Grade: High
Subject: Social Studies/History

Essential Question

Who are the Deadheads and how did their lifestyle contrast with the conservative values promoted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s?


During their thirty year career releasing recordings and performing concerts around the world, the Grateful Dead established a legion of fans. Within this fanbase are the Deadheads, a unique group defined by their demonstrative passion for and connection to the band’s recorded music and live performances – a devotion surpassing that of the casual Grateful Dead listener and concertgoer. For example, Deadheads often took to the road, indulging in a nomadic pilgrimage that found them following the band on tour and attending numerous shows per year. Over time, Deadheads became fixtures of the Grateful Dead concert experience, spawning a dynamic community that became omnipresent at each tour stop.

Beyond their role in the Grateful Dead rolling roadshow, the wandering Deadhead community is often associated with ideals and traditions developed in the 1950s and 1960s counterculture movement – a whimsical outlook on life often defined by a rejection of established American social norms. Even in the 1980s, an era defined by the conservatism of President Ronald Reagan, the Grateful Dead saw a surge in popularity as a new generation of fans began to attend the band’s shows and model the nomadic Deadhead journey. This uptick in the band’s popularity provided a unique contrast between these two American cultural experiences.

Ronald Reagan’s landslide election victory in the 1980 United States presidential campaign represented a shift in American politics and society. A former governor of California, Reagan and his conservative allies celebrated the post-war conservatism of 1950s America and emphasized a return to traditionalism, presenting a nostalgic view of America before the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. As Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally states in Long Strange Trip, “Ronald Reagan is president in the 80s and the great reaction had begun – the reaction against the 60s.”

President Reagan’s successful campaign was designed to appeal to discouraged voters around the country and part of his methodology was denigrating 1960s counterculture, and its associated communities. As McNally states in Long Strange Trip, “Ronald Reagan ran as governor and president against the 1960s. And it worked.” Reagan promoted a particular American lifestyle, and he juxtaposed and praised his version over that of alternative lifestyles like those practiced by the Deadheads.

In this lesson, students will examine how the Deadhead lifestyle contrasts with the conservative version promoted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s by analyzing clips from Long Strange Trip as well as historical documents, images, and videos.

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  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The Deadhead community and their subculture of fandom for the Grateful Dead
    • President Ronald Reagan’s historic election victory in 1980
    • The similarities and differences between the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and President Ronald Reagan
    • President Ronald Reagan’s particular set of promoted “family values” and whether those values can also be practiced by alternative communities like the Deadheads
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to compare the Deadhead lifestyle and culture with concurrent conservative American values promoted by President Ronald Reagan by examining footage from the film Long Strange Trip, maps, and historical artifacts.


Entry Ticket Activity:

  1. Have students read the selected biographies in Handout 1 – Ronald Reagan & Jerry Garcia. Ask each student to arrive to class ready to share as many similarities and differences about each that they can identify.

Motivational Activity:

  1. Invite students to take turns sharing one similarity and one difference they identified between Reagan and Garcia. Write the responses on the board at the front of the classroom, organized into columns of “Similarities” and “Differences.” Save the responses to revisit and review at the end of the lesson. Ask students:
    • Noticing in particular the differences between Reagan and Garcia, might they have a different set of values that inform their individual lives? What might those values be?
    • Might their supporters also have a different set of values?
    • Could those who approve of Reagan’s political views also support Garcia’s artistic work?


  1. Play, Clip 1, “Not the Band, but Deadheads.” Ask students:
    • According to Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, why did journalists first want to cover the Grateful Dead in the 1980s?
    • At Grateful Dead concerts, what did journalists find to be more interesting than the band?
    • Who are the Deadheads?
    • How might the Deadheads be different from other fans of the Grateful Dead?
    • Why might someone want to be a Deadhead?
    • Considering the 1980s Deadheads seen in the clip, how might you characterize their community according to age, gender, economic status, etc.? Is it difficult to characterize Deadheads by this criteria? Why or why not? What might these characterizations say about Deadheads and the Grateful Dead in the 1980s?
    • Might the Deadheads remind you of any other fangroup communities? If so, which ones? Might these groups share similar characteristics?

