Today is the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s birth and an appropriate occasion to remember his contribution to American popular music. Garcia made his mark as a musician and songwriter with the Grateful Dead, but at heart he remained an unreconstructed devotee of folk, bluegrass and country music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music in particular. Garcia’s devotion to traditional American music was the source of the Dead’s commercial breakthrough with the beautiful Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums in 1970 .
Garcia’s inventive work with the Dead on electric guitar is well known; less so is his work on acoustic guitar with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman. Garcia had a long friendship with Grisman dating back to 1964 based on their mutual love of bluegrass music. Garcia recruited Grisman to make a key instrumental contribution to American Beauty. In the mid-1970’s Garcia joined forces with Grisman in the bluegrass ensemble Old and In the Way.
Garcia played distinctive Scruggs-style banjo while Grisman, Peter Rowan (guitar), John Kahn (bass) and Vassar Clements (fiddle) filled out the group. (The group reunited minus Garcia and Kahn for yet another beautiful album in 2002 under the name Old and in the Gray.) Old and in the Way’s recordings are available on compact disc and remain good listening.
Garcia and Grisman continued recording together mostly for fun over the years. In the atmospheric video above they play an acoustic version of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” In his biography of Garcia, Blair Jackson quotes the director of the video (the son of one of the Dead’s drummers) regarding Garcia: “We cut his hair, put him in a suit and tie, and had him there for twelve hours.” The director quotes Garcia saying, “I’d never do this for the Grateful Dead, never in a million years.”
Garcia died of a massive heart attack at age 53 in 1995 while in treatment for a nasty heroin habit. Jackson suggests that Garcia was persuaded to enter treatment because of the toll his habit was taking on his health and his playing. The devastation wrought by drugs on so many talented musicians of the 1960’s is a story that remains to be told.