Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)

Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)

The opening track on the 1967 album is the album’s sole original tune, credited to McGallahan Skjellyfetty, which was the pseudonym used for group arrangements or group compositions on the album. This song was written in response to the label’s criticism that the album lacked a potential hit, and so it was written and recorded after the rest of what would be the album was complete. Skjellyfetty comes from a character in the beat book, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, by Kenneth Patchen. The song embodies the sound and spirit of the band at this time. The philosophy expressed was really the simple invitation to “join the party.” “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)” is both an anthem and an invitation for like-minded folk to begin the journey. The sound is reflective of what the band really was at the time—the hurdy-gurdy of keyboardist Ron McKernan, aka Pigpen’s Vox organ, the simple and raw tone of guitarist Jerry Garcia’s Gibson Starfire, and the driving pulse of the tune itself coalesce into a happy aural experience, as danceable as it was a sing-along. I am still caught up in how the sound is rather the stereotypical Psychedelic Sound, but again that sort of becomes a parody of itself. “Golden Road,” aside from all that, is a striking number, especially viewed as the band’s first commercially recorded original composition. The emotional pitch is happiness, and that is communicated through the lyrics, and the tempo, rhythm and melody, the chorus—all of it gel into a rousing dance number.

While the mood of Golden Road is joviality in its most simple form, the song also contains religious and symbolic imagery that is part of the joy. Devotion is part of the title, and this is expressed in the act of dancing as well as the spirit of inquiry:

Well everybody’s dancin’ in a ring around the sun
Nobody’s finished we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find out where it’s at.

The circle appears as a symbol of unity and the eternal, a place without beginning or end, and the invitation to join the dance is to engage in devotion. In addition, the title offers the golden path, where the destination is devotion in lieu of heaven. This kind of idea is part of what the Grateful Dead offer in their music and lyrics—an ideology and poetry about how to navigate life—an invitation to ‘find out where it’s at.’

I definitely drew inspiration from the work of David Dodd, whose Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics offers vast insight into the lyrics of the Dead’s body of work. Readers would often submit personal accounts or addition anecdotes about lyrical passages. I don’t want to usurp his work and the contributions of his readers, but it is notable to mention a bit from Jay L., who references the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Tannis, page 31, side A:

“Ulla Biraah said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: In the future the Holy One, Blessed is He, will make a circle of all the righteous people, and he will sit among them, in the middle of the circle, in the Garden of Eden; and each and every one will point with his finger toward Him […]”

Jay L. offers further elaboration from a paraphrasing of the works of Pri Tzaddick, who references the same passage:

“In a profounder sense, this encirclement of God represents a level of Divine revelation beyond what is possible for the rational human intellect to experience. The Gemara thus teaches that in the future God will significantly reveal Himself to the righteous, and that, further, they will perceive the revelation equally. For a circle has no or end; rather, all points in the circle are equidistant from the center. Similarly, all the righteous people privileged to join this circle will be in equal proximity to the Divine light emanating from the center.”

An interesting idea is the idea that these interjections come in the form of written and oral traditions handed down throughout the ages. This will become a major aspect of the poetry of the Dead’s lyrics.

Click here to continue to the next installment, “Beat It On Down The Line”

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