Of more than 2,300 concerts over the Grateful Dead’s 30-year touring career, there is one performance more famous than others, widely considered their best: May 8, 1977, in Cornell’s Barton Hall.
The subject of a new Cornell University Press book by Peter Conners, “Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead Show at Barton Hall,” the concert began to achieve its legendary status 10 years after the fact. High-quality audio recordings (by the band’s audio engineer, Betty Cantor-Jackson) began to circulate on cassette tapes among fans, just as the band gained a mass audience in 1987 with the hit song “Touch of Grey.”
Cornell, Ithaca and Tompkins County will celebrate the concert’s 40th anniversary Monday, May 8, with events including a 6 p.m. Cornell Chimes concert in McGraw Tower.
Conners and Cornell University Press will be part of a 40th anniversary celebration at the State Theatre at 7:30 p.m. The event – with a 1977 ticket price of $6.50 – will feature an acoustic set by local band Terrapin Station and a listening party for the remastered concert recording’s official release by Rhino Entertainment (as “Cornell 5/8/77”).
The half-hour chimes concert will feature five Grateful Dead songs and three other selections from the 1960s. The setlist and other updates will be posted Monday to the event’s Facebook page.
Liz Field, a communication specialist with Cornell Information Technologies, contacted head chimesmaster Serim An ’17 in December with the idea to play a Grateful Dead song on the anniversary.
To An’s knowledge, the Dead had never been in the Chimes repertoire, and “almost all of the students this year didn’t know any Grateful Dead songs. Some of the older chimesmasters who’d been playing for over 20 years, they were great fans of the Grateful Dead” and volunteered to help, she said.
“It’s always pretty challenging to arrange any songs because we only have 21 bells … there’s a big limitation there,” An said. “It was really challenging to make it work on the chimes, and also to re-create some of the same sentiments you get from their music.”
An, along with Jennifer Lory-Moran ’96, MAT ’97; Gretchen Ryan ’97, Scott Silverstein ’08 and Julia King, Ph.D. ’17, arranged the songs. They will be performed solo and in duos by An, Lory-Moran, Ryan, Joshua Chan ’18, John Lee ’18 and Billie Sun ’19. McGraw Tower will be closed during the concert and listeners are welcome to gather on the Arts Quad, Ho Plaza and Libe Slope.
Dan Klein, vice chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, will read a proclamation declaring May 8 “Grateful Dead Day” at 5:45 p.m. at McGraw Tower. Signifying the concert’s legendary status, the proclamation says, in part, “the cultural identity and perceptions of Tompkins County as a community have been informed and bolstered by the widespread acknowledgement of the magic of May 8, 1977.”
Conners will sign copies of his book at The Cornell Store at 4:30 p.m. and at the State Theatre.
Cornell University Press Director Dean J. Smith, an avowed Deadhead and veteran of 60 shows from 1982 to 1995, proposed a book about the famed concert at his interview for the job in December 2014.
“The 400 songs that they wrote are part of the American songbook,” he said. “When you saw them on tour, you never thought about how history’s going to regard them.”
Conners signed on as author in 2015, and conducted 30 interviews for the book, which Rhino has now included in “May 1977: Get Shown the Light,” a deluxe box set of four Terrapin Station Tour shows including Barton Hall. The limited-edition 11-CD set sold out all 15,000 copies in pre-orders by early February. (The hardcover book, released April 11, had a first pressing of 22,000. The book and the definitive Cornell recording are available separately).
The book’s cover features silver embossing, with a special Grateful Dead skull version of the Cornell Press colophon on the dust jacket. The text includes a chapter on the song “Dark Star” and Conners’ listener’s guide to the Dead.
“As far as media coverage, it looked like a tough crowd would be reviewing it,” Smith said. “The response from the current Grateful Dead intelligentsia and from everyone has been fantastic. [The fans] can debate what the perfect show is, what the best show is … To me, the book is like any show I ever went to. It does not close the chapter on the Dead for me, it opens it up to more inquiry.”