The Grateful Dead have always been a part of the counter-culture movement. In fact, the band were more shaped by the peace and love posturing of the decade than most, having originated in the hippie mecca, the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco.
It meant protesting, taking part in sit-ins and generally providing the jams for people to rally alongside, The Grateful Dead were already master craftsman when it came to ‘happening’ gatherings by the time they made their way to Columbia University in 1968, but while mostly those gatherings were built on having fun, this one truly meant something.
The Dead had been invited to perform as the tensions within New York’s Columbia University reached fever pitch. The university wanted to build a military gym, not on campus but in the nearby Morningside Park, which would border Harlem.
As well as being set to feature segregated entrances, protests began almost instantly as the displacement of the African-American residents who used the park regularly became apparent. What’s more, as Open Culture reports, the Student for a Democratic Society had also discovered links between the university board and the Department of Defense. The two events combined to make a particularly unhappy student body being to revolt.
Throughout much of the year, reaching its peak in April, the students organised many sit-ins and protests shouting their passionate appeals from the rooftops, aiming to disrupt the university into meeting their demands—most notably, removing links between it and the government who, at the time, were intent on their war in Vietnam. The students suffered greatly for their cause, too, with 148 injuries and a whopping 372 reports of police brutality, and it eventually shut the university down. By May 3rd, when The Grateful Dead would play, the school needed some good vibes.
Of course, if there’s one thing that the Grateful Dead did, it is to provide good vibes. the band may have been comparative unknowns on this side of the country, but they wouldn’t disappoint their audience. First, however, they had to deal with the tricky feat of getting into the school in the first place. The band’s Mickey Hart recalled how they managed to defy security and sneak themselves on campus: “[Grateful Dead manager] Rock [Scully] reached out to the strike organisers and offered to do a free show for the students. Always up for an adventure, we of course, went right along.”
Adding: “Since the police and guards were closing off access to the majority of the campus – we were ‘smuggled’ on campus to Low Library Plaza in the back of a bread delivery truck. Equipment and all. We were already jamming away before the security and police could stop us.”
The group set up shop on Ferris Booth Hall, the unofficial student union of the university, and went about delivering one of their now-iconic jams for the students. The show looked as if it would be another casualty of the establishment as the power was cut off after only a few songs by the campus authorities. It was quickly and quietly pointed out that the hall wasn’t technically university property, and, any insistence in keeping a lid on the band was only going to stoke the fires more intently. The university caved and let the band jam on.
Sadly, despite the band’s devoted fanbase, there survives no audio of the free show. Instead, what we can see below is video footage of the performance layered with some songs from previous shows. It matters little.
As with everything for The Grateful Dead, the real story is from the people who were there—it’s not about the music, it’s about the experience, man.