Musician and historian Matt Callahan rehistoricizes the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s, reconnecting it to the working class and radical political legacies of the Bay Area.
Matt Callahan, The Explosion of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco, 1966-1975, Oakland: PM Press, 2017.
“The musical modes are never changed without changes in the most important of a city’s laws.” --Plato’s Republic
Matt Callahan cites this passage several times to emphasize the importance of music to the revolutionary opening created in San Francisco in the 1960s. The power of the music was more in the new forms it took rather than whether or not the lyrics or song titles were political (54). And the forms the music took were largely due to the place in which the sounds emerged, San Francisco, rich with traditions of resistance to authority, the state, and capitalist exploitation. To give the music and art of Sixties San Francisco their due, Callahan reconnects them firmly with their political and cultural roots in the city’s history. He has to overturn trivializing myths about the time and place.
Reading his book, I kept thinking about the way cultural and artistic movements are so frequently downplayed and dismissed as not sufficiently pragmatic, class based, or political to matter for much. Callahan’s history should be a wake up call for anyone asserting an absolute separation between culture and politics, or that artistic expression is merely a side show to the real political contests of the day.
The main window of revolutionary expectation he sees in San Francisco opened from 1965 to 1975. During that time, the intertwined music, art, theater, and political scenes were challenging racism, capitalism, sexism, imperialism and war. Seeing the intense upsurge of radical music, art, and political activity, many believed revolution was imminent. Some even thought that revolutionary change might evolve without catastrophic conflict as global consciousness evolved away from past social and institutional dead ends. These movements did not spring from the ether, but had local roots, and this challenges the common notion of San Francisco as a backwater repository of cultural offerings washing up from other shores. While Callahan acknowledges there was a lot of naivete, he stresses that many participants in what became known as “the movement,” (an agglomeration of the Civil Rights, anti-war, and earlier labor and peace movements ), were shaped, informed by, and were often continuing deeper radical working class political legacies that had developed in San Francisco and the broader Bay Area. It was never the “tolerant liberality” of San Francisco elites that made the city so attractive to rebels and poets but a genuinely radical resistance to capitalist norms (2).
By the time that window closed, much of the cultural and musical content of the radical movement was recuperated by “hip capitalists” who saw dollar signs, or repressed by state actors who worried it was a legitimate threat to the social order.
Myths of the Sixties
There are two big myths about the 60s in San Francisco that Callahan sets out to obliterate. First there is the standard story that the musical explosion in SF happened as a result of white middle class youths across the country dropping out and congregating in the Haight Ashbury for the Summer of Love. Secondly there is the pattern of seeing the musical and political developments of the 60s as separate, even antithetical toward one another, with drugged out hedonistic love children and their hippy music on one side, and dour, radical revolutionaries on the other.
Why San Francisco?
Callahan knows he can’t make sense of the explosion of revolutionary attitudes and behaviors in San Francisco in the 1960s unless he explains why the city attracted so many people who wanted to align their visions with artistic and political action. Geography and history are important.
San Francisco emerged rapidly from its founding, as a global port city. Maritime trade was the “foundation of social life” with all its attendant working class culture (2). The city was in a region recently annexed from Mexico and, due to it’s excellent natural port and the Gold Rush of 1849, went from “a small agricultural, Catholic, and Spanish-speaking community into a roaring port based on the export of gold and the import of manufactured goods” (3). The city was a major supplier of gold to U.S. and British banks. The local Robber Barons sought both political and cultural power, one byproduct of which was their funding the arts. San Francisco emerged as a European style hub of sophistication and economic activity which attracted a growing population.
