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Biblical Symbolics and the Grateful Dead

By Bryan Miller, who welcomes your comments.

A contribution to The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Used with permission. The author reserves all rights.


Copyright notice
Religion and sacred texts are public. Faith is personal. Musical groups and their songs are public. The inspirations and interpretations of those songs are often personal. When we examine the Grateful Deadís use of the biblical references in their songs, we must keep this in mind. Music is art, and in rhythm guitarist Bobby Weirís words, "Itís music and poetry and itís art, and it can do what art can do." Art can do for the observer what the observer allows it to do. It can inspire. It can teach. It can improve the quality of life through beauty, mystery, and reflection. Art can also offend, it can humiliate, and it is often unconcerned with its affects upon the ego of the observer. Art can give us a very subjective view of the world around us or a particular aspect of that world, and it can also give us a very objective view of the same. Art is subject to our interpretation because we are not always privy to the artistís intention and are thus free to assign our own meaning. We are, however, also subject to art because we are experiencing something beyond ourselves that did not originate with ourselves, and which speaks to us in its own voice, a more objective voice. The artist is aware of both of these phenomena and often uses this awareness to further his or her expression, and likewise, the observersí response.

The writers of great poetry and literature do not ignore the sordid side of life and offer only beauty. The authors of great religious texts do not leave out concepts of personal and social "sin" in their attempts to create communities of coherence and hope. And we find great lyricists and musicians expressing this same balance of reality. An interesting factor in the Grateful Deadís art form is the involvement of the audience in creating the art. One can hear songs expressing a "party" attitude toward life ("One More Saturday Night") as well as a more grim expression of harsh realities ("Wharf Rat"). Also, the mood of the audience can affect the art form. In their live performances, the audience, the observers of the art form, is also the participant. There is a "back-and-forth" between the band and the audience in this expression of life. The music is not "scripted"; it is not static. It can change according to the musiciansí whim and will, and this yields a unique opportunity for the musicians and the audience to experience a transcendent art. Some artists could and would use this phenomenon irresponsibly and rapaciously, but the Grateful Dead have a purpose and a goal that excludes such a use of symbiosis.

"Garcia: Well, itís so close to being perfectly manipulative. It borders on that ["perfect fascism"], and people who use formula things on the audience are basically manipulating them in the same sense that fascism manipulates people.

"Gans: You mean show-biz tricks?

"Garcia: Sure. Thatís just what they are, show-biz tricks.

"Jackson: Thereís a certain amount of that involved, though with what you do.

"Garcia: Oh, yeah, a certain amount of it, but our trip is to learn the tricks and then not use them. For us, weíve discovered them--"Oh, far out, when we do this, look what happens to the audience." "Yeah, letís not do that." We want for the Grateful Dead to be something that isnít the result of tricks, and we donít trust ourselves with it. We certainly donít trust anybody else with it."

This approach creates the opportunity for a more organic and honest experience of the art form. It allows a certain warm trust to develop between the band and the audience where they become, to a degree, connected as responsible co-artists. Certain Grateful Dead fans may acknowledge a need to be just as tactful in their participation as the band is on its part.

The Grateful Dead seek a community of sorts between themselves, the audience, and the inspiration of their music and lyrics. Bassist Phil Lesh describes it well:

"Iíve always felt, from the very beginning...that we could do something that was, not necessarily extramusical, but something where the music would be only the first step. Something maybe even close to religion--not in the sense that "the Beatles are more popular than Jesus," but in the sense of the actual communing. We used to say that every place we play is church. Now itís not quite as all-encompassing--itís not quite so automatic...the core of followers is not the reason it feels like church; itís that other thing, "it" [the form of inspiration the band members and audience experience]."

Phil is not the only one to relate the experience to religion. Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist, has said, "I think consciousness has a place in the cosmic game, the atoms-and-universe game, the big game. I canít imagine that itís mindless--thereís too much organization, and the organization is too incredible. It has that huge, vast wisdom." He has also said, "My idea is basically that the operating system [of life] is more wise than what we are able to stick into our consciousness."

