“Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With The Way She Moves:”
The Experience and Influence of Women in the Grateful Dead
BROAD FOCUS, OVERARCHING QUESTIONS & PROJECT UNIQUENESS
Of all the expressive art forms, music is arguably the one most defined by collaboration, community, and conversation. It is inherently dialogic, iterative, and interactive.
Members of the Grateful Dead spoke frequently and emphatically about the collaborative foundation of their genesis, evolution, and continuity. The role of women in this co-creative endeavor has not yet been consistently or comprehensively presented and examined. Considering the extent of women’s involvement in the band’s performance, architecture, engineering, administration, legacy, and cultivation, it is surprising that a more summative and definitive account of these contributions has not emerged. As a collective entity, enterprise, and adventure, the Grateful Dead was comprised of and in some respects shepherded by a broad base of women who possessed and performed diverse and unique roles within the community.
I draw upon the work of McNally, Richardson, Dodd, and others in delineating the cultural context of the band’s emergence and development, but I depart from these studies in incorporating and highlighting the role of women in this context. Most historical and literary narratives documenting the various factions and manifestations of this period are both authored by and dominated by men. There are some notable exceptions: Rain Jacopetti’s Native Funk and Flash and Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s recent Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture focus directly on women’s contributions to and experiences in the Bay Area movements of the era and offer a point of departure for my own account. But there is work to be done: stories to be told and written.
The experiences and insights documented in this study offer not a counternarrative from the margins, but rather a complementary one that issues from a collaborative enterprise and experience that had no singular center. The Grateful Dead was a community of individuals who took shape, came together, and thrived along and within the marginal and marginalized sectors of American society. Together, they created a vibrant and decentralized subculture and counterculture, one that was defined by intimacies, exchanges, and communion. The experience and influence of women in this dynamic gestalt animates my inquiry.
In this project I chronicle the experiences, expressions, and recollections of this group of women. I explore their relationships with core band members and their influence in the band’s performance, operation, and development. I present their unique biographical narratives and document their relation to and with the broader culture of which they were an integral part: the cultural scene of the 1960s-1980s, centered in, but not exclusively defined by, the Bay Area. I examine these women’s intersection with the Grateful Dead and its social milieu, and the unfolding of their lives beyond the contours of the band’s assembly and performance. In doing so, I hope to shed light on their unique stories, on the historical, cultural, and social sphere within which they performed a central role, and on the broader cultural phenomenon that was and is the Grateful Dead. I also investigate the influence and significance of women from the perspective of male band members and others immersed in the Grateful Dead community. Taken together, these accounts will produce a much richer, more nuanced portrait of the band’s animating rhythms, tensions, and harmonies than has yet been rendered.
Other scholars are pursuing exciting work that considers the representation of women in the songs of Grateful Dead. My intentions and parameters are rather different. This type of analysis is an aspect of my work insofar as the Dead’s musical output reflects the band’s artistic rendering and expressive portrayal of women: fictional, mythical, and the actual women within their community. Likewise, the multi-faceted nature of women’s contributions to the band’s cultural expression, ethos, and persona influenced the content of their musical range. My focus, however, is on the music in a broad context: as a multi-faceted cultural phenomena. My unique contribution will hopefully produce a larger reframing of this chapter in cultural history.
IMPETUS AND AIMS
These arcs of inquiry are significant to me in a personal way, and I possess a deep and abiding commitment to this historical era and to the Bay Area arts scene. I have a firm grounding in the fields of feminist, American, and cultural studies. This foundation permits a specialized lens through which to isolate discrete fields of inquiry within the Grateful Dead canon ~ of interviews, performances, music, cultural ephemera, memoirs, photographic documentation, and scholarship ~ and to bring them together into a unified discursive domain. The following intentions guide the manuscript’s composition: to allow key women involved with/in the Dead to tell their stories individually, to present these stories collectively as a kaleidoscopic portrait, to elicit the insights of other Grateful Dead community band members on the influence of women, and to provide me with an opportunity to employ my background in and enthusiasm for 1960s and 1970s popular culture and social movements to illuminate broader forces at work and play in the band’s identity, popularity, and performance. My voice, in concert with theirs, will hopefully tell a story that has not yet been told. I envision this project as a chance for these women to relate their own history: not just that of their relationship to/with the Grateful Dead, but what motivated them, directed them, derailed and challenged them, and how they have reckoned with the shifts in their personal lives and those that have taken place since the upheavals and possibilities of the 1960s and 1970s have reshaped the contemporary social and political landscape of this country.
METHODOLOGY & PROCESS
The Grateful Dead Archive housed at UCSC, oral interviews with various members of the Grateful Dead community, and the secondary literature on the band and its cultural and social context serve as the project’s fulcrums. I will also explore both broad and specific examinations of social, political, cultural, and “countercultural” movements in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the Bay Area, and even more especially in the realm of music. These include but are not limited to the Beats, the Haight Ashbury scene, KPFA and other independent radio and recording operations, Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the acid tests, the Diggers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Black Panthers, the Dancers’ Workshop, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, women artists, especially musicians and photographers, and the Back to the Land movement. This is just a selection of the vast and diverse array of historical accounts and social groupings I take into account within the contours of this project.
