How did the dancing bears become an iconic symbol of Grateful Dead?
The origins of the Grateful Dead’s dancing bears can be traced back to a piece of art called “Blue Bear” by San Francisco artist Bill Ballard. The bear was used as a symbol for the band and its live concerts were promoted with posters bearing an image of a polar bear playing drums. There are, in fact, reports that Jerry Garcia himself once quipped that there never was any particular significance to the bears except they just thought it looked good on concert posters.
A Dead Head would stand outside of a show with a banner that said “Dead Bears Inside” under the Dancing Bears no matter where they were playing. One day, an observant head noticed that one of the bears on the banner had its left arm raised in what looked to be a dance party gesture. From then on, their banners read “Dancing Bears”. They soon started using this symbol at every concert and eventually T-shirts with pictures of the dancing bear graced their bodies.
Dancing Bears is an iconic symbol of Grateful Dead because Jerry Garcia used to listen to them while he was in high school.
Jerry Garcia first saw a mountain lion when he was about eight years old, and the animal terrified him. However, by the time he was 14 years old, his father had started taking him on fishing trips in Canada where there were herds of wild bears among plenty of other wildlife as well. Little Jerry would spend hours sitting and watching these animals while his dad fished quietly beside him, knowing that what you fear most sometimes actually turns out to be your favorite part of all simply because it’s become familiar through experience.
Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were talking about how the Eskimos have “Teddy Bear” dances. They would rock back and forth, imitating bears walking, while they sang songs in a language no one could understand.
They floated the idea of a teddy bear dance for kids at Grateful Dead concerts as Mommy Garcia and daddy Jerry Garcia would take teddy bears around to kids at shows. It never really caught on though, so it was eventually scrapped and only used as part of a plan to give out stuffed bears more often than usual.
It’s been said that any child from this generation remembers this iconic symbol of the Grateful Dead their teddies being handed out by Bob or Pigpen (which may be true).
Deadheads have a lot in common with bears. They enjoy the woods, they’re strong yet fragile in nature, and their fur can range from brown to black. One bear that’s often heard at Dead shows is often called Terrapin; it’s said this bear occasionally planted itself next to Jerry Garcia during song breaks at Grateful Dead gigs from 1979-1994.
I am not sure, but maybe the bears chose to dance just like people choosing to be Deadheads. Like all their songs, it’s open for interpretation. But nevertheless we’ve always loved having dancing bears at our shows because they look cool and let us know that peace is around the next corner.
It became an iconic symbol of Grateful Dead because the show opening lyrics to Casey Jones are “Drivin’ that train, Casey Jones”. The protagonist’s name is derived from a folktale about a man who drives his locomotive recklessly, and consequently wrecks it brutally killing both men.
The tale has been lurking in the shadows of popular culture for centuries. There was even a myth around US railroad workers attributed to “Casey Jones”, coming from the ‘mid 19th century source “Mrs Porter’s Neckties”‘.
At some point in the late 60s, a very famous “Dancing Bear” showed up on the UC campus. For reasons unknown to us, he quickly became an icon of one of the biggest bands of all time. They named songs after him and eventually even designed this iconic shirt.
The idea to create the “Grateful Dead Dancing Bears” logo came from Jerry Garcia. He happened upon a drawing by Bob Neuwirth that showed three bears dancing, with one playing a guitar and another wearing glasses; and the design subsequently became an iconic symbol of Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead’s dancing bear did not always refer to the camo-clad animal in their 1966 anti-war song. The first occurrence of the dancing bear goes back to a 1962 cartoon by Al Capp entitled “Li’l Abner”. In a famous scene, sappy Marshal Dogberry overhears Li’l Abner talking about a strawberry patch that can’t be found because it is actually in Bear Mountain (later renamed Washington D.C.). Stymied by not being able to find the place on his map, Dogberry decides “why let bothersome things like this old map and knowin’ where you are put us off our feed?”