James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

SCHOLARSHIP IS DEAD: A profile of Nicholas G. Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist, UC Santa Cruz

(Originally published in Free Times, Columbia, SC, January 2011)

The swinging, heady San Francisco scene of the 1960s remains a long, strange distance from the bucolic conservatism of a place like South Carolina, but in a weird brand of cosmic irony, Columbia now has an important, tangible link to those flower-child days of yore: Former USC oral historian Nicholas G. Meriwether was chosen last April to be the first official archivist charged with preserving and cataloguing the voluminous business and related documents of psychedelic rock progenitors the Grateful Dead. The University of California-Santa Cruz selected Meriwether from among 400 applicants after a search advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education and subsequently commented on everywhere from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to The Wall Street Journal.

Dead Archivist Meriwether displays ticket and backstage pass to final Grateful Dead concert

Incongruous geographic roots aside, Meriwether’s qualifications and passion for the subject are unparalleled. As editor of multiple volumes of Grateful Dead academic criticism and analysis called Dead Letters as well as a 2008 collection of essays, All Graceful Instruments, his is a CV that’s most impressive and apropos. Meriwether, it would seem, takes the Grateful Dead seriously indeed.

The Princeton- and Cambridge-educated scholar, who embarked upon his collegiate career as a would-be Southern historian, comes from a rich family tradition of academic achievement. Both grandfathers were professors at the University of South Carolina, one of whom, Robert Lee Meriwether, founded the Caroliniana Library, described on its website as the principal repository of “four centuries of history, literature and culture of South Carolina and the American South.” Meriwether’s father, James B. Meriwether, also educated at Princeton, was one of the world’s foremost Faulkner scholars and founder of another USC academic institution, the Southern Studies program.

Meriwether’s home life came steeped in academic tradition. His parents, who were also classical music aficionados, originated and hosted an academic-slash-supper club called the Loblolly Society, in which participants gathered for fine dining as well as the presentation of what Meriwether characterizes as entertaining, half-hour-long papers covering various topics regarding art, culture and history. With such a background, his course as a burgeoning Southern historian seemed set in the history and fiber of his very being.

Then, as a mid-‘80s Princeton undergrad, the Grateful Dead caught his intellectual eye. He immediately perceived the iconoclastic band and its followers as part of what seemed to him a rich vein of what he calls American Bohemianism, a subject that he thought could bear the kind of scholarly scrutiny the more traditional elements of his education also required.

“Looking back,” Meriwether says, “my parents’ focus on art of all different sorts and varieties gave me a vantage to appreciate and become a sort of bohemian myself.”

After finishing his undergraduate work at Princeton, but before continuing a course of Southern studies at Britain’s venerable Cambridge University, Meriwether spent a year in San Francisco drinking in the history of places like North Beach, where he says “bits and pieces of the [bohemian] heritage were still kicking around.”

Then, of course, there was also living history to absorb in the form of “lots and lots of Dead shows,” he says with a knowing grin and busy eyebrows.

Eventually, though, he packed his trunk and departed from the Bay Area to continue his formal education, though with some measure of trepidation. At Princeton, he’d found his work as a nascent Southern historian “wrapped up in a kind of politics and ideology of region” that kept him on the defensive, a condition he suspected would continue throughout his eventual dissertation process, especially at an institution like Cambridge.

Once ensconced across the pond, however, he found that his Southern scholarship was considered a “perfectly safe, perfectly normal course of study.”

He soon discovered a great deal of interest from fellow students not about the South and its interesting cultural heritage, but instead about his ideas regarding bohemianism — as well as in the collection of 300 Dead tapes he’d amassed while living in San Francisco.

“I started holding salons where I discussed various aspects of the Dead or the San Francisco scene or the Beats,” he recalls. “And, I also made a lot of tapes for people, and basically created this whole group of [Cambridge] Deadheads.”

The more he thought about formally studying Bohemianism, in particular the Bay Area music scene, the more motivated he became — if for no other reason than the subject matter hadn’t yet been addressed to any true academic standard.

