If John Perry Barlow’s sole accomplishment had been the co-founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990, it would have been enough to lodge him firmly in the pantheon of 20th century visionaries. Had Barlow merely penned substantial lyrics for Grateful Dead musical excursions “Cassidy,” “Throwing Stones,” “Estimated Prophet,” “Black-Throated Wind,” and “Feels Like Rain,” he would be lauded as an inspired, elegant songwriter. Were Barlow’s enduring quest for internet justice the single focus of his 70 years on Earth, the man would be hailed as a hero of the information superhighway. John Perry Barlow was all these things, and more. A real-life cowboy who rode the psychedelic range with Timothy Leary, declared cyberspace independence, and composed unforgettable songs for the Grateful Dead died peacefully in his sleep early Wednesday morning.
An uncommon life
Born in Jackson Hole on October 3, 1947, John Barlow was raised on a Wyoming cattle ranch by his Republican politician father, Norman Barlow, and his devout Mormon mom, Miriam “Mim” Barlow. At age 15, Barlow took up residence at the Fountain Valley School of Colorado where he quickly bonded with fellow student Robert “Bobby” Weir. The school that stood on the former site of the Lazy B Ranch proved to be the perfect incubator for a friendship that would last a lifetime. When Weir was expelled from the private boarding school for “difficult” children while John was not, Barlow considered the situation “a miscarriage of justice” and quit the school in protest, according to The Guardian.
Weir-Barlow musical magic
Bob Weir and John Barlow started their songwriting partnership in 1971, according to Barlow’s Berkman Klein emeritus page at Harvard University. Early Weir-Barlow collaborations include “Cassidy” and “Mexicali Blues,” both of which were composed for Weir’s 1972 solo album, Ace. The Weir-Barlow musical partnership began after Bob had a falling out with his erstwhile Grateful Dead songwriting partner, Robert Hunter.
In addition to co-writing songs with Weir, Barlow and late Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland co-wrote “Picasso Moon,” “I Will Take You Home,” and several other tracks that appear on the Grateful Dead’s 1989 release, Built to Last.
On February 8, 1996, John Perry Barlow published “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in which he denounced government interference with free speech on the internet.
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
In 2003, Barlow spoke to Mother Jones about online activism, file sharing, and other aspects of the digital counterculture. The man who said his ultimate aspiration was “to be a good ancestor” decried the then-current Bush administration’s overreaching privacy invasions imposed upon internet users in the name of patriotism.
“It’s ridiculous, dangerous, grossly unconstitutional, and it’s perfectly in keeping with what this administration’s been doing across the board. This is an administration that has recently reserved to itself the right to kill American citizens anywhere on the planet for the mere suspicion of membership in Al Qaeda. That’s really quite an awe-inspiring breakthrough.
“And the astonishing thing is that the American people are nodding along in their stupor and saying ‘Yeah, well, whatever it takes to stop terrorism.’ I’m so disappointed in my countrymen.”
EFF executive director Cindy Cohn worked side by side with John Perry Barlow for almost three decades. Cohn rightly credits Barlow’s dedicated vision and leadership for making much of the internet what it is today.
“He always saw the Internet as a fundamental place of freedom, where voices long silenced can find an audience and people can connect with others regardless of physical distance.”
Barlow’s autobiographical memoir Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times will be released in the summer of 2018.
John Perry Barlow 1947-2018 — May the four winds blow you safely home.