The Tragic Odes of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead: Mystery Dances in the Magic Theater, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

The Tragic Odes of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead

Mystery Dances in the Magic Theater, 1st Edition

By Brent Wood


280 pages

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Hardback: 9780367188061
pub: 2020-04-09
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The Tragic Odes of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead is a multifaceted study of tragedy in the group’s live performances showing how Garcia brought about catharsis through dance by leading songs of grief, mortality, and ironic fate in a collective theatrical context.

This musical, literary, and historical analysis of thirty-five songs with tragic dimensions performed by Garcia in concert with the Grateful Dead illustrates the syncretic approach and acute editorial ear he applied in adapting songs of Robert Hunter, Bob Dylan, and folk tradition. Tragically ironic situations in which Garcia found himself when performing these songs are revealed, including those related to his opiate addiction and final decline. This book examines Garcia’s musical craftsmanship and the Grateful Dead’s collective art in terms of the mystery-rites of ancient Greece, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Dionysus, 20th century American music rooted in New Orleans, Hermann Hesse’s Magic Theater, and the Greek Theatre at Berkeley, offering a clear prospect on an often misunderstood phenomenon.

Featuring interdisciplinary analysis, close attention to musical and poetic strategies, and historical and critical contexts, this book will be of interest to scholars and researchers of Popular Music, Musicology, Cultural Studies and American Studies, as well as to the Grateful Dead’s avid listeners.


For decades, scholars have found the Grateful Dead's work and example to be rich and rewarding interdisciplinary topics. Brent Wood's thoughtful exploration of the band's tragic odes and their intersection with Jerry Garcia and the Dead's complex history marks a welcome addition to the discourse, offering thought-provoking readings of seminal songs and creative connections to a range of writers, ideas, and theories in philosophy, literary history, and cultural studies.

Nicholas Meriwether, Center for Counterculture Studies

This is a valuable book, masterfully balancing diverse topics such as the Dionysian rituals of ancient Greece, Nietzsche, the Cold War, LSD, Frankenstein, shamanism, and more in its reappraisal of Jerry Garcia’s songs as “tragic odes." The Dead’s story has been told many times, but this book goes beyond the usual discourse of band history and fan culture to probe into a web of fascinating intertextual and historical reference points that account for the unique catalytic power of this much beloved band. Brent Wood’s writing casts the Grateful Dead’s “long, strange trip” in a new light.

Kevin Holm-Hudson, University of Kentucky School of Music

Table of Contents

Introduction: Mystery Dances in the Magic Theater

1 "Morning Dew" and the Greek Theatre

2 "Death Don’t Have No Mercy": Catharsis and Redemption

Death Don’t Have No Mercy * He Was a Friend of Mine

Cryptical Envelopment * Brokedown Palace * Bird Song * He’s Gone

3 Befriending Chaos: "Dark Star," Dionysus and Psychedelics

4 Dancing to Fateful Folk Tales

Reuben and Cherise * Fennario * Dire Wolf * Sugaree

Dupree’s Diamond Blues * Stagger Lee * Casey Jones

5 Meditations on Mortality, from Uncle John to Stella Blue

Uncle John’s Band * New Speedway Boogie * Black Peter * Loser

Wharf Rat * China Doll * It Must Have Been the Roses * Stella Blue

6 Chasing the Dragon and Escaping the Netherworld

Fire on the Mountain * Comes a Time * Althea

Black Muddy River * Standing on the Moon

7 Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: Dylan and Garcia

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue * She Belongs to Me * The Mighty Quinn

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door * Visions of Johanna

8 Is it the End or Beginning?

So Many Roads * Days Between * Mason’s Children

9 The Rebirth of Tragedy




About the Author/Editors

Brent Wood is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Drama, University of Toronto at Mississauga, Canada, and is the author of several articles on the music and poetry of the Grateful Dead.

About the Series

Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series

Popular musicology embraces the field of musicological study that engages with popular forms of music, especially music associated with commerce, entertainment and leisure activities. The Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series aims to present the best research in this field. Authors are concerned with criticism and analysis of the music itself, as well as locating musical practices, values and meanings in cultural context. The focus of the series is on popular music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with a remit to encompass the entirety of the world’s popular music.

Critical and analytical tools employed in the study of popular music are being continually developed and refined in the twenty-first century. Perspectives on the transcultural and intercultural uses of popular music have enriched understanding of social context, reception and subject position. Popular genres as distinct as reggae, township, bhangra, and flamenco are features of a shrinking, transnational world. The series recognizes and addresses the emergence of mixed genres and new global fusions, and utilizes a wide range of theoretical models drawn from anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, media studies, semiotics, postcolonial studies, feminism, gender studies and queer studies.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
MUSIC / General
MUSIC / Genres & Styles / Rock