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(Credit: Grateful Dead)

The story behind the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Turtles

There are plenty of iconic images that surround the music of the Grateful Dead. There’s the ‘Steal Your Face’ skull, complete with the thirteen-point lightning bolt that was conceived as a way to distinguish the band’s road cases at venues. There are the dancing bears, often associated with the band’s sound engineer/early financer/LSD maker Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley. There’s the Uncle Sam skeleton that featured prominently on the front cover of the Dead Set live album and in the opening animated sequence for The Grateful Dead Movie.

But two of the most beloved figures carried on through the band’s substantial legacy are the pair of dancing turtles that appear on the cover of the band’s ninth studio album, Terrapin Station.

Within the context of the album’s title track, ‘Terrapin Station’ is a metaphoric oasis, whether that be a higher state of consciousness or an escape from the banalities of reality. Recorded during the band’s progressive mid-1970s period, where fully developed and deliberately structured song suites like ‘Help on the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower’ and ‘Blues for Allah’ began to supplement the free form jamming that had become the band’s signature, ‘Terrapin Station’ was the Dead at their most musically and lyrically ambitious. 

In fact, the original recording, which took up the entire second side of its parent LP, was so unwieldy and sprawling that the band had to trim it down in order to perform the song live, excising most of the medley’s second half. Still, this being the Dead, the song’s more open sections could unfurl into extended jams that pushed the tune well past the ten-minute mark. 

To represent a visual for the album, the band turned to artists Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse, with whom the Dead had collaborated on the artwork for Europe ’72. It was their job to take this grand ambiguous nirvana of ‘Terrapin Station’ and represent it artistically. They decided to focus not on the grandiosity of the string arrangements or lyrical images.

Instead, they created a humble one-room cabin with distinct Americana overtones to illustrate the higher state of being. They keyed into the Dead’s own warped tales of old-timey America from songs like ‘Dire Wolf’ and ‘Cumberland Blues’, gave the dancing turtles a banjo and a tambourine, and placed them in a setting that had little to do with divinity or majesty.

Part of what keeps the Dead alive is the homegrown nature of their fanbase. Deadheads have somewhat lurid reputations as dirty hippies, and there are plenty of those around (pro tip: stay away from the Wooks), but a fair amount of their following are regular people from all over the world who connect with the music above all else.

In all their joyous splendour and rural celebration, the dancing turtles connect with a very specifically American sensibility that is prevalent throughout the band’s music. They’re country, but in a very hippie-adjacent sort of way. 

Almost immediately after the album’s release, you could find stickers, T-shirts, patches, and various other memorabilia sporting the Terrapin Station turtles at the Shakedown Street areas of Dead shows. They became a favourite image among more devoted Deadheads who might have found the Stealie’s and Dancing Bears a little too thoroughly cliched as Dead signifiers. A casual fan could spot a Stealie, but you endeared yourself to the more devoted Deadheads by partying with the Terrapin Turtles.

Considering the band thrived on their fanbase, using the travelling circus to propel them into every decade of the music business that lay ahead, the band were smart to keep on perpetuating these insignias. The truth is, however, the fans always made it happen on their own, perhaps emboldened by the freedom on stage.

Also, the version of ‘Terrapin Station’ from May 1977, is the best the band ever performed, and you will not be able to convince me otherwise. 

Check that out down below.

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