Grateful Dead Film Super Musical and Problematic Historical Chronicle

THE GRATEFUL DEAD (and others)
Dawn of the Dead
Sexy Intellectual, 2012, 138 mins.

The Grateful Dead machine continues to pump out merch. Even diehard Deadheads admit that Grateful Dead films stretch the definition of surrealism, hence Dawn of the Dead will come a revelation–it’s easily the most comprehensible film project ever done on Jerry Garcia and the lads. The hardcore may not be as pleased to see their heroes as just part of a larger drama rather the movers and shakers of all things groovy.

The Grateful Dead is placed solidly within a broader context: folk music, jug bands, avant-garde modernism, and emerging subcultures. We see the Dead emerge from late 50s/early 60s ethos in which the Beats slowly yielded to hippies, with a big assist given by the Merry Pranksters. The film smartly documents the musical evolution in the Bay area, a reminder that acid rock owed as much inspirational debt to protest singers, bluegrass pickers, experimental composers, and jazz artists as Stanley Owsley’s prowess with a chemistry set. Once the Bay area scene unfolds, the film makes The Dead central, but the video gives lots of screen time to others, including: Monterrey Pop artists, The Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Charlatans, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Members of the latter two groups have as much to say about what went down as Dead insiders such as Rock Scully, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir. We witness the rise of mid-‘60s utopian dreams, which culminated in Family Dog Productions, the Diggers, Bill Graham and Fillmore West, and the 1967 Summer of Love. We also see the magic dissipate amidst San Francisco’s post-‘67 urban chaos and the 1969 Altamont festival, The film is one of the best explanations I’ve viewed of the Americana musical retreat beaten by former psychedelic artists fleeing to the relative sanity of Marin County and beyond. Overall the film is a dizzying tour of musical (and hippie) milestones between 1960 through 1971.

As a musical history it is absolutely first-rate. Its major weakness is that it could stand to lose a few music critics in favor of consulting some social historians. There is an unintentional reductionism to the film in that the Bay area is viewed as way more representative of the 1960s than it really was. There is not question that San Francisco occupied a mythical psychic space for those seeking the Flower Child vibe, but that was just one of many paths followed in the Sixties. The filmmakers elide the counterculture, politics, and ideology, and fail to tell us that America often looked quite different once one strayed beyond Haight-Ashbury. There is also a tendency to view all young people as homogeneous, as if hippies were also politicos, for instance. Many–including the notoriously apolitical Grateful Dead–were quite separate, just as the East Coast scene was often very different from the West Coast. (This film culminates in 1971, but The Grateful Dead are not a major phenomenon in the East until later in the 1970s.) Dawn of the Dead is a superb musical chronicle, but don’t trust the social commentary.--Rob Weir


Sibiri Samaké's Trance-Like Magic

Dambe Foli: Bamana Hunters Music

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Sibiri Samaké is a man who wears many headdresses. In his native Mali he is known as a griot, a traditional healer, a son of nobility, a hunter, and offspring of a musical family. Hunting societies confer great status in Mali, but Samaké would have attracted notice for his music if nothing else. He brings to bear all of his influences on this, his second album. Call it where tradition meets the present. You will hear hints of African blues and of Western drum and bass records, but mainly you will hear Samaké’s pastiche homage to his roots. There is, first of all, the instrumentation–a few which could be plugged in, but mostly assorted wooden stringed instruments, scrappers, and shakers. The album is more than 66 minutes long, yet it contains just four tracks. On each, Samaké uses the instruments to evoke the natural world and his voice to command the center around which band mates and backing vocalists rally. His leads set the table for call-and-response singing, but of the sort that conjures a shaman leading supplicants. His voice is strong and bold; those that respond are often short syllables, moans, and vocalizations. The pacing is deliberate and chant-like, as if Samaké is conducting a healing ceremony.

This one may take some getting used to for Westerners whose bodies and psyches do the double-time boogie, but patience is rewarded for those who surrender and go with the flow. It’s the sort of album that’s sublime for intent listening or for background ambience. But if you’re in the midst of a busy task and start playing this one, don’t be surprised if you drift away and the task lies undone. --Rob Weir   

Here's a short (for Samaké) YouTube clip that will give you an idea of style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdHdLJIXjAY 


Man Who Never Died the New Standard on Joe Hill

The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, By William Adler. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. 349 pp. + sources, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-59691-696-8

In the annals of labor history, the 1915 execution of troubadour Joe Hill ranks with cases such as those of the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs (1887) and the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927) as among the great legal injustices of all time. Hill is equally vital in music history, both for the songs he wrote in support of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”), and for songs written in his honor by luminaries such as Ralph Chaplin, Phil Ochs, Steve Earle and, of course, Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson (“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”). William Adler’s new book is the most through treatment of Hill to date, and is destined to displace Gibbs Smith’s 1969 biography as the definitive work on the subject.

In the usual telling, Hill–born in Sweden as Joel Emanuel Hägglund and also known as Joseph Hillström–emigrated to America around 1902, and struggled in obscurity for several years before joining the IWW around 1909, where he quickly gained renown for his sharp wit and songwriting skills. In 1914, however, he was arrested for the murder of John Morrison, a Salt Lake City grocer, was found guilty and sentenced to die by a kangaroo court more intent on looking at Hill’s radical beliefs than the evidence. Adler agrees that Hill’s judgment was unjust, but he goes much further than most other researchers; he fingers the man he thinks to be the real culprit: a career criminal who known as Frank Z. Wilson, who was actually a Norwegian immigrant who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hill and bore a grudge toward Morrison. The main piece of evidence against Hill was a bullet wound for which was treated the night of Morrison’s murder. Adler also names the man who shot Hill the same night, traveling partner Otto Appelquist, and exposes the woman over whom they quarreled, Hilda Erickson.  

Adler’s best sleuthing is the depth he gives to Hill’s sketchy pre-1909 biography. He provides rich details of Hägglund’s/Hill’s life in Sweden, a plausible reconstruction of his life between 1902 and 1909, and a rare telling of Hill’s participation in the IWW’s raid on Baja, California during the Mexican Revolution. (The latter event earned the enmity of rabid IWW foe Harrison Gray Otis, who owned land in Baja, edited the Los Angeles Times, and spearheaded the anti-clemency movement.) Adler is equally vivid in taking us inside the mind, struggles, and character of West Coast Wobblies–their lumber camps and dockside shapeups, their free speech battles, the hard knocks of itinerancy, and the vitriol of capital/labor strife.

Does Adler solve the Hill case? As a labor historian, I have looked at a lot of the same evidence as Adler. I’m simply not convinced that Hill was the innocent of legend. Hill’s willingness to don the martyr’s mantle seems abrupt, and there’s not much past evidence of a Victorian temperament that would accept death rather than besmirch a lady’s reputation. (And why would Erickson, who was present throughout the drama, remain silent as her lover went before the firing squad?) West Coast Wobblies were a rough-and-tumble lot with no love for capitalists. Put bluntly, I think it’s quite possible that Hill and Appelquist, who absconded, actually did kill Morrison. Having said that, the standard of American justice is supposed to beyond a reasonable doubt, not possibility. By that criterion, Hill’s execution is indeed the stain upon American jurisprudence that Adler insists that is. Bottom line: even if you don’t buy into the Hill-as-martyr image, Adler’s is still the best book ever written on Joe Hill.