April 19, 2018

LJ Talks to: San Rafael librarian David Dodd, author of The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics

By LJ Staff

David DoddIn rock music few bands have as lore surrounding them as San Francisco’s Grateful Dead. So leave it to a librarian to give the band’s music the encyclopedic treatment. In San Rafael Public Library David Dodd’s recently published The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics (read our web exclusive review), the band’s lyrics–written primarily by Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow–are fleshed out with a litany of fascinating facts that will enthrall Deadheads, as well as draw in draw in the casual fan. David Szatmary, Vice Provost at the University of Washington Educational Outreach, recently interviewed Dodd for LJ, librarian to librarian.

LJ: How and when did you become interested in the Grateful Dead?

DD: I grew up in the Bay Area, and so the band’s name was always in the air. Then, when I was spending a year (1974-1975) in Germany as an exchange student, I read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and developed a keen interest in the whole scene, which was over by then. When I had the opportunity to see a concert in October 1976, I was immediately won over by the music. The words seemed intriguing too. From that day forward I have had no hesitation in saying that I am a Deadhead. A fun aside– I actually submitted the term ‘Deadhead’ to the Library of Congress for their consideration as a new subject heading back in the mid-1990’s, and it was accepted.

Do you think that the Dead lyrics reflect a certain time and place or do they have a more timeless character?

Good question. They do both. Some lyrics absolutely reflect the time and place in which they were written, especially the pre-Hunter lyrics, collected in this book for the first time. With Hunter’s arrival on the scene, the lyrics took on a bigger role. Hunter’s poet’s sensibility allowed for rock lyrics that could mean different things at different times to different people. The Dead’s lyrics, with all the various lyricists involved, can take on a wide range of subjects, from cowboy tunes, to meditations on raunch, to spirituality, to politics – sometimes all at the same time. They’re great fun in that way–plenty of room to be surprised again and again.

How did your training as a librarian help in this project?

I am an insatiable reference librarian. I love to track down the odd fact. This whole project, from my end, is really about librarianship. It’s about taking a body of work and attempting to illuminate aspects of that work with the light of existing scholarship, which is found in books and journals, as well as online. Almost any footnote in the book could be the subject of an entire book–many of them are, in fact.

Why did you refrain from interpretation of the lyrics and focus on annotation?

There are enough places where Robert Hunter, the band’s chief lyricist, is on-record as saying that he himself absolutely hates the thought of anyone saying definitively that this is what any given song is about, even himself.I felt it would be best to honor that point of view. Why quash the meaning someone finds? I love the interpretations I hear, and I hear a lot of them. There’s a place for that, informally in more conversational venues where the point is sharing, not putting down in cold hard print on paper what something means. But I didn’t want to put the songs in a coffin.

Do you have another Dead-related (or other) project in the works?

I’m trying to learn to play Dixieland banjo – I’ve been invited to play in a band. But I play mountain-style banjo, so the Dixieland idea is a whole new thing. I have several thoughts for where to go with writing – most notably, I have a pilot for a TV show, a sort of Ally McBeal-style show, set in a public library. It’s time! Why all these lawyer and cop shows? Libraries are places where a wide variety of interesting things happen every day!