Once in a While You Get Shown the Light: The Grateful Dead and the Bible

Once in a While You Get Shown the Light: The Grateful Dead and the Bible July 24, 2015

By Andrew R. McGaan.

Northfoto / Shutterstock.com
Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

To commemorate their fiftieth anniversary, surviving members of the Grateful Dead returned to Chicago’s Soldier Field for three shows over the Fourth of July weekend. Though the band had not toured since the death twenty years ago of Jerry Garcia, its most iconic member, hotels across Chicago sold out within hours of the announcement. A leading broker said ticket demand was exceeded only by the Super Bowl. It became the largest live-streamed event in history and by the third show more fans filled Soldier Field (71,000) than ever before.

This massive popularity puzzled casual observers. To some, the Dead were faded troubadours of freewheeling drug use, even if only two of their nearly two hundred songs mention drugs. Others saw lingering paragons of a long-gone counterculture. But the Dead were firmly apolitical, distancing them from contemporaries who sang of a new, external American dream (pacifism, collectivism, free love). Dead songs are markedly different. They explore an ancient but internal dream. Garcia said, “For me, the lame part of the Sixties was the political part, the social part. The real part was the spiritual part,” which helps explain the band’s peculiarly enduring legacy.

The Dead formed a lasting, spiritual connection with its fans by adapting for contemporary audiences the biblical story of exile and promise of a return home. Plucking these themes from traditional American music, they spoke to deeply held aspirations and worries. Even the shape and direction of their storied live performances traced this story musically from wilderness to paradise.

The ancient story saturates their lyrics. While their songs tell of misfits and outsiders, loners and drifters, the music is often lilting and transcendent. In Wharf Rat, a derelict sings with surprising brightness, “I know that the life I’m leading is no good/I’ll get a new start/I’ll get up and fly away, fly away.” Doubt and yearning for a promised land are constant themes: “So many roads…All I want is one to take me home” (So Many Roads).

The anniversary shows were dubbed “Fare Thee Well,” a line from Brokedown Palace, a paradigmatic Dead song. Sung as a lullaby, it holds a key to the band’s ageless popularity. Literary critic Northrup Frye observed that the Bible’s central myth is deliverance: “Adam and Eve…are expelled from Eden, lose the tree and water of life, and at the very end of the Bible it is the tree and water of life that are restored to redeemed mankind” (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, pp. 144-45). Brokedown Palace makes the same promise. We depart this broken world to find eternal rest beneath a willow on a mythic, verdant river bank. In another, Uncle John’s Band, a reference to Garcia, he plays beside the water and comes “to take his children home.” Ripple imagines a “fountain not made by the hands of men,” echoing Mark 14:58 and Hebrews 9:11. Garcia remarked, “When I sing that song…I say to myself, ‘Am I really a Presbyterian minister?’” (D. McNally, The Long Strange Trip: The Insider History of the Grateful Dead, p. 376). Lyricist John Perry Barlow, a college religion major, slyly noted: “You have barely scratched the surface of what we extracted from the Bible alone” (J. Barlow, “Afterward,” in D. Dodd, ed., The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, pp. 422-23).

And extract they did. Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Esau and Moses, and Jehovah and St. Stephen are among the many biblical figures appearing their songs.

Their lyrics played incessantly with the movement from home (safety) to exile (chaos), and from exile back home (redemption). The tension and joy in these cycles animate our oldest myths. Theologian Walter Brueggemann found in the Psalms songs of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation: “One move we make is out of a settled orientation into a season of disorientation,” but the move into reorientation “includes a rush of positive responses, including delight, amazement, wonder, awe, gratitude, and thanksgiving” (The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary). The experience of reorientation is all the more sweet because doubt and peril preceded it. Garcia reveled in this emotional dynamic: “Tension is a part of what makes music work. Tension and release, or, if you prefer, dissonance and resonance, or suspension and completion.” It is no wonder variations of the phrase “I don’t know” appear more than any other their lyrics. Typical is the mesmerizing Row Jimmy in which Garcia sings, “Gonna get there? I don’t know/Seems a common way to go….”

Their live performances also mimicked the biblical story from Eden to exile to the New Jerusalem. A frequent show opener was Chuck Berry’s The Promised Land about a troubled cross-country journey ending in glory. As shows progressed, however, songs lengthened and bled together, sometimes melding into seamless layers of sound. The Dead’s improvisational flights could be melodious and beautiful, but often were astonishing, atonal assaults on orderliness and familiarity. Toward a show’s end, in cathartic musical transitions, order was restored. The audience would be lyrically and sonically reoriented toward home. This phenomenon made Dead shows utterly unique.

Dissonance and obstacles complicate all of our lives. Dead fans are not special in this regard, but in the Dead’s music they found stories illuminating the eternal quality of these anxieties, leavened by the promise, however uncertain, of resolution and homecoming. By appropriating biblical metaphors of disorientation and reorientation, both in lyric and live performance, the Dead gave voice to the “yearning in its vast audience to shake off their anonymity; to be loved for themselves alone….” (C. Brightman, Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure, p. 185). “One way or another,” they promised, “this darkness got to give” (New Speedway Boogie).

Darkness always gives way to light, or so the Grateful Dead promised its fans. Calling itself in song “Jehovah’s favorite choir,” the band embraced its audience with a bit of wisdom that became one of its most loved lyrics: “Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right” (Scarlet Begonias).

Andy McGaan is a trial lawyer in Chicago where he resides with his wife and three children. He was graduated from Cornell University and Cornell Law School. Currently, he serves as the Clerk of Session of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He attended his first Grateful Dead show in May 1980 and more than fifty since then.

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