Grade: High
Subject: ELA

Essential Question

How did beat writers like Jack Kerouac influence the Grateful Dead’s music?


Note to teacher: The handout in this lesson contains descriptions of drug use. Our hope is that the language used, which quite often details the repulsive nature of addiction rather than glamorizing it, will paint a realistic, and not desirable picture of drug use. However, we suggest reviewing the handout and making a plan for using it with your classroom before working with the lesson. 

In post-WWII America, a radical new movement took over the literary world. Anchored by writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, the Beat Generation, as they came to be known, viewed conventional American culture with disillusionment. They embraced things like free sexuality and drug use, explorations of Eastern religion, and a shirking of materialism in favor of a liberated lifestyle. One of the era’s most definitive works, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road, explores these themes through a semi-autobiographical road trip across America.

By the 1960s, the ideals espoused by the Beats were perhaps no better exemplified in musical culture than by the Grateful Dead. For their 30 year career, the Grateful Dead embraced the liberating, always-on-the-move lifestyle promoted by works such as Kerouac’s On the Road. The band eschewed industry conventions by becoming a perpetual “road band,” gaining a reputation not through chart hits, lavish studio recordings, or flashy media appearances, but via ceaseless touring and adventurous, inclusive,and always-changing live performances.

In this lesson, students will examine how the Grateful Dead exemplified the countercultural ideals promoted by Beat Generation writers by watching clips from Long Strange Trip, reading passages from Beat Generation writers, and brainstorming the ways the Grateful Dead’s approach to music was inspired by the Beat Movement.

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  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Beat figures Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Neal Cassady, Joyce Johnson, and Herbert Huncke
    • The band the Grateful Dead, and the influence Beat Culture had upon them
    • How Jack Kerouac and the Grateful Dead rejected social norms
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to define the ideals of the Beat countercultural movement by examining the philosophical and aesthetic connections between Beat writers and the Grateful Dead.


Pre-ticket Activity (Optional):

  1. This lesson works best if students are in the process of reading Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

Motivational Activity:

  1. Show Image 1, On the Road Scroll. Tell students that this was Jack Kerouac’s first draft for On the Road. Ask students:
    • Do you think this is how most authors create a first draft? Why or why not?
    • What might have inspired Kerouac to take such an unconventional approach to writing a novel? (Encourage students to consider the ways an unconventional writing process might lead to an unconventional novel.)
    • Writers in Kerouac’s time used typewriters, which require the manual insertion of each page. How might have writing onto a continuous scroll affected how Kerouac composed On The Road?
    • Kerouac envisioned his writing style as “spontaneous prose.” What do you think this means? In what ways might it be different from how other authors often compose? How might have writing on a long scroll helped Kerouac achieve “spontaneous prose”?
    • What challenges might have writing on a scroll presented compared to writing on a single piece of paper? What about compared to today’s standard of writing on a computer? How might have confronting such challenges helped Kerouac as a writer?
    • How might Kerouac’s notion of “spontaneous prose” inspire other means of expression, such as art or music?


