Joseph Campbell and the Grateful Dead

By Nicholas Meriwether

Joseph Campbell and the Grateful Dead

So far, this blog has primarily focused on the major sections and supporting collections comprising the Grateful Dead Archive. This essay describes one of the traces in the Archive, a theme uniting documents and artifacts spanning several collections. How those themes emerge is often serendipitous—itself a defining theme in the band's music, and career. That colors the chance encounter that first connected the Grateful Dead to famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, making it more than just a wonderful happenstance but also an emblematic event. It was the start of an association that not only resonates with the spirit of the Grateful Dead, but also one that forged an important link in the scholarly reception of the Dead phenomenon.

None of that was obvious when Bob Weir first encountered one of Campbell's associates while jogging. Both Weir and Mickey Hart were fans of Campbell, Weir of his 1949 opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Hart of his The Way of the Animal Powers. Garcia was equally enamored of Campbell's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), co-written with Henry Morton Robinson. (Campbell drew his concept of the monomyth, the cycle of the hero's journey, from Joyce's Finnegans Wake.) Weir and Hart hosted a dinner for Campbell shortly before one of the band's stands at the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland, and Campbell repaid the compliment by attending one of the band's concerts shortly after-not something that he was known for, having long before abandoned any interest in popular culture.

But Campbell was intrigued to find out that his work had influenced the band, saying he was “absolutely delighted” to discover such prominent adherents, even if they were working in an idiom he found lacking. “Rock music has never seemed that interesting to me,” he commented in a lecture shortly after the concert. But what the Dead did was profoundly inspiring: “when you see 8,000 kids all going up in the air together … Listen, this is powerful stuff!” What he saw reminded him of the Dionysian festivals, palpable proof of his theory that the ancient myths and rituals he studied still echoed today. “This is more than music,” he told his audience. “It turns something on in here [the heart]. And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids.” Campbell's understanding of Dionysus was far deeper and more nuanced than the popular caricature of the happy, wine-soaked god, but his point was not to rehabilitate that older understanding. “It doesn't matter what the name of the god is, or whether it's a rock group or a clergy,” he concluded. “It's somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all.”

Fig. 1. The cover collage for the symposium program, “Ritual and Rapture.”

Several months later Campbell, Garcia, and Hart had a chance to explore the connections between their ideas in a symposium called “Ritual and Rapture, From Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.” Sponsored by UC Berkeley Extension, the day-long event was held on November 1, 1986 at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts and featured talks by Campbell and Jungian analyst John Perry along with a performance by Hart and others called “The African Queen Meets the Holy Ghost.” Attendees were delighted to hear a special guest participate in the musical part of the program: Jerry Garcia, looking fit and jovial, despite his recent coma and brush with death. He performed happily and then surprised the audience by sitting in with Campbell, Hart, and Perry on an hour-long panel discussion to close the conference. That conversation was recorded and transcribed as part of Hart's research for what would become his book, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and it reveals an animated and thoughtful exchange between the panelists and moderator Ruth-Inge Heinz, an anthropologist. Garcia made several thoughtful contributions to the discussion, but the comment that most delighted Campbell and the audience was his quip about the Dead: “They [the ancients] didn't know what they were saying, and we don't know what we're saying, but we think we're saying the same thing.”

That quotation was transcribed by one of Campbell's students and published in a book on Campbell several years later. For years, however, little archival evidence of the symposium could be found. Jay Blakesberg took a fine photograph of the panelists talking, and a recording made from the audience began to circulate several years later. But scholars interested in exploring the interactions between these very different but curiously allied thinkers and artists were frustrated at the lack of documentation.

Fig. 2. The program for “Ritual and Rapture, From Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.”

Thanks to several different collections, the Archive outlines those interactions. The program reproduced here, is a part of the papers of UC Santa Cruz musicologist Fredric Leiberman, who worked with Hart on several books, including Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum, which shows Campbell's influence on a number of levels. Another small collection, contributed by one of Lieberman's friends and colleagues, contributed transcripts of the panel discussion along with a follow-up interview with Campbell. Those transcripts reveal what participants reported, which was an easy camaraderie between panelists that nonetheless spoke to the seriousness of their topic: the typescript makes plain the historicity of the encounter, a verbatim account that reflects the genial rapport between all of the participants-especially between Campbell, Hart, and Garcia-that allowed them to develop a number of significant ideas.

