5.19.17 Chiming in the Band

Forty years ago, in May of 1977, something magical happened at Cornell University.

At the center of the Cornell campus stands a huge building called Barton Hall. Originally built in 1914 for the school’s Military Science Program, Barton was intended to be an armory for storing airplanes and military equipment, and for drilling ROTC students. At the time of its construction, it was the largest unpillared room in the world. After World War 2, Cornell repurposed Barton Hall for all sorts of student activities, such as registration and test-taking, indoor track, basketball games, and marching band practice. (Pop-culture postscript: in the movie Love Story, Ryan O’Neil’s character, a Harvard hockey player, is shown supposedly walking out of the hockey arena, but he’s actually coming out of Barton Hall.)

The other purpose that Barton Hall serves is as a concert hall. On May 8, 1977, several thousand students packed into Barton for a concert by the Grateful Dead. The band was in the middle of a tour which Rolling Stone would notoriously summarize as “bikers, Belushi and blow” but which was almost certainly the best tour in the long, strange trip of the Dead’s career. And this specific concert – which Deadheads refer to as simply “Barton Hall 77” – is generally accepted to be the greatest performance that this hard-working touring band ever gave. Bootlegs of the concert have been copied and passed around and posted online for decades, and a copy has been added to the National Historic Registry. (Musical postscript: The Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, but their leader Jerry Garcia refused to go to the induction, so the rest of the band brought a cardboard cutout of him; Garcia died a year later.)

Skip forward to 2017. The Grateful Dead decided that it was high time to release an official recording of the show. Using a tape made from the sound board of their engineer, Betty Cantor-Jackson, a 3-CD set of the concert was engineered and mastered, and released on May 5, in time to celebrate the concert’s 40th anniversary. (Technology postscript: about 350 reels of tapes from the “Betty-Board” were lost for years but were recovered in an auction of the contents of a storage unit in Marin County in 1986.)

As the anniversary approached, Cornell decided to join in the celebration. The visual icon of the university is the 173-foot-tall McGraw Tower. Built in 1891, McGraw is topped by a set of 21 chimes that is one of the most frequently played such instruments in the world. Several times each day, the Cornell community is treated to a short mini-concert of familiar tunes, played by a handful of specially trained student “chimesmasters.” And in honor of the anniversary of the concert, Cornell decided to replace the normal daily play list with a set of songs by the Grateful Dead, to be requested in advance by the student body. (Exception postscript: a few songs by other bands like the Beatles also got into the mix.)

And so, at 6PM on Monday, May 8, 2017, the Cornell campus rang out with a glorious half-hour clocktower 21-chime-salute to the Grateful Dead, including “Touch of Grey,” “They Love Each Other,” “Playing in the Band,” “Ripple,” and “Uncle John’s Band.” The songs had to be carefully reworked for this unique medium, and some had to be performed by tandem chimesmasters to get the desired result. (Musical credit postscript: thanks to Serim An ’17, Josh Chan ’18, John Lee ’18, Jennifer Lory-Moran ’96/’97, Gretchen Ryan ’97 and Billie Sun ’19.

“God save the child that rings that bell
It may have one good ring, baby, you can’t tell
One watch by night, one watch by day
If you get confused listen to the music play”

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