No one at Duke knows the Grateful Dead

“Does anyone listen to the Grateful Dead?” I was in my dorm’s study room or common room when I asked this question—my memory evades me—but either way know there was a good number of people around. I was met with blank stares. So, I started asking almost anyone I met if they knew who the Grateful Dead band was. The overwhelming majority had no clue and I slowly stopped being surprised. 

Obviously, I know there are people at Duke who listen to the Grateful Dead, know of the Grateful Dead, or at the very least have seen their iconic dancing bears logo on a themed sorority t-shirt. The title of this column does extrapolate the issue a little bit. But if I am being honest, the reaction to my question about the band connected a lot of thoughts on the careerist mentality of Duke that had been swirling in my head. 

I grew up hearing the Dead through my parents’ stereo while they gardened, watched documentaries on the band, and listened to stories of their times at the concerts. The dad of one of my best friends from back home sang her “Ripple” by the Dead as a lullaby. Another friend would send me their live shows to listen to. And it was not uncommon to see an Instagram post from someone from my high school at a Dead and Company concert.

The Grateful Dead became popular during the age of the hippie –-the 60s. They are known for their psychedelic rock music and avid fanbase, the Deadheads. Despite having little to no big radio hits, they are one of the most successful touring bands in rock  with their improvisational and always unique live shows. A resurgence in their popularity occurred in the  80s when one of their songs, “Touch of Grey,” blew up.

To me, the Grateful Dead is the epitome of what it means to take life as it comes. If you watch any live show or documentary, it is apparent that the band and audience are there for two reasons: to live and have a good time. Live music today is arguably overproduced--people expect crazy strobes, backup dancers, autotune, and flashy outfits. From the improvised guitar solos to the tie-dye color scheme to the fans not even inside the concert dancing outside, there is something special about how the Dead moved people. The Dead showed up as they were and wanted everyone else to do the same. Their lyrics such as “without love in a dream it will never come true” and “walking through the tall trees/going where the wind goes/blooming like a red rose/breathing more freely” showcase the carefree nature promoted by the band. In plain terms, the Dead is an advocate for just vibin’ through life.

If the Dead is the representation of a chill, stress-free life where you take things day-by-day and have no worries about the things you cannot control, then Duke is the antithesis to this.

Many come to Duke because they know it is a career-focused school that can get them into high-paying jobs at top firms or prepare them for their applications to Ivy law and medical schools. The majority of people I have met come from prep or private schools and have parents working as doctors or lawyers or in well-known corporations. In this way, the careerist mentality can become a case of monkey-see-monkey-do. Duke culture could easily just be the culmination of what some of us were raised to find important--success in powerful and money-making fields.

It is hard to take life day-by-day when you are surrounded by people your age who are constantly focused on the next organization, the next internship, the next opportunity that will bring them closer to that aforementioned vision of success. It feels like you are always playing catch-up on top of being a full-time student at a rigorous university. I find myself repeating to my friends that “All I do is work, this can’t be what life is supposed to be about.” 

I was raised by Grateful Dead fans, though, and purposefully or not, my parents integrated the band’s principles into their parenting. I truly believe being raised on the Grateful Dead grounds me in a weird, unexpected way. My parents may work in business and law, but neither have ever promoted careerist ideals to me. They believe that work is not what life is about or what makes life great. They take a stance similar to the Dead that you should take life as it comes and that everything will all work out in the end. All of my hometown friends were raised similarly and held similar thoughts. Once I realized no one at Duke knew of the Dead, I began to wonder if the common denominator between my hometown friends and I was the fact that we were raised by Dead fans and subsequently with the Dead ideals.

Sure, to some this may seem like a metaphorical stretch, but it gave me more insight into the divide I felt between my mentality and the common careerist Duke mentality. I am not saying I am exempt to the Duke mindset because I listen to the Grateful Dead. I am sucked into the hellish hustle culture landscape just like anyone else. I was rushing business fraternities on the first day of class. I stalk LinkedIn to see what summer internship opportunities people are receiving. I spend more time stressed and working than I do in any other state. 

But on days when I am upset at the way Duke culture makes me feel, as if I should be just a careerist who sells her soul to money, I find my thoughts infiltrated with the ghost of the Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, and an answer he gave in an interview once: “It’s supposed to be all about having fun.” 

Olivia Bokesch is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.  


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