Grade: High
Subject: CTE

Essential Question

Who are the Wharf Rats, and how do they exemplify the practices of sobriety, peer support, and community building within a musical fan culture?


In this lesson, students investigate strategies the Grateful Dead fan community known as “Wharf Rats” employed to maintain sobriety within Deadhead fan culture. By investigating the Wharf Rats, students will have open discussions about sobriety, and divorce the relationship between drug use and musical fanship. 

Born out of the countercultural revolution of the 1960’s, the Grateful Dead and the Deadhead community has long been associated with drug use. Drugs were woven into the fabric of the Grateful Dead’s music and community since their early performances as the house band for the Acid Tests, a series of experimental LSD-based gatherings held within the burgeoning counterculture of Northern California before LSD was criminalized in 1968.  During the intense social duress of this period–the escalating Vietnam War, ongoing Civil Rights struggles and increasingly violent civil disobedience, and a seemingly insurmountable generation gap–the Grateful Dead, its fanbase, and Timothy Leary’s famous call to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out” synergized into what must have seemed to many an attractive alternative to the American mainstream. However, as the counterculture waned, the Grateful Dead continued to rise, and drugs of all types permeated the massive Deadhead fanbase known to follow the band around the country. Many fans who hoped to enter a utopian subculture ultimately found themselves struggling with the dystopian reality of addiction.

In the time since the late 60s, drugs and music have become synonymous to many. Indeed, the verb “to party,” so often associated with any live music or nightclub experience, means, to many, “to get wasted.” And as chemical substances have gotten stronger, the repercussions have become only more lethal. From 2017-2019, young rappers Mac Miller, Lil Peep, and Juice WRLD have all died of overdoses. Grimly, all three from substances they mentioned in their songs.

But drugs never truly defined the Grateful Dead or the Deadhead community, nor must they define any musical community. Within the Deadhead community, members who sought to abstain from drugs or recovered from addiction formed an influential support group known as the “Wharf Rats.” Named after a Grateful Dead song about an aged, addicted hobo,  the Wharf Rats sought to create a safe space for Deadheads who wished to see their favorite band while resisting the drug scene that had grown around them. The tight-knit community vowed to be drug-free and use the Grateful Dead concert experience as a way to wield the power of sobriety without giving up their fundamental identities as Deadheads.

The Wharf Rats would watch shows together and hold meetings during the set break of each concert. These meetings, based on the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) rubric, gave members a chance to reiterate their pledges to sobriety, discuss mutual hardships and foment powerful relationships with other Wharf Rats. At concerts, their signature yellow balloons identified their location to other Wharf Rats and regular Deadheads alike, signaling their intent and asking for others cooperation and support.

The Grateful Dead has come to be celebrated for their innovations. Many of their ideas that seemed unheard of at the time, from sound system advancements to allowing fans to tape and freely trade their music, are now viewed as visionary. Rarely, however, is sobriety touted as a Grateful Dead accomplishment. Yet the Wharf Rats’ legacy can currently be seen across all genres of live music. Their rubric has been used to create similar support groups for fans of other bands who share the same goals. Support groups and safe spaces for concertgoers in recovery are a fixture in modern live-music culture, largely due to the successful and powerful legacy of the Wharf Rats.


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  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The founding purpose of the Wharf Rats
    • How the Wharf Rats built a strong community and peer support network
    • The issue of addiction in the music industry
    • The basic tenets of the Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) 12-Step Program
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to openly discuss the culture of drug use in music and divorce the relationship between drugs and music by analyzing the history and practices of the Wharf Rats.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell the students that this lesson will critically examine the culture of drugs in music. Then ask:
    • Have you ever heard of Juice WRLD, Mac Miller, or Lil Peep? What do you know about them? Do they still record and perform? Why or why not?
    • What are your thoughts on the relationship between drugs and music? How is this relationship seen in different musical mediums like live concerts, lyrics and music videos?
    • Can you think of any musical artists that promote drug use as a part of the concert experience?
    • Why, among some communities and artists, do drugs and music seem to be so closely connected?