Precursors to Sixties Radicalism
From its early days the city attracted world class dreamers, rebels, and critics. Authors Mark Twain, a critic of Yellow Journalism and Imperialism, Jack London a member of the Socialist Labor Party, and Ambrose Bierce, a journalist, were all providing glimpses of the working class milieu of their day. It wasn’t only men putting San Francisco on the map. Isadora Duncan, who is credited as one of the creators of modern dance brought global attention to San Francisco. Her new dance forms, which she called “classic dance” were intended as a direct challenge to ballet. They were meant to liberate women’s bodies from institutional and physical control, against patriarchy and male chauvinism. Duncan supported the Russian Revolution and sounds very much like a socialist in a 1903 speech called “The Dancer of the Future.” That dancer, a woman, “will not belong to a nation, but to all humanity. She will dance not in the form of a nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette, but in the form of woman in its greatest and purest expression...she shall dance the freedom of woman.” Duncan was born in San Francisco, but not raised or trained in dance there, but she insisted there was a connection between her dancing and San Francisco as inspiration (4-5).
[Isadora Duncan Dancing]
The Great Migration and the social position of black workers
There were subsequent economic booms and busts after the 1849 Gold Rush, including the ship building boom during World War II. Wartime production brought an influx of white and black Southerners, known as the Great Migration, into manufacturing centers of the North East, Midwest, and Western US cities, (in states that had never been in the pro-slavery Confederacy) including Oakland and San Francisco. The migrants brought new attitudes, culture, and music in what has been referred to as the “Southernization of the US” (11). This included “hillbilly music,” gospel, and the blues. Blacks in the Bay Area were not on a fully equal footing with white workers, but many had jobs that payed good wages and protection from unions like the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU). The union was forged in the midst of the 1934 General Strike that followed “Bloody Thursday” in which two workers were killed by police. Black workers could attain parity with whites and leadership positions in the ILWU.
The Civil Rights Movement was strong in San Francisco. Despite the opportunities brought by wartime production, blacks were the first fired at the end of the war, and continued to face discrimination, particularly in housing and access to good jobs (12). There were sit ins at Mel’s Drive Inn, Lucky’s Supermarket chain, and the Palace Hotel as well as along the various dealerships of Auto Row on Van Ness Avenue.
[photo taken from Shaping San Francisco website]
The civil rights struggles eventually brought Berkeley students into political activity in solidarity with black San Franciscans. Many of the students who experienced police brutality, fire hoses, and the scorn of the business community and the press became radicalized, and would go on to start the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in 1964. The FSM started after Berkeley administrators, responding to complaints from San Francisco business leaders, cracked down on students who were doing political organizing and tabling on campus. The resulting confrontation erupted into the FSM which would develop into an anti-war movement, a feminist movement, and more. The Civil Rights Movement itself gave way to the Black Power Movement, and in Oakland, the Black Panther Party was in the vanguard.
Black Panthers, AIM, and Farmworkers
Callahan uses the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” as the ultimate commercialization of the “Summer of Love” in contrast to the radical political content of the music, art, and theater that was happening there. The song was written as a jingle to promote the Monterey Pop Festival, which was itself to be a massive step in commercializing the music, transferring control to promoters and record executives as well as setting the stage for the high priced stadium rock format that promoter Bill Graham developed to monetize the revolution.
Eleven days before the release of the song “San Francisco,” on May 2nd, 1967, the Black Panther Party marched thirty members, six women and twenty four men, on the California State Capitol in Sacramento. They were armed with shotguns and rifles in protest of a pending bill that would ban carrying such weapons in plain sight without a license. Gun owners only needed a license for concealed carry at that time (97). The Panthers had formed in large part to patrol Oakland and keep an eye on the police, armed with guns and law books. Panthers were trained to intervene in strict accordance with the law. Their activity brought much community support, which expanded into global support based on their exemplary revolutionary self-defense. When financial support poured into the BPP coffers and their membership swelled, they set up radical aid programs called “serve the people programs.” They were similar to those set up by the Diggers on Haight Street, and included free medical centers, and the immensely successful Free Breakfast for Children program.
[Black Panthers at the California State Capitol in Sacramento]
Black musicians rallied to the Panthers, including James Brown, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. There were benefit concerts and famous musicians donated money. At a concert at the University of Southern California in 1970, Jimmy Hendrix announced his song “Voodoo Chile” as “the Black Panther Party national anthem” (88-89). The Santana and Escovedo musical families played benefits for the Panthers too, as did Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, and others.
