Grateful Dead and The Rockies..

A few months back, while we were in the middle of watching Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary about the American national parks, it coincided with a period in which I listened to a lot of Johnny Cash.

Recently we’ve started Burns’ series on The West, while simultaneously I have ‘discovered’  the joys of the Grateful Dead.

These juxtapositions are so very interesting. While they are based on coincidence, they make it easier for me to understand each part. Seeing the wilderness and the untouched lands, makes it easier to understand the background of (almost) lawless freedom against which certain of Cash’  songs play. I can (sort of)see how the wildness of the land created the type of people that he sings about.

It’s the same with the Grateful Dead and the American West. They both convey this sense of endlessness, and space and (at the same time) very deep isolation.

It’s easy to find these things appealing in songs and gorgeous film, of course. And I’ve also seen a glimpse of the downside (or at least I think I have). With Cash and the National Parks I saw it in the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West-Virginia, a documentary in which the ideal of self-sufficiency, the sense of limitless freedom and a certain ‘untouchable’  quality make a family seem dysfunctional to the eyes of the authorities and all those around them. I see it in friends who are smart and talented but never seem to be able to fight their way out from the circumstances they ended up in, because there is no trail to follow, no infrastructure to go from poverty to chance, from disfunction to growth.

I wonder if the US car culture is a symptom of what I would (personally) consider the downside of the vastness and the endlessness and the possibility for seclusion and isolation as seen in certain Grateful Dead songs and the imagery of the American West. Maybe I should even take it further, and say that the way the US (more so out West than in the East, but you see it even there) relates to space, utilizes space and (from an ‘old Europe’  point of view) even squanders space , is the downside in and of itself. It makes sense to not care about space, when you have so much of it. But in my two visits I have definitely experienced things simply no longer being built to a human scale, and that will be something I’ll have to get used to.  Maybe more Ken Burns will help 🙂


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