Among the buried treasures on Before the Dead, the most comprehensive collection of music Jerry Garcia learned and played prior to the formation of his most famous band, is a casual moment from 1961. At a 16th birthday party for his girlfriend, Garcia and his new pal and fellow would-be troubadour Robert Hunter are heard singing and playing traditional, non-pop tunes. After a version of the oft-covered blues "Trouble in Mind," someone at the party seems to shout out a request. "Me, play rock & roll?" Garcia responds dismissively. "No, it's never happened."
Of course, that musical U-turn would come to pass, but not before Garcia spent several years immersed in bluegrass and folk, playing in a succession of Palo Alto-area bands with oddball names like the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers. To date, only a small portion of the recordings he made with those combos has been released, making the multi-disc Before the Dead the deepest – and most educational – dive yet into Garcia's pre-Dead musical life. Right up to his death, Garcia would periodically revisit his bluegrass roots, from the wonderful but short-lived Old and in the Way to albums he made with mandolinist David Grisman. But Before the Dead reveals, in more detail than ever before, when and how that appetite began and why numbers like "Deep Elem Blues" and "Rosa Lee McFall," both heard here, made their way into the Dead's repertoire.
That birthday-party tape, long written about but never released in its entirety until now, introduces one of Garcia's earliest incarnations: the folkie. He wasn't alone in dismissing rock & roll at that point; before the Beatles, it was widely assumed the genre was toast, embodied by Elvis' smoothed-over, post-Army return. Vernacular music of all types was the new underground, and in keeping with the times, Garcia and Hunter come on like a Kingston Duo, heartily singing sea chanties and spirituals. In 1963 club recordings with his guitar-playing first wife, Sara, Garcia is a solemn folksinger, harmonizing with her on American and Brit folk tunes and singing an especially dour "Long Black Veil."
Before the Dead documents the way Garcia gradually shifted from guitar to banjo, although anyone expecting lengthy, jammy improvs on the latter instrument may be disappointed. Hints of the later Garcia emerge mainly in his droll between-song wisecracks (he intros Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues" as "for the mule-skinning community" or calls one of his bands "the Slugs" instead of their proper name). But once he joined bluegrass groups, Garcia and his fellow singers and pickers were nothing if not earnest in their devotion to the genre. Playing with Hunter, early Garcia pal and future New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist David Nelson, and pickers like guitarist Sandy Rothman and banjoist-guitarist Marshall Leicester, he and the musicians work hard at sounding mountain-authentic. Garcia's a cappella reading of "Man of Constant Sorrow'" won't be mistaken for a field recording, but it's not jejune collegiate folk either.
With rare exception – like a kazoo-speed "Brown's Ferry Blues" by Garcia, Hunter and Leicester – the music rarely exhibits the acid-folk looniness of the Holy Modal Rounders, who were taking a similar approach in New York during the same time. But there's no denying Garcia and his cohorts' seriousness of purpose. With the Hart Valley Drifters, driven by Ken Frankel's fiddle and banjo, Garcia and friends dive into obscure Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley songs. With the Wildwood Boys, Garcia unleashes a crisp, joyous banjo ripple on one his first originals, the instrumental "Jerry's Breakdown." By the time we reach his last and most limber band of the period, the Black Mountain Boys, Garcia's banjo playing is more assured (check out his solo on Bill Monroe's "Salt Creek") and the band's harmonies, as on a version of "In the Pines," sound as close to Appalachia as these Cali boys will get. Garcia's own solo vocals throughout the box don't have the sweet, insouciant sparkle that came with the Dead, but then, never again would he sound quite so unsullied.
At four CDs (or five LPs, for that old-school vibe), Before the Dead may be too overwhelming for newcomers. The set is crying out for one of those single-disc distillations that were simultaneously released with boxed sets back in the day. But given the ways the Dead could stretch out a song to a half hour or roll out triple LPs like Europe '72, this deluge of primordial Garcia makes a twisted sort of sense. And in retrospect, it adds another dimension to his journey: Maybe the rigidity of bluegrass made Garcia eager to bust out into more exploratory music.