(Credits: Far Out / Alamy)
The late Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia loved many types of music. From the industrial sounds of Gary Numan to the Americana of years gone by, the psychedelic wizard never stopped searching for new sounds to add to his extensive library.
Folk was an area Garcia was particularly enamoured with and a genre he would draw from the most over his career. Whether it be in the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage or the acoustic duo Garcia/Kahn, by going back to basics, armed with his acoustic guitar and a countercultural philosophy, Garcia provided many of his most resonant performances.
There’s also strength to the claim that Garcia is best described as a folk hero, as with the Grateful Dead, he captured the hippie zeitgeist with profound harmonies and lyrics, inextricably tying them to their era. A deeply unique artist who was prolific until his later years, Garcia followed the tradition of the great American troubadours of old, whereby he wasn’t in it for the trappings of success but for making a difference through his artistic efforts.
There’s no surprise, then, that across his life, Garcia effused about the folk music that inspired him. From the classics to the new sounds of his generation. One prominent effort he enjoyed was contemporary folk singer Joan Baez’s 1959 debut, Folksingers’ Round Harvard Square, a groundbreaking mix of Americana and Greek traditional music.
Outlining how Baez’s finger-picking first grabbed his attention, Garcia said: “When the whole folk-music thing started happening, I got caught up into that… When Joan Baez’s first record came out I heard it, and I heard her finger-picking the guitar,” he once said. “I’d never heard anything like it before, so I got into that.”
Reflecting Garcia’s deeply subversive nature, he also mentioned Bob Dylan’s first electric album, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. Notably, when released, the record was divisive in the folk community, as diehard fans felt the Minnesotan had sold out by switching his acoustic for the electric guitar. This supposed slight on tradition even caused an incensed maniac to try and stab Dylan.
When outlining his love for Dylan, Garcia revealed that he wasn’t a fan of his work before he took the decision to change lanes. “I never used to like Bob Dylan until he came out with electric music,” he explained. “And I’m not sure why I like that more. I sure liked it a lot more. Boy, when Bringing It All Back Home came out. Yeah, lovely. Very fine guitar player. [Bruce Langhorne] It just all of a sudden had something going for it.”
The guitarist continued: “Beautiful mad stuff. And that turned us all on, we couldn’t believe it.”
Following on from Dylan, Garcia clarified that he also valued his old backing group, The Band, and their modernistic take on country traditions. His favourite album by them was 1971’s Cahoots, a rootsy, folk rock palette. “I love ‘Life is a Carnival’ – that’s beautiful. Shit, that’s great. All the stuff in there, all those great parts. The Dylan song is great, too. I love that song,” he said. “I’ll probably sing that with the barroom band. I like to do those kinda tunes.”