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Dead Studies: More Smoke Than Fire

November 13, 2007

Commentators, especially conservative ones, love to bemoan “bizarre” college course offerings. I reflected on that phenomenon earlier this year.

With this trend in mind, a recent Boston Globe article caught my eye. Titled “A ‘Mindbender’ class” and authored by Peter Schworm, the column focuses on a history course taught at the University of Massachusetts (in Amherst). Here are some excerpts from the piece—interspersed with commentary:

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– “Students shuffle into the morning history class to a dreamlike drone, a fog of fuzzy guitars, and sleepy harmonies. It’s a wistful, faraway sound, a lingering echo from a distant time.”

TL: Nice opening, considering what’s (dead) ahead.

– “In this University of Massachusetts-Amherst course, the ’60s never died, burned out, or faded away, and the Grateful Dead is alive and trucking. The students were born two decades after the legendary band sprung from the San Francisco rock scene, but many know every riff and every word to the group’s classic tune ‘Dark Star,’ which kicked off a recent lecture.”

TL: This is deliberately provocative. Studying the 1960s and rock music of the era is not the same as keeping the spirit of the 1960s alive. In fact, it might be the best way to kill that spirit—if it isn’t already dead (hah! get it?!).

– “Welcome to History 297D, otherwise known as ‘How Does the Song Go? The Grateful Dead as a Window into American Culture,’ which was launched this fall. Believed to be the only college course in the country dedicated to the Dead, the class analyzes the popular band, the avatar of hippie counterculture, and its famously loyal fans as a springboard to a deeper look at American society and politics during the group’s 30-year run.”

TL: Three things:

1. Wasn’t the point of the counterculture to disengage? It was the yippies and New Lefters that engaged politics? Hmm…
2. Am I the only person already tired of the overuse of the term “avatar” this year? I know this is a different context, but still.
3. What’s the timeframe of study for this history course?

– “The class, a similarly themed graduate seminar, and a first-of-its kind symposium on the band next month at UMass have vaulted the school to the forefront of Grateful Dead study, placing Amherst, not Haight-Ashbury, at the center of the group’s hazy, happy universe.”

TL: “Vaulted the school to the forefront”? Oh brother.

– “Heading up the effort: a former professor who was the group’s longtime publicist, and a historian, Robert Weir, who serendipitously shares his name with the Dead’s former rhythm guitarist.”

TL: Thanks to Google and UMass’s history faculty page, I learned that Weir is a Visiting Professor. Could this be a signal that “Dead Studies” might be a short-lived endeavor?

– “A renegade group known for romanticizing drug use might seem an unwelcome guest in the ivory tower. But university officials and symposium organizers say Dead Studies is a vibrant, multifaceted field worthy of scholarly treatment.”

TL: A potentially worthy means to an end? Absolutely. But not a “vault[ing of] the school to the forefront” of some movement that’ll sweep academia in the next year.

– ” ‘We’re trying to explain the cultural style and mindset around a rock ‘n’ roll jam band that lingers 45 years after they played at Ken Kesey’s acid tests, and 12 years after they ceased to exist,’ said Wesley Blixt, a symposium organizer. ‘These are not wild-eyed academic revolutionaries; these are serious, traditional scholars.’ “

TL: But aren’t explanation and scholarship exact opposites of the “Be In” countercultural ethic? Participation is the key, and how do you legally get undergraduates to participate in what The Dead advocated without killing what was sought? And, is this a window into American culture or a course on the 1960s?

– “Each undergraduate class opens with a Dead classic, and snippets of other songs are played throughout the hourlong lectures. The course, which has 110 students, treats the music as a cultural touchstone connecting the Beat poets, the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, the war on drugs, and the legacy of the ’60s.”

TL: “A cultural touchstone”—“a” as in singular. Fair enough. Using The Dead as the means, not the end, is a fine way to go.

– ” ‘The band ties it all together,’ Lia Momtsios, a sophomore from Framingham, said after a recent class on the topic ‘Bearing Up: Drugs and Minds Expanded and Blown.’ “

TL: But, Ms. Momtsios, what is the “all” that it is tying together? And, if we’re talking about a limited timeframe, such as the 1960s and 1970s, one might make similar arguments for the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Many bands helped in the effort to blow the minds of youth.

– “The class syllabus warns that the course is neither a tribute to the band nor ‘pop culture apologia,’ and weekly readings include excerpts from a history of the United States since World War II and speeches and magazine articles from the times. As part of a lecture on ‘Baby Boomers and Questioning the American Dream,’ for example, supplemental reading includes President Kennedy’s inaugural address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. During study of the 1980s, students read President Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech.”

TL: Okay, the course’s timeframe extends into the 1980s. I’d love to know how The Dead are tied to Reagan. And, there might be another problem here. The Dead were not known as adventurous songwriters and composers: They were a jam band that thrived on replaying and tweaking old hits. So, is the class exploring concert bootlegs? If so, how does one vouch for the reliability of The Dead’s method of being up-to-date?

