I’ve started to learn to sing and play the Grateful Dead song Ship of Fools on my tenor banjo. I'm not there yet, but I think it’s going to be a cool song to do. However, Ship of Fools has some pretty complex chords in it that are new to me. So, I’ve been looking for a 2nd, more flowing and intuitive Grateful Dead song to also learn. Yesterday it occurred to me that Dark Star might be a good candidate!
That might seem like an odd choice. Dark Star is the Grateful Dead’s most improvisational song – built around the A mixolydian mode with the chords A and G as its two primary (home and contrast) chords. E minor as well. The Grateful Dead would take this song out there on long, 30+ minute explorations. Because of its lack of structure and minimal nature, Dark Star is very malleable. It’s conceivable that someone playing it on a folk instrument – such as tenor banjo – could find enjoyment in interpreting a campfire version of this song.
Even if you're not prone to musical improvisation, you could sprinkle in a mixolydian traditional tune, such as Cluck Old Hen, as an instrumental break between verses to add some color. Anyway, the point of this post is that last night I began searching online to see if anyone had transcribed the intro and main theme for Dark Star, so that I would have notation to work with when learning the melody that builds up to the first verse. I didn’t find that notation, but I did find some cool blogs devoted to the musicology behind the Grateful Dead's songs and performances.
Like this post from The Grateful Dead World, about the Modal Basis of the Grateful Dead’s Songs and Jams.
My search also brought up some articles on a site called the Grateful Dead Guide about performances of Dark Star in 1968 and in 1971. There are tons of other GD-related writings on this blog on a variety of subjects worth checking out.
Finally, I found this extensive essay on Tonal and Expressive Ambiguity in Dark Star by Graeme M. Boone. It does include transcriptions of the vocal line and some of Garcia’s solos from Dark Star performances.