“Here was this glorious escape into an entire area in which there’d been virtually no work done whatsoever,” he says.

The final nudge came during a lunch with a fellow student who was writing a dissertation tracking the rise of modern black political power alongside the popularity of Motown Records, a subject that led Meriwether to formally propose his new direction.

“I said to myself: If he can do that topic, then I ought to be able to explore mine.”

Courtesy Grateful Dead Archive, UC-Santa Cruz.

Despite Meriwether’s enthusiasm, his academic adviser, Mark Kaplanoff, was not happy — at least at first — with this change of direction.

“He’d had this safe and secure student [who was] now spouting off about hippies and rock music, things which no respectable historian should want any part of,” Meriwether recalls.

Meriwether had a formal opportunity to make his case with his viva voce, a rigorous oral defense of his proposal that included the preparation of a 100-page précis describing the work. His proposal was greeted with a split decision — one enthusiastic supporter, Kaplanoff, and one confirmed skeptic. This forced him to submit the material to the full faculty for an up-or-down vote, which he eventually won, though not unanimously.

While relieved that his course of study was approved, he couldn’t ignore that a third of the faculty had voted against him, which was clear evidence of widespread disapproval. Still, he’d prevailed, and was now ready to begin.

“At that point, they said, ‘Pip pip, go off to America and get your research done and let us know when it’s finished.’”

His next port of call was the Bay Area, to conduct oral interviews with what he calls “primary historical sources.” Facilitated in part by longtime Bay Area rock journalist Joel Selvin, for whom Meriwether served as research assistant on a book chronicling the San Francisco rock scene in the late ‘60s, Meriwether conducted 127 interviews — material Selvin agreed that his new assistant should then use to further his own academic research.

In this phase of his work, Meriwether would interview none other than the head Deadhead himself, the late Jerry Garcia. Backstage at the Warfield before a Garcia Band gig, Meriwether describes the guitarist as having been jocular, gracious and charmed by the academic nature of the interview.

“I suspect, though, that he was probably more focused on the gig he was about to play.”

In the midst of his research, Meriwether encountered a new obstacle back at Cambridge — the untimely death of Kaplanoff, an event leaving him with no advocate for his already controversial work. Meriwether, knowing the ins and outs of the dissertation process, now feared that this stumbling block was one he could successfully not overcome.

And so, in the spirit of the bohemian past he wished to study, Meriwether abandoned his academic work and did what any enthusiastic Deadhead might have: He immersed himself in the counterculture that, with the late-career resurgence of the Dead to the forefront of top-grossing rock acts, had flowered anew.

In this period, the early ‘90s, he also began exploring the idea of writing fiction, including a novel. The notion was appealing, he says, because “writing academic nonfiction was something that I knew I could do, [but] writing fiction was not.” Meriwether spent several years writing stories and portions of three novels.

In an instance of “writing what you know,” he completed one novel-length manuscript, Burn One Down, about a disaffected ‘80s Wall Street refugee who journeys to San Francisco and begins living a bohemian lifestyle steeped in the ways and means of marijuana indulgence. The completion of the novel, while artistically cathartic, did not result in publication.

In 1995 came another blow, a very personal one: the death of Jerry Garcia. Like so many Deadheads, following that catastrophic event Meriwether sought to make sense of his Grateful Dead experience. In his case, this meant a return to academic research and writing.

He did so by first contributing essays to a three-volume series of books called the Deadhead’s Taping Compendium, a catalog of reviews documenting the rock group’s unparalleled historical record in the form of concert tapes, made by both the band as well as their fans.

The work Meriwether submitted — essays providing contextual analysis of seminal events such as the Dead’s earliest recordings, their appearance at the “Great Human Be-In” of January 1967, the famous 1978 Egyptian concerts and Garcia’s 1995 Golden Gate Park memorial service — was researched and footnoted to the kind of bibliographic standard in which he’d been steeped throughout his education and life.

An additional job further stoked the fires of his scholarly bent: As publication loomed of the official band biography A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, band publicist and in-house historian Dennis McNally, who wrote the book, turned to Meriwether for assistance in nailing down footnotes and attributions.

