On Grateful Dead folklore

In recent mainpage reproduction of a classic SD column, Cecil answers the question of where The Grateful Dead got their name. In it, he discovers and expounds upon the folklore from which their name was inadvertently derived, citing a typical tale from the genre.

I am a little confused as to the moral contained therein. Is “grateful” used ironically here? It seems to me that the dead man, rotting as he was in horse dung, didn’t seem quite so grateful to have a stranger pay off his debts and give him a proper burial, given that he A) Offered help only on the condition that he share half of the winnings, and B) asserted his claims to said winnings even when they included the “marital rights.” I mean, what kind of selfish asshattery is that? I’m just not seeing the gratitude here, so the moral, such as it may be, comes off like it’s trying to say, “Don’t help people who get themselves into trouble – especially dead people, because they’ll probably be pricks in the afterlife, too.”

What am I missing?

One Wolf Thandoy carried out some detailed research on the Grateful Dead Folktale:

One would have thought that the hero had already proved his good character to Grateful Dead by taking care of his burial, but it seems the characteristic of fidelity tops GD’s list of requirements.

Note that while GD stakes his claim, once the hero’s credentials have been established he doesn’t exercise his options.

That does explain things a bit taken on that level, but it still seems a dodgy parable. Is one’s generosity (and in the broader picture, one’s sense of justice and goodness) not a good enough gesture in its own right to appease the deceased? Is there no gratitude for generosity without proof of fidelity? Does this suggest that generosity in and of itself is only a means to prove a greater worth? And what does the husband agreeing to let the stranger sleep with his wife out of a sense of honor say about his commitment to her? For that matter, what does it say about the potential fidelity of his wife? Would she be condemned as an infidel for agreeing to sleeping with the stranger had he asserted his claims? And what if he had reneged on the agreement, even in part (specifically the adultery part)? Would his generosity then be condemned for not being backed up with fidelity?

It still seems the GD is being an ungrateful bastard.

Other times, other values and conventions - especially story telling conventions. Within the context of the story the hero was being given an opportunity to show additional worth and show that he was truly worthy of having someone come back from the dead to reward him.

I remember an incident in a Knights of the Round Table story that put me off. Lancelot is out riding and a woman comes up begging for protection. Her husband is trying to kill her. The husband then rides up and is informed that his wife is under the knight’s protection. The husband says ‘look over there’ and when Lancelot looks, he cuts off his wife’s head.

Later at the Round Table, the husband has been brought forward and Guinevere berates him. For killing his wife? No. For insulting Lancelot by killing someone under his protection. From there the husband is ordered to atone by going off with Lancelot and doing something.

Different times.

This is just an opinion but, as far as folklore is concerned, facts are pretty thin on the ground.

Such tales probably illustrate the values of a world where chivalry, honour and other knightly attributes were much venerated. Think of the Arthurian legends and a plethora of Greek, Roman and other mythologies. In many of these stories the hero is tested by the fates to ascertain exactly what he is made of. In this case the hero freely agrees to share the proceeds of the tourney with the stranger in return for the loan of a horse. Whether or not our hero realised these proceeds included sharing his woman is not known to me. I would guess not.

When the stranger reveals himself to be the GD and demands the woman, the hero’s priority is to fulfill his part of the bargain as a matter of honour, irrespective of the obvious downside in so doing. The moral is that if our hero doesn’t have honour he doesn’t have anything. Ultimately of course he wins all the woman and all the cash precisely because he is an honourable man.

Well, granted there doesn’t need to be much in the way of factual information; these are just parables after all, but as parables they are supposed to teach something. I’m just trying to find out what, exactly, the whole GD theme is trying to teach.

I do understand that these all existed in different times and different cultures with different values – the Knights comparison seems apt, and these GD tales probably stem from a similar era, one in any event that seems to have valued honor above all. This I can wrap my head around; it is at the core of every Arthurian legend, and more generally a very great deal of literature. What strikes me about the GD parable though is its seeming dismissal of the initial act of generosity and compassion (the debt satisfaction and burial) as merely the trigger that causes the ghost of the deceased to come back and really test the man’s mettle in a way that even then must have seemed just a tad inappropriate – perhaps even moreso than today given the attitudes in the middle ages about adulterous behaviour. Perhaps more significantly though is that if the tale is intended to suggest that those who honor their agreements above all else, though it cost them dearly, will ultimately be rewarded, then what of the man’s honor to his wife? In maintaining his honor by agreeing to share even his wife with the GD, he has simultaneously sullied his honor to his wife by that same agreement.

It is confusing.


Let’s move this to Comments on Cecil’s Columns.


But that’s what makes it a story.

Oh, I agree that it’s all about honor and being worthy of reward. The Grateful Dead character isn’t acting as an individual, asshatterish or not. He’s acting as an agent of the audience, to whom the worthiness of the knight is being proved.


In fact the ghost is, from the beginning, a test, first of the knight’s generosity and then of his honor.

So in other words, everything from the dead body to the ghostly return is part of the test? I guess I could grasp it in that sense. Still, would a “Hey, by the way, thanks for the burial dude, that was mighty decent of you” have hurt? I mean, really.

I think the basic problem lies in your assumption that the GD tale must have a moral. Where do you get that from? It is, as **JWK ** says, a story. A tale. It must have drama. Where do you get the idea that folktales always have a simple moral?

It’s interesting to draw a parallel with movies: many European movies have no clear moral. The characters are often not clearly either Good guys or Bad guys, and the story often involves no simple moral, but instead commonly highlights moral ambiguity. Hollywood dreck tends to be the opposite.

I don’t know that one can assume that an old European folktale should be expected to resemble simplistic Hollywood dreck rather than European cinema. I therefore question the whole basis of your OP.

There’s another, thematically similar Arthurian legend, as retold by Thomas Berger in his wonderful Arthur Rex, where one of the knights frees a beautiful woman from durance vile. They decide to marry, and only after tying the knot does he learn that she has been cursed by a witch. She will either be (1) beautiful during the day so he and the court at Camelot can admire her, but fugly all night, depriving him of the pleasures of the marital bed, or (2) beautiful at night when she lies in his arms, but fugly during the day, when people around the court will be repulsed at the mere sight of her.

His new wife asks that the knight decide which it’ll be. He says that she should be the one to decide, as he loves her too much to force her to be one or the other. With tears of joy, she tells him that by saying that he has broken the curse, and that now she will be beautiful for him always.

The Quotation is from the Egyptian book of the dead. It refers to the ship of the Sun. It’s passage through the daytime sky is powered by Ra, the SunGod himself. But when it sinks beneath the horizon it enters the realm of the dead, where Ra has no power. And yet the ship of the sun appears the following morning at the opposite horizon. It is powered by the grateful dead.
That’s where the “Grateful Dead” got their name. There was never any secret about it.

Just because there’s a quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead on the first album sleeve it doesn’t follow that’s the origin of the band name.

However, if there was never any secret about it then cites must be plentiful, and I’d like one.

Particularly when two founders of the band say you’re wrong, IB.

The cites are all in the dimension where Jerry had throat cancer, everybody knows that.

I heard Bob Weir explain in a radio interview that band members routinely answered questions with whatever popped into their heads. This has lead to a whole lot of contradictary Dead folklore. Some of it coalesced into the idea of Weir as a mystical acid guru, and the song Estimated Prophet was a poke-in-the-ribs to those fans.

Anyway, when there’s more than one explanation for the name of the band, that’s par for the course. Rather than arguing, we can be amused.