Jerry Garcia – Before the Dead: a preview

It is quite common knowledge that Grateful Dead psychedelic guitar-playing icon Jerry Garcia was in his youth a follower of folk and bluegrass music. 

A recent (August 2016) release, The Hart Valley Drifters’ Folk Time was described as a “Nice find” … “quite good, in a primitive, Stanley-esque sort of way.” Nevertheless, The Hart Valley Drifters were the first of Garcia’s bands to present a professional level of musicianship and vocal harmony mastery.   

A Round Records’ release, Before the Dead, due on May 11, 2018, gives enthusiasts and the curious the opportunity to enjoy a rare collection of the earliest known performances by Jerry Garcia.

The sets – there is the 4 CD option and a limited-edition 5 LP collection – feature an informal and intimate 1961 performance of simple folk songs at a birthday party, with future song-writing partner Robert Hunter, to more polished coffeehouse gigs with old-time and bluegrass bands through to 1964.  

The set includes a special in-depth 32-page book featuring essays by long-time Grateful Dead publicist/author Dennis McNally, who selected the music, and extensive liner notes by documentarian Brian Miksis, rare photographs and memorabilia, and commentary on each track by Dr. Neil V. Rosenberg.  

McNally and Miksis are co-producers.  

Before the Dead takes the listener on a trip through Garcia’s early musical evolution as he absorbs the music of his folk influences, such as Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, The Carter Family, The New Lost City Ramblers, and The Stanley Brothers, and develops his playing technique.    

Examples of this evolution and improved playing technique can be heard in the ‘alternative’ tracks – one of which is Standing In The Need Of Prayer, where one version is from Fall 1962 and another in February 1963 – where Garcia is with different personnel. 

During the era concerned, Garcia met the people who would become life-long collaborators and friends. Firstly, there was the revered writing partner and early bandmate Robert Hunter, followed by mandolin master David Grisman, then each member of the Grateful Dead, and the many artists who would go on to take their own place in music history. These included acclaimed instrumentalist Sandy Rothman, a Blue Grass Boy; David Nelson (co-founder of New Riders of the Purple Sage); and Clarence White, guitarist of the bluegrass quartet the Kentucky Colonels and the rock band The Byrds.  

Garcia is featured in various ensembles and configurations starting with the rarest piece in the entire collection, the earliest known recording of Garcia captured at his girlfriend’s 16th birthday party in 1961 alongside future Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. 

Other highlights include the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers’ 1962 gig in San Carlos, California; and the Hart Valley Drifters’ 1962 recording at Stanford’s KZSU Radio Studio A; and arguably Garcia’s best and most beloved bluegrass band of that early period, The Black Mountain Boys, who feature prominently on three separate occasions in 1963 and 1964; concluding with a 1964 performance by Garcia’s Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys. 

Even with his entire musical career in front of him, Garcia’s magnetic presence as a performer can be plainly heard in these first steps. 


CD 1

Bob and Jerry, May 26, 1961, 

Brigid Meier’s Sixteenth Birthday Party, Menlo Park, California

Santy Anno; I Got A Home in That Rock; Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep; All My Trials; I Was Born Ten Thousand Years Ago; Blow the Candles Out; Rake and A Rambling Boy; and Trouble in Mind.

Jerry Garcia, Marshall Leicester and Robert Hunter, July 1961

Boar’s Head Coffeehouse, Carlos Book Stall, San Carlos, California

Brown’s Ferry Blues; and Jesse James

Jerry Garcia and unknown musician

Summer or Fall 1961

Boar’s Head Coffeehouse, Carlos Book Stall, San Carlos, California

Down in The Willow Garden; Long Lonesome Road; Railroad Bill, The Wagoner’s Lad; and Katie Cruel (15)

CD 2: 

Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, June 11, 1962

Boar’s Head Coffeehouse, Peninsula Jewish Community Center, San Carlos, California

Cannonball Blues; Little Birdie; Sally Goodin; Hold That Woodpile Down; Legend of The Johnson Boys; Shady Grove; Sweet Sunny South; and Man of Constant Sorrow

Hart Valley Drifters, Fall 1962

KZSU Radio Studio A, Stanford University, Stanford, California

Band Introductions; Roving Gambler; Ground Speed; Pig In A Pen; Standing In The Need Of PrayerFlint Hill Special; Nine Pound HammerHandsome Molly; Clinch Mountain Backstep; Think Of What You’ve Done; Cripple Creek; All The Good Times Have Past And Gone; Billy Grimes, The Rover; Paddy On the Turnpike (Boys, My Money’s All Gone); Run Mountain; Sugar Baby; and Sitting On Top Of The World (25)

CD 3:

The Wildwood Boys, February 23, 1963

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms; Jerry’s Breakdown; Standing In The Need Of Prayer; Mule Skinner Blues; Saturday Night Shuffle; Pike County Breakdown; The Little Sparrow; and We Shall Not Be Moved 

Jerry and Sara Ruppenthal Garcia, May 4, 1963

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Deep Elem Blues; Will the Weaver; I Truly Understand; Long Black Veil; The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man; and Foggy Mountain Top (14)

CD 4:

Black Mountain Boys, Fall 1963 

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Barefoot Nellie; She’s More to Be Pitied; Noah’s Breakdown; and Who Will Sing For Me?

Black Mountain Boys, January 10, 1964 

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Salt Creek; Monroe’s Hornpipe (Jody’s Hornpipe); Rosa Lee McFall; and John Hardy/Closing Theme 

This video features a recording, dated March 1964, of Rosa Lee McFall with “Honest Jerry” Garcia – banjo, guitar, vocals; David “Ernie Bo-Peep” Nelson – mandolin, guitar; Eric Thompson – guitar; Sandy Rothman – guitar; and Robert “Jim Beamas” Hunter – bass. 

Black Mountain Boys, March 6, 1964 

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Katie Kline; and Walkin’ The Dog

Black Mountain Boys, March 6, 1964

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Paddy on The Turnpike (Boys, My Money’s All Gone); Love and Wealth; Sourwood Mountain; If I Lose; Homestead on The Farm (I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home); Stoney Creek; Salty Dog Blues; Love Please Come Home; Make Me A Pallet on The Floor; and Darlin’ Allalee

Black Mountain Boys, March 6, 1964

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

In the Pines; Raw Hide; Black Mountain Rag; True Life Blues; and Medley: Devil’s DreamSailor’s Hornpipe

Black Mountain Boys, Spring 1964

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

Drink Up and Go Home

Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys, Summer 1964

Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California

These Men of God; Roll on Buddy; Goodbye Old Pal; and Back Up And Push (30) 

This collection is available from the Garcia Family provisions

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.