Page 24 Grate Dead definition
Page 24 art by Stanley Mouse

Word Coinage, Serendipity, and the Creative Process

The story of their naming is legendary in the lore of the Grateful Dead. Performing as The Warlocks in 1965 it was discovered that an English band had a prior claim on that name and so they gathered at Phil’s house in Palo Alto to find an alternative. Garcia, perusing the bookshelves, pulled out Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary (1) and calling upon the higher authority of serendipity opened it at random and poked a finger on the page. Various accounts relate that the words “Grateful Dead” jumped off the page in auras of vibrating colors . . . be that as it may, the words resonated with the band: “That’s it!” – the name stuck, and the rest is history. (See dictionary definition on Family Album on Page 24).

Already, even before getting to the folkloric meaning of the term grateful dead, there is an energetic conjunction at work here for the word serendipity, which describes the band’s discovery process or method, was coined from a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (coinage by Horace Walpole, 1754) (2). The heroes in this tale were always making discoveries along their way by “accidents and sagacity, of things they were not [consciously] in quest of.” It might be noted that the GD were wise to and always respectful of this aspect of the creative process, to the point that they famously allowed and encouraged it to happen on stage during certain spaces of their live performance. I once witnessed an occasion when, within an improvisational jam, the outlines of a new composition emerged in the moment, all parts complete, coming together into an instantly distinguishable and balanced musical work. The Greeks would have called this homonoia, the spirit of concord, unanimity, and oneness of group mind, and although this particular composition never made it into the songbook, it illustrates how powerful serendipity can be.

Since the emergence of depth psychology in the early 20th Century, the older word serendipity has been enhanced by a newer, modern word coined by Jung, synchronicity, a phenomenon of consciousness at large increasingly accepted in some corners of the scientific worldview: the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but that have no discernable causal connection. (3) To what then do we ascribe such lateral as opposed to linear eventfulness? This “aha” moment, this liminal vision of the interconnected energetic web of the universe, may yet help pull us out of the mire of Western causality by embracing “analinear” thinking, combining the analog and the digital (linear) into a truer perception of the spiraling mode of evolution so often seen in Nature, and pointing to a rebalancing of the East / West cultural divide. Analinear is yet another word coinage (4).

It is interesting to reflect on the development of meaning in the 200 years that separate the coinages of Walpole and Jung. It is a subtle difference. The psychology of the unconscious is a modern worldview, absent in the time of Walpole, except perhaps by analogy in esoteric disciplines such as alchemy. A lexicographer says, “When they are mentioned in lists . . . serendipity is paired with luck, spontaneity, and discovery. Synchronicity is listed with intuition, harmony and resonance.” (5) It’s a conundrum, which is appropriate for words that deal with the intervention of the cosmic in everyday life. The creative is mystery; Muse rules.

But returning to that naming event, even at a conscious level the juxtaposition of the words “grateful” and “dead” is shocking, intriguing, memorable. Gordon Hall Gerould, a late 19th Century folklorist, explored the motif of the grateful dead, which is found worldwide, and anciently, in folktales (6). It is inherently mythic in meaning and content, as folklore always is. But whether or not we know the folk story, the name itself has the true ring of myth, speaking directly to the unconscious. Myth is cultural DNA whose nature is to resonate in our everyday lives. And so it has down through the decades helping to underpin, like those “helpers” in the tale who are known in folklore as the grateful dead, the success and longevity of the musical and cultural phenomenon known as the Grateful Dead, and inspiring their followers in like fashion. As Garcia once said to me, “We owe a lot to our name.”

The genesis of the abridged version of the folktale reproduced on Page 25 was the band’s desire to publish a new concert program in 1983. Rock Scully, Dicken Scully, and myself were charged with editing and producing it. We decided that a story about the grateful dead folktale would be useful content. I contacted my ol’ buddy, poet Bobby Petersen, and he and I set about the project. The first thing to be done was to secure a copy of Gerould’s book that discussed many grateful dead tales, including the earliest known written text, the Book of Tobit in Old Testament Apocrypha. This was not so easy; most library copies had been “borrowed” by Deadhead collectors. But I found one in a Colorado public library and obtained it through the inter-library loan program (7). Bobby and I selected one tale, The Water of Life, which contained the grateful dead motif in classic form and we built our article for the GD program around it.

