Just What Was Soooooo Great About the 60's?
With Baby Boomers now the single biggest sector of the American population, 60's culture seems more en vogue than ever--and embraced by a whole new generation. Sixties music, fashion, and ideology are reflected in the countless “Classic Rock” radio stations blasting Doors music 24-7, “vintage” clothing shops that feature 60's era garb, and ecological movements like “Go Green” and Greenpeace. But what exactly made this era soooo great?
- The 60's culture
- The Beatles
- Flower Power (Make Love Not War)
- Bell bottoms, Granny glasses, and Peasant dresses
- Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury
- Monterey, Newport, Woodstock, and Altamont
- Vans, buses, and vagabonds
- Hair, Oh Calcutta, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
- Long hair
- Janis, Jimi, and Jim
The 60's culture
While addressing a graduating class of future anthropologists the other day, I remarked how our individual perception of culture is greatly colored by the environment in which we grow up, mine being the 60's counterculture. While I'd assumed my reference was self-evident, I quickly realized that half the auditorium clearly hadn’t grasped my meaning, and just sat there blank-faced. A moment later this reality became the proverbial while elephant in the room when a young lady in the third row stood up and posed most pointedly, "Well, what was sooooo great about the 60's?" With that in mind, I prepared this little primer of some of the contributions my “60's” generation made to American culture.
Beyond the phenomenal contribution the Beatles made to the American music scene--as well much of the world--the Beatles opened the door to the "British Invasion" and a wave of artistic creativity the likes of which America had never before seen. Far from the "fad" many critics had predicted, the Beatles went on to essentially change our collective worldview, including our perception of art, religion, and politics. Additionally, Paul McCartney’s individual contribution to new musical innovations, John Lennon’s mantra of world peace, George Harrison’s introduction of “world music” to mainstream culture, and Ringo Starr’s commitment to 60's ideology, continue to reverberate with a resonance that transcends time and generational differences.
Flower Power (Make Love Not War)
Beginning with the "Summer of Love" in 1967, when as estimated 100,000 Flower Children converged on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco intent on staging a cultural and political rebellion, the need for violence in solving conflict was called into question on a world scale. This "revolution" not only changed the mindset for millions of Americans, it is credited with improving race, sex, and gender relations, promoting equal right for Blacks, women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans and other minorities, as well as with being instrumental in bringing an end to the Viet Nam War.
Bell bottoms, Granny glasses, and Peasant dresses
As fashion during the 60's turned in a decisively avant-garde and Bohemian direction, bells bottoms, granny glasses, and peasant dresses were part of the common garb making members of the American counterculture recognizable. Though worn as symbols of rebellion and belonging, it also singled us out, making us frequent targets of prejudice and sometimes violence. Nonetheless, striving to change American attitudes toward stereotyping, we refused to conform to tradition (strictly for the sake of tradition), and wore our “freak flags” with pride--while knowing we looked cool as hell! And judging by the resurgent interest in these now "vintage" clothes, so does a whole new generation.
Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury
While Greenwich Village had long been a center for cultural evolution (since the 1920's, by some measure), during the 60's, it became the undisputed center for a new breed of folk artist/poets like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, while the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco spawned a succession of psychedelic bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. Between the two cultural centers, America was treated to wave upon wave of what millions consider the most inventive art and music in American history.
Reflective of an attitude based on introspection and inner journeys of the mind (yes, and spawned to a degree by the popular use of hallucinogenic drugs), psychedelic imagery not only represented the mindset of the Hippie counterculture, it represented a pop homage to the works of 20th century artists like Matisse, Picasso, Dali, and Pollock who‘d initiated voyages of the mind in their art. Psychedelia brought art to a sector of the American population who previously had no interest whatsoever.
Monterey, Newport, Woodstock, and Altamont
The 60's was the era of outdoor music festivals. While most everyone is familiar with the unimaginable line-up of performers at Woodstock, few know what a phenomenal array of 60's icons played at other 60's venues like the Monterey Pop Festival held June 16th--18th, 1967, in Monterey, California: The Mamas and The Papas, The Association, Scott McKenzie, Canned Heat, Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin, The Jefferson Airplane, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, The Byrds, Country Joe and The Fish, Lou Rawls, Laura Nyro, Otis Redding, Booker T. and The MG's, Ravi Shankar, The Grateful Dead, The Steve Miller Band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Electric Flag, Hugh Masakela, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Moby Grape, Simon and Garfunkel, The Group With No Name, The Paupers, Beverly, Al Kooper, The Blues Project. Indeed, outdoor concerts today owe their popularity and success to the innovative pioneers who conceived and make these far out and groovy events a reality.
Vans, buses, and vagabonds
The 60's sparked a wanderlust in the youth of America that hadn’t been seen since the 1920's, leading them cross-country in droves--turning ten's of thousands of kids into roaming vagabonds with their thumbs out or behind the wheels of psychedelic painted VW buses. With Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury the two centers of cultural explosion, it was common to travel back and forth between the two, absorbing the culture at each, then experiencing the all sites along the way.
Hair, Oh Calcutta, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Paving the way for spectacular productions like Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Tommy, and Evita, Hair began a trend that both perpetuated the long-standing American tradition of stage musicals, as well as created a new genre (the so-called “Rock Opera”) that appealed to the youth of America, where social, political, and religious issues could be explored through music. Hair has since spawned hundreds of musicals in the Hair style.
One of the most significant trends of the 20th century, the growing of long hair by both men and women, was far more than just a fashion statement, it was a declaration of individuality. A trend that continues to this day by a growing sector of both young and old, the wearing of long hair (especially by men) continues to be indicative of not just individualism but a belief in 60's values like free thinking, respect for the environment, peace rather than war, and spiritual responsibility. (In all fairness, it should be noted that long hair has been in vogue for most of humankind’s existence, with short hair the actual “fad.”)
Janis, Jimi, and Jim
Though forever etched in our memories as three who died much too soon due to the excesses of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison (all dead at 27), represent the unprecedented artistry and creative abilities that manifested in such abundance during this era. Icons of the 60's cultural explosion, Janis, Jimi, and Jim are poetic vision personified; the aspiration of millions of youth seeking to be recognized for their talents.