  1. Tell students they will be examining the use of drugs among fans of the band Grateful Dead, otherwise known as “Deadheads,” and also looking at the ways some fans resisted drug culture and maintained their sobriety.
  2. Play Clip 1, The Acid Tests and ask students:
    1. What was the purpose of the Acid Tests? What occurred at these events?
    2. In the clip, Jerry Garcia says, “People came to the Acid Tests for the Acid Tests, not for us.” What does this quote tell you about the environment in which the Grateful Dead was first formed?
    3. How did the group mentality of the Acid Tests inform the group mentality of Deadhead culture?
    4. In what ways might it be challenging for a sober person to attend a Grateful Dead concert? What kind of support might be helpful for them if they wanted to attend?
  3. Distribute Handout 1 – “The Wharf Rats: Concert-Goers and Drug-Free Culture.” Have students read the handout individual or as a group. Then ask:
    • What is the purpose of the Wharf Rats? Why were they formed?
    • What does the Wharf Rats community say about the greater Deadhead community?
    • Why might it be important for the Wharf Rats to fly yellow balloons at a concert?
    • Why might it be helpful for people living alcohol and drug free to congregate at concerts, and through social media?
    • Why might it be important for members of the Wharf Rats to share their stories with others during concert breaks?
  4. Distribute Handout 2 – “Wharf Rats” lyrics. After reading lyrics, ask students:
    • Describe the character the song is about. What are his addictions and how have they affected him?
    • How does the Wharf Rat’s experience with drugs differ from what was promoted during the Grateful Dead’s Acid Tests?
    • How would you describe the mood of the song? Does the song end on a positive or negative note?
    • Why might it have been appropriate for sober Deadheads to adopt the name “Wharf Rat”?
  5. Show Image 1, Wharf Rat Pins. Then ask:
    • What do you notice about these pins?
    • What do you think the phrase “One Show at a Time” means? Why is that phrase appropriate for the Wharf Rats?
    • What might have motivated the Wharf Rats to create these pins? What function do they serve?
  6. Distribute Handout 3 – Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program. Explain to the students that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a non-religious group, and they encourage its members to replace the concept of God, should they choose, with another “Power greater than ourselves.” Ask students:
    • What might a Deadhead use to replace the concept of God as their “Power greater than ourselves” if they were to follow the AA 12-Step Program?
    • Which step of the 12-Step Program may have influenced the creation of the Wharf Rats?
  7. Show Image 2 – Sober Support Group Logos. Explain that the images are logos for sober support groups for both bands and musical festivals. Like the Wharf Rats, these groups meet during live concerts and provide a safe haven for fans committing to sobriety. Ask students:
    • Why might have other groups adopted the Wharf Rat’s model?
    • Based on these other support groups, do you think that the Wharf Rats concept is only applicable to the Grateful Dead?
  8. Pass out Handout 4 – Peer Support Group. Either individually or in groups, ask students to create their own peer support group for an artist or festival of their choice.  
  9. Have individual students or student groups share their completed handouts with the class.
  10. Pass out Handout 5 – ‘It’s a war zone’: why is a generation of rappers dying young?Ask students to read it aloud or to themselves individually. Then ask students:
    • According to the article, what factors have led to the death of the artists profiled?
    • How is drug use promoted by these musicians?
    • Do you think the musicians themselves are promoting drug use, or simply responding to “the culture”?
    • What pressures might these artists be under to use drugs?
    • How are musicians, fans, and managers addressing the issue of addiction among this group of rappers?
    • Display Image 3 – Music Industry and Sobriety Discussion Questions. Divide students into groups and have them discuss each question. Then, have each group present a summary of their discussion to the class.

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students to think about their favorite musicians or bands. Then ask:
    • Is drug culture represented in the music that you listen to? In what ways?
    • Do you advocate lyrics and behaviors that glorify drug culture? Do you feel pressured to participate in drug culture when listening to certain artists?
    • Is it possible to enjoy the music while abstaining from drug culture?

Extension Activities:

  1. One of the Wharf Rats slogans is “High on Music.” Sit and intently listen to one of your favorite artists without doing anything else for at least 30 minutes. Afterward, write a reflection on how you felt while listening, and if your mood changed. Is it possible to get “high” on music?


National Health Education Standards

  • S1: Students will comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease prevention to enhance health.
  • S2: Students will analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology, and other factors on health behaviors.
  • S5: Students will demonstrate the ability to use decision-making skills to enhance health.
  • S7: Students will demonstrate the ability to practice health-enhancing behaviors and avoid or reduce health risks.

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.
  • 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.
  • Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • 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 8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

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.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    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.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician 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.
    B9.0 Explore the connection between artistic preparation and professional standards and practices.
    B9.5 Contrast differing roles in professional skill sets of creators, performers, and others involved in the production and presentation of the performing arts.

Production and Managerial Arts (C)

  • C3.0 Analyze and differentiate the function of the various members of a production team.
    C3.1 Identify the skills and competencies of the various members of a production team including producer, production manager, director, assistant director, stage manager, production designer(s), post production, etc.
    C4.0 Demonstrate key skills and an understanding of the complexities of production planning.
    C4.1 Know the main elements and functional responsibilities involved in the production and presentation of the performing, visual, and media arts.
    C4.2 Know how artistic processes, organizational structure, and business principles, including funding and budgeting, are interrelated in both live and media production.

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Who are the Wharf Rats, and how do they exemplify the practices of sobriety, peer support, and community building within a musical fan culture?