Songs of Our Own: A Conversation with David Dodd, Author of the Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
The city librarian of San Rafael, California is a Deadhead. Why wouldn’t he be? The Grateful Dead is a literate universe. The lyrics read like poetry, the music pulls encyclopedically from American history, and the concerts tallied on paper offer a cerebral feast for scholars, statisticians, and bookkeepers alike. But David Dodd knows all of this. In the introduction to his new book, The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, he writes, “Grateful Dead lyrics can contain the world.” So do libraries. With the two world-containing dimensions lyrics and books at his fingertips, Dodd began to trace the invisible web between them. What he discovered was a universe infinitely entangled. Using the then-new technology of another kind of web, the Internet, Dodd documented relationships between Grateful Dead lyrics and the outside world via linked annotations. But, really, it all started when he just wanted to find out what the band meant when they sang, “Just like Crazy Otto / Just like Wolfman Jack” (“Ramble On Rose”). Who were these cats?
“I love the songs and there are a lot where there is a point at which the lyrics open up, either via a bridge (musically speaking) or just through a particularly incredible verse (such as the “wind in the willows” verse of “Scarlet”) and suddenly you’re in a different world,” says Dodd. “You feel as though there’s a revelation at work.”
Ten years after posting his initial findings on a website, Dodd has published a book with annotations for every song the Grateful Dead ever performed. With included essays by principal lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow (both of whom Dodd says he’s only met “in an autograph-seeking kind of setting”), The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics is a satisfyingly thorough blueprint to the Grateful Dead lyrical legacy. The city librarian of San Rafael, California is a Deadhead, all right.
I met up with Dodd, appropriately enough, in cyberspace, for the following interview.
BE: David, when was your first Grateful Dead concert?
DD: My first show was a Who/Dead day on the green in Oakland, California, in October 1976. October 9ththe first day of a two-day run for the pairing. I went with my four college roomies. I have many great memories from that day, but foremost is the realization that this was the music for me. I remember being amazed, possibly in part due to my state of being at the time, at how each and every note was perfect, and how the little beats between the big beats were meticulously filled-in. I remember noticing the way the band played with the performance spacean aspect of their playing that continually amazed me over the yearsby bouncing sound off the back wall of the stadium, particularly in “Franklin’s Tower,” so that we heard: “roll away / the dew (the dew, the dew, dew.).” I remember the enthusiasm of the crowd around me, and how everyone (except me) seemed to know all the words. I grew up in the Bay Area, so the band’s name was familiar to me. And I had just, the previous year, read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, so their appearance on stage was like having mythological figures step forward. But I had never listened to them much at that point. I came away that day a convert, for certain.
BE: What was the first Grateful Dead song that you remember picking apart lyrically?
DD: “Ramble On Rose” was the first song that got me going as an annotator, with its multiple references to people and to other songs. That was in the early- to mid-1980s, while I was working at a reference desk in the Fremont Main Library of the Alameda County Library. I started using the vast supply of old card catalog cards to keep notes, and compiled quite a stack of these over the next few years.
BE: When did you first come up with the idea to annotate all the lyrics? Can you discuss the website that then led to the book?
DD: I was inspired to do the annotations by Blair Jackson’s The Golden Road magazine, in which he wrote wonderful notes about the Dead’s cover tunes. I thought it would be worth writing about the sources for the originals, and worked up “Ramble On Rose” as an article. He didn’t publish it (my big contribution to the magazine was a blurb about “Funiculi Funicula”) but I barreled on ahead anyway.
When the Web came along, I was primed and ready to go with stacks of notes on catalog cards. I taught myself html and started The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics website. I think that my job at the time, as an assistant professor on the Library faculty at the University of Colorado, gave me the perfect opportunity to “waste time” on this effortit served as my main research project: exploring a new medium for information delivery. I believe that the AGDL website was the very first example of using hypertext to annotate a literary text of any kind. It spawned a lot of other annotated lyrics sites, including one for the Beastie Boys, R.E.M., the Pogues, and Jethro Tull, among others. High school teachers around the country wrote to thank me and say they were using it in their classes. I was careful to always get permission to use the lyrics, and to quote those who wrote to me. And that respect for intellectual property paid off in an ongoing relationship with Ice Nine Publishing (the Dead’s music publishing arm) that continues today and led to the book being given the green light.
