Near the end of his life, Jerry Garcia recorded a children’s album with David Grisman. You wouldn’t necessarily pick a depressive end-stage heroin addict to sing children’s music, but against all logic, the album is superb. The high point is their wry, jazzy arrangement of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” It’s an enormous improvement over the version I made my parents listen to a million times in the car, which, as I recall, was an irritating uptempo march. Garcia and Grisman take it medium slow and laid back. It might be Jerry’s finest vocal performance on record. Grisman’s tenor banjo playing gets to be corny, but he’s more than balanced out by Jerry’s effortless swing.
Garcia and Grisman did put an actual bedtime song on their album, the closer, "Shenandoah Lullaby.” It’s lovely and everything, but “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” is so much cooler. The lyrics are faintly menacing, which was no doubt part of the attraction for Jerry. He was generally fascinated by the more gothic and morbid aspects of America’s vernacular music. (Not many hippies are aware that Jerry was an avid collector of guns.) All that skull imagery around the Grateful Dead was no accident. When I was growing up, my stepbrother kept a bunch of records in one of our closets, including several Dead albums. I assumed they were heavy metal until I finally got curious enough to listen to one, and was surprised to hear gentle psychedelic country instead. All that sunshine and tie-dye makes for a fascinating cognitive dissonance with the skulls.
My kids are a little young for the Grateful Dead and all their cowboy murder ballads, but I don’t mind exposing them to some off-kilter old-time music. “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” isn’t a folk song; it was composed by a Tin Pan Alley songwriter named John Walter Bratton in 1907. (His other songs include “My Dainty Cigarette,” “Tarry Carrie Till We Marry,” and “Molly McGinnity You're My Affinity.”) Imagine this guy’s reaction if he knew that I was singing his tune to my kids a hundred and ten years later.
You can learn more about Jerry Garcia here:
You can learn more about David Grisman here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (https://www.musedlab.org), Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza (https://musedlab.org/groovepizza). In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses (https://soundfly.com/courses/unlocking-the-emotional-power-of-chords). He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog (http://www.ethanhein.com), and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.