Motifs are recognizable and recurring story elements used in traditional plots and tale types, not necessarily folktales in themselves (8). I first came across Gerould’s book in 1971 while doing advance work in London for the band’s 1972 European tour. An antique dealer friend, John Whiting (who later supplied the GD with their 5’ x 15’ boardroom table), had discovered it in the Kensington Library where I went to review it, which stimulated a lifelong interest in the power of myth and its contemporary meaning. This is a theme particularly explored by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell and often taken up by Hollywood to structure movie plots since George Lucas studied Campbell for his story telling in Star Wars (it works!) (9). Campbell also connected with the GD, going to a concert or two where he recognized the joyous atmosphere as something special in his own terms. In 1986 he joined with the band and Jungian analyst John Perry at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for a panel discussion – “From Ritual to Rapture, From Dionysius to the Grateful Dead.”

But that aside, it wasn’t till Petersen and I worked on the 1983 GD Program that I came back to the grateful dead folktale. A few years later my children were attending a Waldorf Primary School, whose curriculum focuses on art and folk story, where I met graphic artist Jim Carpenter. Soon we were working on a story for “children of all ages” that we published in 1987, using the diction and style of illustration common in 19th Century European fairy tales (10). The tale told on Page 25 is an expanded version of the GD program story using material later incorporated in our book.

If the folktale is a foundation stone of Grateful Dead lore, another is the Acid Test, the name given by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the wild, psychedelic public parties they produced in the mid-1960s for which the GD were the house band (11). Acid Test was a clever coinage referring to the street name for LSD, but its secondary reference is chemical, most commonly a test to distinguish gold from base metals; being a noble metal, gold is impervious to corrosion by acids such as nitric. Hence there is a third meaning, alchemical, for figuratively the transmutation of base metals to gold, or actually lower to higher consciousness, is the aim of alchemy, as commonly also is the effect of LSD. The illustration on Page 25 is one half, the right half (see Page 28 for the other half), of the classic Acid Test poster designed by Prankster Paul Foster (12). During production work Paul gave me this poster, hand-colored in crayon by a young Sunshine Kesey, and it now inhabits the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz. What goes around comes around and no doubt the cycles of transformation and the mythmaking go on.
– Alan Trist, San Geronimo CA, January 16, 2016

(1) Funk, Charles Earle. Funk & Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1956. Library science master’s thesis work is currently in progress on the history of the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary entry and coinage of the term “grateful dead.” For more information, see abstract for a popular culture conference paper on this topic by Laura McClanathan Meriwether,“grateful-dead”
(2) Serendip is the old name for Sri Lanka. The story tells of how three princes track down a missing camel through luck and good fortune. Horace Walpole is credited with coining over 200 neologisms. See also de Rond, Mark, and Iain Morley, eds. Serendipity: Fortune and the Prepared Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
(3) Jung, J.G. ‘Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle’ (1952), in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol 8, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,1960.
(4) Walter, Katya. Tao of Chaos: DNA and the I Ching, Unlocking the Code of the Universe, 1994. See also, McKenna, Terence, The Invisible Landscape, 1978.
(5) Montoya, Orion. Lifesigns: Tapping the Power of Synchronicity, Serendipity and Miracles, 2015. See also, Koestler, Arthur. The Roots of Coincidence, 1973.
(6) Gerould, Gordon Hall. The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story, 1908.
(7) A new edition has since been published: Gerould, Gordon Hall. The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story. Introduction by Norm Cohen. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
(8) Most prominently catalogued by folklorist Thompson, Stith. The Folktale, 1946.
(9) Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949.
(10) Trist, Alan; illus. Carpenter, Jim. The Water of Life: a Tale of the Grateful Dead, Hulogosi, 1987.
(11) Kesey, from a KQED interview at the Closing of Winterland: “The Dead are the only working alchemists. They know how to stroke a thing so it builds and builds, like the wind strokes the clouds until finally it attracts the lightning.”
(12) Foster, Paul. The Answer Is Always Yes, Hulogosi, 1990.

Art Credit: Stanley Mouse