Monday, March 9, 2015

The Grateful Dead Folktale: Questions?

The next SurLaLune title soon to be released is The Grateful Dead Tales From Around the World. This is a departure for SurLaLune and myself in many ways. For one, this is the first tale collection not supported by an annotated tale on the SurLaLune site for the past several years. I am debating putting the tale up on the site because it is a rather complicated one to offer up for annotation. It can be done, of course, but choosing a definitive tale is problematic to start and then the challenges build from there.

My query here is this: I will be posting about Grateful Dead folktales in the coming weeks with the book's release and wanted to know what you, the loyal SurLaLune readers, know and want to know about Grateful Dead tales, ATU 505 (and other types too). These days I realize most people hear the term and think of the band and Deadheads--if they are even aware of the band, which the younger generations today are fairly oblivious to in my experience--but this is a folktale with a history stretching back millenia with virtually nothing in common with a rock band other than the name the group got from the tale.

To be honest, I would fail a listening quiz of the band's music--I could place the era and maybe successfully guess the band, but I think I could only be definite for one actual song and even then I wouldn't bet my last dollar on my answer. That is not my area of interest although I am always curious about how folklore is absorbed by all forms of popular culture or subculture. So that is not where my studies and the new book's focus goes AT ALL. One brief band reference in the first paragraph of the introduction to prove I know the band exists and that is all. Didn't want readers thinking I was completely oblivious to that cultural touchpoint. I'm not.

I started the book and have worked on it in fits and bounds since 2010 when I discovered The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story by Gordon Hall Gerould while researching Twelve Dancing Princesses Tales From Around the World. I started out knowing virtually nothing about the tale and have learned more than I ever expected or planned when I started collecting variants and reading and reading and reading. I was just going to collect some tales and offer them up in a book. But familiarity has bred affection for the tale, something I expect now after editing so many books and a website, as well as a fascination with how it has traveled through the centuries to us today. So I kept researching and growing the book into the 828 pages it is now. And that's after cuts of material.

My new book shares the text of Gerould's book and then offers about 50 variants of the tale in full text as well as other scholarship and information on the tale type which is itself rather complicated, in the way Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are complicated, not sticking to one tale type for everyone's convenience. I miss simple, but I think I am in the wrong field for that.

And if you aren't interested in Grateful Dead folklore, I hope to spark an interest. It really is fascinating, I promise. So stay tuned and keep reading. There are hopefully some interesting surprises in store for folklore lovers. After all, I never expected to edit a book about the tale and now I have. And I don't do that unless I find enough to keep myself interested long enough to complete a book.


  1. I am so excited about this! *flails, falls on face, recovers with goofy grin still intact*
    So I have a question - some questions (no surprise there I'm guessing): I read somewhere that one theory of fae in the "olde days" was that they were a supernatural form of people who've passed on. However the people were in life (grateful, vengeful etc) manifested in the fairy/spirit form but because they existed not quite on the same plane with us they saw life, death, time etc very differently (sometimes harming where they didn't mean to, sometimes the opposite). In Grateful Dead tale research did you ever come across anything that parallels this view? (That these Grateful Dead were fae-like?) Sometimes they gave supernatural gifts to help, I think but are there any other pointers to a ghost/fae overlap in thinking?
    How often is the Grateful Dead in animal form? (And is this more prevalent in some cultures than others? (I read one theory that said some version of Puss in Boots suggests that Puss is actually the spirit of a family member and not just a supernatural guardian but I don't get why this being would then hang around at the end of the tale, special cushion or no special cushion!)
    What were the most intriguing things about Grateful Dead to you that caught your attention (especially knowing this tale type wasn't of particular interest before but is now - what things did you discover that made such a difference?
    And one more: were there any other ways the Grateful Dead became active beyond: someone paying for the funeral or burial, restoring an unkempt/disturbed grave and paying a dead man's debt. (Godfather Death comes under this tale type, doesn't it? But doesn't quite fit the pay-back-the-debt-owed aspect from memory, but it's been a while since I read it.)
    Oh yes - and please put me down for pre-order. I have had a space-keeper in my bookshelf next to your other volumes waiting for this one! (I'm not kidding.)

    1. Thanks, Gypsy, I will address these or nearly address these in my upcoming posts. The quick answer on the first one though is not much or really--the tales have much more of a religious overtone than fae. Usually the only supernatural element is the dead man, everything else is very real. Yes, he is a ghost, per se, but there's very little spookiness since he appears as a living being until the big reveal that he is the dead man at the end.