In other words, there is something larger than our own ego at work in the universe. This is the very stuff of religion. Robert Hunter, a lyricist for the band, has said of faith, "Faith? Well actually I kind of tacitly believe, without spending much time explaining it to myself or others. [...] I'm certain there's something bigger than my brain and my ego going on. I kind of take that for granted, how could it be otherwise? I'd love to believe I'm working in concert with whatever that is." (Hunterís online journal for July 30, 2006)

It would seem natural for a band with such ideas and inclinations to use the transcendence of sacred texts, such as the Bible, in their art form. But lest we give too much weight to religious devotion among the band members, letís consider this portion of an interview:

"Gans: Did you have formal religious upbringing?

"Garcia: No, not really. I come from a Catholic background, but nobody in my family was very serious about it. I was forced to go church, but only until I was about ten or eleven. I was never confirmed.

"Gans: Do you have any relationship with the Western God, then?

"Garcia: Mmmmm, I wouldnít say so."

Jerry Garcia is no religionist (Neither is Bobby Weir. He joked in an interview with David Gans, "As soon as we incorporate [as a religion], I get to be in charge of making the mitres [sic] and stuff like that. Weíll get some great hats." (Gans, 132)): "Thatís what all that born-again Christianity is about--itís an organized way to make the miraculous happen. The drag about it is that it has that exclusivity clause. [...] Hereís the thing: since thereís a squabble over reality on earth--in other words, consciousness is fighting over reality insofar as there are Moslems and Hindus and Christians and so forth, and theyíre all striving to create the reality which contains their God and only their God, and thatís the truth of the matter [...] theyíre copping to nail down reality." However, the discerning mind can detect a difference between formal, organized religion and spirituality. To say that the members of the Grateful Dead did not possess a certain quality of spirituality, or transcendence, would be naÔve, at best.

If the Grateful Dead is not interested in devotional, organized religiousness, we have before us the question of how, and not necessarily why, the Bible is used. Robert Hunter, in response to an email I sent to him making a similar inquiry said,

"My work is influenced by the same culturally predominant stuff anyone of my age living in the U.S. would have absorbed to some degree. The Bible is certainly a rich source of symbol and reference, as is Shakespeare, Mother Goose, the famous poets everybody used to know, lyrics of popular songs, etc. etc.... Religious content aside, it is a great and enduring work of art.

Thus, the "why" of using the Bible has to do with culturally available and relevant transcendence texts. How the Bible is used is more to our point, and it is my contention that it is used as symbol and metaphor, rather than religious devotion.

What do the references to the Bible symbolize? To what are they metaphors? They are references to common experiences of life under the influence of the Grateful Deadís particular brand of inspiration and perspective. Longtime fans of the Grateful Dead, by attending concerts, being responsive members of the audience, and listening closely to the songs with heart and ears, can come away with very similar, yet diverse, understandings of life in general. The range of Grateful Dead fans will always insure diversity, but the common connections that the fans experience will also always insure similar life philosophies. Religious metaphors are simply creative and accessible ways to instill the experiences of life with particular meaning and mood. This is not to say that the fans of the Grateful Dead are intentionally molded by the band into a certain type of person, but it is to say that certain types of people are attracted to what the Dead are doing and these people welcome the bandís influence upon themselves. Diversity of personhood and personality and unity of experience are the two poles that support the gravitational pull of the Grateful Dead.

When considering particular songs that use biblical imagery we find songs that have a theme running throughout all the verses, and songs that use only short references to biblical material. Estimated Prophet, Sampson and Delilah, My Brother Esau, The Greatest Story Ever Told, We Bid You Goodnight, Cold Jordan, and Blues for Allah exemplify songs of the first instance. One More Saturday Night, Eyes of the World, Playing in the Band, Throwing Stones, Deep Elem Blues, Knockiní on Heavenís Door, Promised Land can be seen to contain shorter references to biblical themes. Fire on the Mountain, Ripple, St. Stephen, and many others could contain implied references.

Iíll not burden the reader with my takes on these lyrics. It could rob them of personal relevancy. But I think we would do well to explore the implications of this essay and appreciate the rich and varied sources of the lyrics and the transcendental, spiritual themes of the music itself. Metaphorically speaking, "You better take Jesus with you/heís a true companion/Oh Iím sure without him/you never will make it home." ("Cold Jordan," Traditional song.)


Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from David Gans, Conversations with the Dead (Da Capo Press, 1999).
Posted October 14, 2006