Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Garcia: Palo Alto folkie, 1961-1964

Garcia was honorably discharged from the military (“not suited to the military lifestyle") in January 1961, and he immediately moved down to Palo Alto to live with his longtime friend and future GD roadie Laird Grant. For the next four years he lived there gaining a reputation as an active and talented folkie, the kind of guy you heard of if you were making the rounds in that scene. Palo Alto is small and the folk scene was not a big cash cow, so there were only a few places to play, and a strong feeling of solidarity between those involved. I listened to five shows predating the GD, tracing Garcia’s early bands. During this time he would first meet Robert Hunter then Pigpen, Phil (though they wouldn’t play together till later), Bill Kreutzmann and eventually Bobby Weir.

The first show was from July 1961 in San Carlos (likely at the Boar's Head). This was the period when he lived in his car, next to Hunter’s, and split his time between St. Michael’s Alley, a coffee house on University Avenue, and Kepler’s Bookstore. He had just met Marshall Leicester, a Yale student who taught him a great deal and would be a musical cohort of Jerry’s for several years. In all probability, Leicester and Hunter were the two other players on the tape. They played very traditional tunes cribbed from the New Lost City Ramblers, the Carter Family and the Anthology of American Folk Music, songs about Jesse James and Robert Ford, Willow trees and absent lovers. Jerry already was taking the lead in introducing songs and making wisecracks. “Tuning will take a while so if any of you have any long distance calls to make, now’s the time.”
About a year later, the band that would become the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers played in San Rafael. Marshall Leicester was present again, and they were joined by a fiddle player named Dick Arnold. The later, apparently rather quiet, was the butt of a few jokes as to his origins. Marshall Leicester joked that they’d found him in the back of a pizza restaurant, to which Garcia quipped: “He was back there playing to curdle the mozzarella.” The material was the same sort of thing, tunes learned from old recordings. On a couple of occasions, they mentioned that they made up lyrics since they couldn’t figure them out from the recordings. They played one song called Buck Dancer’s Choice, and also Shady Grove and Sweet Sunny South, which would later be in the Garcia/Grisman catalogue. Jerry also did a solo, a-capella rendition of Man of Constant Sorrow. They spent a lot of time introducing songs and bantering while they tuned (Jerry tuned obsessively, and they would replicate the odd tunings used by the national folk acts).
In February 1963, Jerry was playing with the Wildwood Boys, composed of Jerry, Hunter, David Nelson and Norm Van Maastricht (Marshall Leicester was at Yale during the school year). Garcia’s playing had developed a great deal; he played an original early in the set called Jerry’s Breakdown (not super tight, but impressive nonetheless). Other standouts included Standing In The Need Of Prayer and Mule Skinner Blues (Weir does that one with RatDog). Hunter was the bass player at the time, but he was permitted to take a guitar tune (“otherwise he said he wouldn’t play bass tonight”). Garcia’s constant tuning was the occasion for a lot of chattering and a lot of jokes, especially on the theme of how many very short songs they played: “We’ll be back in a little bit and we’ll play another hundred songs, and they’ll all sound the same.” The show was at the Tangent, a new exclusively folk club with a regular clientele and regular musicians, which made for a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.
Two and a half months later, still at the Tangent, Jerry did a show with his then-wife Sara (née Ruppenthal), with whom he was living and had married only a week before. They opened with Deep Elum Blues (including the “money in your socks” verse that Larry Campbell later sang with Phil and Friends) and played a number of other tunes I had never heard; one whose refrain ran: “ All good times are past and gone” and another: “Your heart shall no longer be mine.” Mindful of his audience's expectations, Garcia introduced Long Black Veil with an apology for playing a “modern country tune,” which he assured them was good anyway. He noted that their duo had appeared in the local paper that day; he then mentioned in passing how they had just gotten married before starting into “The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man.” Overall, the young couple’s harmonies sounded very sweet and nicely arranged. However, Sara’s musical chops were very inferior to Jerry’s and she struggled to keep up on the rhythmic accompaniments. The duo would not last very long. The marriage would hold out until early 1966: Sara and Jerry split early on in the Grateful Dead’s time in Los Angeles. Inexplicably, she did not feel that a steak-only household run by the world’s biggest acid dealer was the best place for a young child.
Finally, July 1964 saw performances by Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (spelled differently for every gig), featuring Pigpen and Weir and two of Weir’s friends on banjo and washboard. There was also a kazoo in the mix. The material was getting more towards the stuff the Grateful Dead would play: Beat It On Down The Line, Monkey and the Engineer, and Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. The short collection of tunes, culled from at least two performances, did have some of the usual banter, but things were a bit more tense, somehow. It was not the same atmosphere at the congenial folk scene, though there was a tuning interlude during which Weir exhorted everyone to take a “boo” break, where they could feel free to boo the band for a bit. Whereas the purist folk scene that Garcia had initially moved through was focused on tradition, technical prowess and “serious” subject matter, there was now a more open-minded, rock-influenced streak in the music.

In the summer of 1963, Jerry had made a trip into the deep south with Sandy Rothman in search of the origins of folk and bluegrass. His experience in that part of the world in a period of such high racial tension had clued him in to the fact that he may not be eligible for the life of a full-time folkie or bluegrass player, where that life required one to operate in those regions. A bit later, he had gotten into a little rock and roll, playing bass with the Zodiacs, a group featuring Bill Kreutzmann on drums. It was a logical progression. He was first attracted to Chuck Berry, but the so-called British invasion also opened new possibilities for him and his fellow musicians. His friend David Freiberg was a folk-player who would soon become Quicksilver’s bassist; David Nelson went electric, though retaining a country orientation; and Jorma Kaukonen (then called Jerry) also made the switch with Jefferson Airplane.

These recordings are a nice overview of Garcia’s range in his acoustic/banjo period. One gets a sense of his development as a player and hears examples of the technical facility that earned him his reputation. He was part of a relatively small but very dedicated scene, responding to the beginnings of the anti-establishment counterculture by sticking close to folklore. Rock and roll, though “modern,” provided a similar escape from contemporary mainstream culture, but more forward-looking and more satisfying for people in their late teens and early twenties. While I don’t know of any easily available online sources, recordings do pop up occasionally on etree, often radio broadcasts with very high quality original tapes, so keep an eye out. The two ’63 shows (Wildwood Boys, 02/23, and Jerry & Sara, 05/04), courtesy of KFOG, sounded particularly good.

Next: I’ve been stalling on the Furthur tour because tapes of the first two shows have not surfaced yet, listening instead to the four “rehearsals” that came up courtesy of Grateful_deadhead (anyone know who this guy is? He wants to remain anonymous, but I would guess he’s close to the organization). However, I can’t wait around forever so I’ll just have to buy them; I should have a first review up by next week. Cheers!


  1. 1.Was Jorma Kaukonen finnish by his origin?
    2.Why was Garcia not suited to the military lifestyle?
    3.Tell me more about Marshall Leicester. Did he study music in Yale? Was he more skillful than Garcia? What did Garcia learn from him?

  2. What the hell is this, reading comprehension?

    1. Jorma was born in the states but his father was Finnish-American.
    2. Garcia was never good at taking orders, spent most of his time playing guitar with one of his superiors and racked up too many AWOLs.
    3. I don't believe Marshall Leicester studied music, but he was part of the purist folk scene at Yale, and being a bit older than Jerry and exposed to a more worldly scene on the east coast, he was more developed as a player. In those days, Garcia stuck close to anyone who could teach him anything.