[Pete and Sheila Escovedo]
While many scholars of the Sixties had marked the year 1968 as a year in which the “good Sixties” ended and the bad started, and a general decline, Callahan again corrects the record, connecting events in San Francisco to the World Revolution in 1968. This was a time of upsurge in the Bay Area movement, especially for people of color (179). In that year San Francisco State College (not yet University) was occupied and there was a student strike. Demands included the creation of new ethnic studies programs representing the multi-ethnic student body. The spark for the strike was the firing of George Mason Murray “on dubious charges” (199). He was an English teacher, and also the Black Panther Minister of Education. The movement for ethnic studies programs would arise in Universities across the US as a result of the strike. The College of Ethnic Studies was formed in 1969 at SF State.
Richard Oakes was also student at San Francisco State at this time. He took the radicalizing moment of the strike and organized the Indian occupation of Alcatraz, an abandoned prison in the San Francisco Bay (200). The occupation lasted from November 1969 to June of 1971.There had been a previous, 1964 Indian occupation of Alcatraz which lasted for hours rather than years. The legal grounds for the occupations were broken treaties that stated lands not in use by federal government went to the Sioux tribe. They helped call attention to hundreds of other broken treaties between the US and various Indian tribes (13). After the initial 1964 occupation, the San Francisco Examiner ran a story entitled “Sioux on the Warpath” in which a man named “Fortunate Eagle” was interviewed. He explained that it was in part a publicity stunt to bring attention to indigenous land claims. He also noted that there “was a lot of street theater in the Bay Area...and this was another kind, one which was intended to put its message on a bigger stage via the media.” He was referring to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who had been performing political theater in public parks since 1962. By 1964 they were extremely popular but also brought down the wrath of the city officials and police. The Mime Troupe’s influence was huge on the later music scene, but also on the form that political action took (14).
Local, Multi-ethnic, Working Class
Regarding the myth of the white middle class drop outs from outside San Francisco as progenitors of the movement, Callahan reminds the reader that “until the deindustrialization that occurred after the Sixties, a significant percentage of the population of the Bay Area was working class.” The movement cannot be reduced to the “middle class” nor was it made up of outsiders: “the social forces unleashed in the Sixties reflected the composition and legacy of the city’s origins and early development” (4)
There were outsiders attracted to the radical political setting, including Kenneth Rexroth, a literary socialist who strongly supported making the arts free to the masses, subverting capitalist control over them, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who co-founded City Lights Books in 1953. City Lights published the Beats who brought global attention to the Bay Area, including concerns over the censorship of the arts when Allen Ginsberg was brought up on obscenity charges and put on trial.
Black music had the biggest influence on musicians in San Francisco in the Sixties, but Latin music, along with folk, and country were also important. The breakdown of the racial compartmentalization of music, the marketing, the styles, and the make up of the bands themselves is an indicator that the Sixties in San Francisco was never just about isolated middle class white kids. The overlapping influences of styles brought about new forms.
Callahan insists there is no “either or” when it comes to politics and music during this period. One example is the farmworker paper The Movement, which covered organizing and strikes in the California Central Valley. The boycott movement led by the UFW “depended on a large extent to organizing efforts in the Bay Area” (81). The Movement included stories about art and radical theater. They had up to date coverage of events in the Haight-Ashbury where political counter-cultural efforts such as the Diggers’ free stores, the Haight Ashbury free medical center, and other major efforts at community and worker self-organizing were ongoing.
There were other booming centers of political and artistic expression such as the Tenderloin, Hunters Point, and the Mission District. The Movement and the farmworker organizing were a huge influence on the arts in the Mission District, where Puerto Rican, Cuban, African, and Mexican influences flourished, as in the music coming from the Santana and Escovedo families (70). There was a jazz renaissance simultaneous to the explosion of new rock bands. The Jazz scene had predated rock, and had provided a setting in which blacks and whites could commingle.
The Oakland and the SF Mission districts were also heavily influenced by black music. KSOL radio played Afro-Cuban jazz, but most of the young bands were playing soul and rhythm and blues influenced by Motown from Detroit, Stax in Memphis and major artists like James Brown (71). While there was “disproportionate attention given to the Haight-Ashbury and the ‘hippies,” the “street level, multiethnic, working-class stew is as responsible for the San Francisco musical renaissance as any other” (71). He insists the notion of a single “San Francisco Sound” is yet another myth, given this mix of ethnic roots and styles.