  1. Play Clip 1, Dennis McNally, Jack Kerouac, and Jerry Garcia. Ask students:
    • Based on what you learned in this clip, who are the Grateful Dead?
    • How did Dennis McNally become involved with the band?
  2. Tell students they will examine the specific ways beat writers such as Jack Kerouac inspired Jerry Garcia. Arrange students into groups. Pass out one page from Handout 1 – Introduction to Beat Writers to each group. Tell the class that Kerouac was a member of the Beats, a countercultural literary group in the 1950s that drew inspiration from one another. Ask each group to read their page as a group, then ask each group:
    • What beat figure did you read about?
    • Why was this figure important to the Beat Movement?
    • What kinds of topics did they write about?
    • Based on the excerpt you read, could you describe this figure’s writing style?
    • What role did the writer play in Jack Kerouac’s life?
    • How might the writer have influenced Jack Kerouac’s writing style?
    • What similarities did you notice between the excerpt you read and On The Road?
  3. Show students Image 2, On the Road Excerpts, and read aloud each excerpt as a class. Then, as a class brainstorm  a list of values, both positive and negative, that Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers embraced, based upon the excerpts in handout 1 (the list might include values such as freedom, nonconformity, or hedonism). While brainstorming, encourage students to think about On the Road as well as the excerpts they read in their groups. Write the values discussed in class on the board. Ask students:
    • How are the values that Beat writers embraced represented in their writing? How is it represented in On the Road?
    • How might these values have been represented in other artistic practices, such as visual art or music?
  4. Play Clip 2, “Being Alive Means to Continue to Change.” Ask students:
    • In the clip, how does Jerry Garcia define “being alive?”
    • Based on Garcia’s emphasis on change and spontaneity, what might have a Grateful Dead concert sounded like?
  5. Show Image 3, Grateful Dead Set Lists. Ask students:
    • What is being depicted on this image?
    • Where did these three concerts take place? What was the time frame for these three concerts? How many concerts did Grateful Dead perform per day?
    • What do you notice about the songs presented between these three concerts?
  6. Inform students that this information comes from a website which allows fans to catalog the songs the band played at every concert, including a space for people to make comments. Ask students:
    • What observations might you make about Grateful Dead fans, based on their comments? What might they like about the band?
    • Why might the fans be so dedicated to cataloging the Grateful Dead’s concerts, and archiving recordings of their many concerts?
    • Based on the evidence presented in this image, how might the Grateful Dead live by Jerry’s idea that to be constantly changing is to be alive?
    • In what ways does the Grateful Dead’s approach to playing concerts relate to the ideals set forward by the Beat Generation?

Summary Activity:

  1. Return to the list of values the class brainstormed earlier in class. Ask students:
    • Do you see any values in this list that could equally be associated with the Grateful Dead?
    • How might the ideals of the Grateful Dead and the Beat Generation be similar?
    • Both the Beats and the Grateful Dead valued spontaneity and freedom, but many of the Beat writers were addicted to drugs. Jerry Garcia died due to complications from drugs and alcohol. In what ways could drugs be associated with freedom? Based on the excerpts you read today, in what ways might drugs be associated with bondage?

Extension Activities:

  1. Write two essays about a memorable trip you once took. Write the first essay in “spontaneous prose,” or a stream-of-conscious style. For the second essay, take what you wrote in the first one and edit it into a shorter, more structured piece. What did you like or not like about this process? What do you like and dislike about each of your essays? How do the different approaches to writing affect your final product?
  2. Watch the video “Diane Di Prima Reads Revolutionary Letters #29 & #19.” Write a poem and recite it in a similar style as the video. Then, write a brief reflection on the ways performing a poem differs from writing one.
  3. One of William Burroughs’  preferred writing strategies involved the “cut-up,” a creative writing project perhaps first described by 20th Century Romanian poet Tristan Tzara. Following Tzara’s instructions below, create your own cut-up poem.

    To make a Dadaist poem:

    • Take a newspaper.
    • Take a pair of scissors.
    • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
    • Cut out the article.
    • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
    • Shake it gently.
    • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
    • Copy conscientiously.
    • The poem will be like you.
    • And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Craft and Structure 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (Extension Activities only)

Text Types and Purposes 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.1 Compare and contrast the ways in which different artistic media (television, newspapers, magazines, and electronic media) cover the same commercial content.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.
    A6.0 Analyze characteristics of subgenres (e.g., satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that are used in poetry, prose, plays, novels, short stories, essays, and other basic genres.
    A6.1 Evaluate the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
    A6.2 Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings.
    A6.3 Debate the philosophical arguments presented in literary works to determine whether the authors’ positions have contributed to the quality of each work and the credibility of the characters (philosophical approach).
    A7.0 Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of discourse (e.g., purpose, speaker, audience, form) when completing narrative, expository, persuasive, or descriptive writing assignments.
    A7.1 Use point of view, characterization, style (e.g., use of irony), and related elements for specific rhetorical and aesthetic purposes.
    A7.2 Use language in natural, fresh, and vivid ways to establish a specific tone.
    A7.3 Enhance meaning by employing rhetorical devices, including extended use of parallel- ism, repetition, analogy; incorporation of visual aids (e.g., graphs, tables, pictures); and the issuance of a call for action.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.



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