VISTA CRUISING

By Ron Lancia

Vista Cruising Volumes IX and X: 100 Years of Grateful Dead History 

Part One/Volume IX:  “See See Rider Blues”

A lot can happen in a hundred years. As to where it begins, look to the oracle that lies deep in the jewel-like eyes of the Mother of the Blues, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who makes her first recording in 1923, and a year later, accompanied by Louis Armstrong, releases the traditional “See See Rider Blues.”

Ten years later in 1933, great American composer Jerome Kern records “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” ultimately one of the last songs—and the only song from his namesake—that Jerome John Garcia will ever record.

In 1941, two poets are born: Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), just a year after his eventual hero Woody Guthrie records “This Land is Your Land,” and Robert Hunter (born Robert Burns), the great great grandson of the poet attributed to “Auld Lang Syne.”  At this time in Europe, Bill Graham, one of a group of Jewish orphans who’d escaped the Holocaust, crosses the ocean to the Statue of Liberty, and the following year, Jerry Garcia is born in the Excelsior District of San Francisco.

1957 was pivotal, as Jerry gets his first guitar and listens to Chuck Berry; a young man from Berkeley named Phil Lesh discovers John Coltrane; and author Jack Kerouac publishes On the Road based on his travels with Neal Cassady, a novel that elicits this comment from Garcia:  “I can’t separate who I am now from what I got from Kerouac. I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision…if it weren’t for Kerouac opening those doors.”

As the ‘60s begin, Garcia, influenced by the bluegrass of Bill Monroe, plays music with Hunter, as well as his old friend, bluesman Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in Palo Alto, California which would become the birthplace of the Dead. In 1962, Hunter volunteers for the same Stanford experiments as author Ken Kesey, who publishes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and meets Cowboy Neal, the secret hero of the Beat Generation that eventually becomes one of his Merry Pranksters and is at the wheel of the Furthur bus. This primordial stew manifests into the music of the Grateful Dead and is about to bring monochromatic America into technicolor.

Part Two/Volume X: CC>Train to Cry

1965: Bob Dylan puts out the album Highway 61, from which the Dead would borrow at least three staples: “Desolation Row,” “Queen Jane Approximately,”, and “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” along with “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which Dylan introduced live during his paradigm-shifting electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. Pigpen convinces the boys from Mother McCree’s to go electric as well, and he, Jerry, and Bob Weir form the Warlocks, soon to include Phil and Bill Kreutzmann, and become the house band for Kesey’s revolutionary parties. By the Summer of Love in ‘67, the Dead release their first studio album, starting with “The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion.”

Bill Graham closes the Fillmore West in 1971, and as far as Graham’s impact, it is best articulated by Paul Kantner who would later write: “Love Haight/At the Fillmore Late/With a broom in his hand/He made the world a safer, better place/For our tribe/And our band.” The decade that follows features stints in Europe and at the Giza Pyramid in Egypt, and in 1979, months after keyboardist Brent Mydland joins the band, the Grateful Dead play “CC Rider” for the first time.

The 1980s include eleven shows at the fabled Ventura County Fairgrounds. Steve Parish and the Dead’s road crew haul the traveling circus to arenas and stadiums across America, and a bustling village of Deadheads springs up in every city and town that the band inhabits. Every aspect of the Grateful Dead behind-the-scenes breaks the mold, from lighting to sound to allowing taping to ticket sales. The decade of the ‘80s sees the band play “CC Rider” over a hundred times.

In 1991, the GD perform what is considered one of the finest shows of the era, an other-worldly evening at Madison Square Garden with Bruce Hornsby on piano and Branford Marsalis on saxophone. The first set includes “CC Rider” segued into a song it would become exclusively paired with, Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Train to Cry”.

Hunter and Garcia’s final song is introduced in ‘93, “Days Between”, which encapsulates a journey from when we grew into our shoes to Jerry’s final show in 1995. From there Phil Lesh and Bob Weir usher in the new millennium, shepherding our scene and carrying the spirit with support from an array of gifted musicians.

For the next quarter century Phil continues to experiment with improvisation, bringing his jazz influence to the psychedelic medium, and in 2015, marks fifty years by playing his last gig with the Dead at Fare Thee Well. Bobby Ace and the Rhythm Devils—Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart— join forces as Dead & Co., touring with new legions of fans and planning to do so through a 2023 summer tour.

According to their Vault of song stats, neither tune has ever been played at Skull & Roses. If Phil Lesh and Friends or any of the bands reinterpreting Grateful Dead music at the Ventura festival in April of 2023 land on the first bars of “CC Rider”, the fans on hand—some perhaps unaware at the time—will be witnessing a momentous event that would be a century in-the-making. If “CC Rider” finds its natural pairing with “Train to Cry”, it will be a nod to Ma Rainey and the bluesy folk poetry of Bob Dylan, and it will connect 100 years of musical history.

If you would like to go Vista Cruising through previous articles, check out:

Volume I: Elliptic Windows: A historical piece with rare material from Robert Hunter

Volume II: A Vulcanized Constitution: A timeless tale involving Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady

Volume III: Feast of Diamonds: An interview 11 years after Jerry’s passing with David Gans

Volume IV: I Still Believe in Santa Claus:  A holiday message as 2023 comes into view

Volume V: Scrap of Moonlight: Robert Hunter’s post-GD additions to the canon

Volume VI & VII: Miles Invents Fusion Music and Jerry and Ornette Out of Space

Volume VIII: The Day the 60’s Died: Remembering David Crosby

Ron Lancia is a school teacher in the San Diego area—as a matter of fact, he was Schoolteacher of the Year recently—and he knows stuff. He’ll be one of WON’s regular contributors.