Death always seemed to follow the Grateful Dead around. Jerry Garcia lost his father in a fly fishing accident as a young boy, and during the heady Haight-Ashbury early years of the band, important figures like Neal Cassady began to shuffle off the mortal coil as well. The biggest blow that garnered the Dead a morbid reputation was the death of founding keyboardist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: from that point on, two more keyboardists, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland, would die while the band were active.
The association wasn’t ignored by the band: early on in their career, the ghoulish and macabre ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ was a staple of their live shows, while ‘He’s Gone’ evolved from its initial recounting of former manager Lenny Hart (father of drummer Mickey Hart) running off with a large chunk of the band’s finances to its eventual status as a tribute to the departed McKernan and all the members of the Grateful Dead family who passed away over the years.
One of McKernan’s closest friends in the psychedelic San Francisco scene was blues singer Janis Joplin. McKernan and Joplin both had similar dispositions and both favoured alcohol over other drugs, solidifying a bond that lasted for the rest of Joplin’s life. Joplin once jumped on stage to perform with the Dead, and after her death, Bob Weir began singing ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ to remember Joplin and the impact she had on music.
With that, there was another number in the Dead’s repertoire that paid direct tribute to Joplin: ‘Bird Song’, the slow-burning track that was originally featured on Garcia’s self-titled solo album in 1972. When it was brought into Grateful Dead’s sets, the key was lowered and the tempo was often at a languid pace, creating a melancholy atmosphere. Lyricist Robert Hunter added the dedication “… for Janis” to the song in his collection of lyrics entitled Box of Rain, solidifying the connection between the song and the legendary singer.
Although the only studio version of the song appeared on Garcia, ‘Bird Song’ had been played by the Grateful Dead as early as February of 1971. For a seven-year period between 1973 and 1980, ‘Bird Song’ wasn’t played at all by the Dead, but after a revival in September of 1980, the song continued to be played by the band every year until Garcia’s death in 1995. When he plays the song in his solo groups, bassist Phil Lesh often changes the song’s pronouns to reference Garcia, bringing the song’s dedication to those passed on full circle.
Check out a legendary performance of ‘Bird Song’ from August of 1972 down below.