Donna Jean: Right Place, Right Time

By: Ann Marie Svilar

Donna Jean and the Tricksters
The people we meet through music often feel like family, especially in the jam band scene. Chances are if you were a Deadhead, you knew other Deadheads who knew other Deadheads, and eventually you all met at a show and are still best friends.

As I wonder if it's okay for me to date a man who doesn't know who Tom Waits is, I realize that people who love music also love each other. It gets pretty lonely having to explain rock history to one's mate. Of course, the path our passion takes us on in music will vary. And for better or worse, everyone has an opinion. There are the critic (which I tend to be). There's the fans and groupies. There is the musician's perspective. There is yours. And then there is Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay. Having been the female vocalist for the most monumental jam band in history, Grateful Dead, Donna Jean has spent her life playing in the band.

"It is like a relationship, and all of the relational issues that go on in a relationship also go on in a band. So you have to be very committed and know that this is something worth putting your energy and focus into," says Donna Jean.

Though her life has been filled by relationships with musicians, she was never a Band-Aid (ala Penny Lane in Almost Famous). She was the band. She is the widow of Keith Godchaux, the late Grateful Dead keyboardist, and is currently married to David MacKay, her former bandmate in the Heart of Gold Band.

Weir, Donna Jean & Garcia
"We [both husbands] started our personal and musical relationship together. I have never found that to be much of an obstacle, other than The Grateful Dead was on the road so much," says Donna Jean. "The Grateful Dead thing was so huge that it was very difficult at that time, back in the '70s with all that was going on with Keith and I. We struggled because we were together 24/7, and being on the road with The Grateful Dead was not the easiest thing for a married couple. We fought like cats and dogs. It was tough, and, of course, there were substances that added to the drama. The truth is I cannot imagine being in a relationship, much less being married to somebody who was not in music. I just don't know how I would relate to somebody that was not involved in music. I don't think I could do it."

Donna Jean's relationships in music stretch far past her husbands. She has two sons, Zion and Kinsman, who are also musicians, and she sings with both of them. With long gray hair straight from the sixties and a strong voice from somewhere after that, she is the culmination of where she's been. Donna Jean got her start as a session singer at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. A young sweetheart amongst Southern musicians, she was only 21-years-old at the time she sang backup for Elvis Presley.

"I remember walking into the studio and Aretha Franklin was an unheard of person then, and I said, 'Who is Erica Franklin?' I was there when Otis Redding was there. He was an incredible presence, oh my God," enthuses Donna Jean. "Being born and raised in this little Podunk town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama and recording studios popping up here provided a palette for me to express myself musically and sing on a large scale, not just in a garage band sort of way. [It allowed me to] be involved in a musical explosion that became one of the musical capitals of the world. That's life changing. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time."

Donna Jean by Weiand
We can't think of Donna Jean and not think about Jerry Garcia. Many Grateful Dead fans feel a certain ownership of Garcia. The coffee shop I'm writing this in is playing Terrapin Station, the album Donna Jean wrote her first song on. Garcia was the one who encouraged her to write it. He has touched many lives but few as significantly as Donna Jean's.

"Getting to be in The Grateful Dead, being in the right place at the right time, and having the experiences that I did in that band, the incredible privilege of being a part of Jerry Garcia's life for almost nine years and to be in his presence. He was one of the major influences of my life and the direction that it would take" says Donna Jean. "He was very influential on me in so many ways, musically and philosophically. I learned probably more from him than anybody in my whole life."

"He could communicate things that were generally very hard for people to communicate, that had to do with real high things and concepts and philosophies that were unusual and really required you to get out of yourself and out of your thinking that you had always been in," continues Donna Jean. "He had the ability and capacity to take people out of themselves and into another place. I can speak for myself and say that he did that for me. He was able to communicate in ways that I have not heard other people be able to communicate. He was an amazing person. His sense of humor was unequaled by anyone else I've ever been around. He was hilarious [and] he had a very intelligent humor."

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