In a time of heavy drug use, free love and glorious rock bands, the Grateful Dead emerged as leaders of the hippie movement, both culturally and musically. “American Beauty,” the band’s fifth album, combines folk rock, bluegrass, rock and roll and country music. Combined, the blend of styles makes “American Beauty” an anthem for 1960s America.
The Grateful Dead was led by counterculture icon Jerry Garcia, who played the guitar, petal steel guitar and piano. Alongside Garcia on “American Beauty,” Phil Lesh played bass, acoustic guitar and piano, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were percussionists, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan played the harmonica, and Bob Weir strummed the rhythm guitar.
Opening the album is “Box of Rain,” a folk-rooted gem. Written by Lesh and Hunter, the song is as much of a hippie jam as they come. It is made up of various percussion instruments alongside harmonizing vocals that combine to make an incendiary sound. Various psychedelics might have lead to the trippy lyrics like, “Walk into splintering sunlight / Inch your way through dead dreams to another land / Maybe you’re tired and broken / Your tongue is twisted with words half spoken and thoughts unclear.”
Virtually every song on the album is worth a listen. “Friend of the Devil,” the Dead’s most covered song, is one of their most well-known songs. The song is told from the voice of an outlaw being chased from the song. Various cover versions have been done by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Counting Crows and Elvis Costello, to name a few.
Another trippy jam tune, “Sugar Magnolia,” follows “Friend of the Devil.” With soft drums and bells, this folk rock tune is not one to miss. Glorious psychedelic lyrics like, “Sweet blossom come on, under the willow, we can have high times if you’ll abide / We can discover the wonder of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside” paint a picture of sugar magnolia trees, a large sun and perhaps some drug intake on the part of songwriters Hunter and Weir. “Sunshine, daydream,” the classic Dead phrase, closes the song.
Next on the album is “Operator,” which contains rhythmic percussion, the harmonica and various guitar chords. It is the last song recorded by Pigpen, the former boyfriend of Janis Joplin, who died in 1973.
The relaxed “Candyman,” another folk tune using the petal steel guitar, comes next. The song is thought to refer to a drug dealer, the candy being some form of psychedelic such as acid.
“Ripple,” perhaps the Dead’s most poetic song, follows. Such poetry is difficult to replicate and the listener is drawn in from the first stanza. “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine / And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung / Would you hear my voice come through the music / Would you hold it near as if it were your own?” Hunter asks. The song is also a gem musically and features the contribution of mandolin master David Grisman. Several lines in the song echo Psalm 23 in the Bible. Like “Friend of the Devil,” the track is quite well-known and widely covered.
A compilation of soft voices fills “Brokendown Palace,” the mournful next song that was adapted from the folk tune “Fare Thee Well.” The album then picks up with “Till the Morning Comes” but soon after gets solemn again with the slow, harmonic vocals of “Attics of My Life.”
The Grateful Dead close “American Beauty” with their single “Truckin,’” a song that could have been the official anthem of the counterculture movement in San Francisco. It combines early 20th century rhythm and blues and was produced by Dead leaders Garcia, Weir, Lesh and Hunter. The song speaks of adventures through America, ending in a drug bust in New Orleans. In the last stanza, the album ends with the classic line, “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me / Other times I can barely see / Lately it occurs to me / What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sara Juliet Fruman at Sara.firstname.lastname@example.org.