UNCG Campus Weekly

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Rebecca Adams, the Grateful Dead and 1,000,000+ Deadheads

Photo of Rebecca Adams and UNCG students, summer 1989When UNCG professor Dr. Rebecca Adams sees all three big “Fare Thee Well” concerts of Grateful Dead members in Chicago’s Soldiers Field, it will hardly be her first. She heard Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist for the Grateful Dead, play with the band about 100 times before he died in 1995 and has heard the remaining members of the Dead play together many times since then.

Her first Grateful Dead show was in 1970. Since then she has become well-known for her sociology research of the Grateful Dead fanbase – known for decades as “Deadheads.”

The “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead” concerts on July 3-5, 2015, will be the Grateful Dead members’ final performance together. It’s a milestone for Deadheads.

Adams, professor and Gerontology Program director at UNCG, has been one of the foremost scholars on the Grateful Dead fans – known as Deadheads – since the 1980s.

She is co-author or co-editor of five books, including “Deadhead Social Science: You Ain’t Gonna Learn What You Don’t Want to Know” (2000) with Robert Sardiello, a graduate of UNCG’s Sociology MA program), “Placing Friendship in Context” (1998) and “Adult Friendship” (1992), as well as many scholarly articles and book chapters, including nine on Grateful Dead fans.

Her research areas include:

  • Aging
  • Friendships/community
  • Music fans  (mostly the Grateful Dead community)

These days, these three research areas have dovetailed, as the members of the Deadhead community are getting older. Many are in their 60s and 70s. One person calls her work “jerry-ontology,” she says.

“A conservative estimate of the number of Deadheads is over a million,” she says. “Most Deadheads tend to be professionals – they like to say ‘we are everywhere’ and that is accurate.”

When she taught a UNCG class in 1989 on the Deadheads – and took her students on a research field trip that involved observations at eight concerts and parking lot interviews – she and her students became a media sensation, throughout the US and even in England. Today, sociological study involving pop culture is commonplace, she notes.

“Now, popular culture is an established field. But back then I was written up in the Congressional Record as “a symbol of the decline of higher education.” She notes that she remains grateful to former UNCG Chancellor Moran for defending her right to study and teach about the Deadheads.

Things changed and the world has caught up to her academic research.

“Now people see me as a pioneer.”

She continued what she calls her “more respected research” on friendships of older adults. But she knew her sociological research on music fans, specifically the Deadheads, would be valued someday. She has written or co-written many academic pieces on Deadhead research – and written pieces and been interviewed for the popular press as well. From Rolling Stone to London publications to the LA Times.

Now, as the Grateful Dead members play their final shows, she is fielding more media requests.

How did she get tickets, if they sold out immediately? It was good karma, she believes. “I waited for ‘the community’ to function like it’s supposed to. I waited and waited.” She could have used connections, but waiting was the karmically-correct way, as she explains it. A co-author found he could not use the tickets he bought, so she purchased them. “$1,390 – that’s why I’m teaching summer school, so I can afford them.”

She’ll also attend the Dark Star Orchestra show in Chicago July 2. She used to host some of the “tribute” band members at her home.

She taught the UNCG course “Aging and Music” this spring; she plans to teach it again. Faculty from all over campus participated in it and loved it, she notes.

The Chicago shows will feel like a homecoming in many ways. She attended the University of Chicago, receiving an MA from there in 1977 and PhD from there in 1983, both in Sociology. She began her teaching career an adjunct at several Chicago-area schools including Roosevelt University, Elmhurst College, Barat College and Indiana University Northwest.

She began her longstanding career at UNCG in the fall of 1983.

How did the Deadheads become an academic specialty for her in the 1980s? One UNCG student in particular convinced her to pursue it, she explains. His name was Matt Russ, known to many people today for his Tate Street Coffee House, which gives a sense of community to many at UNCG.

  • Want to hear more? She will give a Gerontology Research Outreach Workforce and Teaching Hub (GROWTH) presentation – “Music, Aging and Well-Being: Deadheads and Other Babyboomers” on Sept. 30, noon-1:15 p.m. in Edwards Lounge, Stone Bldg., UNCG.
  • See a four-minute excerpt from “Deadheads: An American Subculture.” The 1990 film was narrated by Adams and produced by Dr. Emily Edwards (UNCG Media Studies).

By Mike Harris

Photo of Rebecca Adams and UNCG students, summer 1989, used with permission of photographer © Lloyd Wolf / www.lloydwolf.com  All rights reserved.