The Grateful Dead is the quintessential jam band comprised of a potpourri of musical styles including blues, rock & roll, jazz, folk, country and musical genres from around the world. The Grateful Dead described what they do as the transportation business, drawing a parallel between themselves and the ferryman of ancient mythology. To experience their role as a psychopomp one simply surrenders to the music. The Grateful Dead were originally Ken Kesey’s (the father of the hippie movement) house band for the “Acid Tests” that began on November 27, 1965 when LSD was still legal. At the time they were called the “Warlocks” but soon changed their name to The Grateful Dead. It was after Jerry Garcia let a dictionary fall open and without looking put his finger on the page entry for The Grateful Dead. The entry was a story of an ancient Egyptian myth about paying the debt for a corpse so it gets a decent burial. It’s the story of Karma because the corpse’s benefactor is rewarded with a spiritual companion who protects him from harm. It was their spiritual draw as well as the musical one that gradually grew their audience until it became a community numbering millions worldwide that exists to the present day. Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead ceased to exist as a band by agreement by all the members after Jerry Garcia passed away in August 1995. Since then individual members have formed their own groups as well as coming together as the “Other Ones” and finally the “Dead.” This list is only taken from Grateful Dead recordings that include Jerry Garcia.
Bob Gersztyn’s Top 10
10. “US Blues”
“US Blues” debuted at San Francisco’s Winterland on George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1974. By this time the war in Vietnam was pretty much over for the US even though it would still be over a year until the fall of Saigon. The song was released as both a single and on Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel released in June 1974.
9. “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)”
“The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)” was the lead song on side one of the Grateful Dead’s 1967 eponymous release. It preceded San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” and was an original composition that described barefoot counterculture hippies and flower children smoking weed and dancing in the streets.
8. “Dark Star”
“Dark Star” was originally recorded during the Anthem of the Sun recording session in 1968 and released as a single. An extended jam on the song takes up one side of the 2 records from 1969’s Live/Dead release. It was performed countless times over the next 3 decades and allowed for complete improvisation. This is but one of the recordings of Dark Star made by the Grateful Dead for their archival vault. “Dick’s Picks volume 4” was recorded live in Rotterdam, the Netherlands 5/11/72 and released in 1993 by Dick Latvala who was the Grateful Dead’s archivist. It sets the standard for the psychopomp ferryman experience, especially if you’re tripping.
“Bertha” was never recorded on a studio album but appears on a number of the Grateful Dead’s live releases beginning with 1971’s untitled double live release, generally referred to as the Skull & Roses album. It’s an example of a song that has a number of interpretations. Even Robert Hunter, the song’s lyric writer, couldn’t remember exactly what he was trying to say. It’s a rocker and gives Garcia the opportunity to jam on his guitar with an extended solo in concert.
6. “Uncle John’s Band”
“Uncle John’s Band” was a Garcia/Hunter composition that came from Workingman’s Dead, which was released in 1970. It was popular enough to be included in the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s” list of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
“Truckin’” is from American Beauty the “Dead’s” 2nd album of 1970. The song is a travelogue listing their itinerary city by city and then sharing some of the band’s misadventures. The song is the source of the classic refrain “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Dennis McNally used part of the line for the title of his inside history of the Grateful Dead as well as “Amazon’s” documentary series “A Long Strange Trip.”
4. “Touch of Grey”
“Touch of Grey” was from the 1987 In the Dark album that gave the Grateful Dead a connection with an entirely new audience from their top 40 radio presence. It became the band’s only top 10 album on the “Billboard Hot 200,” when it reached #6 and was certified as “double platinum.” It also produced their first and only top 40 single with extensive airplay of their videos on the then new TV medium “MTV.”
3. “Casey Jones”
“Casey Jones” was another gem from Workingman’s Dead and when it hit the airwaves it made an indelible impression on anyone that heard it. “Casey Jones” was an actual American folk hero that was a train engineer who died in a train wreck saving lives in 1900. Trains have always been part of American folklore from the 1st half of the 20th century. In this case, the train and its rhythmic chugging sound is symbolic of being high on cocaine, “driving that train high on cocaine Casey Jones you better watch your speed.”
2. “Sugar Magnolia”
“Sugar Magnolia” is from 1970’s American Beauty album and was written by Bob Weir and Robert Hunter. Weir wrote the first half of the song and when he performed what he had in the studio for the first time Hunter easily completed it. It’s believed that the song was about Weir’s girlfriend and it became one of the “Dead’s” indelibly popular classics.
1. “Friend of the Devil”
“Friend of the Devil” is a classic Grateful Dead story song about an outlaw on the run and once again comes from 1970’s American Beauty album. The song was a collaborative effort with lyrics by Robert Hunter altered by John Dawson from “New Riders of the Purple Sage.” The second half of the original line, “I set out running but I take my time / It looks like water but it tastes like wine” was changed to “a friend of the devil is a friend of mine,” which became the title line of the song.
