For David Dodd, the legacy of the Grateful Dead falls somewhere between baseball and the Bible.
That’s why Dodd, the city librarian for the San Rafael Public Library in California, has dedicated more than 20 years to annotating the legendary rock band’s extensive catalogue of song lyrics.
"I sort of got the idea from other annotated literary texts, like the "Annotated Mother Goose" and other things that have been done, with baseball or the Bible, for crying out loud," he said. "I just started wondering about certain songs and wondering what the references were about."
In 1995, Dodd launched the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics website. The project is aimed at highlighting certain words or phrases in the band’s lyrics that may need explanation without attempting to give definitive interpretations.
By including links within the lyrics that connect readers with specific footnotes for each song, readers can better understand the band’s vision that may have otherwise gone unrealized in a conventional format.
"I kind of put nothing interpretative because people do send me a lot of ideas about what the songs mean, and I always write back, â€˜That’s great, you hang onto that because that’s what it means to you,’" he said.
His philosophy is further detailed on the Web site’s introduction.
"There are two main metaphors for this project that I try to keep in mind," he wrote. "I’ve always wondered what would happen if, every time you ran into any kind of reference to a book or a person or a work of art you weren’t familiar with, you had to go find out about that thing before you continued with what you were doing: Would you finish anything?"
The first song annotated for the project, he said, was "Ramble on Rose," a Robert Hunter introduced into the band’s repertoire in 1971.
"I just started wondering what the references were about — like who were Crazy Otto and Billy Sunday," he said. "So I just started pursuing those things in my spare time on the reference desk."
Dodd accumulated that spare time during more than a decade he spent in libraries and similar settings along the West Coast, including as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver and as a research associate at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Dodd said he began working on the project in 1984, about 10 years before he published it on the Internet. He marked his initial progress on index cards that included song titles, key phrases and a brief bibliography.
When he started as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Springs in 1994, Dodd decided to put his annotated materials on the Internet as his required research contribution toward earning tenure at the university.
"The idea that I would devote so much foolish time to this only happened because I became fascinated by the World Wide Web," he said.
Dodd said he put "hundreds of hours" into the Web site during its first few months.
"Right away, I was able to put up quite a few of those little notes that I had from cards," he said. "Then I started asking the Grateful Dead if I Could have permission to sue some of the full text, and they gave me permission one song at a time."
The Web site also provided Dodd with an opportunity to solicit ideas from other fans, which he would add and cite to go with his own findings.
At first, he received "upwards of 10 e-mails a day" with substantive ideas.
"That’s sort of tapered off to where I get one or two a day," he said. "I still get a lot of ideas about this material, and rightly so."
The suggestions vary from a particular song’s role in pop culture to a lead about a specific show where the band sung an alternative set of lyrics.
For instance, in the listing for "Black Peter," a Hunter tune that received steady play from the band after it was introduced in 1969, Dodd includes a series of references from his own research that the song is "a traditional counterpart to Saint Nicholas, according to The Folklore of World Holidays."
The listening also includes a suggestion from a reader named Tom Murphy, who mentions that the "Keeper of the Moat" in T.H. White’s story on King Arthur, "The Once and Future King," is "none other than Black Peter."
Another reader, Robert Steinhilber, references a second piece of literature that may have influenced Hunter: "The Adventure of Black Peter," from Arthur Conan Doyle’s "The Return of Sherlock Holmes."
In the listing for Hunter’s "Jimmy Row," first introduced by the band in 1973, Dodd credits reader Alex Allan for pointing out that the song has a similar set of lyrics to a 1938 tune from jazz piano player Jelly Roll Morton called "Winin’ Boy Blues." Morton’s song reads: "Mama, Mama, Mama look at Sis’ / She’s out on the levee doing the double twist / I’m a Winin’ Boy, don’t deny my name." Not far off, Hunter’s lyrics read: "Here’s my half a dollar if you dare / Double twist when you hit the air / Look at Julie down below / The levee doin’ the do-pas-o." which are "a clear echo" of what Morton had previously scribed, Allan said.
Despite how much information accompanied his research, the Web site was designed in a basic style that Dodd said he taught himself to put together.
"I just do it the easiest way I know how," he said. "It’s not database driven, but I just write straight HTML."
"What I thought worked well was the idea that you’d be going along and reading something and you’d find a phrase you liked and you could click on it and it would take you to more information," he said. "Place those below the text of the song and have it be an anchor link below the page."
Eleven years later, the site still holds up as a reflection of his project, but Dodd said the passing of time has not been without its technical difficulties.
"The problem with outside links is that you’ll run across a few that were once alive but are now gone," he said.
Part of this problem was resolved last year, when Dodd teamed with Free Press to publish "The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics," a 480-page physical counterpart to his online reference guide, including a foreword written by Hunter and an after word by another longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow.
"That was the nice thing about doing the book, you can have something that you can open in a hundred years whereas the web page requires an extensive amount of work to always have it open," Dodd said.
Creating a complete annotated text of the band’s catalogue would not have been an easy task if not for contributions from the Internet community.
"I think the Internet made the project possible," Dodd said. "If I had on my own spent a number of years of my life, I might have arrived at the same point, but the fact that I was helped by so many people, it just goes on and on. It’s just a couple hundred folks who are named whose comments I used in the book, but without them there would be a couple hundred fewer comments."
John Henrikson, who has hosted a weekly community radio program called the "Grateful Dead Hour" out of Columbia, Mo., for more than a dozen years, is one of the people acknowledged by Dodd for his contributions to the project.
"The Internet has always been a natural gathering place for fans of The Dead," Henrikson said in an e-mail. "Going back to the start of the WELL in the early 1980s, the Internet facilitated exchanging information, making plans about going to and meeting up at shows, trading tapes and so on."
Such advancements "greatly aided programing a spirit of community among Deadheads separated by time and space," he said.
Like Henrikson, Dodd also credited the WELL for bolstering the Grateful Dead’s community presence on the Internet.
"It’s a very early computer conferencing, for-pay community, so you can join and then there are all these conferences on virtually every topic under the sun," he said. "And they’re hosted by people who actually know about the topic."
Dodd said the WELL served as "A good initial source on getting started and asking questions about what people thought" of certain interpretations.
"It’s an odd thing these days on the Internet to have things for-pay just to talk to each other," he said, "but I’m still a member and I probably always will be, just because it’s where it all got started for me."
Henrikson has also found his own way to contribute to the band’s legacy online. He has kept a weblog about the schedule for his radio program since 2000 and allows listeners to download his show as a podcast.
He said he has "consistently been amazed" by the number of downloads, possibly boosted in part by a recent mention in Rolling Stone magazine.
Intriguing discussions about the meaning and significance of the band’s lyrics have led Henrikson to be familiar with Dodd for many years, he said, adding that Dodd "certainly did an excellent job… turning that work into his current book."
"Fans are always interested in the meaning or source of Grateful Dead lyrics," Henrikson said. "Hunter’s lyrics were a crucial element in what set the Grateful Dead apart from being â€˜just’ entertainment."