The Meaning Behind the Band Name: Grateful Dead

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Fans of the psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead will tell you to love the band is to love its lifestyle. Those same folks, when asked what their favorite song from the group is, will often tell you something along the lines of: it’s all one big song, man.

Indeed, the jam band is infamous for its raucous, elongated, trippy shows and its fans who travel around the country taking part.

But what about the band’s actual name? And were they always known as The Grateful Dead? Well, that’s what we’ll investigate here. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the world of the band—along with one of their more popular tunes below.

Early Band Days

The band was formed (under a different name) in 1965 in Northern California in the city of Palo Alto. Blending rock, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, blues, and more genres, the band’s brand of psychedelic music has become the stuff that legend is made of—especially via the band’s live shows, which often include lengthy jams that could last 10, 20, 30 or more minutes.

Counter Culture

Today, the band’s fans are known as “Deadheads,” both for their appreciation of the band and for their penchant to trip out with psychedelic drugs.

Born in the Bay Area, where counterculture in America was taking off in the 1960s, the band’s founding members include lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, keyboardist Ron McKernan, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Together, they created a group that will live in infamy.

Their First Name

Originally, the band was known as the Warlocks. Members of that early outfit had played together in various San Francisco groups, including the traditional jug band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Lesh was the final member to join the Warlocks before the group changed its name officially to the Grateful Dead.

The band’s first show was at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, which was located at 639 Santa Cruz Avenue in suburban Menlo Park. It took place on May 5, 1965. The location is now a furniture store.

The band continued its gigs, playing bar shows like Frenchy’s Bikini-A-Go-Go. They also played a regular gig that included five sets a night, five nights a week for six weeks at the In Room in Belmont.

The Warlocks Change

The band ended up changing its name from The Warlocks after finding out that another group was known by that same moniker. In addition, The Velvet Underground had also been known as The Warlocks but had to change its name for the same reason.

The Grateful Dead

The group of musicians later landed on the name The Grateful Dead. According to legend, that name was chosen from a dictionary. Said Lesh, “[Jerry Garcia] picked up an old Britannica World Language Dictionary … [and] … In that silvery elf-voice he said to me, ‘Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?”

The definition of the moniker was “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.”

And according to Alan Trist, the director of the band’s music publishing company, Ice Nine, Garcia found the name in the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary when his finger landed on that phrase while playing a game of “Fictionary.” In Garcia’s biography Captain Trips, the author Sandy Troy said that the group was smoking the psychedelic drug DMT at the time.

The term “grateful dead” also appears in a number of folktales from various cultures.

The Band’s First Shows

The Grateful Dead’s first show was in San Jose on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Kesey was an author and psychedelic drug proponent.

While some early demo tapes have survived, the first of some 2,000 concerts known to have been recorded by the band’s fans came from a gig at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on January 8, 1966. And later that month, the group played at the Trips Festival, which was a three-day psychedelic rock weekend party produced by Kesey and others. Hippies unite!

Post-Jerry Garcia

After Garcia died in 1995, former members of the band, along with other musicians, toured as the Other Ones in 1998, 2000, and 2002. Later, they toured as the Dead in 2003, 2004, and 2009.

In2015, the four surviving band members marked the group’s 50th anniversary in a series of shows that were billed as their last performances together. Since then there have been other groups born from those players, including Dead & Company, Further, the Rhythm Devils, Phil Lesh and Friends, and more.

The Grateful Dead (Photo: Clayton Call)

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