It's the songs

1977 was a great year for The Grateful Dead.  They took a much needed break from touring in ’74.  When they came back in the summer of ’76, they felt rejuvenated.  The winter of ’77 found them excited about a new album they were working on, Terrapin Station.  And when they launched into a new tour that spring, they were eager to go.  

The first part of May brought them to the East Coast:  Philadelphia; Springfield, Massachusetts; New York City; and especially the college towns such as New Haven, Buffalo, and Ithaca.
Ah, Ithaca.  Home of Cornell University.  The Dead played there on the 8th of May in 1977.  And time has proven that set to be considered one of the most memorable...if not the most memorable performances of their career.  As with most of their shows, a recording was made and shared among fans.  But this recording is considered one of the best of the more than 2,000 concerts that have been captured over the years.  It’s so popular, in fact, that when Cornell tour guides take prospective students and their parents around the campus, they still single out Barton Hall and speak reverently of the show that the Dead played there years before.

So what was it that made that show so special in retrospect?  Well, without a doubt the Dead were on a hot streak, musically speaking.  The fans who braved the cold winter weather were primed to enjoy themselves.  The recording that was made that night was sonically one the best for that era.  But as we often used to say in those days of vinyl records, what matters most is what’s in the grooves.  

Yes, it was a very special set of songs.


It's the audience as well as the band

The Dead were playing Barton Hall on the Cornell University campus.  Some 8,000 had been sold.  But even more fans showed up.  Most of them hoping for a “miracle” of a free ticket to get them in the door.  

But the man in charge of the ticket takers had something special in mind.  After all the paid ticket holders had been admitted, the he told his people, “Absolutely under no circumstances do you take money from anybody.  Absolutely none!”  

Instead, he instructed the people minding the doors to have the waiting fans contribute something else to get in.  They could sing.  They could dance.  They could do push ups.  They could tell a joke.  According to Peter Conners, author of a book entirely devoted to the Cornell ’77 concert, “one guy got in with a guitar pick.  Another dude got in with a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in tin foil.”  

It was a strategy that without a doubt helped set the tone for the evening.  What Conners called one of the “small acts of kindness [that] can serve to elevate everyone in attendance.”  

And Bill Kreutzmann would certainly agree.  He has said that “there is some great power, be it God or whatever, that enters the Grateful Dead on certain nights.  And it has to do with us being open and getting together with the audience.  If we can do that, then it comes...and it spreads everywhere.”

. . . .

Source:  Peter Conners, Cornell ’77:  The Music, Myth and Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall

And what did the Dead think of Barton Hall?

So what did the Grateful Dead themselves think about their legendary performance in Cornell’s Barton Hall in 1977?  Well, to be honest, they were midway through a pretty grueling tour schedule:  26 dates in just over a month.  They played New Haven on the 5th of May.  Boston on the 7th.  The show in Ithaca took place on the 8th...with a concert in Buffalo booked for the next night.  

The harsh reality is that their world was just blur at that time.  And Cornell, according to author Peter Conners, “was just another college trying to put on rock ‘n’ roll shows in a terrible sounding multipurpose field house that also served as training ground for their branch of the ROTC.  How terrible sounding, you ask?  The story goes that in 1980 when the Dead came back to play Barton Hall,...Garcia called the space a ‘toilet bowl’ and Weir changed the chorus of ‘Playing in the Band’ to ‘playing in the barn.’”

But the Dead were known for rising about their circumstances.  Steve Brown of Grateful Dead Records described the experience of a great Dead show magnificently:  

“When it was really cooking and they were really having fun, when it was making that magic—there would be this thing where Jerry would turn to the band and get this smile, which was the smile that let you know that not only were you having fun, they were having fun.  The whole place was having fun.  It was like a perfect moment:  ‘This is what we’re here for!’”

. . . .

Source:  Peter Conners, Cornell ’77:  The Music, Myth and Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall


Jerry Garcia on searching for the magic

As for how to get one of those magical mind-melding moments to take place in a performance, Jerry Garcia has said, “You can’t make it happen by acts of will.

“There are times when I spend the whole night thinking about things like, ‘God, my feet hurt,’ or ‘I gotta pay the rent,’ or “Why can’t I get my guitar in tune:  it doesn’t sound quite right.’  I never get past the trivial little bullshit so I never see the audience, I never see anybody in the band.  

“But sometimes on those nights people will come up to me and say, ‘God, that was the most incredible music you guys have ever played.’  And I just go, ‘What?’  I listen to a tape and it sounds amazing.  And I say, ‘I don’t remember that.  I didn’t play that.’  And it’s in those moments that I realize that my conscious will, the me I know of as the day-to-day me, is just not very involved in this whole thing in a way that can interfere with it...or cause it.  

“I trust it because I know it’s not me.”  

. . . .

Source:  The Grateful Dead Reader, edited by David G. Dodd.


So how did the Grateful Dead come to be the Grateful Dead?

In a group with a history of cosmic occurrences, here’s one that took place way back at the beginning.  

The band needed a new name.  They’d just discovered the name they’d been using was already taken, so they spent two or three weeks throwing ideas back and forth.  Thousands of them according to Jerry Garcia.  

Then one fateful day as they were sitting around Phil’s house, smoking DMT, Jerry opened up a dictionary, and there on the page in front of him in bold letters was the phrase “grateful dead.”  In his mind-expanded state, he says, “the rest of the page oozed away and those two words were outlined in gold:  grateful dead.”

It was an entry describing a certain kind of folk tale, one in which the restless spirit of a maligned corpse returns to repay a kindness bestowed upon the body by the hero of the story.  

Lyricist for the Dead, Robert Hunter, found the choice to be exquisite.  “The evocative power of that strange, not at all comical name is considerable, for grace and [for] ill.  I know that my own input into the scene, my words, were heavily conditioned by that powerful name.  It called down sheaves of spirits on us all.”

. . . .



Are they bootlegs? Or free publicity?

The popularity of the Cornell ’77 concert recording is just one example of how visionary the Dead were.  At a time when bootlegs were thought of as a ripoff of a band and its record company, the Dead had another take on it.  It’s the view of Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow that “bootleg recordings spread the gospel of the Grateful Dead.  They were a cornerstone of the Deadhead community.  Taping was ‘one of the most enlightened, practical, smart things that anybody ever did.  I think it is probably the single most important reason that [the Dead has] the popularity that we have.”

. . . .

Source:  Peter Conners, Cornell ’77:  The Music, Myth and Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall