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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 April 2021

Malcolm Guite welcomes a word in season from The Grateful Dead

MAGGIE and I take it in turns to do the dishes: that way, we can each turn up the volume on our favourite listening without disturbing the other, and speed through the chores, enveloped in our own reverie. She prefers The Archers; so, while she is washing up, our kitchen is in Ambridge; but I prefer The Grateful Dead, and, when I’m on duty, my dishes clatter and glisten amidst the alternating lights and mists of mystic ’60s San Francisco.

Those who don’t know their music might reasonably assume that a band called The Grateful Dead was some dreadful heavy-metal, goth-rock monstrosity. Nothing could be further from the truth. They really come out of the folk, blues, and country traditions, albeit turned on, tuned in, and melded together, old mandolins somehow morphed into electric guitars, but with their melodies and motifs as delicate as ever.

Indeed, the band’s name is itself an allusion to a folk motif. “The Grateful Dead’ is the term folklorists give to a whole genre of traditional fairy tales, in which the hero, at the start of a journey, does an act of sheer gratuitous kindness to the dead, an act that can have no immediate reward. There are many variations: a sea captain finds a floating coffin and diverts his voyage to rescue it and bring it to shore for decent burial; a youngest son, setting out to seek his fortune, gives his last three pennies to help a widow bury her husband. But, in each case, the young hero is joined later in his journey by a mysterious, sometimes angelic, figure, who saves or rescues him, works good magic, brings him his fortune, wins him his bride. And, in each case, this mysterious figure turns out to be “the grateful dead” returning a favour, giving thanks for an honour, blessing the living.

There is certainly something magical in the band’s music, especially in live performances with their trademark long, intricate, trance-like improvisations that lift you into another realm — it’s amazing how many pots and pans you can wash and dry without knowing you’ve done it, in the course of just one Jerry Garcia guitar solo. But, doing the dishes on the anniversary day of reflection and the commemoration of those who died of Covid this past year, I found myself lifted out of myself, in a kind of healing lamentation, through a song that The Grateful Dead themselves made to honour the dead — Bird Song — an elegy for Janis Joplin, whom they had known and loved:


All I know is something like a bird within her
   sang

All I know she sang a little while and then
   flew on. . .


The song goes on to speak of both laughing in the sunshine and crying in the dark, its tender lyrics shot through with the sinuous silver thread of the music. That song was still playing when, leaving the last of the dishes to dry in the rack, Maggie and I walked out into the spring twilight, remembering our own losses over this strange year, ready to light our candle of remembrance, and hold it in silence with the others on our street, the last words of Bird Song fading in my mind as the candle flickered and the stars came out: “sleep in the stars, don’t you cry, don’t you cry, dry your eyes on the wind. . .”

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