      Image: Wikipedia

  2. Display, Image 1, 1980 US Presidential Election Electoral College Map (Numbers attached to each state are the respective electoral votes that a candidate received for that state). Ask students:
    • Looking at the image, which candidate won the election? How did you determine the winner? What do the numbers listed with each state signify?
    • Did the winning candidate win by a significant amount in comparison to their opponent?
    • Might candidate Ronald Reagan’s victory lead you to conclude that voters supported his campaign themes and values over those of his opponent? Do you know any of those values?
  3. Play students Clip 2, President Reagan’s Radio Address to the Nation on the American Family. Ask students:
    • What might President Reagan mean when he says that we may not be able to “go back to the old family ways”? What might those “family ways” be according to him? Do you think his version of “family ways” are the same as others’? Why might he be nostalgic for “the old family ways”?
    • Why might President Reagan feel it necessary to “preserve family values”? How might his list of “family values” (faith, honesty, responsibility, tolerance, kindness, and love) contrast with those of the Deadheads? Might both Reagan and the Deadheads share some of those values? If so, which ones? Why?
    • What might President Reagan mean when he says that his administration will keep “trying to create a better life for those who follow” those values? What particular groups of people might he be referring to as followers of those values? Might he be excluding those that don’t “follow” those values? Might the Deadheads be excluded from the group of “those who follow” Reagan’s values? If so, why?
    • Considering President Reagan’s address in total, how might his views contrast with those of the Deadheads that you just learned about in the previous video? Why might they contrast each other? What might be biasing your opinion?
  4. Distribute Handout 2 – The Television Family in the ‘80s and organize students into small groups to have them discuss and answer the questions in the handout. Students will need to select a scribe from their group to notate the group’s answers. Once completed, ask students to present their group’s answers to the class. After group presentations, ask students:
    • Do you think all of the families from these television shows followed the family values (faith, honesty, responsibility, tolerance, kindness, and love) President Reagan expressed in his radio address from 1984? If so, why? If not, why not?
    • Do you think a family must identify as “conservative” like President Reagan did in order to follow these values? Can you think of groups that aren’t families that may follow these values?
  5. Display Image 2, Yuppie Handbook Cover. Explain to students that the character Alex Keaton from the 1980s show Family Ties would proudly identify (and be labeled by society in the 1980s) as a Yuppie. Provide the background on the term by explaining that the term “Yuppie” was purposefully borrowed and modified from the 1960s counterculture term “Hippie” as a statement against the values of the counterculture. Ask students:
    • What impressions might you get from this illustration of Yuppies?
    • Their belongings are specifically labeled with brands — do you get the idea that these are the “right” or “ideal” things to do, own, wear, etc.? What would be considered the opposite?
    • Might a Yuppie only be from a particular demographic? Can you list the characteristics of that demographic?
    • Are we supposed to aspire to be like Yuppies? Why or why not?
    • Why might the Deadheads want to reject this culture? Might it be possible to be a Deadhead and a Yuppie?
    • Does the figure of the Yuppie exist today? If so, what characteristics might define them and how might they be similar or different than the Yuppies of the 1980s?
  6. Tell students they will now view a clip where the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia specifically comments on the band’s fan culture during the 1980s and how the Deadhead experience of following the band on tour from show to show had a particular significance during this decade. Play Clip 3, “New Lame America.” Ask students:
    • As the clip explains, the band’s following in the 1980s began to include young people who weren’t even alive during the Dead’s early years. Why might Grateful Dead music and culture attract new fans in the 1980s?
    • Why might these new fans in the 1980s become Deadheads and embrace the traditions of that particular community: following the Grateful Dead on tour, communing with other Deadheads and fans of the group, and attending as many shows as possible?
    • How might the social and cultural norms promoted by President Reagan during the 1980s have influenced people to embrace alternative lifestyles and communities like the Deadheads?
    • Might the appeal of these alternative lifestyles and communities contrast with Reagan’s defined “family values”? Why or why not?
    • What did Grateful Dead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia think was appealing about the band? (Prompt students to recognize that Garcia argued that the Grateful Dead cultural experience might offer an opportunity for “adventure.”)
    • Why might young people in the 1980s in particular have been looking for an adventure? Might their seeking of adventure have been influenced by President Reagan’s promotion of “following” “family values”? Might it be possible to have an adventure and still follow those values?
  7. Distribute, Handout 3 – “Communing with the Dead,” and read as a class. Ask students:
    • Considering the content in the article and President Reagan’s list of family values (faith, honesty, responsibility, tolerance, kindness, and love), might the author have been able to follow those values and also be a Deadhead? Why or why not?
    • What particular aspect of the author’s life noted in the article might conclude that she does follow those values?
    • Considering the content in the article and the previously viewed video clip, “New Lame America,” might it still be possible to have an “adventure” in America? What else was the author seeking with her journey besides an adventure?
    • It what ways might the author view her Deadhead experience besides traveling the country to attend music concerts?
    • Are there any other cultural traditions that you can think of that require someone to make a journey for specific purposes?

Summary Activity:

  1. Deadheads are still around today, but how do you think the Deadhead phenomenon would be covered in the news if it were new today? What similarities do you see between the cultural and political climate of today and the 1980s? How do Deadheads relate to today’s “Stan” culture?

Extension Activities:

  1. Read My Disciplinarian Father, the Deadhead” (Mel magazine, June 13, 2016). Write an essay answering the following question: What do you take away from the article’s portrait of Grateful Dead fandom, family and community, and how the values followed by the father in the article relate to Deadhead culture and President Reagan’s promotion of family values?


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 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 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • 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

  • Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • 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.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge  9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

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.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

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
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

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

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.

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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