– “The course consists of two lectures per week and a weekly discussion seminar. Students are required to write three papers as well as a reportorial essay on the symposium, reviews of online chats with Dead scholars, and short reflections on the weekly seminars. The three papers make up most of their grade.”

TL: Pretty standard stuff. Like I said above, if you want to kill The Sixties and The Seventies, turn it into a higher education course.

– “The class was the brainchild of a group of faculty and administrators, including John Mullin, the dean of the UMass-Amherst Graduate School. Realizing that the band’s former publicist, Dennis McNally, was a UMass-Amherst graduate, Mullin was struck by a bolt of inspiration that, as the Dead once sang, would ‘light the song with sense and color.’ “

TL: Made manifest in black-and-white papers and drab classrooms? Hmm…

– ” ‘I thought, this is something we can build on,’ he said. Worried that critics would deride the course as a subject unfit for college-level work, Mullin set out to prove them wrong. ‘Part of our job is packaging knowledge in a new and vibrant way, but this has roots in the academy,’ he said.”

TL: Packaging. Ugh. Didn’t that kill the 1960s the first time around?

– “Still, the Dead is an outsider to the academic canon, and some say the class is contributing to the pervasive dumbing down of higher education. Other colleges have held classes on Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and hip-hop artists.

TL: Here come the curmudgeons. Charge!

– ” ‘Courses like this are symptomatic of the consumerist pandering in 21st-century high education,’ said Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars.”

TL: There is a bit of pandering involved, but it all depends on execution. It sounds like the course is executing the 1960s just fine. In fact, if you were smart, Mr. Balch, you’d just let this go.

– “Students say critics fail to grasp the band’s importance and legacy. ‘They don’t understand,’ said Kate O’Connor, a junior from Worcester who, with a nose ring and hair falling in her eyes, had a ’60s air about her. ‘A lot of students say, ‘How can that be a class?’ But the Grateful Dead influenced an entire generation.’ Like many students in the class, O’Connor, who first heard the band’s landmark album ‘American Beauty’ while baby-sitting as an 11-year-old, loves not only the Dead’s music but also what she believes it stands for: a peaceful, utopian spirit that unites and elevates.”
– “If that sentiment sounds like a ’60s throwback, it is because many of the students have embraced the era’s freewheeling idealism through its music, fashion, and political activism. Many are nostalgic for a decade they never experienced and wish they hadn’t been born too late to see the band play live. (The Grateful Dead stopped performing after the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995).”

TL: Again, is this a course about the 1960s or “a window into American culture?” And has anyone factored in self-selection among the students? It seems to me that students who are drawn to the course have already embraced, to some degree, the spirit of the times. Then again, if so, why are they in college in the first place? Counterculture types likely would’ve made fun of these college-going squares.

– “Compared with a traditional college class, ‘It’s so much more real,’ said Jen Astrella, a junior from Auburn. ‘You tell people you’re a history major, they ask if you’re going to law school. But when people hear about this class, they can’t believe it.’

TL: Ah, the Cool Factor. They’re the hippest kids in Amherst.

– “Weir said there is little doubt the students walk into class with their eyes, and their minds, wide open. ‘Lord, yes,’ he said. ‘You can say what you want about the appropriateness of teaching the Grateful Dead at the college level, but it has drawn a lot of interest. You have to remember, they are 18, 19 years old. You have to take them where they are, then take them somewhere else.’ “

TL: Again, what about self selection?

– “Larry Owens, a history professor and the previous director of the graduate program in history, said the class has generated minimal skepticism within the department, although some professors are withholding judgment until the symposium. ‘It is really hard to get academics on board with anything,’ Owens said. ‘But the Dead has the marvelous virtue of generating widespread enthusiasm.’ “

TL: It sounds like the enthusiasm is more from the students than the faculty. The faculty seem appropriately wise and restrained to me.

– “During the recent class, Weir traced the roots of psychedelia and discussed the pervasive influence of drugs while playing Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ He noted how many ’60s rock stars had died, and warned the students not to romanticize drug use. ‘There was a destructive aspect to it, and we do history a disservice if we turn a blind eye to that,’ Weir said. ‘There was some wreckage from the ’60s.’ “

TL: This seems obligatory. I wonder if the administration demanded this? I wonder, furthermore, if he read a statement as fast as those drug warnings that flashed across pharmaceutical ads a few years back? Just kidding, Professor Weir. …They don’t seem to run those warnings as much any more, do they? …And again, is this a course on the 1960s or “a window into American culture?”

