Where did the Grateful Dead get their name?

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Dear Cecil: Where did the Grateful Dead get their name? What does it mean? I’ve heard a lot of tales, but I’ll believe only you. S. Seidman, Stevenson, Maryland


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I am a rock of comfort, ain’t I? The official story on the Grateful Dead, as related by Jerry Garcia in the book Playing in the Band, is as follows: “We were standing around in utter desperation at Phil [Lesh]’s house in Palo Alto [trying to think up a name for the band]. There was a huge dictionary, big monolithic thing, and I just opened it up. There in huge black letters was `The Grateful Dead.’ It … just cancelled my mind out.”

I’ll say — how often does the phrase “grateful dead” pop up in the average dictionary? But it turns out Garcia may not have hallucinated the whole thing after all. In the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, we find a page headed “GRATEFUL DEAD” in big type. Beneath this is an entry to the effect that the “grateful dead” is a motif figuring in many folktales.

Further investigation has turned up a rare volume of folklore entitled The Grateful Dead by G.H. Gerould (1908), lent to me by Straight Dope reader Charles Kroon. In it we find a typical grateful-dead story:

Graf Willekin von Montabour … learned that a beautiful and rich maiden had promised her hand to [whichever] knight should win a tourney she had established. Thereupon he set forth and came to the place announced for the combats. There he found lodging in the house of a man who would only receive him if he paid the debts of a dead man, whose body lay unburied in the dung of a horse-stall. Willekin was moved by this story and paid seventy marks, almost all his money, to ransom the corpse and give it suitable burial. He then had to borrow money from his host in order to indulge in his customary generosity. On the morning of the jousting he obtained from a stranger knight a fine horse on condition of dividing everything he won. He succeeded in [beating] all the other contestants, and so wedded the maiden. On the second night after the marriage the stranger entered his room and demanded a share in the marital rights. After offering instead to give all his possessions, the hero started from the room in tears, when the stranger called him back and explained that he was the ghost of the [presumably grateful] dead, then disappeared.

Puts a different spin on “Sugar Magnolia,” I’ll tell you that.

In other Dead news, I learn that John Epler, a leading bug authority and loyal Straight Dope reader, has named a newly discovered species of chironomid midge after the Dead, namely Dicrotendipes thanatogratus. (Thanatos is Greek for death, gratus Latin for grateful.) Abrim with boyish enthusiasm, he sent the band a note, but can you believe it, the ingrates (oh, rich irony!) never bothered to reply! Maybe they were turned off by the gauche commingling of Latin and Greek. Or maybe they’re just too jaded. Whatever, when John names his second new bug, you can be sure I won’t forget the thank-you note.

Grateful Dead: Not ungrateful after all

Dear Cecil:

As John Epler may already know, the Dead are no more efficient than they have to be. The mail answerers are rummaging through the backlog in search of the Dicrotendipes thanatogratus note. Your column was the first anyone had heard about it, and it’s a nice flash.

For the record, naming the Dead took place at the house on High Street in Palo Alto on a November afternoon in 1965. The name was found in a regular Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, probably the 1956 edition.

Gerould’s book on the “grateful dead” legends is lovely. Stith Thompson also discusses them. [Typically the hero pays a dead man’s debts so his corpse can be buried. Later a stranger, who turns out to be the grateful dead man, joins the hero and offers his help, on condition that all winnings be equally divided.]

Is the grateful dead man tempting you? Are you making a moral decision? The flat hit you get from the words “grateful dead” can be enhanced by pondering what life situations the g.d. tales represent. When you listen to such tales you’re living on that level of symbolic transaction.

— Bill Legate, San Rafael, California

Cecil replies:

You’re living on a level of symbolic transaction? Jeez, what happened to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.