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Sabbath Day – The Fabled Four

April 28, 2017

“It’s an obsession, but it’s pleasin.”

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Among the first tapes I was given when I began officially trading Grateful Dead concerts, as opposed to purchasing bootlegs in the then newly emerging CD market, was a pristine version of 5/8/77, the legendary concert at Barton Hall, Cornell University. I still remember listening to the second set opening Scarlet>Fire for the first time, with Phil sliding up and bounding down fret, and feeling like I’d never really heard the song before. The show lived in my car’s cassette deck all summer as I drove back and forth to work trimming ivy in Princeton. Though some decry it as overrated, 5/8/1977 is an outstanding concert. It was one of the fabled four, including 5/5/77 in New Haven, 5/7/77 in Boston and the amazing 5/9/1977 in Buffalo. 

In a little more than a week, the concert(s) will be 40 years old! 

So I just turned off my phone and enjoyed a Sabbath Day. I spent most of it, in one way or another, listening to the first three shows. (I’m listening to the second set of Cornell as I write). All morning I covered the phones in the church office (which rarely rang) and reading, with New Haven playing on my desk. (I know, that’s not really a Sabbath rest, but it had to be done).

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I then took a long walk while listening to Boston – I just had to be moving. I put in my earbuds and walked to the store and bought new lightbulbs for our bathroom, and walked home to install them. I sat under a tree eating beef jerky and waving at neighbors. I walked through the blooming cherry blossoms, taking pictures, while jamming to the music. I went grocery shopping, and to the bank. At the nature center I left August with the animals and went walking in the woods. It was a beautiful day, and a pleasure to be moving through it.

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To mark the anniversary of the concerts, and the commercial release of of the original Betty Boards for all four shows, Peter Conners has just published Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Magnificence of The Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall. For Cornell University Press, naturally. It’s a quick read (I read it today), and largely manages to keep its focus on this single show, while trying to describe the show’s cultural significance. Through interviews and anecdotes, it is constantly entertaining. He aims too high in his epilogue by trying to give the Dead’s music cosmic significance: “There is a place in the universe where Dark Star is always playing,” in the sense that “Dark Star is woven into the fabric of the universe,’ part of a “larger truth” at “play for all eternity.” OK. This music absolutely feeds my soul, but remember: this is the guy who also wrote Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. 

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For larger truth, I turn to another new book I am reading this week, Douglas Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Christie draws on contemplative traditions of early Christian desert spirituality and monasticism, contemporary ecological writings, and practitioners of attention to explore how “these traditions can help us cultivate the simple, spacious awareness of the enduring beauty and wholeness of the natural world that will be necessary if we are to live with greater purpose and meaning, and with less harm to the planet.” Music plays its part. Blue Sapphire is a book to be read slowly, turned over and digested with time. 

There are no unsacred places,”
the poet Wendell Berry has written.
“There are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”

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All outdoor photos were taken at Greenburgh Nature Center today.

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