Fig. 3. First page of the transcription of the question-and-answer session.

Garcia addressed the core of the band's approach to performance and the critical role the audience played:

Deadheads come to concerts with no expectations. They are open. They leave their troubles behind and whatever it is, and come to a new reality. We do the same thing. As we approach the stage we try to cast off everything. When we hit the stage we are nothing. We have all of our experiences and try to forget and just be. That's the hardest thing to do. As the Grateful Dead there is a responsibility to be able to do that. Because without that it doesn't happen. Six musicians struggling to play music. But there is something that happens. The audience is going through a transformation, we're going through a transformation. The unexpected becomes everyday. You don't take it for granted. You work at it real hard but you don't work at it in normal ways. It is something that just has to happen. You set the stage for magic to happen. Sometimes it does.

Campbell also made plain that what he heard and saw in the Grateful Dead resonated deeply with his own research. “The great themes of mythology live in all of our lives,” he replied to one audience question. That was what he found when he saw the band's performance in Oakland. Yet what was widely reported afterwards was his remark that the Dead were “the antidote to the atom bomb.” Taken out of context, it came across as either a starry-eyed convert's acid-addled epiphany or the onset of an elderly scholar's dotage. It was neither. As he explained at the symposium:

The atom bomb is a function of separation. The fact that people are separated from each other by lines of thinking-they align themselves with this group against that group. An evening with the Grateful Dead [is] one of their wonderful harmonizing experiences, all differences between age, race, and economic situation were simply erased. People were seeing themselves as human beings, having … a common experience and an experience of joy and fulfillment and life in play. There was no need for [the] notion of separation or my defending myself against you or anything of the kind. The more of that we can bring forth-and it's the function of the arts to do this in this world today-the less there will be any trends toward the separation which the atom bomb represents.

Campbell had the last word, thanking the audience for coming and ending by saying, “May all your rituals be rapturous.”

For the Deadheads in the audience, it was further proof of Garcia's remarkable recovery, and a marvelous validation of their own experience from not only Garcia and Hart but a towering scholarly figure as well. For researchers, the symposium and its archival traces speak to how the Dead participated in the traditions they studied in more than just musical ways. Campbell was one of many scholars drawn to the Grateful Dead. One of his students, Lansing Smith, now a well-known scholar and Campbell expert, would follow in his teacher's footsteps, publishing an account of his own Grateful Dead concert experiences in an academic anthology that deliberately invoked his mentor. It makes Campbell a fascinating link in the growing bibliography that frames the Dead's achievement in scholarly terms, staking its place in academe as surely as its Archive anchors it in the academy.

Campbell lived only a short time longer, dying in Hawaii on October 30, 1987. For the rest of his life, however, he acknowledged the impact the Grateful Dead had on him, discussing his experience at the show he saw on several occasions. “It was very important to him,” one of his associates noted. “He mentioned it frequently.” He would be pleased that a few fragments of his historic public appearance with part of the band survived today.

Although the archival evidence of the symposium is scant-only a trace of history-it nonetheless sketches a vital dimension of the Grateful Dead phenomenon. And like all such traces, the story of its creation, survival, and preservation tells us more than just a palimpsest of reality, a faded snapshot of the past. Traces like this not only show how archives can help researchers ferret out telling voices from history, but how the Grateful Dead Archive plays a central role in shaping the cultural reception and understanding of the Dead phenomenon.

Images courtesy Grateful Dead Archive. Blair Jackson first wrote about Campbell's meetings with the band in The Golden Road 10 (Spring 1986): 8, and The Golden Road 11 (Summer 1986): 37. Dennis McNally interviewed Campbell's associate Sam Keane and reported Campbell's interactions with the band in A Long Strange Trip, 387-88. Several online sources discuss the symposium, including Campbell's work is voluminous and can be explored through several resources; one good starting point is the Joseph Campbell Foundation,