To some it’s a nostalgia trip, to others it’s a joyous reunion — but anyone who spends a day or two at Jerry Jam will get a potent shot of good old-fashioned peace and love (and rock ‘n’ roll)
The two mottoes of Jerry Jam are “Kind Minds, Good Times” and “Let the music be the drug.” Both mottoes were in strong evidence at the big party in Bath last July — the 25th anniversary of this festival created in honor of Jerry Garcia, band leader for the Grateful Dead who died in 1995. People helping people seemed to be the rule as folks found their parking spots, stretched their tie-dyed awnings and positioned their tents, coolers and folding chairs, many taking side trips to help vendors set up on the green, rolling hills of Bath, New Hampshire.
The success of such a sprawling affair seems secure now, but at least a few of those souls could still remember the first Jerry Jam in founder Dan Webb’s barn in Bethlehem, where 40 friends and fellow Deadheads gathered to bid a musical farewell to the leader of their band.
Last year, the clear country air of Bath was scented with plenty of patchouli, while the skunkier smells associated with such festivals mostly emanated from spots deeper in the thickets and trails around the camping sites and the stage area. People smiled at people. Kids found friends and played in the grass, while the scene closer to the stage had an energy that made you want to loosen up, find the groove and then get lost in motion — like leaves riding an invisible swirl stirred up by the cascading melodies and rhythms.
My photographer and I, blending in as best we could (it wasn’t hard), had a similarly fluid objective. Both of us in our sixties, we were there just to see how our generation was doing by attending an event that somehow preserves what was good and noble and blissful about the American era known as the 1960s. The invisible swirl that was started by bands like the Grateful Dead had long ago morphed into the phenomenon of the Deadheads: followers of the music of Garcia and his musical counterparts, continuing on even after Garcia’s death. And the flow continues on today in the proliferation of jam bands, like Phish and Moe, that still mine the musical firmament that the Dead staked out for decades.
A quarter century is a long time to keep anything going, but Jerry Jam? In the woods of New Hampshire? What a long strange trip, indeed. At the end of our search, all we really found during our time among the fields of Jammers and Deadheads was some new friends, but with kind minds and amid good times we took photos and rounded up stories from a few of them to help explain the attraction.
According to the music of the Grateful Dead, at the heart of the world dwells a love story. It may be twisted or tragic or triumphant, but it really is love that makes the world go round.
So, when writing about a festival that honors the music and spirit of bands like the Dead, it’s fitting to start with a love story — maybe call it a peace and love story. Sure enough, among the festive flock at the 2022 Jerry Jam, we found Don and Trish.
Their story begins back in 2007, when the world bore little resemblance to the freewheeling hippie era. Steve Jobs had just dropped the iPhone into the hands and pockets of the first all-digital generation. J.K. Rowling had just published the last volume of her Harry Potter series that was turning millions of youngsters into broom-flying sorcerers.
No brooms for this couple, though. It was a different form of transport that brought them together.
“Motorcycles,” says Don Morse. He had put out a Craigslist notice saying he was looking for a female wanting to ride bikes, “but not on the back,” he says. “And strictly platonic,” he adds. About that same time in Concord, Trish Gordon was wondering how she might meet someone who liked motorcycles. She didn’t want to ride alone, and her Sportster was getting dusty. “I didn’t want to store it, so I either had to find someone to ride with or I was going to get rid of it,” she says. Then a friend told her, “There’s this thing called Craigslist.”
Neither had to wait long to make a connection. “Swear to God,” says Trish, “I responded to his post at 10:15 and by 10:18 we were talking motorcycles. His question was, ‘do you want to ride the mountains, or do you like to ride the ocean?’ I said the ocean has water, so let’s go for the mountains.”
They were going to meet up at Friendly’s on the Concord Heights. Trish, feeling cautious, decided to drive by first so she could arrive from the other direction rather than from her home. “I was living alone,” she explains. She saw the man who must be Don sitting astride a Triumph as she passed and felt some relief that he wasn’t sitting on a Harley. “I knew he wasn’t going to be polishing his bike more than driving,” she says.
Parked out front, Don watched as an attractive woman rumbled past on a motorcycle. He felt a sting of disappointment that it wasn’t his Craigslist date — then a thrill to see that same woman roll into the lot a few minutes later.
“We just hit it off,” says Trish. “He had a great smile.” She must have been nervous, because her engine started running out of gas once they were out on the road, but she confidently reached down and switched on her reserve tank, “And he was like, ‘she knows how to ride a bike,’” she says. “I was very confident in my riding, and he was a bunch of fun.”
“We went for a cool, sunset ride,” she recalls, noting that, on your bikes there’s not a lot of awkward first-date small talk.
“Also, she could leave if she wanted,” says Don with a chuckle.
Don grew up in Gilmanton on what Trish affectionately calls Walton’s Mountain — a reference to a popular folksy TV series from the 1970s. Don had a steady job as a machinist for the paper mill industry — a well-rooted New Hampshire industry if ever there was one and he put down his own roots on the triangle of Pittsfield land where he built his home and workshop. Trish had grown up with separated parents and two families, and lived what might now be called an alternative lifestyle. “We ended up in a commune in Hooksett called Earthstar,” she says. “It was on Whitehall Road.” About 12 people were living there, off and on, she recalls. “It was a nice little community there for years and years. It turned into Dovestar Massage School, and now it’s an apartment building.
