses has been considered as one of his best riffs. The song was said to inspire inactive people to wake up to reality, beginning with the line, “Long distance runner, what are you standing there for, get up, get out, get out of the door.” At shows, the crowd often sang along to the line “Fire, fire on the mountain,” a line said to have been inspired by Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. It was often played alongside the song “Scarlet Begonias” and fans referred to the pairing as “Scarlet Fire.”

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8. “China Cat Sunflower” – Aoxomoxoa (1969)

This song was played live over 550 times, making it a concert favorite. It was from the Dead’s third album Aoxomoxoa, a meaningless palindrome, and was the first in which Hunter was a full-time contributor. It was released when the band was at its true peak of psychedelia, and “China Cat Sunflower” was no exception. The lyrics also made references to colorful imagery, with lines like, “Crazy cat peeking through a lace bandanna, like a one-eyed Cheshire, like a diamond-eyed jack/ A leaf of all colors played a golden-stringed fiddle, to a double-e waterfall on my back.” At concerts, the song was most often clubbed with “I Know Your Rider,” making the combination a live favorite, with Garcia and Weir in their elements.

9. “Dark Star” – Single (1968)

The song was originally released as a single in 1968, but didn’t create much impact. Though it was composed by Garcia and written by Hunter, the credits were shared by all Dead members along with Hunter, who hadn’t still begun to officially write for the band. Despite the early lukewarm response, the band began playing extended live jams, and the song became a sensation when released as a 23-minute version on the Live/ Dead album in 1969. Thereafter, numerous live recordings have been released. It was also the only instance where Hunter appeared on a Dead song as he recited a short monologue at the end.

10. “Truckin’” – American Beauty (1970)

An upbeat song on an otherwise mellow album, ‘Truckin’ is another fan favourite whose following has grown with time. Music composition is credited to Garcia, Lesh and Weir, with lyrics by Hunter. The song refers to an incident in New Orleans where band members were arrested in a drug bust. “Busted, down on Bourbon Street, set up like a bowling pin, knocked down, it gets to wearing thin, they just won’t let you be,” wrote Hunter. But the song also had classic lines like, “Sometimes, the light’s all shining on me/ Other times, I can barely see/ Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” In fact, ‘Long Strange Trip’ is the title of both a band documentary, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, and a biography, written by Dennis McNally.

These 10 songs are good enough as an introduction to the Grateful Dead sound. Of course, die-hard fans would have their own personal favorites, since the band’s repertoire is pretty vast. The next step would be to hear a few live albums, especially Live/ Dead and Europe ’72, and also watch DVDs and YouTube clips like their Winterland 1974 show. Hopefully, one thing will lead to another.

Garcia was one of those guitar geniuses whose contribution was immense. Here’s to a warm remembrance on his 80th.

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