American history and American mythology have been blurring together since the nation’s earliest days. Think about the imagery of your first history classes: pilgrims with buckles on their hats; George Washington’s inability to lie; Paul Revere’s midnight ride. None of these stories are legitimate history, but they have all become a part of our national story nonetheless. The same is true of the duel-a-day version of the Wild West peddled by Hollywood and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. 234 years is a lot of history to look back on, and every vision of America inevitably highlights the things that matter to the person doing the looking.
Historians, writers, musicians, and artists are inventing America all the time, in endless variations, like a popular tune. In 1970, the Grateful Dead recorded two albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, that presented their version of America, which the American Beauty Project will explore in Durham this weekend. Prior to these albums, the Dead’s LPs had been attempts to capture the experimental, in-the-moment energy of the band’s live performances. But in 1970, they were able to step back from that ambition and make music that teased out the plainest essence of the band via a broad synthesis of bluegrass, jazz, country, psychedelia, rock, and folk.
The records neatly present a vision of America as a nation of transient living, surviving by your wits and wiles, and searching for stability while maintaining your independence. It’s a nation of outlaws, card players, rail riders, musicians, drug dealers, and bums—in a sense, these albums are a crystallization of the America Jack Kerouac tried to get his arms around in On the Road and Big Sur. The band even mythologizes its own drug bust in “Truckin.’”
It’s easy to sniff out some sources for this vision. For one thing, the Grateful Dead grew out of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, a jug band that paid tribute to the do-it-yourself bands of the American South and Appalachia, so their 1970 gravitation toward acoustic, folk-derived sounds brought them full circle. For another, they were based in San Francisco, which in the late 60s was a veritable city of transients, with kids tripping through the Haight-Ashbury district and crashing on floors in search of new ways to live. The Dead’s own run-ins with the law made their outlaw anthems, such as “Friend of the Devil,” feel lived-in and intimate.
And of course, in subsequent years, the Dead would famously reside at the center of their own transient America, touring more or less constantly with a legion of fans—“Deadheads”— in tow. Some fans traveled with the band for a few shows and then headed back home after a week on the road. But others followed them for years at a time, effectively living out the unmoored lifestyles of the characters in the band’s songs. The Dead’s version of America is just one of thousands, each one a history with its own merits and blind spots, but it has been an unusually pervasive one. Their two finest studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, present their vision with uncharacteristic concision and clarity.