Vinyl Records Excavated at Famous ’60s Commune Challenge ‘Hippie’ Stereotype, Study Says

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.

Olompali Commune Vinyl Records
Among the artifacts found at the commune ruins were nearly 100 vinyl records, pictured here in situ in 1991. (Photo by Margaret Purser)

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.

Judy Garland vinyl record album from Olompali
Judy Garland’s 1961 double album “Judy at Carnegie Hall” was among the records identified at Olompali. (Courtesy E. Breck Parkman)

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.

Aoxomoxoa Back Cover (Grateful Dead)
The photo on the back cover of The Grateful Dead’s 1969 “Aoxomoxoa” was shot at Olompali, with some members of the Chosen Family commune, and a young Courtney Love, lower right. (Courtesy E. Breck Parkman)

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.”


ResearchBlogging.org

Parkman, E. (2014). A hippie discography: vinyl records from a Sixties commune World Archaeology, 1-17 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2014.909103

 


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Discussion

  1. […] 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 …  […]

  2. xian

    It turns out that that’s not Courtney Love on the back of Aoxomoxoa.

    1. Blake de Pastino

      Hi Christian,

      Dr. Breckman places her there at the time, and Dead chronicler David Gans (above, I think) seems to do the same. There’s also this, not that it’s definitive:

  3. David Gans

    Is it possible that there were more records but they departed with the troupe, leaving only the less culturally desirable ones behind?

    1. Blake de Pastino

      That’s an interesting question. It appears from Breckman’s account and that of others that the fire consumed the mansion and all of its contents on the night of Feb. 2, 1969. Firefighters actually got there before the members of the Family returned from the concert. So there wasn’t an opportunity for them to go in and rescue certain objects.

    2. Bill

      why focus on the biggest names? there were lots of people there. It’s more than likely that they just belonged to someone else who brought their record collection from home, found a different cultural ID, & then moved.

    3. Sandy

      David that was my thought exactly….they left behind the unwanted albums!!!

  4. […] 'hippie' commune had a wide range of backgrounds, including their musical tastes," Parkman said. "Vinyl Records Excavated at Famous ’60s Commune Challenge ‘Hippie’ Stereotype, Study Says" (Thanks, Bob Pescovitz!) …read […]

  5. R.E. Baker

    What is known as “hippie” today is far from what the original hippie was. In fact the Dead were into country, blues and bluegrass music. They were essentially an Americana band with a penchant for LSD. It’s not surprising to find “square” stuff like Judy Garland and Burl Ives there. They weren’t as one dimensional and predictable as the typical liberal, hacky sack playing, bike riding vegan of today. In fact, by today’s standards, the hippie movement was much more libertarian-leaning as far as wanting to get away from the government and pushing the concept of being an individual. It was much different than what is commonly thought and more inclusive and free than any scene today.

    1. bg davis

      I spent a weekend at that commune in the 60s; went up from the City with a friend looking for some girl he used to know who was into the music scene (in L.A.).
      Most of the people were total losers, lying around stoned in the mud (it was raining) in their teepees.
      But it was a mix. The most pathetic one was some guy from the City (SF) who had quit his teaching job and moved up there, bringing his wife and kids, actually believing that they were going to be part of a real groundswell movement to change the world for the better. This poor guy was trying to live a model lifestyle in the midst of general degeneracy. Basically, he had painted himself into a corner.
      He had nice books and a record collection, so yes, there were some gems among the refuse. But it’s typical of anthropologists to try to make an anomaly into something representative. I spent plenty of time in the Haight, Golden Gate Park, Marin and points north during that era. Also dipped into the Berkeley scene from time to time. Some nice people but the stereotypes did accurately fit the vast majority of hippies.

  6. Mike McRoberts

    When I was a long-haired rock and roll musician in the 70’s we frequently would go over to other long-haired rock and roll musician’s homes. Usually, we all listened to jazz.

  7. […] “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. Continue reading… […]

  8. […] in a fascinating story posted by Western Digs, the former commune, which has been subject to archaeologist E. Breck Parkman’s studies since […]

  9. Sadie McFarlane

    “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.”

    What an arrogant jerk! What makes this guy so sure hippies didn’t listen to jazz and soundtracks and comedy records? I was a hippie, and I did! His narrow-mindedness is getting in the way of his research – but unlike the old “every large building is a temple” school of archeology, the people involved are still around to call him on the fallacy in his thinking.

    1. Alan C

      So true, Sadie! First, to stereotype hippies as a monolith, musically or otherwise, is as vapid and eye-rolling as saying every Beat had a goatee and beret and played bongos a la Maynard.

      My friends and I played our parents’ 78s incessantly: Gene Krupa, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, old movie soundtracks. A few of our grandparents had Victrolas and one even had a gramophone and we’d play old Dixieland or crooners singing through megaphones. My experience during that time is that the mindset was very very inclusive: foods, cultures, music, ethnogens, clothes, everything. Sure, there were popular contemporary musicians, but *their* music was usually very diverse and inclusive.

  10. Dave

    Of course they were peaking out to Super Session! One of my favourite albums of all time. Great article.