“[McNally] would call me and say, ‘Nick! Garcia said such and such — find it!’ And so I would.”

Meriwether considers the book, written by both an insider as well as someone with an academic history — McNally is also author of Desolate Angel, a respected biography of literary icon Jack Kerouac — to be “the only [biography] that’s reliable.”

During this same period, Meriwether found a potential venue for the pursuit of Dead studies: a call for papers about the band from Rob Weiner, a Texas librarian and yearly participant in the Southwest/Texas Popular and American Culture Association conference in Albuquerque, N.M. This nascent seed would grow into what’s now known as the Grateful Dead Caucus, which this year celebrates its 14th annual meeting. With papers and scholarly expertise running the interdisciplinary gamut, in the Caucus Meriwether had not only found a home for his ambitions, but also forged friendships with a group of pedigreed, kindred spirits.

His first paper, steeped in what he called “a very traditional kind of literary exegesis,” posited that the genesis and inspiration of the ballad “It Must Have Been the Roses” (by Garcia and band lyricist Robert Hunter) could be traced to William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.” The paper, which on a personal level linked his father’s legacy to that of Meriwether’s own interests, was well received and signaled the beginning of a new phase of work.

As time went on, the quality of work being presented at the conference convinced Meriwether that enough material had accumulated to warrant publication of an academic anthology. In what he describes as “a massive act of hubris,” he went around to fellow academics and solicited work for an embryonic journal that he’d eventually christen Dead Letters, now in its 4th volume. The anthologies feature academic papers, essays and reviews, “the full apparatus that would inform and define a scholarly publication.”

As the millennium turned over, Meriwether had taken work in Silicon Valley, but family obligations obliged him to return home to South Carolina. In an instance of a life coming full circle, an opportunity called out to him —becoming USC’s oral historian, his office tucked away in a corner of Caroliniana Library, the institution founded by his own grandfather.

Little did he realize that his destiny, seeming set to continue the kind of Southern academic legacy left him by his antecedents, would soon take a sharp turn in a direction that, considering all the time he’d spent on the subject matter at hand, seemed an equal fulfilling of a kind of personal destiny. As he had abandoned his Southern studies once before, when the announcement came that the Dead’s archives were to be donated to UC-Santa Cruz — and would need someone with impeccable academic credentials, as well as intimate knowledge of the band and their cultural impact — the left coast once again called out to him.

Meriwether, cited last year in an Atlantic article about Dead scholarship by senior editor Joshua Green as “hands down” the right person for the job, has now seen his efforts culminate in both the archive itself, as well as his hiring as the official steward of what will likely be home base for future scholars researching the band and its milieu.

An hour and a half south of the Dead’s Bay Area primal soup, the McHenry Library on the Santa Cruz campus will one day make the Dead Archive a centerpiece of its new seismic-reinforced library facilities. Santa Cruz won out over other institutions in part because of the construction plans for new facilities, but also because the university pledged to make the Dead Archive, in Meriwether’s words, a “marquee collection, one that wouldn’t be swallowed up amongst other holdings and be forgotten.”

Jerry Garcia (left) and Phil Lesh. Photo by Herb Greene, courtesy Grateful Dead Archive, UC-Santa Cruz.

The archive houses among its holdings 600 linear feet of business records, as well as more esoteric items like unused backstage passes, the skeleton puppets featured in the famous “Touch of Grey” video that helped catapult the band to late-period superstardom, and the conference table and chairs around which the band and its board made all important decisions.

Throughout their career, the Dead themselves did a good job of stockpiling documents — as early as 1970, they began subscribing to a clipping service, which supplied them with volumes of press clippings. On rock impresario Bill Graham’s advice, the band also kept what were called “show files,” detailed business records covering each concert.

Fan relations are covered as well; band secretary Eileen Law not only kept the business records, but also maintained her own archive of correspondence sent in by fans to the Dead’s offices in San Rafael, including 14,000 colorfully decorated mail order envelopes sent in to the band’s in-house ticketing service — yet another of its forward-thinking contributions to the music industry.