BE: Lyrics, even after they’ve been annotated, are almost always open to interpretation. Still, some theories hold more weight than others. What, in your own opinion, is an example of a Grateful Dead tune that you believe has been largely and popularly misinterpreted?
DD: My favorite example, though probably not what you’re getting at with this question, is “Franklin’s Tower.” A number of years ago, a writer named Andrew Shalit published a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the song, which goes into extraordinary and, apparently, convincing detail about the song’s relationship to Benjamin Franklin and the process of making bells from a technical point of view. I reprinted (re-posted?) the essay on my website, giving no indication that it was meant as a humorous piece, and ever since then I have frequently heard from email correspondents who express admiration for the piece, and for Hunter’s knowledge of arcane subjects like bell-making. It’s wonderful! (You can read the essay at http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/shalit.html).
BE: Admirably, you largely refrained from providing personal interpretations of the lyrics. Yet I’m sure, in your digging, you’ve uncovered reasonably educated conclusions about some of them. Was it a tough decision to leave most of that out?
DD: Not a tough decision, no. I have as a bedrock opinion the assumption that interpretation and meaning are personal, not objective, even when they come straight from the poet. In Hunter’s case, he has weighed in on this fairly strongly over the yearshe doesn’t want the songs to be put into boxes that would restrict new interpretations. Even “mis-hearings” are sacred to Hunter, so just putting the words down was a big step, much less the interpretations or “meaning” of the songs. There are venues for capturing speculation on the meaning of the songs, especially at the open WELL conference, deadsongs.vue where we’re actively collecting material of this type. Maybe in 100 years we’ll have accumulated critical mass and be able to issue a sprawling work on the meanings and interpretations of Grateful Dead songs!
BE: The Grateful Dead were fond of invoking certain archetypes and metaphors in their lyrics — such as roses, gambling, the tragic hero. Can you discuss some of these recurring themes and, as the annotator, where they were pulling them from and what they were relating them to?
DD: Let's see. I have a whole essay on roses that I sneaked in as a footnote to "That's It For the Other One," which is the song in which they first make an appearance in Grateful Dead lyrics. And, on the website, I have a series of thematic essays designed precisely to address these kind of recurring themes, metaphors, and sources. Gambling is another, and Grateful Dead attorney Hal Kant, who is a champion poker player, wrote an essay for the book about the topic. Trains, cats, geography, music and danceall find their way in as repeating motifs.
I remember a quote from an old PDQ Bach album where two guys are sportscasting “Beethoven's Fifth,” in which the color guy goes off on a riff about the use of motifs in music: "Technically, that's a motif which is used to build a theme…" While I resolutely want to decline to state my own interpretations of the songs, I think it's safe to say that the use of recurring imagery and evocations in Grateful Dead lyrics does reinforce two overall themes: interconnectedness and the yin-yang nature of reality. The interplay of light and dark, of knowing and not-knowing, of roses and thorns, of characters who were "bad men" and characters who were "saints" all of these contribute to a set of lyrics that can, as I say in my foreword, "contain the world."
BE: As someone who has intensely studied both, what do you think are the defining differences between Barlow’s and Hunter’s styles?
DD: Styles. Hmmm. Hunter is a storyteller; Barlow seems to excel at evoking atmosphere. Hunter delivers aphorisms; Barlow invokes the wisdom of the ages more frequently. I don’t really know! Those are just some off-the-cuff impressions.
BE: Tell me about Jim Carpenter, the book’s illustrator. How did you meet up with him? Who had the idea to bring him on board for the book?
DD: The idea for the illustrations in the first place came from my wife, Diana Spaulding (my co-editor for The Grateful Dead Reader, and a wonderful multi-faceted librarian), who suggested that we should have pictures like good dictionaries do: small, but excellent illustrations. And Jim Carpenter was the obvious choice to askhe had illustrated Alan Trist’s The Water of Life with beautiful pen-and-ink drawings. Alan pitched him to do this project, and to our joy, he agreed. He then produced well over 200 illustrations for the book (some of which we had to cut from the book, unfortunately), and the cover painting as well as two color illustrations. Amazing! He brings a sense of humor to the dryness of the footnotes (not that they're dry, but some could see it that way) that is continually surprising and interesting. The book looks beautiful, and it's mostly thanks to Jim.
BE: Earlier in his career, Trey Anastasio defended some of Phish’s then-"meaningless" lyrics (such as "Boy / Man / God / Shit") by saying that the song’s meaning should be found in the music itself, not in the definition of the words. Music, he said, deserves to be beyond words. That observation seems to posit language as a limiting factor. Yet, in the introduction to your book, Robert Hunter hints that the right words paired with the right music can be infinitely transcendent.
DD: Words can be beyond words, too. One of my favorite poets is a guy named H.D. Moe, a little-known Berkeley poet who uses words in an entirely new way. When you hear him read out loud from his own work, he seems to be construction stained-glass windows in the air from his words. So I have no problem with the early Phish lyrics, although I feel no compulsion to annotate them, either.
BE: Also in the introduction, Hunter admits that, sometimes, certain images in his lyrics are borrowed and/or outright stolen, while other references are coincidental. How much thought did you give to including annotations where the reference was real but rather unlikely? In other words, what criteria did you have for including suspect though arguable annotations?
DD: Criteria. That implies rational, systematic thinking. I plead innocent. I happen to like the unlikely! My criterion was mainly, “is it something evoked by my own listening?” So the annotations are in many ways very personal. Some “references” are clearly not references per se, given the fact that the person, place, or thing I cite occurred after the song was written. Doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not evoked in the listener’s mind now. Does that make any sense? If not, I’m sorry, but it was never meant to be serious scholarship in that manner.
BE: What was the advantage of organizing the lyrics by year, instead of by album or by title?
DD: This was a decision made fairly early on it the process of turning the website into a book. Alan Trist and I both felt that having a chronological approach to the songs, by date of debut or recording, whichever came first, would give readers a sense of the arc of the writing over time. And I think it does work that way. It also makes for some serendipitous juxtapositions of songs. It wouldn’t have worked at all if we hadn’t been able to provide a decent index, but since we were able to provide a title and first line index, I feel like it works very well indeed.
BE: In exploring some of these annotations, I’ve found myself looking deeper at points, sometimes seeking out a specific poem, Googling a certain phrase, looking up a particular word. It’s like a treasure hunt that begins with a Grateful Dead lyric (from a song that has likely spurned its own treasures), and ends with the scholarly reward of discovery or some kind of gained knowledge. Obviously everybody who reads this book will find his or her own points of interest, but I’m hoping you’ll relay some of your personal favorite “finds.”
DD: This is, I hope, an endless process. One of my early questions in beginning this project was whether if one actively tracked down each reference to another work, or to a person, that one came across in the course of reading anything one would ever finish reading any given work. That is, one reference leads to another, to another, and pretty soon you are light-years away from where you started. I have been sent off in this way into several realms of knowledge where I have no business being, and have been led further into some to which I was already attracted. Trains, for instance. Flags. Eastern religion. Engines for Corvettes. Greek mythology. Color theory. Cosmology. Astrology. Architecture. (I really enjoyed learning about the Tower of Winds, an eight-sided structure built in homage to the winds.) The Black Madonna. Each of these topics is worthy of a lifetime of study (well, maybe not Corvettes) on its own, and here I have had the opportunity to dip my toes in all over the place.
BE: In his closing essay, Barlow writes that he hopes this project does not end with the publication of the book. Then he says that both you and your contributors “have barely scratched the surface of what we extracted from the Bible aloneIn other words, there is a lot of ore still unmined here.” Sounds like a clue, eh? Asking the obvious, is this still going to be an active, ongoing project for you?
DD: I think of the Barlow statement as something of a challenge, and a clue. Yes. I will stay with the project, and only hope that my dying words won’t be something like “Now I understand Black Peter’!” I will keep the website going, and try to track all the mistakes that made it into the book, in the event of a second printing or revised edition. The other thing I’ve considered is branching out a bit at this point to include the entire universe of Dead-related songs (Garcia solo, Weir solo, etc.) in order to make the annotations link up with all the other relevant material. However, taking that to its logical conclusion, I would need to annotate all the cover tunes and traditional material as well, and then I’d be off into Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and so on. Yikes. I do have a real full-time job, a day job that I intend to keep, so I’ll need to exercise caution and not stop on the tracks, as it were.
“The storyteller makes no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice His job is to shed light
And not to master” words by Robert Hunter (“Terrapin Station.”)
“Let the words be yours
I am done with mine” words by John Barlow (“Cassidy”)