It was about 25 years ago when I first became acquainted with the music of the Grateful Dead. Unlike many of the other rock bands or mainstream music acts I’d grown to know and love in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the music of the Grateful Dead always had seemed somehow different and less accessible to me.
Ironically, my first true introduction to the band came later in my life through my daughter Laura.
During that period, I was the new superintendent of a public school in Illinois, and she was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Laura had invited me to come up for a visit, and after dinner, she placed one of her favorite Grateful Dead albums, American Beauty, onto the turntable.
Until that moment, I had not been familiar with their unique style of music. About all I knew about the group was that their peripatetic fans–the Deadheads–seemed obsessed with them, following them from coast to coast and concert after concert, in search of some type of cosmic meaning.
As we sat in Laura’s living room, “Ripple” began to play and I was immediately enthralled by its words. When the song finished playing, I asked if we could listen to it again.
Written in the 1970s by Rob Hunter and Jerry Garcia, Ripple has a unique rhythm and a message reminiscent with spiritual undertones. The lyrics grabbed my attention:
“Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men”
I listened to the lyrics over and over until Laura announced she was going to bed. While she slept, I stayed up to listen some more.
I spent a good part of the night contemplating the spiritual aspect of the line, “there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men.”
As I listened raptly, another line stood out to me personally, within the context of my new position as superintendent: “You who choose to lead must follow / But if you fall you fall alone.” Several years later, while attending a seminar on leadership for superintendents, I’d recall the line again. The speaker presented a new concept and immediately, I thought, “Oh my, the Grateful Dead wrote and sang about servant leadership twenty years earlier. This is not new.”
I was so impressed by the words and message of the song, I decided to research its origins. I learned that it may have been inspired by Psalm 23, with its reference to still water and to a full or empty cup.
This story may not register with you, if you’re not at all familiar with the Grateful Dead. Or, perhaps, like me at the beginning, you somehow prejudged the band and their music negatively. In either case, I highly recommend you give their music a listen. I learned to appreciate the band’s unique talent and music and the lessons contained in their lyrics. Even today, I experience comforting, spiritual and contemplative feelings when I listen to many of their pieces.
Wherever you stand on the Grateful Dead, their music and their contributions, maybe you didn’t know that Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream was named after Jerry Garcia, a founder, lead guitarist and vocalist for the Grateful Dead.
Garcia suffered from diabetes, but it was his heroin and cocaine addictions that led to his fatal heart attack in 1995 at the age of 55. Tomorrow I’ll write more about the topic of addiction, but what I will always remember Jerry Garcia for was his contribution to music and some of my favorite songs, especially “Ripple” and “A Box of Rain.”