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The Grateful Dead and Rock’s Religious Significance

Posted in: Fandom,General,Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on November 24, 2010

The following is a guest entry from Aaron Kerr, lecturer in philosophy and theology at Gannon University, with a Ph.D. from Duquesne and a dissertation on “the Eucharistic lyrical poetry of Charles Wesley.” In his own words, he is “a student of rock and former United Methodist minister converting to Catholicism.” In just the kind of claim we like to knead here at R&T, he has suggested that “Methodist hymnody shares rock’s populist strains.” Here is Dr. Kerr on the Grateful Dead:


I wrote a paper in seminary for Ruth Duck (hymn writer, liturgics scholar) on the use of rock in the liturgy.  I turned in the paper along with a cassette full of music and my own commentary. I got an ‘A’ on the paper, but Professor Duck had a problem with rock in general, the way it cultivates an unhealthy attitude toward women, among other attitudes. I have since changed my mind about using rock in liturgy for other reasons, mostly because the particular form and language of the music in the Mass specifically integrates a profound fusion of prayer as embodiment.

But I have become more convinced of rock’s religious import. Its religious significance can be seen (and heard!) most vividly, I believe, in an enigmatic band, the Grateful Dead. Everyone has heard of the Dead, yet their capacity to “tradition” variant genres, their communitarian ethos, their artistic integrity — all pertaining to the religious quest — have remained under-resourced in theological discussions of rock.

My biblical scholar colleagues tell me that there is no Hebrew word for “religion.”  This may be because, for the Hebrew people and the ancient Jewish consciousness, there was no objectification of practice. (Is this not true of Native American perception as well?)  The Grateful Dead fuse music and mystical awareness, story and the energies of community into an “environment” fit for discovery. It is difficult to theologize (objectivize) when participating in a theological environment. The experience of the live concert, no matter who is playing, has religious significance for that reason alone.

The Grateful Dead’s primary lyricists are religious people.

They are not religious in the sense of T.D. Jakes or Sr. Joan Chittister. They are artists deeply inspired by mystery and tragedy. Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the melodies Jerry Garcia crafted, has translated Ranier Maria Rilke from the German (the Duino Elegies). Rilke, a contemporary of Nietzsche, also wrote The Book of Hours, a description of time as message based on the monastic rhythms of prayer. Rilke, of course, has been brought to our contemporary discussion of time not only by Dead lyricist Hunter, but also by Br. David Steindl-Rast in his Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day. His website is Gratefulness.

“Elegies” of any kind are inevitably a literature of transcendence and pervade the Grateful Dead canon. Their other primary lyricist, John Perry Barlow, majored in religious studies at Wesleyan University in Middleton, CT. He wrote for the Grateful Dead’s energetic guitarist Bob Weir. (See, there is a future for Religious Studies majors after all!) Very often, Barlow’s renderings of religion raise questions about the validity of institutional claims and the relevance of so-called theological reflection.

However, we cannot reduce the religious dimension in the Grateful Dead to a word-centered emphasis. For it is sound, and the transformation from sound to music, which is the sacrament of a Dead show. Sound unifies. The Grateful Dead understood that music is one big onomatopoeia. So do Dead Heads. An interesting philosophical question the Dead raise is: when can we figure that sound becomes music? For the Grateful Dead, the music does not “happen” as a singular expression from the band’s “getting it just right.” The music happens, in Bob Weir’s understanding, at the azimuth between the players and the audience. Azimuth is a term of measurement from physics, it is the arc of the horizon — so, as in many intangibles in music and spirituality, the physical sciences become a way to conceptualize the encounter of energies between artists and seers/hearers. In this way azimuth has potential as a theological referent: what is the azimuth between God and humanity?  Where does the vertical intersect the human horizon?

Nothing gives me more satisfaction than leaving this tiny little essay with two Dead offerings: by Robert Hunter and by John Barlow. The first one, “Wharf Rat,” is the poetic rendering of an encounter between a young man and a man (homeless, drunkard?) who is down, down by the docks of the city. It is an interpretation of a drunken “rat” who at once reveals his alienation from God and his hope in divine reception and the possibility of redemption.  Hunter and Garcia hearken the listener to the old Southern Gospel hymn “I’ll fly Away.”  Wharf Rat is #23 here.

The Barlow offering is titled “Let it Grow.” An expression of Creation Spirituality, the poetry also questions the relevance of theological distinctions and particularly Thomistic  minutiae (how many angels fit on the head of a pin? I know, in Aquinas’ mind this had to do with space, time, eternity etc., but to the mind of modernity it can sound rather archaic. But Thomas was, no doubt, figuring and expressing a certain azimuth of his own.) Notice too, that Barlow, in a sense, has the Grateful Dead (and us) glorify the Divine Name, “I AM,” throughout the song (Exodus 3:13-14). Let it Grow is #9 here.

These two offerings from the Dead demonstrate the great awareness of the broken relationship between God and humanity. But also, the fragile mystery of Transcendence and immanence is opened up for us through the beat, the sound, the imagination.

Aaron Kerr


  1. Have you ever thought of presenting a paper on this, or a related topic at the Popular Culture Conference? The 2011 conference will be held in San Antonio, TX, and the deadline for abstracts is December 15. I usually present at that conference every year, but will not be attending it in 2011 (I will probably present at the Amercican Association of Teachers of French Conference instead this year.)

    I am not a Grateful Dead fan by any means, but your work is really interesting! I found this entry via a link that your sister (a long-time online friend, whom I got to meet in Paris this past June!) posted on Facebook. I teach French at Clarion University of PA.

    Comment by Elisabeth Donato — November 24, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  2. Thank you for this interesting forum.
    It provided quite a bit of depth & context re this subject!

    Comment by JM McHale — August 21, 2016 @ 8:46 pm

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