– “Weir and the symposium organizers said bringing the band to academia has confirmed one of the band’s most famous axioms. ‘Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places,’ Blixt said, quoting lyrics from the band’s ‘Scarlet Begonias.’ ‘If you look at it right.’ “

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Well, this seems perfectly harmless. I don’t see the point of Mr. Balch’s curmudgeonly attitude. Putting The Dead in the classroom and analyzing it will, paradoxically, render the spirit that drove the band underground. If there is a legitimate criticism of the course, based on the article I would say the class seems to be a rather limited look “into American culture.” I’d like to see how The Dead help us understand the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years.

In the end, it seems there is more smoke (Heh! Get it?!) than fire here: It’s a 1960s course repackaged with a Grateful Dead wrapper. – TL

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5 Comments
  1. Tim,
    As a Dead-head myself, I would love to take this course. I understand the concerns of simply re-packaging the 1960s and being able to connect the Dead with events of the 1980s. It's important to recognized that like any band the Dead were progressive. They didn't play Dark Star at every show (in fact it was played rarely in the 80s and 90s) or some of their other really tripped out stuff.

    I would disagree that hippies were not politically active. Perhaps their involvement was more passive, but when the smoke cleared hippies had their own convictions too. I think perhaps you're trivializing that somewhat. Forgive me if I'm wrong there.

    Also, the comment about the band's capacity as song writers is purely subjective. Their use of odd time signatures was certainly innovative in the 60s and throughout their career. In terms of replaying and tweaking old hits, you could lob the same accusation at Dylan, yet he's seen as a more appropriate subject for study. Neither the Dead nor Dylan did amazing on the charts. Dylan had more success, but was by no means a perennial hit factory. The fact is that both wrote songs and did so very well. That is the reason for their longevity. In terms of your question about how to vouch for their continued relevance, I think that the central question there (and it pertains to the 80s) is the persistence of a communal subculture in the face Reagan's America, which was less sympathetic to those ideas than other regimes. I would hope that this class does not assert there is a positive connection between the Dead and Reagan. I doubt that would be the case. The Dead was a left-leaning band to say the least.

    As long as the class is clear about it's stated goals, I love the idea. Using the Dead as a lens for studying American (counter) culture since the 1960s seems perfectly justified and viable to me. There are a lot of layers to the Dead's music and their place in American culture. They too have been the object of study by academics before, and I fail to see the problem with this class. If anything, probing more deeply into the history of the Dead would be a great boon to studies of post-war American culture. You'll have to excuse my obvious bias on this subject. I think some of your comments are dead on (excuse the pun) while others miss the mark, but I think that's just the function of you NOT being a Deadhead. If I'm incorrect there, we have much to discuss in the future!

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  2. Dear Lunchbox,

    First things first, fun pseudonym!

    I'm only a casual fan of the Grateful Dead. I don't own a cd and haven't been to a concert, but I like some songs and make no effort, for sure, to avoid their music.

    I wouldn't characterize myself as either an enthusiast or curmudgeon on the subject of Dead Studies. It all depends on execution—namely, how do they connect the band to the 1980s and 1990s (before J.G.'s death)? But that's what I'd ask any cultural studies course that addresses history.

    And I do think that studying the Dead does detract from their overall ethic, not to mention the emotive, at-ease nature of the countercultural movement. We'll have to agree-to-disagree on hippies and politics: it's my understanding that hippies mainly espoused dropping out (although I know it's perilous to homogenize any group in U.S. history).

    But, hey, thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. I've perused some of your Irishhistory weblog and found it interesting.

    – TL

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  3. This is a history course? No, really?

    Lunchbox – all hippies were not activists nor all activists hippies.

    The '60s was my generation and, frankly, I don't recall them being the phenom they seem to be now. I never thought they were that great and I don't think they represent the era. Could we talk Dylan?

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  4. A couple quick comments:

    Tim – I think a connection between the Dead and the 80s and 90s is possible. Especially when you think about the way the scene changed after “Touch of Gray” was a top 10 hit and all the “Touch”Heads appeared. As much as they might deny it, the Dead became more of a corporation than a commune.

    Also, perhaps I made too big a deal of hippies' political convictions. I merely wanted to point out that they weren't a homogeneous group, which you picked up on.

    Sharon – I wouldn't downplay the role of Dylan in the counter culture. At the same time I think it's important to recognize the mutual appreciation both the Dead and Dylan had for each other and the degree of cross-pollination between their camps (artists and audience both). Hell, they toured together in 87 and the Dead are credited with reviving Dylan's career and inspiring his current never-ending tour. So if you want to discuss Dylan, especially in the later 80s and 90s, it seems that one would have to bring the Dead into the picture at some point. At least in my humble opinion.

    Finally, if anyone is interested there are Dead shows streaming and for download at: http://www.archive.org/details/GratefulDead

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  5. Anonymous permalink

    I woprk at the Hartford Advocate, the alt weekly here in CT. We ran a story on a Dead symposium at UMass. http://www.hartfordadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=4267

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