Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grateful Dead Scholarship

I traveled to San Antonio for a popular culture conference last week, but the only sessions I saw were on the Grateful Dead--more than a dozen in all, plus extracurricular activities. We heard presentations from a wide variety of fields: philosophy, psychology, sociology, literary studies, business, and musicology. Extraordinary.

Nick Meriwether, who heads up the Grateful Dead archive at UC Santa Cruz, invited me to submit an abstract when I visited campus last year. I began with Warren Hinckle's 1967 Ramparts article on the hippies, then segued to the utopian impulses that I think help account for the Dead's success, then brought it back to Warren and Rolling Stone. I don't think anyone at the conference was surprised by my utopian stuff, but I suspect they were less familiar with the Ramparts back story.

But what makes such conferences successful are the informal exchanges during and between the presentations, and this conference was very productive in that department. I discovered that Jay Williams of Critical Inquiry had offered a similar analysis but with a bohemian (not utopian) focus last year. Helpful, especially when our conversations turned up many other points of contact.

Nick distributed Dead Studies, which included a transcript of Ralph Gleason's 1967 private communication with historian and musician Frank Kofsky. (The communication is from the Dead archive.) Gleason resigned from Ramparts after the Hinckle article appeared, and later that year he launched Rolling Stone with Jann Wenner. His communication discusses the San Francisco music scene and the differences between the hippies and politicos. He talks at some length about Bob Scheer, who was the managing editor at Ramparts and had almost captured the Democratic nomination in his East Bay congressional district the previous year. (Bob was also a friend of Bill Graham.) That communication was invaluable to me; it grounded my ideas in the firsthand, contemporary observations of a key player.

The musicologists at the conference were awesome. Among other things, they offered guided listenings to some classic Dead jams. And on top of everything else, the Grateful Dead scholars as a whole are a fun group. Not unprecedented in the annals of academia, but very welcome.

Update: John Swansburg of Slate posted a piece on the conference. It looks like he appreciated the possibilities here. I've never been a big believer in reading the comments section, but the presumptions in the batch I saw were striking. I caught several whiffs of what my dissertation director called an intellectual sin: contempt prior to investigation.

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At 3:30 PM , Blogger sjbpar said...

Thanks Peter! It was great to see your reflections on the conference.


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