Eventually, a large amount of material will be digitized and made available for scholarly research, as well as used in a variety of revolving exhibits on the Santa Cruz campus. Some of the material has already been displayed by the New York Historical Society in a recently closed exhibit that also included material not held by the archive, such as one of Jerry Garcia’s guitars.

When asked why he believes the musicians and their fans are worthy of such scholarly attention, Meriwether is direct: “[Studying the Dead] offers a unique opportunity in terms of interdisciplinary studies alone — you’ve got musicology, business theory, cultural studies, anthropology, and sociology.”

Meriwether says the true test of the archive, however, will be how much high-level research the material supports, and how many PhD dissertations eventually come from scholars who immerse themselves in the material at hand, as Meriwether himself has done — and now, will continue to do so on a professional level.

While the announcement of the archive was lampooned in certain corners of the national media — Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart made gentle hay of the notion of finding an organized, master’s-degreed yet stereotypically pie-eyed Deadhead type — Meriwether is certain the collection will one day be seen as a crucial step in future generations’ understanding not only of the Dead’s unique place in American history, but in a broader sense the social and cultural environment out of which they arose.

But not all people think that the idea of Dead studies constitutes sound fiscal or educational policy. Conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s 2010 “Wastebook” listing of what he feels are the 100 worst uses of federal funds included in slot No. 4 the grant that UC-Santa Cruz is using to build its Grateful Dead archive.

Meriwether begs to differ on what is and isn’t wasteful government spending.

“All Americans need to be concerned about government spending, especially in this era of economic difficulties, but it’s important to differentiate between a congressional earmark — so-called ‘pork’ —which many politicians and voters are justly concerned about, and the enormously prestigious federal granting agencies that have made American research in the sciences and humanities the envy of the world. UCSC won an enormously competitive grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, a federal granting agency with a complicated and challenging application process in which applicants undergo rigorous vetting.”

Meriwether goes on to point out, “UCSC won this grant in order to explore solutions to problems posed by digitization and online access, such as intellectual property and copyright, which are of great concern to all Americans in the age of the Internet. The grant has nothing to do with the content of the archive; it has to do with what that content allows us to explore in terms of these issues.”

John Hart, Coburn’s director of communications, said of the senator’s position, “It is not a federal responsibility to archive the materials of a rock band.”

Meriwether agrees, adding that “it’s tiresome to spend two days answering irate calls and emails when it’s all based on a misunderstanding of what the IMLS is, and what our grant is for.”

But he also cautions against the obvious culture-wars subtext in the senator’s attack: “I’m sure the senator is not suggesting that archives and cultural heritage institutions only collect materials he deems worthy of preservation, a notion that destroys one of the foundations of archival theory and practice, which is archives as accountability. Archives preserve what is important for an understanding of history. The senator and some of his constituents may not be fans of the Dead, but that doesn’t mean that the Dead are not an enormously significant historical phenomenon that is worthy of study and understanding, regardless of one’s bias or attitude.”

Controversies aside, fellow scholars with an interest in Dead studies couldn’t be happier with the hiring of Meriwether.

“It’s not surprising that Nick Meriwhether was chosen to be the Grateful Dead Archivist,” says Rebecca Adams, a UNC-Greensboro sociologist and author of the seminal text Deadhead Social Science. “I have heard other Deadhead librarians say he was ‘lucky’ to get the job. It wasn’t luck. Without knowing whether an archive would ever come to fruition, Nick has devoted most of his adult life to preparing himself for this position. As a result, with all due respect to my other librarian friends, I have to say that he is clearly the best-qualified person for the job. He is not just an archivist or just a Deadhead; he is a ‘deadicated’ archivist.”

So, South Carolina academia may have lost one of its leading lights, but for those invested in studying the cultural impact of America’s most unusual and long-lived pop culture phenomenon, they may rest easy that the most qualified — and indeed, dedicated — scholar is on the job.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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