  11. […] in a fascinating story posted by Western Digs, the former commune, which has been subject to archaeologist E. Breck Parkman’s studies since the […]

  12. […] Vinyl Records Excavated at Famous ’60s Commune Challenge ‘Hippie’ Stereotype, Study Says […]

  13. Richard. Brooks

    Sadie, I agree he’s way off track in his postulations, but I wonder how you ‘was a hippie’. How can one used to have been a hippie and not still be one? Maybe you are still; one would hope so. Also, there were pseudo-hippies and then yuppies. Myself, I was an aspiring Yippie, but I couldn’t shake the image of the deranged, drug-addicted Viet Nam Veteran. Though Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman weren’t my heroes, neither were Iggy Pop or Jonathan Richman. I cried at Woodstock when Jimi played the Star-Spangled Banner – as did everyone else I saw. All musical genres, from every corner of the planet, is what makes ‘the world go round’, and me spin.
    As an added bit of mania, I found myself on Shakedown St. New Year’s Eve 1988 in the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum, selling my jewelry, while the Grateful Dead were inside playing their yearly concert. At ten minutes to midnite, a bullet found my face, a random new years’ shot, which may have possibly come from up to 2mi away. It lodged in my flesh, traveling for an inch from just outside my cheek bone down to the center of my cheek. It sent me to the ground like someone came up behind me with a baseball bat and hit a grand slam home run. I couldn’t say I’d been shot, that implies somebody was aiming at me; I was hit in the face with a bullet. Ten minutes later, at midnite, the Dead played, ‘It’s Another Saturday Night’ (the show inside was being broadcast live on KSAN-FM radio) while the party raged in the parking lot. It was a Saturday night, the disco bus was jamming, there were fireworks everywhere, one schoolbus had about 30 gay dudes dancing on the roof in diapers!! I was still seeing fireworks, but I was up and dancing. Didn’t know I had a bullet in my face till the next day when a doctor at Oakland City Hosp pulled it out. I’m still seeing fireworks and hearing the music 25yrs later!!!!

  14. L.V. Sage

    Interesting, yet I must agree with Sadie. I’m not technically of the “hippie” generation (born in 1965), but I do remember listening to many albums that my parents had from their era such as Elvis Presley. Fortunately for me, my parents mostly listened to (& bought) rock n roll albums, so that was the majority of what we heard in the house (Rolling Stones, Beatles, CCR, Janis Joplin, etc).

    As for outlaw bikers, I hardly think that they would have grown up listening to any one particular type of music.

    BTW-check out my novel about the “hippie/Vietnam/biker era” Red, White & Blues” available on Amazon!

    http://www.amazon.com/Red-White-Blues-L-V-Sage-ebook/dp/B005MLA9A8/ref=pd_rhf_gw_s_t_9

    1. Alan C

      + L.V.
      So basically, this is some commercial bullshit about your sell-something agenda. Apparently, your parents didn’t play enough music for you to know how very uncool your post is. Peace.

      1. L.V. Sage

        Wow. What a sad, negative human being you are. I wish I never posted any reply so if you can suggest how I might remove it, I will be more than happy to do so.

  15. Alan C

    My point is that to push your book in a Comments section is tacky. I apologize for being harsh in making that point.

    1. L.V. Sage

      I understand and I don’t ever mean to come across like that (like I am pushing my book). I guess it’s just human nature to want to share your accomplishments with others who you feel might relate to or appreciate them. I often have free giveaways on the book, so it has little to do with making money, just exposure. Anyway, I would be more than happy to remove the link so that it doesn’t offend anyone else if someone can instruct me on how to do so.

  16. Buttery Biscuit

    I cannot believe anything later than 1900 could be considered archaeology with so much documentation and PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL ALIVE to talk to. This reminds me of the excavation of the Barbie Doll sent supposedly to the Smithsonian.

    1. CT

      5 stars!!! These “experts” need to get out and talk to PEOPLE.

  17. Jack Kessler

    I am still not sure whether this is a send-up or not, but if it isn’t, it shows the hazards of archaeological interpretation. I lived in communal houses in that era and I can assure you that the records that were found were there survived precisely because no one played them. Records that anyone wanted to listen to were soon stolen for the most part, or exchanged for crap, or wore out, or got scratched too badly to be played,

    Parkman is looking at the dregs that remains in what was in effect a record exchange, and assuming that they are there because they were played. In fact the opposite is the case. The reason they remained in the exchange was that no one wanted them.

    To put this in archaeological terms, Parkman thinks he found a trove whereas in fact he has found a midden.

  18. Sandy

    David Gans, my thoughts exactly…

  19. Michael Simmons

    Firstly, Gans point is perfect, furthermore there is a Grand Canyon twixt the hackneyed definition of “hippie” in 2015 and the reality in the 1960s-’70s. I will write about this elsewhere.

    Also, the little girl who’s constantly being identified as Courtney Love is Stacy Kreutzmann, drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s daughter. This claim has been debunked for decades.

  20. Scott Holmes

    I believe it to be fairly common knowledge that Jerry Garcia’s favorite female valcalist was Dolly Parton. So much for musical taste stereotypes. And I really enjoyed, “Why Is There Air”

  21. PeiPei

    You can learn a lot by excavating through any culture’s rubbish…what people throw away can speak volumes about that culture. But if you don’t realize that what you are sifting through is their garbage, you will most likely come away with a misinterpretation of that culture. Seems like that’s exactly what happened here!

  22. tipipaul

    Frisbees! How many of those “not cool-parents music” records became frisbees?

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