Willie Witten’s Top 10
Fueled by America’s blues and folk traditions as well as the artistically potent Haight-Ashbury hotbed, The Grateful Dead became the torchbearers of the ‘60s counterculture and the creators of the modern-day jam band. Known for their psychedelically-infused concerts and fervent followers, the band existed in different incarnations for the better part of fifty years, playing thousands of shows and recording dozens of albums along the way. At times their larger-than-life mythology has obscured the quality of their musical output. Nevertheless, some of their best songs will continue to be played for years to come. Blues Rock Review selects the best ten efforts from a group that many consider to be the greatest American band in history.
10. “Touch Of Grey”
Perhaps the best known song of casual Dead fans, “Touch Of Grey” was the first music video released by the band and also the only track of theirs to land in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Finally released on 1987’s In The Dark, the catchy tune juxtaposes Robert Hunter’s bleak verses with the unbridled optimism of the immortal chorus, “I will get by. I will survive.” Although rarely a favorite of die-hard Dead Heads, it serves as proof of the band’s ability to craft a pop-rock masterpiece.
9. “Jack Straw”
A tale of two drifters speckled with images of Americana, the titular character and his buddy Shannon set out across the West jumping hobos and riding the rails—until “Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down.” The nefarious listlessness of Shannon (often sung by Bob Weir) finally catches up with him when Jack Straw (frequently voiced by Jerry Garcia) decides to part ways in the most violent manner. A concert staple, the mid-song instrumental section was often extended in the band’s later years with the addition of keyboardist Brent Mydland.
8. “Fire On The Mountain”
The comparatively brief studio version of this track first appeared on 1978’s Shakedown Street, but the important renditions exist in the annals of live recordings and tape-traders’ archives. At heart a basic two-chord shuffle, its musical simplicity lends itself to endless improvisational iterations. Longer versions have been known to approach, and even surpass, the fifteen-minute mark.
7. “Scarlet Begonias”
Often paired with the aforementioned track in a combination later referred to as “Scarlet Fire,” this piece serves as one of the Garcia/Hunter pairing’s finest works. The lurid images evoked by the abstract-yet-detailed lyrics combined with the musical direction of one of the greatest guitarists ever result in one of the band’s best in catalog. Don’t bother with the relatively tame studio version. This song’s “heart of gold” can only be found when listening to the free-flowing live interpretations.
6. “New Minglewood Blues”
Originally written in the 1920’s, this track wears a few different titles and interchanges lyrics frequently. Built around a standard blues structure, the number often appeared in live performances and brought with it a different side of The Dead. Played with a funky punchiness, the ancient story tells of a caricatured, womanizing outlaw always on the run due to his romantic indiscretions. For an extremely dirty interpretation of the piece, key in on the instrumental segment on Live at Evans Field House (10-29-77).
5. “Morning Dew”
Bonnie Dobson’s folk tale of a post-apocalyptic rendezvous takes on a different tone when filtered through The Grateful Dead’s heavily-electrified psychedelic lens. Another of the many covers that felt tailor-made for the band’s ability to expound and expand upon an existing idea, the song was attempted by many of the biggest names of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but no one was able to breathe the same life into its core as Garcia and company. For a definitive version, check out their take at The Sportatorium (05/22/77).
“Nobody’s messing with you, but you.” The line at the crux of Hunter’s lyrics exemplifies his ability to write words that have the rare ability to stand on their own, without the music. Most attempts at rock poetry fall flat on the page when stripped of their accompaniment—but not here. When coupled with Garcia’s score, the duo turn in a creation for the ages. Ironically, the best version might be found 20 years after Garcia’s death, in the city in which he played his final show—”Fare Thee Well,” Chicago (07/05/15).
3. “China Cat Sunflower / I Know You Rider”
Two of the band’s staples, this author feels no remorse, roping them together as one entry, seeing as The Dead played these two numbers in tandem over 500 times. The first an original psychedelic jaunt composed around the joint contributions of Hunter’s childlike psychedelia and Weir’s secondary guitar fills, the second a traditional folk tune, the one-two punch exemplify The Grateful Dead’s range and ability to deliver incredible compositional fusions. Feeling one’s hair stand up on end as thousands of fellow fans sing the chorus together is one of the greatest examples of musical magic.
“If I had a gun for every ace I’d drawn, I could arm a town the size of Abilene.” The ambiguity of the storyteller leaves the listener wondering whether or not the protagonist has the aces, or is just a delusional “Loser.” Perhaps the clearest example of The Dead’s penchant for stories of gambling, risk, and desperation, beyond the dire verses lies a middle third in which Garcia can deliver some of his best minor key playing. Forget the words, all the listener needs to hear is Garcia’s guitar to know that there are no aces in this tale. The finest example of this gem can be heard on the legendary Barton Hall show at Cornell University (05/08/77).
1. “Brokedown Palace”
The Grateful Dead will always be primarily thought of as a live band, but they have several incredible studio compositions that can compete with the best of any outfit. This song, essentially about death, came at a time when a few of the band members were coping with mortality in their own lives. Featured on their best album, American Beauty, the sad but poignant verses and harmonies are best appreciated in their studio form as opposed to the vast majority of the band’s collection. Rarely has a group found a way to convey such difficult emotions in such a beautiful manner.