Editor’s Note (May 8, 2018): This story was originally published May 8, 2017. For information about the 2018 Cornell Chimes event, visit here.
This story was written by Intern Olivia Riggio.
ITHACA, N.Y. — For fans of the Grateful Dead, May 8, 1977 is an iconic date: either they experienced it or wish they did.
The “Holy Grail” of Grateful Dead concerts has gone down in history, and is even documented in the Library of Congress. It occurred forty years ago Monday at Barton Hall at Cornell University, and May 8 was officially declared ‘Grateful Dead Day’ by the Tompkins County Legislature.
The concert began in the afternoon on a temperate spring day, and ended hours later as concertgoers stepped outside into a snowy May evening.
Rhino Records, the official distributor of the Grateful Dead’s music, is releasing an official, mastered recording of the concert, and is holding two release parties: one at the State Theatre of Ithaca and another at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.
The State Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration is both a concert and listening party. Local Grateful Dead cover band, Terrapin Station will be playing acoustic sets throughout the night, and author Peter Connors will be selling and signing his new book, “Cornell 77: The Music, The Myth and The Magnificence of The Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall.”
Tickets to the celebration are the same price they were at Barton Hall in 1977: $6.50 (though the price raises to $10.00 the night of). The State Theatre is a not-for-profit organization, and all money raised will support its upkeep.
State Theatre owner and self-proclaimed Deadhead, Doug Levine, organized the event with the help of sponsors. He said he wanted to keep the ticket prices low to preserve the feeling of the original show.
“We wanted to keep the vibe of 1977, so we kept the ticket [prices] extremely low,” Levine said.
Levine grew up a Grateful Dead fan who frequented record stores in his hometown of Philadelphia.
“The first time I ever read the words ‘Ithaca, New York’ was on the side of a cassette tape for the show on May 8, 1977,” he said.
Ithaca’s connection with the Grateful Dead drew him to the city, and he ended up attending Ithaca College years later.
One of the most notable qualities of the Grateful Dead, and one of the reasons they had fans following them on tour, was because of their improvisational style that ensured no two concerts were the same. However, Deadheads will insist Barton Hall stood out.
One of the reasons it is such a famous concert goes beyond the incendiary set the Grateful Dead played that night. Bootleg recordings of Grateful Dead performances were welcomed by the community and even the band itself, and 5/8/77 is one of the most circulated concert recordings of any band throughout music history. Now, the Grateful Dead and Rhino Entertainment are releasing an official, digitally remastered recording of the full concert.
Betty Cantor Jackson was a friend of the Grateful Dead band members who joined them on their tours. It was her recording that gained the most notoriety.
“She had this wonderful ear, and it was her recording that got out to the masses. For, like, the last 20 years, there were these legal battles about who owned it. But, finally, in the last year or so, the Grateful Dead and Betty and Rhino Records all worked out a deal that they were able to get the master recordings, bring them into a studio, remaster them and release them,” Levine said.
These CDs, as well as records, photos and other memorabilia will be auctioned off at the celebration at the State Theatre.
One of the thousands of people who witnessed the concert back in ‘77 was Jeffrey Lehman, who went on to become the 11th president of Cornell University. Instead of spending the night dancing, though, he was selling concessions. He was a senior at Cornell University and was part of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. He met his first wife Diane Lehman Wilson at the concert, where she was also in attendance helping to sell concessions.
The concert, put on by the Cornell Concert Commission was just one of the many shows the organization put on that year. Levine said many attendees, like Lehman, were just students and not necessarily die-hard Grateful Dead fans.
“It was just the spring show, the spring concert. Some of them didn’t even know the Grateful Dead,” Levine said.
Lehman said that night, he anticipated the band’s wide appeal would draw a mammoth audience of Cornell students, Ithaca locals and Deadheads following the band on tour. Before the concert even began, Lehman said, those working the concessions realized they were going to run out of inventory very early on.
“We had ordered two or three times as much as we’d ever ordered before … and I remember going there and probably a half an hour before the concert was going to begin we realized we were going to run out,” Lehman said.
Lehman made an emergency run to the fraternity’s candy distributor, and ended up driving through the May snow and missing the first set of the concert. At the time, he said, he didn’t expect the concert would become as famous as it is today.
Featured image courtesy of Ezra Cornell University’s Magazine.