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The "Human Be-In": Its 40th Anniversary

January 17, 2007

For just over six months I’ve been slowly reading James T. Patterson‘s Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. This Bancroft-award-winning work is a massive, thoroughly informative tome – as synthetic and comprehensive as any survey history book on the market. It has its weaknesses, which I may outline in a future review post, but I need to finish it first. I’m down to the last few chapters, having just finished a sequence on 1968. No matter an historian’s interest in post-Civil War American history, the 1960s force your hand: you need to know the rudimentary facts of the decade.

This brings me to an Independent (U.K.) article by Lisa Leff marking the fortieth anniversary of the “Human Be-In” in San Francisco, California. Technically the anniversary was January 14, but pedantry over dates never stops a reflection here. Here are some excerpts from the piece – interspersed with commentary:

– “In many ways, the ’60s were born on 14 January, 1967 when musicians, poets, visionaries, student radicals and wayward youth gathered in Golden Gate Park.

Awhile back I reflected here on an American Heritage article that argued for 1964 as the real beginning of “The Sixties.” Despite Leff’s statement, in totality it’s certainly more fair to argue for 1964 as the beginning of a long crescendo that ended in 1968.

– “Part rock concert, part protest, part literary festival, the Human Be-in was billed at the time as a ‘Gathering of the Tribes’ meant to unite and stir up the various wings of the counterculture movement. Estimates of the number of people who cavorted on the park’s Polo Fields that day range from 10,000 to 50,000. The speakers and bands who appeared reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of 1960s icons: LSD advocate Timothy Leary, poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, comedian Dick Gregory, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. Psychedelic drugs were in plentiful supply, courtesy of a parachutist who tossed free samples to the crowd.”
– “At [a] commemorative forum, panelist Jim O’Donnell recalled the transformative days leading up to the Be-In. . . . Like other panellists, O’Donnell and Getz remembered the Human Be-in as both the beginning and the end, an event that would be much duplicated but never equalled. ‘The Human Be-in was a creation from within the San Francisco counterculture,’ Getz said. ‘The Summer of Love was a creation of the national news media that befell San Francisco.'”

In many ways, it was this last line that caused me to post on this article. I must admit that I’ve always thought of the Summer of Love as one of the genuine ‘somethings’ created by the counterculture itself. I know a lot 1960s veterans complain about the counterculture in general being co-opted by the culture industry (i.e. tie-dye t-shirts, music marketing), but I never thought about the Summer of Love itself being co-opted from the start – except perhaps by Playboy.

Although I’ve read about the “Human Be-In,” in both Patterson and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the numbers of people involved never registered: in fact I believed the numbers to be even smaller. I also somehow missed the parachutist in those accounts.

Finally, the philosophical notion of a “Human Be-In” – sans the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll – always seemed attractive to me. Not enough people today take a moment to stop and think about who they are and where they’re going. If it takes reflection on history to get people today to slow down, then I’m all for it. – TL

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  1. dewar macleod permalink

    SANS the sex, drugs and rocknroll????

    what is the matter with you?


  2. Okay, I'd take the rock-and-roll, but my imagination of a “be-in” involved reflection, reading, and meditation – kind of a retreat. – TL


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