“So, he had the Walton’s life, and I had the gypsy life, and we both kind of put the two together, and music really became our core.”
Don had already built a stage and listening space into the top level of a barn that was his workspace for tinkering on bikes and car engines. That has since expanded into a large, furnished music loft with ample space for jamming and dancing when the mood is right. Their extensive collection of record albums had occupied boxes and fruit crates so long they’d forgotten what they had, so Don installed supporting rails into the ceiling so all those records could be displayed like ceiling tiles and taken down as desired for listening. For any lover of classic rock and pop, glancing up at that ceiling is a hypnotic trip into the past.
But it was another artifact of bygone ages that brought them to Jerry Jam. When Trish first visited Don’s house, she was blown away by his classic green 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon. “I had grown up around VWs, but I had not seen a bus like that, so I was just wow,” says Trish. It was the perfect vehicle and accommodation for music festivals, so they started following a few.
Soon the couple was recognized for their enthusiasm and general helpfulness on the circuit. After encountering a large, friendly group of bus owners at a campout in Vermont, they knew they’d found their tribe and never looked back, but most of the places to rally with their fellow VW devotees were out of state. Hearing of Jerry Jam, right nearby in Bath, New Hampshire, was mind-expanding, says Trish, so they went.
It was a small festival, but they loved the intimacy. When they met the founder, Dan Webb, he and Don hit it off (“They had the same beard, they had the same energy,” says Trish). Dan also loved VW buses and even would put notes on the windshields of nice ones he would encounter, inviting their pilots to come to Jerry Jam for free if they arrived in a bus. Trish and Don got involved in that effort, promoting it among fellow VW bus pilots, and before long there were dozens of classic VWs rolling in to Jerry Jam and setting up in a special area on a ridge over the event. Trish would coordinate them a colorful rainbow lineup — she called them “Skittles” — with a balcony view of the stage. The buses themselves became part of the attraction (and bus pilots are still admitted free to Jerry Jam).
The rolling tribe that took shape now meets annually at Don’s place in Pittsfield, dubbed the Catamount Bus Stop, for a “dust-off,” every spring before a major VW bus rally in Maine. Dozens of VW microbuses, vans and tricked-out campers fill the lot and road in front of the home for a huge potluck and jam session with riders and bus pilots from all over the Northeast coming to reunite. Local musicians and bands come to play just for the fun, the community and the intensity of the music that lasts into the wee hours.
Many of the vehicles at the dust-off have a small oval bumper sticker with a tie-dyed background and the words “I Know Trish” on it. The sticker started as a joke, created by a friend to celebrate Trish’s famous organizing energy at festivals like Jerry Jam. Now those three words on that psychedelic background are a sure sign that whoever is driving the vehicle is a member of a warm, supportive family.
Such creative energy was everywhere when my photographer and I dropped by for this year’s dust-off. Food overflowed from tables, music and laughter radiated out into the hills of Pittsfield, and every bus seemed to have its own story to tell with owners nearby happy to share it. Musicians and artists, young and old, poured in from neighboring towns. It was astonishing to realize that this network of talented and remarkable people had been gathering and operating for years without any marketing or promotion beyond simple word of mouth (and a colorful bumper sticker).
So, fate, or maybe the spirit of Jerry Garcia himself, had led us to the perfect people to introduce us to this musical tribute and rolling phenomenon that is Jerry Jam.
And I suppose the flashbacks were inevitable in the following days. Enjoying the music and the attitudes of a multigenerational crowd dressed and behaving in ways so rooted in a distant time brought my own younger days back in a euphoric rush of memory.
The youth culture of the 1960s era was indulgent and ecstatic but also purposeful. Our goal was simple: to rethink and change everything and in so doing save the planet from the mess our parents had bequeathed to us.
The culture that my hippie friends and I were trying to foment was one of child-like acceptance of people mixed with adults-only adventure and experimentation. We shared the sense that anything was possible and that art and music could heal and transform things just by applying it like ointment. It didn’t even have to be that good. Paint a peace sign on a rock in the woods, and it became a local landmark for happenings, parties and, eventually, weddings.
The world was our playground and a temple where we actively, sometimes passionately, worshiped. Our minds were puzzles awaiting expansion and revelation. We truly believed the lunacy of the “straight” world of politics and aggressive capitalism would fade under our tender assault as we merged with and transformed the control systems. And, yes, we had bizarre taste in fashion and hair (that continues to influence today’s hipsters), but the canon of all popular music forms was forged in those early years of my generation.
The hippies and gentle revolutionaries back then weren’t trying to crush the status quo so much as to build a system within a system, good-hearted and peace loving, always friendly but formidable when it needed to be. It was a DIY revolution that ignored the Babylon influences of the popular culture of its time (“squares” like Anita Bryant, Ed Sullivan and Laurence Welk) but also the politicians and elites of both parties, i.e The Man. (Whatever yet-unnamed generation that is going to have to clean up the current psycho-political mess might want to take note.)
