Most Grateful Dead followers were hooked by the music. David Dodd, a Petaluma librarian, was lured by the words.
The band’s lyrics are beguiling, cryptic, enigmatic. The songs, many written by Jerry Garcia’s songwriting partner Robert Hunter, are filled with wily characters: gamblers and sheriffs, outlaws and preachers.
From the first show he attended — The Who and the Dead in Oakland, 1976 — Dodd has wondered about these obscure and arcane references.
“I noticed that everyone around me knew all the words to all the (Grateful Dead) songs. So I came away thinking that there must be something about the words,” Dodd said. “I started listening pretty intently and felt like there was something about the words that was pretty special.”
The lyrics were open to a variety of interpretations and evoked feelings of wonder, empathy for the downtrodden, nostalgia for a lost America or a lost childhood, and hope for a future that we could all embrace.
This deep listening triggered all sorts of questions: Who was Billy Sunday? What’s a buck-dancer? Although a lot of people knew the words, they rarely understood all the references.
Turns out Billy Sunday (in “Ramble On Rose”) was an itinerant preacher in the early 20th century and a buck-dancer (“Uncle John’s Band”) is someone who did a simple dance by himself in Appalachia decades ago.
“At the time that I became curious about this (in the 1980s), I was working at the Alameda County Library in Fremont, and I used the corners of my time to research these lyrics,” said Dodd, collections manager of the Sonoma County Library.
It would take more than one person to annotate the vast Grateful Dead catalog, but, by the mid-’90s, the World Wide Web was reaching critical mass. Dodd discussed his research in message boards frequented by Deadheads, and “suddenly I was getting 25 emails a day from people saying, ‘Did you think of this, did you think of that?’ It became a group project.”
By the late 1990s, Dodd had enough material for a book, but the Dead, ever resistant to having their lyrics defined, didn’t authorize him to publish one (though they always granted rights for Dodd to post the lyrics and his interpretations online).
“They didn’t want it to become canon or dogma or tell people what to think,” he said. “Hunter’s whole thing is that these lyrics need to be open to whatever experience the listener has.”
In the early 2000s, with the Dead’s 40th anniversary coming up, the band gave its blessing and in 2005, Dodd published “The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics” (Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster) with a foreword by Hunter.
It’s fascinating reading for anyone interested in the band and even for those who aren’t, offering a view of the colorful characters who populated the hollows and back roads of bygone America.
“I had a lot of fun in the early days looking up lyrics like the one from ‘Candyman’,” Dodd said. The song goes, “Good morning Mr. Benson, I see you’re doing well.”
“So who is Mr. Benson?” he asked. “He was a sheriff in Houston at the turn-of-the-century, and he was notorious for being ruthless and sending people to jail. (Hunter) must just have this spider-web brain to snatch these things out of thin air in a way that seems natural. It’s like this big kaleidoscope of Americana coming at you all the time,” Dodd said.