Grateful Dead African-American Music Influence Playlist


“Consider for a minute what the music of the Grateful Dead would be without black American influence. We should do this as an exercise: let’s take every song with the slightest bit of black American influence and cross it off the setlist, and then see how many songs we’re short.”

Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge

In 2015, leading up to the Grateful Dead 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well concerts, JamBase published a pair of Deadfluence Spotify Playlists featuring original versions of songs covered by the legendary band during their 30-year career. In honor of African-American Music Appreciation Month, this edition of Saturday Stream highlights black musicians that were part of those collections of influential songs.

Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Lead Belly, Rev. Gary Davis, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Chuck Berry, Elizabeth Cotton, Jesse Fuller, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding and The Meters are among the many black musicians whose music was performed by the Grateful Dead. But covering black musicians was not the only association the Dead had with the African-American community.

In September 1970, the Grateful Dead took a cross-country flight from California to New York. By chance, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton and fellow Black Panther David Hilliard were on the flight with the band. Shortly after landing, guitarist Jerry Garcia spoke about the encounter with Newton and Hilliard, stating “we just talked, we just raved for the whole flight.”

On March 5, 1971, the Grateful Dead performed at a Black Panther Party benefit held at the Oakland Auditorium Arena that was also Newton’s birthday celebration. There are no tapes from the show, and the setlist — outside of a purported “Turn On Your Lovelight” — remains unknown. Garcia spoke about the benefit in late-1970, stating:

We have some loose semi-association with the Black Panthers because we met Huey and got along well with him. We don’t deal with things on the basis of content, the idea of a philosophy or any of that shit – mostly it’s personalities…

The Panthers are righteous. They have a rhetoric trip going on, but what they’re doing is actual, practical things. They’ve got a free breakfast trip, and they’re starting a free shoes thing. They’re really doing things, man. They’re into action and that’s something we can understand ‘cause we’re from a place where talk is cheap. I mean, talk don’t mean nothing, anybody can say stuff; the thing that counts is what you do.

As far as specific organizations, we don’t have any affiliations with any, but if there’s a righteous [benefit], no matter who’s doing it, we’ll do it. If it avoids all the bureaucracy and bullshit and goes right to something, we’ll do it. That’s the sort of thing we’re interested in.


Below, stream the Grateful Dead’s African-American Influences Spotify Playlist:


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