American Beauty: 50 Years Later


Alex Tisa

It’s been fifty years since the Grateful Dead released American Beauty to the public, and it still impacts youth listeners to this day.

Josh Parr and Alex Tisa

This year, we celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the critically acclaimed folk-rock album American Beauty by Grateful Dead. Released in 1970, the album was considered to be some of the Grateful Dead’s finest work. While it’s clear that this album was a hit in the early days of rock and roll, we sought out to answer an important question: can an album released half a century ago still be relevant today?

American Beauty kicks off with “Box of Rain”, a folk-country track laden with acoustic guitar and pedal steel. The poignant lyrics sung by Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist, reflect his coming to terms with the impending death of his terminally ill father. Lesh concludes the song with: “Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there,” a clear statement of his own struggles that come with the fragility of human life.

Following “Box of Rain” comes the bluegrass medley “Friend of the Devil”. Singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia tells the story of a fugitive from law enforcement and his own past. With laidback lyrics like, “I set out running but I took my time/A friend of the devil is a friend of mine,” the acoustic guitar interplay fits well with the classic story of a man on the run.

After “Box of Rain” comes “Sugar Magnolia”, one of the Grateful Dead’s most popular songs. Even without a definite chorus, the song is still far and away one of the catchiest on the album. While still heavily folk influenced, in this track the Dead strays into more classic rock-and-roll territory.

Next in the album is “Operator”, a different take on the trying-to-get-a-girl blues. Singer and keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, delivers a cacophonous lyrical tragedy, while the rest of the band cringes and plays along. Either way, the song, whilst differing from other tracks in the album, still fits just right with the sound the group is trying to convey.

Proceeding “Operator” is another mellow acoustic track, “Candyman”. With a typical folk sound, the song is not too unique from other popular music at the time. It’s said that in order to achieve the vocal harmonies in the chorus, one of the most impressive parts of the song, the Dead had to enlist the help of none other than folk legends Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Loosely matching the vibes of “Candyman” comes the bittersweet ballad, “Ripple”. It’s hard to skip this song; with the mandolin-esque lead guitar by Garcia, and the unique singing cutting through the dank alleys of Haight-Ashbury, the song truly works to take the listener home.

Following “Ripple” is another one of the album’s most beautiful songs, “Brokedown Palace”. Robert Hunter, one of the group’s lyricists, writes “It’s a far gone lullaby, sung many years ago / Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come, since I first left home.” A song about growing up and leaving those you love, it can be easily related to by many.

Next comes the uptempo “Till the Morning Comes.” This song, featuring vocal harmonies and rocking guitar. Catchy, upbeat, and short-lived, this song is comparable to Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, and is widely considered to hold the essence of the late-60s sound of the Grateful Dead.

The penultimate song on the album, “Attics of My Life”, may leave many something left to desire. While yes, the track has impressive, four man harmonies, it lacks what makes many other songs on the record great-tightness. This song seems half-hearted, loose, and without purpose. In this song, what really stands out is Robert Hunter’s lyrics- “In the book of love’s own dreams/Where all the print is blood/Where all the pages are my days/And all my lights grow old/When I had no wings to fly/You flew to me.” The lyrics ground the song, giving it a place in the album, however shaky it may be.

To close out the album comes “Truckin’”, one of the Dead’s most recognizable and popular songs. “Truckin’” tells the story of a band on the road, and their travels through the different cities of America. However, not all is well on the road. Guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir sings “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me/Other times, I can barely see/ Lately, it occurs to me/ What a long, strange trip it’s been!” For the band, this was more than just a song, and almost acted as a diary of their travels, describing their touring experiences and even their fabled run-in with the police on New Orleans Bourbon Street. This song seems to be the right choice to end the album, grounding the piece by showing what it’s like in the Dead’s shoes.

With the album’s varying genres, impressive musicality, and superb songwriting, it cements itself as one of the Dead’s finest works. While many of the songs would go on to be some of their most famous, the album is not without filler, and some overall lackluster songs. All in all, we rate this album at 8.5/10.

But what do HB students think?

You may be surprised to find out that the Grateful Dead is still popular today, even among teenagers. HB Senior Adam Slater describes the album as “the perfect album,” stating “it has the perfect mix of folk, rock, traditional music, country, and bluegrass, and don’t even start me on the lyrics. There’s something for everyone in it.”

“American Beauty, and artists like Bob Dylan, and Crosby Stills and Nash, pioneered acoustic music for years to come.” said one HB student, Hunter Hudzik, ‘21. Being an avid fan of classic acoustic folk, he recognizes the impact this record had on American music.

Not everyone seems to love the album though. Dan Aulbach ‘21, described the album as, “At best, it’s a folk album with soft rock mixed in. The lyrics are good, but I can’t get over the lackluster instrumentation.”

Collectively, HB students rated the album at 7.9/10 on average. Whether already a fan of the Grateful Dead, or if you are simply looking for some new, easy-listening music, American Beauty will have something for you.

You can listen to American Beauty on Spotify, Apple Music, and any other major music streaming service.