Published August 09, 2023 by Tom Porter

Following the Dead: A Countercultural Experience

Traveling across the nation with the latest iteration of the Grateful Dead, Sam Cooper ’24 joined a community of like-minded “Deadheads” for a summer of music and ritual dancing. These experiences form the basis of their summer research project.

sam cooper '23
Sam Cooper '23 at a Dead & Company concert. Image: Jay Blakesberg.

Cooper’s project— funded through a Craig A. McEwen Student Research Fellowship in the Social Sciences—is tentatively titled “The Stars Were Set in Spin: Ritual Dance, Counterculture, and Community on Dead Tour.” It draws on the philosophy major’s journey through America following Dead & Company, the latest, and by all accounts, final version of the Grateful Dead (aka The Dead). Dead & Company features several original members of the cult rock band. Formed nearly sixty years ago, The Dead is known for its fusion of rock, jazz, blues, bluegrass, and psychedelia, and for its legions of loyal followers, called Deadheads.

The original Dead may have disbanded in 1995, but Deadheads are still very present as part of a subculture that continues to thrive, often using their own slang and idioms when talking to each other. Today’s Deadheads include many, like Cooper, who are too young to remember the original ensemble but keenly follow The Dead’s many cover bands and spin-off groups like Dead & Company.

“I attended twenty-two shows, from Charlotte, NC, to St. Lous, MO, to Boston, MA, to San Francisco, CA,” said Cooper, whose interest lies in “looking at places where meaning and community are made. In particular, my community of Deadheads is built inside shows on the dance floor,” added Cooper, who is also an anthropology minor.

During shows, Cooper and others partake in a ritual dance known as spinning, which they describe as “a type of moving meditation where we whirl for hours on end.” Cooper said their fellow travelers on tour could best be described as “pleasure-seeking nomads and peddlers.”

“We live in our cars, vans, or small buses—all converted into homes—and travel from show to show. On tour, expectations of capitalistic and transactional relationships are subverted in favor of community and joy; music is the central focus of life, not money or power.”

Although they grew into their role as a participant observer and researcher throughout the summer, said Cooper, they see their role as more community scribe than ethnographer. “The piece of writing I am producing documents tour life through my eyes and through the relationships I built with my fellow community members.”

cooper23 with dead spinners
Cooper dances among the “pleasure-seeking nomads and peddlers." Image: Jay Blakesberg.

Here’s an excerpt from Cooper’s project, highlighting the role of the spinning dancers within the Deadhead community:

Ascending from the material plane to the spiritual one is what we still reach for, those of us who spin all show or not. On the purest of nights, when there is ample room and the music is on, it happens. Ecstatic spin orbits begin to fall in line, and we dance along the pathways of a familiar shape—the flower of life. Stepping in time with one another, surrendering oneself to the superorganism of sacred geometry, is ascendance. The flower, alive and buzzing, holds unspeakable power; we conjure it, but we cannot control it. The best we can do is hold tight to its churning wheels as they fill our souls with life. 

“Sam's project is truly remarkable,” said Assistant Professor of Philosophy Aliosha Barranco Lopez, Cooper’s summer academic supervisor. “Philosophy is mostly practiced by a small group of people: academics,” she said, “although as a discipline, it can provide any person with a deeper understanding of themselves, the world they live in, and their relationship with others. However, it is unclear how to bring philosophy closer to people outside the classrooms. Sam’s project involves doing just that,” she added. “Using anthropological skills and empirical observation, Sam will argue that the Deadhead community has found a way to undertake their own philosophical analysis about the human condition.”

Cooper’s project, Barranco Lopez said, has the potential to change what “doing philosophy” could look like and might open up new ways of effectively bringing the subject outside the academic setting.