On May 26, 1961, Brigid Meier had her Sweet 16 birthday party at home in Menlo Park, California. For the bash’s entertainment, she asked a friend, a budding guitarist and folk musician named Jerry Garcia, to perform for her guests. And her father Dick Meier, like any good dad would do, recorded it on a reel-to-reel tape recorder to preserve his daughter’s special day. Garcia brought along his pal Robert Hunter, whom he would collaborate with for decades on Grateful Dead lyrics, and the two entertained the crowd with traditional spirituals, sea shanties and group sing-alongs.
That birthday tape, one of the earliest known recordings of Garcia playing music, opens an impressive box set entitled Before the Dead, a collection of music that spans his early days before eventually forming the Grateful Dead in 1965. Over 5 LPs or 4 CDs, the set contains 84 tracks collected and assembled by the Dead’s longtime publicist Dennis McNally and television sound mixer Brian Miksis (Homeland, Law & Order).
Miksis says the impetus for this project began about 10 years ago. “It struck me as an [era] I wanted to learn more about,” he says. “That’s when the journey began.”
Over the last decade, he gathered up six master tapes, with the rest being the closest to the masters they could get. One reel copy and one cassette copy came from Grateful Dead collectors, with the rest sourced from various private owners, the Grateful Dead vault and one of Dennis McNally’s research cassettes for the 1980s.
The collection spans from May 1961 to 1964, when Garcia was playing often around Palo Alto, California, in coffee shops and at local radio stations, with groups called the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, the Wildwood Boys, and the Black Mountain Boys, to name a few. Also included is a duet performance by Garcia and his first wife Sara from May 4, 1963. The six songs from that performance include “Long Black Veil,” “Deep Elem Blues,” and A.P. Carter of the Carter Family’s “Foggy Mountain Top.”
Other classic bluegrass and folk songs that appear throughout include “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Katie Cruel,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and “Pig in a Pen.”
McNally and Miksis hope that listeners will be able to hear an evolution of Garcia’s playing over the set’s years, as he was getting better. And that notion is also the reason the source material exists in the first place — other budding musicians wanted to get better by proxy.
“The folk revival had a huge recording scene,” Miksis says. “But it was for somewhat different reasons. It was to learn from. [People] didn’t have to buy records all the time. If you brought your tape recorder to one of these clubs, you would get yourself quite a nice collection of stuff to take to your room and learn how to play.”
“Jerry had a number of students and I suspect more than one of them was following him around, recording his shows, as a teaching aid,” McNally adds.
Before the Dead joins a recent spate of archival Garcia material that’s been released in the last several years, including GarciaLive, a live release series from Garcia’s solo band projects throughout his Dead years and a stand-alone release of the Hart Valley Drifters, an early folk band that also is featured on the box set.
“You could probably argue that Jerry Garcia is the most recorded human in history,” McNally says.