The Psychedelic History of the Grateful Dead’s Dancing Bears

The Psychedelic History of the Grateful Dead’s Dancing Bears

It doesn't matter whether you’re a tried and true Deadhead or an occasional listener, you’ve definitely seen the dancing bears motif at some point in your life, and you may or may not have ever wondered where the symbol came from. Read on to find out!

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 A Design Born from Artistic Collaboration

The dancing bear design was originally created by artist and renaissance man Bob Thomas for use on the back of the Grateful Dead’s 1973 album The History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice). Thomas actually has a long history tied with The Dead having co-designed the band’s iconic “Lightning Bolt” logo with Owsley Stanley in 1969 as a means of keeping track of the band’s equipment while on tour. In addition to these ubiquitous graphics, Thomas also designed the art for the The Dead’s Steal Your Face and Live Dead as well as the logo for Alembic, an American manufacturer of high-end electric guitars, basses and preamps started by Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s sound engineer.

Why the Bears?

The choice to create a symbol using bears as the focal point stems from Owsley Stanley’s nickname “Bear” given to him by childhood friends as a result of his excessive chest hair. There is also speculation that the moniker “Dancing Bear” was attributed to Stanley in reference to his peculiar choice of dance moves at concerts while high on acid.

The actual principal design for the style of bear we now commonly associate with the Grateful Dead was born from a 36-point lead type slug featuring a generic bear print that Thomas found and used as his primary artistic inspiration.

How the Bears Became Popularized

The Bears originally appeared on the back cover of the Grateful Dead’s Bear’s Choice album launching the design into the public eye, but this album circulation only accounted for a portion of the rapid fame attributed to the bears. In addition to being the band’s sound engineer, Owsley Stanley was also one of the world’s first private LSD manufacturers.

What does this have to do with the dancing bears you ask?

Actually a lot! Following the release of the Dead’s album, the bears motif began appearing on Stanley’s LSD blotter art, which also just so happened to be widely circulated at most Grateful Dead concerts at the time. Because the bears were featured on the album art as well as within the social sphere of communal drug use at the band’s live performances, they quickly became a symbol deeply entwined with the culture of listening to the Grateful Dead. From there, Deadheads began creating their own merchandise featuring the dancing bears including bootleg stickers and shirts to name a few, and the symbol was forevermore associated with the Dead.  

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