Going for The One: The Hidden Funk of the Grateful Dead

When people think about the Grateful Dead the last thing they think about is funk. Now, a real deadhead will point to Spring of ’77 tour as proof of funkiness, but the hidden connection between the Dead and funk is actually much stronger that a sweet Dancin’ jam.

It all comes down to “The One”, a concept invented by James Brown and executed by bassist Bootsy Collins:

“Bootsy’s bass fit perfectly as the new means for carrying the One, James Brown’s own pet name for the style of funk that found its emphasis on the one and the three beats—the upbeat rather than the downbeat, because “the upbeat,” as Brown once philosophized, “is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on lowdown beat,” the four. Previously, the drums had instigated the One; now it was the bass.” [Source: The Faster Times]

Here’s a great video of Bootsy talking about “the One”.

So, what does that have to do with the good old GD? Let’s see what Jerry has to say about the One:

“Rhythmically, our policy is that the one is where you think it is. It’s kind of a Zen concept, but it really works well for us. It makes it possible to get into a phrase where I can change into little phrase spurts, spitting out little groups of notes that are attached fives-five in the space of four, or five in the space of two, is more common for me-and then turn that into a new pulse, where those fives become like a sixteenth note pulse. Then I’m inside of a whole irregularly rotating tempo in relation to what the rest of the band is playing, say, the original common time. It produces this ambiguity, but all I have to do is make a statement that says, “end of paragraph, and one,” and they all know where it is.” [Source: Gans, 'Conversations With the Dead', p. 67]

In other words, funk music starts on the one and Grateful Dead music uses the one as a home base during jams.

And that, my friends, is the hidden funk of the Grateful Dead.

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart…

[Note: over the years I’ve reviewed quite a few shows by Phil & Bobby. If you’re interested, you can read all GD related content here.]

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