To investigate women’s experience and influence in the Grateful Dead, I will interview a broad spectrum of people, both male and female, who played a role in the band’s origins and development. Accessibility to these individuals is an open question at the moment. Given the potential elusiveness of the “people sources” who are themselves the subject and context of this study, it is a considerable factor in determining the project’s future prospects and direction. I am not yet in a position to know what range of access I will have, but I am hopeful that my study’s uniqueness and core intentions will encourage people’s participation. Despite this issue, this inquisitive pathway, coupled with my enthusiasm for the project, suggests a substantive enough body of work to propel me forward.
If I am able to gain access to the variety of women involved in the Dead and to other seminal figures in the community and bring my own insights and research on feminist histories and conceptions of culture and community to bear on the subject, it is likely I could put together a more comprehensive account than has been done before on this topic and produce a book-length manuscript.
The questions posed above are the building blocks of my study, but as an organic and iterative process, they inevitably shift and morph into other inquiries as the account takes shape and the emergent body of research shifts my perceptions and perspective. In other words, as with the Dead itself, this project is conceived as a journey: as an exercise in scholarly mobility, openness, and experiential adaptation.
PRIMARY SOURCE CATEGORIES
The following categories define and distinguish the primary sources I seek to interview.
- Culture: the origins and evolution of the band’s convergence and distinctive cultural milieu
- Community: the creation and exchange of different contingents of the band’s membership and following
- Performance: the production and architecture of the band’s sight and sound ~ the experience of the Grateful Dead
- Legacy: the explication, preservation and dissemination of the band’s musical and cultural contributions
- Documentation: Both textual and visual, the narrative representation of the band’s history and women’s position and experience within it
- Production and Administration: the ongoing operational and managerial aspects of organizing, promoting, financing, and maintaining the band in all its various permutations
I began with the intention to interview and foreground only the women involved with the Grateful Dead in various capacities. But as I dug into the scholarship and spoke with individuals involved in the various social movements and cultural endeavors that took root in this era, I realized that the project was much broader and far-reaching than I envisioned initially and that these women formed part of a web that reached beyond cultural, social, generational, and geographical borders.
Initially, my research on the diverse historical and cultural currents rippling through the Bay Area in the 1950s-1970s was intended as contextual grounding for my project on women and the Grateful Dead. However, given the mine of material, the trove of stories and lore, and the primacy of the larger web of relationships and influences, I have begun a subsequent manuscript to explore the centrality of other “countercultural women” to the broader story of how women’s narratives reshape and reposition the radical movements, ideas, and ideals animating this period (I investigate the elusiveness and vagueness of the term and grouping “countercultural women” in my inquiry). My account serves as part of a new wave of scholarship examining the contributions and influence of women on 1960s culture and counterculture, not merely their representation within it.
I am informed by “the new social history,” or simply, social history: the study of everyday experiences by men and women in a historical framework. This field came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, the same temporal purview as my project, and documented the lives of those who had traditionally been relegated to the margins of historical research, e.g. women, minorities, and the working class. Most contemporaneous media coverage, historical investigations, and cultural critique of this period, in particular the cultural movements that took root and grew out of the San Francisco Bay Area, replicate the “great men” narrative. That is, they document the period’s “front men:” the rock groups led by men, the communes founded by men, and the cultural organizations spearheaded by, you guessed it, men.
My project approaches the period from a different angle and intent: to recover the ways in and people through which history and movements are “made,” by quotidian actions, often “behind the scenes,” often performed by women. Social movements are built and sustained through collective action. They are not driven by solitary “hero narratives,” but rather by a collective and at times diffuse mass of energies, motivations, ideas, and ideals. Throughout history, women have occupied an important, and oft-undocumented, role within this dynamic gestalt. Women operated within a sphere that was often dominated by male personalities and masculinist rhetoric. The media reproduced this marginalization, despite the fact that women were fundamental to the vitality, endurance, and everyday operations of many of the most important movements of this time and place, such as the Black Panthers and the Diggers. My manuscript asks what the “scene” looks like when we place women at the center of the historical narratives, social movements, and cultural forms and formations that emerged from the period.
The values of interdependence, of consensus-building, and cooperation promoted by members of the “counterculture” were actually quite revolutionary and antithetical to much of this country’s and its economy’s promotion of individual interests and initiative. These collective movements, although not always represented by women, either by the media or at the council meetings, were, in many ways, founded upon ideas and ideals that are traditionally “feminine”, and, I would argue, feminist: born of a desire to re-envision the world as constituted by interdependence and an attempt to make a home for those networks in mainstream political life and alternative collective spaces.
Histories and interviews that document this period reveal a kaleidoscope of impressions, observations, and interpretations. There are coalescent strains of experience and sentiment, but the narrative pathways are akin to a hall of mirrors. One voice expresses a discrete experience, and its tenor is amplified, at times distorted, and refracted through a prism of other voices, other experiences, other memories. Perhaps this is characteristic of any historical account, but the compression of so much energy, so many happenings, and so much media sensation in such a limited time/space forged a collective sense of high stakes and high times. This era, and in particular, its recollection in memoir form, reveals a heightened sense of reality, a quickening sense of the future, and a font of perpetual interpretation and reinterpretation. In other words, it is a gold mine for historical investigation and recovery. I believe that key to widening the lens of this kaleidoscope is bringing the voices, experiences, and memories of women into the prismatic narrative.
© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS