What is Grateful Dead – The Meaning Behind the Name

What is Grateful Dead The Meaning Behind the Name TokoPyramid

Devoted fans of the psychedelic rock band Grateful Dead often express that embracing the band means embracing its way of life. When inquired about their preferred song from the band, these enthusiasts commonly respond with something akin to: it’s all one big song, man.

Certainly, this jam band is renowned for its lively, extended, psychedelic performances, drawing devoted followers who journey across the nation to attend. As for the band’s official name, and whether they were consistently recognized as Grateful Dead, these are the questions we’ll explore here. Without any more delay, let’s delve into the realm of the band, along with one of their well-loved songs below.

Related article: Grateful Dead: How a Psychedelic Rock Band Became a Cultural Phenomenon

Early Days

In the early days of the band’s formation, back in 1965 in Palo Alto, Northern California, they went by a different name. Their music was an eclectic blend of rock, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, blues, and more, which would eventually become legendary. Their live performances were particularly famous, often featuring extensive jam sessions lasting 10, 20, 30 minutes, or even longer.


The band’s fans today are referred to as Deadheads, known for their deep appreciation of the band and their tendency to embrace psychedelic experiences.

Originating in the Bay Area during the rise of American counterculture in the 1960s, the founding members of the band included Jerry Garcia as the lead guitarist and vocalist, Bob Weir as the rhythm guitarist, Ron McKernan as the keyboardist, Phil Lesh as the bassist, and Bill Kreutzmann as the drummer. Together, they formed a group that would go down in history.

Their Very First Name

When they first came together, the band was called the Warlocks. These early members had played in various San Francisco groups, including the traditional jug band known as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Lesh was the final member to join the Warlocks before they officially changed their name to the Grateful Dead.

Their inaugural performance took place at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, situated at 639 Santa Cruz Avenue in suburban Menlo Park, on May 5, 1965. This location is now occupied by a furniture store.

The band continued to perform at various venues, including bars like Frenchy’s Bikini-A-Go-Go, and they even had a regular engagement that involved playing five sets a night, five nights a week for six weeks at the In Room in Belmont.

The Warlocks’ Name Change

After discovering that another group was already using the name The Warlocks, the band decided to change its name. The Velvet Underground had also previously been known as The Warlocks and had to make a similar adjustment.

The Birth of The Grateful Dead

The group of musicians eventually settled on the name The Grateful Dead. According to the legend, this name was selected by Jerry Garcia from a dictionary. Phil Lesh recalled that Garcia randomly chose the name from an old Britannica World Language Dictionary. Whimsically, he suggested, “Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?”

The dictionary definition of the moniker was “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial”.

According to Alan Trist, the director of the band’s music publishing company, Ice Nine, Garcia stumbled upon this name in the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary while playing a game of Fictionary. In Garcia’s biography, Captain Trips, author Sandy Troy mentioned that the band was using the psychedelic drug DMT during this naming process.

The term “grateful dead” also has roots in various folktales from different cultures.

The Band’s Inaugural Performances

The Grateful Dead’s first-ever performance took place in San Jose on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Ken Kesey was an author and advocate of psychedelic drugs.

Although a few early demo tapes have managed to survive, the initial recordings from one of the approximately 2,000 concerts recorded by the band’s dedicated fans came from a concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on January 8, 1966. Later in the same month, the band participated in the Trips Festival, a three-day psychedelic rock weekend event organized by Ken Kesey and others. A gathering of hippies indeed!

Post-Jerry Garcia Era

Following Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, former band members, in addition to other musicians, undertook tours under the name The Other Ones in 1998, 2000, and 2002. Subsequently, they embarked on tours as The Dead in 2003, 2004, and 2009.

In 2015, the four surviving original band members celebrated the group’s 50th anniversary with a series of concerts that were promoted as their final performances together. Since then, various other bands have emerged from these musicians, including Dead & Company, Further, the Rhythm Devils, Phil Lesh and Friends, and more.

Related Article: Have Deadhead Friends? They Will Love These 10 Vintage Grateful Dead Shirts

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