Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Studying the words of the Dead

From Worchester Telegram:

David Dodd delves into rock’s most interesting lyrics

“The storyteller makes no choice/soon you will not hear his voice/his job is to shed light/and not to master.” — Robert Hunter “Terrapin Station”

Tom Banjo? Queen Chinee? Uncle John? Jack Straw? Mr. Benson? Who are these people, besides being characters in Grateful Dead songs? Such questions ate at David Dodd, and he did something about it. Dodd launched a Web site,
http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/, 10 years ago to annotate lyrics to Grateful Dead songs. Recently the fruits of his labor arrived in book form as “The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.” Published by Free Press, Dodd’s book compiles just about every song the Grateful Dead wrote, recorded and performed live. The 480-page tome is made lively with amusing and thorough scholarship plus hundreds of eye-catching illustrations by Jim Carpenter. For Dodd, this hobby-gone-awry began with Crazy Otto, a figure that pops up in the song “Ramble On Rose.” A librarian by trade, Dodd researched his question, and found two piano players who could fit the bill. But that got Dodd thinking about the richness of the lyrics written by Robert Hunter and John Barlow, the band’s two main wordsmiths. “In terms of storytelling, Dead lyrics are immanently annotatable. Hunter in particular delves into characters that arrive in songs with full back stories. The psychedelic nature of songs also lends itself to looking at where images come from. ‘China Cat Sunflower’ is not just silly words strung together when you take a closer look at it,” Dodd said. Dodd, who is now head librarian in San Rafael, Calif., has access to numerous research tools. Through annotation, the reader sees connections between Grateful dead lyrics and the Bible, classic poetry and old-time radio programs. What Dodd was careful not to do was offer any sort of analysis about the meaning of the songs. “I never say what something means. I was only interested in connecting the people places and things in the songs to other sources,” Dodd said. And with that approach, Dodd enlisted the support of the writers and band members responsible for the songs. Hunter, who is notoriously hostile toward any sort of interpretation of his work, wrote a lengthy foreword for the book. Just as many fans of the Dead used the band’s music as an entry point to other musical traditions — since jazz, folk, blues and country all provided sources for the tunes — Dodd hopes his efforts create a similar inspiration for people to journey into literature previously unfamiliar. “Listening to Grateful Dead music got me into bluegrass and jazz,” Dodd said. “I think as a reader you can do the same thing by looking at their lyrics.” — Scott McLennan


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