The good news is that the “subculture” that was created never went away. It operates full force in special places and in clusters where the spirit of freedom and acceptance, peace and love, still rules — places like the Catamount Bus Stop and Jerry Jam.
Maybe the hippies of the Baby Boomer generation, pretentious and annoying as they are so often portrayed, maybe they were on to something. And if that hopeful movement still lives on in art, music and community of a new generation, then who knows? Maybe the magic in the music can still fulfill its expressed mission of saving this mad, mad, mad, mad world from itself.
Love is all you need (and smoothies)
Sam Duchaine of Roxbury, Vermont has been coming to Jerry Jam in her Root Juice trailer since maybe 2015 (“slinging juices and smoothies,” she says). And she loves that it so perfectly recreates “the vibe we all have in our best memories…” But to be clear, she adds, it’s not about lifestyle and fashion but about the spiritual aspects of the gathering. “It’s LOVE that is most important to me!” says Duchaine.
“It’s joy, awe, and connection with a community,” she says. “It is totally underestimated and I think critical for our wellbeing. According to the U.S. Surgeon General we are in an epidemic of loneliness, and this is an antidote. The level of connection [here] is unlike what most people experience in “normal” daily life. Humans are tribal people. We need to feel like we have a tribe, and events like Jerry Jam provide this.”
She loves the inclusive experience of total strangers uniting and bonding as long-lost friends. “There is an understood level of acceptance and non judgment that makes everyone feel like they are accepted,” she says.
It’s All About the Music
For Alan and Erica Davis of Alna, Maine, it’s all about the music. “Live music has always been part of our lives,” says Alan. “Concerts and festivals prompt us to put our lives on hold, to explore what’s outside the boxes and the norms we live in” He says that they review their musical experiences each year and Jerry Jam always tops the list.
“We go to festivals all over New England and beyond, Gathering of the Vibes in CT, Mountain Jam in NY, Levitate & Boston Calling in MA, and Bonnaroo in TN. Word of mouth is strong among us festival goers,” he says, noting they first heard about Jerry Jam from a couple they met at the Gathering of the Vibes and again while talking with their VW van-owner friends.
“In 2018, we took our ‘spare bedroom’ on wheels, a burgundy 1987 VW Westfalia along the backroads and covered bridges from Maine to NH for our first Jerry Jam experience. WOW! The experience was amazing,” he says. “A small music festival, located in a beautiful, rural setting surrounded by other music lovers and VW owners. Immediately, the vibe was different from any other festival we had been to. We were greeted by a volunteer who asked us where we had traveled from, what year our van was and what musical act we were looking forward to.”
The couple love the mood at Jerry Jam which they describe as “mellow and friendly” with camping on site helping to build a community. “We share meals, stories and most of all our love of music. We look forward to what Jerry Jam may be like in the future, but hope it doesn’t change TOO much and lose its magic.”
Music Elicits Happiness
Last year was the first year at Jerry Jam for Marie Lamon of Biddeford, Maine. She brought her 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son and helped with the vending at the Pigpen’s BBQ truck, operated by a friend.
She says that music “elicits human emotion; often happiness” and that this is easy to find at the Jam, but so are virtues of hard work and cooperation, that also seem to benefit from the musical atmosphere. She shares this anecdote from 2022: “When it started getting dark on Friday evening I took out a bunch of glow sticks that I had purchased at the dollar store. My kids very quickly picked up the entrepreneurial spirit and started selling them for pocket money. We did yoga and collaborative art in the morning and had several people stop by to contribute. The kids painted rocks to sell. I think I bought them each only one food item the entire weekend and they were showing up to the site with food and treats consistently. We danced, we worked, we laughed, and we learned. I was extremely grateful to a majorette that spent time teaching my daughter how to do a trick and later guided her on how to price her art and never to undervalue her art or herself. We all connected with old friends and made new ones. It was such a fun family affair.”
Strangers Helping Strangers
Paula Higgins of Abington, Massachusetts, says, “I grew up with a Deadhead dad listening to his music all the time.” One of her earliest memories from when she was about 4 is her dad taking her to a free concert on Boston Common or the Public Gardens. “Not sure which,” Paula says, “I just remember being surrounded by a sea of colorful blankets and long-haired people. Music was playing and people were dancing. I remember feeling so free. Spinning and twirling in the grass with not a single worry in the world. Being at the festival brings me right back to that primal place before life got hard. It reminds me that there’s still that little girl inside that NEEDS to dance.”
She says that the camping set ups are always fun to look over. “We have a large tent and easy up that we hang lights and tapestries from.” They pack pretty light: “Basic cooking gear but ALWAYS water ready to brew coffee!” she says.
Her favorite part of the Jerry Jam experience?: “Strangers helping strangers,” says Paula. “I have never seen this anywhere else in my life the way I do at festivals. People stopping to help others carry their gear or set up. Offering food and friendship. It’s the way life should be everywhere.”