The Grateful Dead once lived there, apparently taken with the acoustics of the living room.
Its bucolic grounds were featured on the back cover of the Dead’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa.
And the crush of musical luminaries who passed through it include Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, and a 5-year-old girl named Courtney Love.
But the country estate known as Rancho Olompali in Marin County, California was best known as the site of a social experiment that lasted all of 600 days: a commune called The Chosen Family, where at one point nearly 90 people sought refuge from the tumult of San Francisco street life in the late 1960s.
And if their musical tastes were any indication, archaeologists say, its members were surprisingly diverse.
The Chosen Family experiment ran from the fall of 1967 until late summer 1969, after an electrical fire had consumed the 26-room mansion that was its headquarters, leaving the commune in social and financial disarray.
State archaeologist E. Breck Parkman began exploring the site — now enshrined in a state park — as early as 1981, seeking to explore the historical realities behind what he believes are preconceived notions about the commune and its members.
“I’ve used the contemporary archaeology of Olompali to address the concept of stereotype, in this case, what we generally consider to be the ‘hippie,'” said Parkman, senior archaeologist for California’s state parks.[Read about another recent dig into 20th century history: “New Mexico’s ‘Atari Dump,’ a Midden of Video Games, to Be Excavated”
And most recently, his work has focused on the aspect of material culture that’s perhaps more closely associated with hippie life than any other: music.
After decades of research punctuated by complications and delays, Parkman has excavated and analyzed 93 vinyl records from the charred ruins of Olompali’s mansion.
“To date, I’ve managed to identify 55 of those records, with somewhat surprising results,” he said.
Instead of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, he said, he found Judy Garland, Burl Ives, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
Rather than the voices of counterculture, he uncovered scores of albums of classic jazz, folk, show tunes, even comedy.
“The wide range of musical styles represented by this ‘hippie discography’ suggests that the people who came together to form this ‘hippie’ commune had a wide range of backgrounds, including their musical tastes,” Parkman said.
His findings, which he reports in the journal World Archaeology, were long in coming.
Parkman originally started a salvage excavation of Olompali’s burned-out mansion in 1997. But it soon became clear that the site was contaminated with toxic building materials, especially asbestos and lead.
Five years passed before hazmat crews could dig up the debris — which they did without concern for archaeological methods — and dumped it all into a series of 55-gallon drums.
In 2009, another crew in protective suits cleaned and sorted the debris in the barrels, leaving Parkman with, among other artifacts, nearly 100 vinyl discs.
None of them were playable, and only a handful had their paper labels intact.
But in many cases, the discs still had readable stamper codes, also known as matrix codes, the series of numbers and letters etched into the disc between the last track and the center label.
Many of those codes could then be traced to catalog numbers, and the titles of the albums.
To confirm his findings, Parkman took an additional step: He measured the number and length of the tracks on each side of the disc and compared them to the album associated with the code.
All told, he identified 55 of the records. Only two turned out to have been released during the days of the Olompali commune: Renaissance by Vanilla Fudge, and Super Session by Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills.
The rest were an eclectic mix — jazz standards like Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook, Vol. 2, Broadway themes like My Fair Lady and South Pacific, and the comedy of Bill Cosby’s Why Is There Air?
While perhaps surprising in their variety, and rather establishment tastes, Parkman said, these records were not the soundtrack of daily life at Olompali.
Instead, he said, they’re artifacts of the various segments of mainstream culture that the Chosen Family’s members had once identified with, and in some ways, tried to leave behind.
“I don’t believe most of these records were listened to during the years of the commune, but rather reflect where these people came from before arriving at Olompali,” he said.
“The records arrived at Olompali as literal cultural baggage.”
Indeed, music was a large part of life at the commune, he added, but it wasn’t the music of Judy Garland or Harry Belafonte.
The Chosen Family was famously and intimately connected to San Francisco’s music scene, especially the Grateful Dead.
The commune was not only based in the band’s former house, but many members also worked as their stage hands; in fact, most were on duty at a concert on the night of the fateful fire in 1969.
And of course, its members can be seen on the back of Aoxomoxoa, lounging with the band, their manager Hank Harrison, and his daughter Courtney Love, on the hillside by the mansion.
In the end, Parkman said, the discography discovered at Olompali reinforces the often overlooked fact that the commune’s members were a more complex group than could be defined by what he calls “a simplistic one-size-fits-all definition of a hippie.”
“Various aspects of the archaeological record at Olompali help inform our understanding of the Sixties counterculture movement, but these vinyl records are particularly helpful,” he said.
“The range of musical genres represented by these 55 records suggests to me that the commune members came from all kinds of backgrounds before joining the Chosen Family and, by default, before joining the counterculture,” he said.
“How might that compare if you were to examine the musical tastes of those joining an outlaw biker gang in the 1970s or a street gang today?”
“We have stereotype images of the biker and gangbanger, too.”
“What if we discovered that bikers came from all walks of life and appreciated a wide variety of music before donning their colors? That may very well be the case.”
“What is a hippie?” Parkman mused. “These 55 records suggest it might have been any one of us, in the right moment in time.”
Parkman, E. (2014). A hippie discography: vinyl records from a Sixties commune World Archaeology, 1-17 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2014.909103