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Duke exhibit chronicles special relationship with Grateful Dead

Eric Mlyn 122121.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Prof. Eric Mlyn taught a freshman year course, 'Long Strange Trip: The Grateful Dead and American Cultural Change,' at Duke University this fall. Archival material from the Dead's five performances at Duke in the 1970s and 80s is on display through at least early February at Perkins Library, on the Duke campus.

What can incoming students in the year 2021 learn from an iconic band symbolic of the 1960s counterculture?

A lot, said the Duke professor who taught Long Strange Trip: The Grateful Dead and American Cultural Change, this past fall.

Eric Mlyn described himself as a "Deadhead," a devoted fan of The Grateful Dead.

"If you came to see my office you'd see 25 Grateful Dead posters," Mlyn said in an interview at Perkins Library, on the university's campus. He's a senior fellow at Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics, and senior lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy,

One of his posters is part of the library exhibit, which he and his students helped curate, that chronicles the Grateful Dead's five shows at Duke between 1971 and 1982.

"I mean, we teach best what we're passionate about and I'm passionate about this," Mlyn added.

Mlyn said the course touched on history, ethics and music, of course.

In addition to introducing incoming students to the vast educational and historical resources at Duke, Mlyn said the course sought to use the Grateful Dead as a lens for examining important societal issues.

"Such as the counterculture, mainstream, the business of music, strategy, and leadership and things like that," he explained. "What does it mean to start in the counterculture, the Grateful Dead were leaders of the counterculture in the 1960s, and now to have ice cream and aprons and hot sauce bearing the Grateful Dead logo? Having them consider the yin and yang of the Grateful Dead, I think, was the best accomplishment of the course."

The Grateful Dead performs in Cameron Indoor Stadium in April 1978.
Duke University
via Duke Today
The Grateful Dead performs in Cameron Indoor Stadium in April 1978.

The course curriculum included a "Dead Buddies" program. Mlyn said he teamed his 17 students up with Duke faculty and staff that loved the Dead.

"Somebody from legal counsel, somebody from the hospital, somebody from the performing arts, a former vice provost of the university, people in technology," Mlyn said, adding that students met with their "buddies" and then wrote papers on two aspects of the person they interviewed.

The Dead's five shows at Duke yielded a trove of archival material that forms the basis of the exhibit now on display at the university's Perkins Library. The exhibit features posters, internal school memos leading up to the event, and audio and video that can be heard and viewed on a smartphone using a QR code.

The Dead played once at Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium, in 1971, and four times at Cameron Indoor Stadium, in 1973, '76, '78, and '82, more than the group played at North Carolina's other major universities.

The group played back-to-back shows at UNC-Chapel Hill's Dean Smith Center in March of 1993, and one show at N.C. State University's Carter Finley Stadium in 1990. Starting in the late '80s, the Dead needed such larger venues after their already strong following greatly expanded with the influx of newer, younger fans drawn to the group, in part, by its 1987 hit single, "Touch of Grey."

Not all of Professor Mlyn's students came away with a love of the Grateful Dead's music, he said, but that wasn't the point.

"I knew I had accomplished something when this young woman looked at me and said, 'Professor Mlyn, I just want you to know I think these are a bunch of old white guys and I don't like their music at all,'" Mlyn recalled. "I said, 'That's wonderful!'"

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC.
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