Friday, June 6, 2008

Covered In Folk: (Not) The Grateful Dead
(on Borrowed Tradsongs and the Dead as a Vehicle of Renewal)



Naturalismo, which I discovered when researching last week's post on Freak Folk, seems to be one of very few music bloggers to note the passing of Alton Kelley -- the sixties poster artist whose most popular work was probably the above skeleton-with-rose-garland poster, originally created for a 1966 Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom. You may not have seen the poster before, but you've seen the graphic it inspired on a hundred Volkswagen bumpers; the image, which Kelley and his long-time partner Stanley Mouse adapted from a nineteenth century illustration for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was the source from which the Grateful Dead took their early, longstanding, most recognizable iconography.

The relative dearth of recognition in the blogworld at Kelley's passing, coupled with the evolutionary story of the iconography of the skeleton in that poster, got me thinking about the similarly under-covered relationship between the Dead themselves and the folk tradition. I'm particularly interested in the way the Dead, like Kelley and Mouse's skeleton itself, served as a bridge between the images and objects of the past and the ongoing recognition of those objects in the present. If the skeleton reframed the imagery, the Dead reframed the tradition. And that's pretty folk, right there, folks.

I'm not claiming that the Grateful Dead are folk music, necessarily, though their credibility in the folkworld is pretty strong. The combination of their use of traditional appalachian folksong as source material and their pre-history as jug band artists align them closely with the bluegrass that preceded them, and the newgrass movements which would follow. And their tendency towards acoustic sideprojects, their use of acoustic instrumentation and folk instruments, their connection with the same hippie movement which brought forth and nurtured the second wave of the new folk revival post-Guthrie and Dylan, and their not-so-occasional stripped down performance makes a strong case for their inclusion in the folk canon.

Jerry Garcia's solo work and influence, especially, are a major component of this; by most accounts, though others in the band co-wrote their share of originals, it was Garcia who learned the majority of these traditional ballads and jams, on train rides and on back porch sessions, and brought them in for the band to arrange. And while his bandmates went on to play music across the genre map, both on hiatus and in the more recent aftermath of his death -- it's hard to argue that the solo output of, say, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, or Bruce Hornsby count as folk in any shape or form -- it was Garcia who would become almost as well know for his more delicate acoustic mandolin and guitar work with compatriots such as David Grisman.

One day, it is my intention to give that Garcia and Grisman folkwork the full attention it deserves. And previously, I've posted several sets of songs more properly characterized as bluegrass which follow the Grateful Dead take on tradition: two wonderful newgrass takes on Deep Elem Blues; a Single Song Sunday collection of covers of Rain and Snow; a great high-energy version of Grateful Dead "standard" Don't Ease Me In. But it's never to late to do more, especially in tribute. Today, a few traditional songs played by others from the less countrified side of the folkworld, post-popularization by the Grateful Dead, and in most cases, surely influenced by same.



I considered adding a few more traditional songs of and from the Grateful Dead playbook here as a bonus, but it's Friday, and we only do short posts here at Cover Lay Down on "off" days. Luckily, several recent and especially relevant posts on other (better) blogs are still live and worth the visit. So quick, before they're gone:



PS: Much credit goes to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder as a general resource for today's post. As the plethora of links here and elsewhere remind us, the folkworld would be a much poorer place were it not for the obsessive pursuits of others.

17 comments:

dean said...

Naturalismo, which I discovered when researching last week's post on Freak Folk, seems to be one of very few music bloggers to note the passing of Alton Kelley

You should read my blog.

boyhowdy said...

EVERYONE should read your blog, Dean.

Trade secret: I used to publish late at night; hypemachine hits were low. Now that blogger lets you pre-schedule posts, I let posts "show" midmorning on the day they are actually FOR...which means I actually hit "publish" on that post about an hour before the timestamp on yours...but you get due credit for noticing Kelley, all the same.

Also good to see others citing Harry Nillsson, who I've got covered coming up in the next few months. And I would have included an Iko Iko cover, too -- the Dead did that plenty of times -- but in my mind, that's not a "popularized by the Dead" song, it's a "popularized by Dr. John and the Meters" song.

(Those unsure what I'm talking about should indeed read Dean's blog, as suggested above...)

dean said...

That tricky new blogger feature! That's what I get for assuming :-p

I love Kelley's work, I was surprised that he passed on at such an early age.

Joski said...

What a beautiful blog you have

I am crazy about these folky covers

Keep on doing the big job


Joski56

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