UMass gets dose of Grateful Dead at symposium
By Kristin Palpini
November 23, 2007
AMHERST – For many fans of the Grateful Dead, the band’s songs are more than music, they’re a home.
The wandering rock guitar rifts of Jerry Garcia, the deep, soulful voice of Bob Weir, the driving bass lines of Phil Lesh and the primal drumming of Mickey Hart built a kind of mobile home for the band’s estimated 500,000 diehard fans, the Deadheads.
This musical community and why the Dead keeps on trucking is the subject of symposium last weekend at the University of Massachusetts. “Unbroken Chain” explored the band’s social, economic, musical and historic impact on America.
“It’s really about one thing: getting your mind blown,” said Jeffrey King, a 46-year-old Merrick, N.Y., man who has attended 300 Grateful Dead concerts. “When something like (the Grateful Dead’s music) occurs in a group of people, a sense of community, musicianship and intellectualism is born.”
On Friday morning, King, along with hundreds of Deadheads from around the country, congregated at UMass for the symposium’s inaugural address, “Strangers Stopping Strangers: The Deadhead Community.”
The gathering felt more like a family reunion than an academic festival, as people dressed in jeans, well-worn sweaters, Bohemian shirts and vests hugged each other and shared concert stories.
Why thousands of people, separated by hundreds of miles and a lack of communication between concerts, have formed a thriving subculture that persists are among the questions that University of North Carolina sociology professor Rebecca Adams tried to address in “Strangers Stopping Strangers.”
Adams leads the Deadhead Community Project, a collection of sociological field notes and surveys collected by Adams and some of her students beginning in 1989. The research has since been condensed into five analytical books.
Deadheads, Adams explained, elevated the band’s music from mere albums to a subculture based on the spiritual experience of attending Grateful Dead shows.
“The music brought people together, even though they didn’t live near one another. Their friendship was the basis for the portable community,” said Adams, who is an unabashed Deadhead.
“It’s difficult to explain how we all feel inside,” Adams said, trying to give words to what it is like to listen to the Grateful Dead. “It’s like talking about or describing why we love another person.”
Deadheads had a lot to bond and form friendships over, Adams said. In addition to their love of the Dead’s wildly improvised, but fluid music, the fans connected over their dedication to charity (providing free food, concert tickets and shelter, among other things, to fellow concertgoers), the “dirty hippie” stigma attached to the group by non-fans, and drug use.
But perhaps the most important link between Deadheads is spirituality, the feeling that attending a Grateful Dead concert is a religious and enlightening experience.
“It’s a multilayered experience for true Deadheads,” said Paul Freedman, 58, of Washington, D.C., trying to describe the importance of the Dead’s music. “It’s like flat land and then the Dead comes along and says, ‘No you’re a cube, man.’ It opens up different dimensions, different ways to think about things, to experience things. It’s not just music, it’s a live culture.”
“Unbroken Chain” is part of a semester-long graduate history seminar titled “American Beauty: Music, Culture and Society, 194595,” and an undergraduate course titled “How Does the Song Go: The Grateful Dead as a Window into American Culture.”
The Grateful Dead study was made possible by Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead’s longtime publicist, who earned his doctorate in history at UMass in 1978.
“We all know this is a special trip,” McNally said in his opening remarks Friday. “I’m very proud to come back here and do this.”
In the future, UMass plans to hold similar studies that focus intensely on a single aspect of American culture.
“I was afraid people would look at this as a joke, not as a rigorous academic investigation, just some aging hippies back on campus,” said John Mullin, dean of the UMass graduate school. “We’re here because this is a new way of giving knowledge. This will be the first of [a number of] deep interdisciplinary looks into different cultural aspects of life.”
Symposium activities included more than 50 presenters for 20 panel sessions, ranging from music composition and improvisation to an examination of the band’s business model. The weekend also included concerts, gallery exhibits and presentations.