Callahan does not define the movement entirely as working class but he points out that “people from all social classes, including the children of wealth and the children of workers” were drawn to it. Countercultural influences spread along with anti-war resistance, and “millions of people, most of whom were not from well-off backgrounds, and many of whom were black, Latino, Asian, or Native American” participated in this allegedly “white middle class” movement (which was actually Ronald Reagan’s description). The use of “middle class” as a category irks Callahan in that it “has to be critically evaluated. At best, it is a rough description of income, occupation, and perhaps educational level. But that has little value in determining the participants in the movements of the Sixties, let alone their motivations.” He goes further, complaining that “‘middle class’ is a political designation invented to combat the Marxian concept of the proletariat or working class, whose historic mission was to eliminate classes altogether” (249-250).
The Roots of Racism and Exploitation in the Music Industry
Callahan sees the music industry as a tool of the state, while the music itself often carried genuine messages of resistance to the state and the existing capitalist order. Much of the music and art in this period in San Francisco was attempting to destroy, or bypass, the capitalist music and culture industries.
The exploitative and racist nature of the music industry emerged during previous centuries. Starting in the 19th century there was a tradition of whites imitating blacks in minstrel shows. He quotes Isaac Goldberg’s 1930 study of what he named “The American Music Racket.”: “From the first, the white has been under some psychological compulsion to mimic the Negro, at first in ridicule and superiority, then in understanding and sympathy.” Callahan insists that this was not a natural “compulsion” by whites, but a manufactured one, and that the music industry was hell bent on “the propagation of white supremacy and the replacement of music spontaneously arising from the populace with a manufactured substitute” (62).
In the early twentieth century copyright law allowed publishers, promoters, and later record companies to effectively seize control over music from the artists and communities creating it for themselves. At first they sold sheet music and later musical recordings. Once there was a “formula for the manufacture and sale of songs that could be copyrighted and monopolized by publishers” the music industry had a foothold that would never be dislodged (64). The 1909 Copyright Act and the Supreme Court’s 1917 decision in support of it became the foundation for that industry. Part of the reason the year 1965 is so important for Callahan is that he sees it as a year of “break through” when the old music industry promotional and marketing model based on separate racial markets was challenged, and the various lines between ethnic and cultural groups began to come down, with musical styles blending, but also with multi-ethnic bands forming as a new norm. There had been black music charts and white music charts, black radio stations and white, the same for night clubs. Even rock n’ roll “began as a marketing ploy designed to sell rhythm and blues to white youth” (43).
A perfect example of the new mixing of ethnicity and styles, as well as the crossing lines from traditional to pop music was the Chambers Brothers. They had formed as a folk act, but became a part of the psychedelic rock scene. Their big hit was “The Time Has Come Today” capturing the feeling of upheaval and immediacy of the moment, but also the shift from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Power and black liberation struggle (40). The Chambers Brothers played the very same gig, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at which Bob Dylan was shouted down as a “Judas” for turning his back on folk authenticity and embracing an electric sound. The Chamber Brothers had gone electric fully a year before. They played electric at the 1965 festival without incident! Producer David Robinson saw the Chambers Brothers as the bridge between many forms, that they “broke down all the barriers between folk, rock, black, white political, and apolitical before anyone else really realized what was happening” (41).
[The Chambers Brothers]
Bands like the Chambers Brothers, as well as the Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman groups represented the fruitful outcome of integrated bands featuring black and white together. It was Sly Stone who most deliberately integrated as part of a political statement (62). Music critic Joel Selvin is quoted: “With an astute reading of the cultural climate, Sly Stone sketched the agenda of the Woodstock generation. His glitzy group boasted men and women, Black and white, putting into practice the left-wing principles of his songs” (footnote 8, 280).
[Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden]
Stone had been hired when he was just 19 years old, by a “hip capitalist” DJ named Tom Donahue, to produce records for the newly formed Autumn Records. Donahue had pioneered freeform radio in the Bay Area with KMPX on the FM band, a new territory on the airwaves at the time (121-123). KMPX changed management and became KSAN. It had become important for more than music. It was the main source of information about shows, protests, reporting on resistance activity by groups such as the Black Panthers, and resources including Digger events, and was generally acknowledged as a cultural beacon for the movement (124). Though it may represent a very mainstream honor, the fact that Donahue was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is still and indication of his role in opening up radio as a medium.
Sly Stone was in the right place at the right time and found he now had access to the music recording studio at a time when artists were taking complete artistic control. This was entirely different from the old formulaic hit making machines of the music industry, with their segregated bands, musical categories, radio stations, and promotion wings. Sly was producing young white rock bands even as they understood, as Jerry Slick of The Great Society put it, “he could play any of our instruments better than we would...” (128). Sly wasn’t just producing the rock bands, he also loved their music. Sly was at the vanguard of black artists who would now demand their right to seize artistic control just as the white bands he was producing had. Opportunities for black and Latino artists to cross over into previously segregated rock scenes grew. Bands like the Pointer Sisters, Santana, and Tower of Power were further examples of integrated Bay Area acts that gained large followings.
As much as this process was liberating, the musicians had not foreseen the way the profits of their labor could still be captured by hip capitalists who didn’t need control over production so long as they controlled distribution of the music, the promotion of the bands and performances, and often the lion’s share of profits from live shows (128).
Bill Graham: From Mime Troupe Business Manager to Top Rock Promoter
The San Francisco Mime Troupe formed in 1963. It was exemplary in the way it tied together various art forms: music, dance, street performance, flyer and poster graphic artwork, and politics. They became an influence on the later out door concerts and human be ins. Bill Graham was the business manager for the Mime Troupe and parlayed his role with them into becoming the most powerful music promoter in the Bay Area. He had from the start insisted that events he promoted go under the name “Bill Graham Presents” (92). In the process of putting on fundraisers to generate cash for the legal defense of the Mime Troupe, Graham realized he had stumbled upon a money making machine, given the size of the audiences showing up to see the bands. The Mime Troupe soon parted ways with Graham the business man.
Graham was important to the music scene and social movement in San Francisco. He “effectively drew together disparate elements from poster designers, light show operators, musicians, and other performers” better than anyone else in the Bay Area (92). But he never hid that he was in it for the money, and the spirit in which he participated in promoting the music, even if it was for “benefit shows” was a crucial factor in the death of the truly liberatory possibilities that had opened up. Callahan traces his activity in promoting massive for profit shows in Golden Gate Park and other outdoor venues, mimicking the form, but not the content of previous be ins, and free festivals. It’s not that the bands’ politics had changed necessarily, but that the anti-capitalist forms pioneered by the Diggers and the Panthers, the creation of a new society beyond capitalist exploitation, was removed.
Some saw what Graham was doing and tried to counter-organize. They ran their own shows just to prevent Graham becoming all-powerful, but they failed. The Grateful Dead attempted shows out of the Carousel Ballroom on Market street, but Graham outmaneuvered them, assimilating the venue as the Fillmore West. Other promoters who had worked with “The Family Dog” in the early idealistic days of the Mime Troupe and the Diggers also tried to resist Graham, but they too were sucked into the pitfalls of hip capitalism.
Joel Selvin identified the poles of music scene when he placed the Diggers as “a tribe” on the far left “trying to take the philosophy into action” while Graham was “the imperialist exploiter” ripping off a Caribbean island to “build his big mansion on top of the hill” (94).
As the communal nature of the movement gave way, speed entered the scene, as in meth, changing the dynamic for the worse. A more anti-social vibe replaced the old experimental and exploratory one engendered by marijuana and psychedelic drugs like LSD. Bill Champlin of the Sons of Champlin noted that over time “ the Dead...kinda lost it” and became more like royalty than members of a community (95).
The Monterey Pop Festival was a turning point with the music industry and hip capitalists pulling off a precedent setting rip-off. While the festival was diverse with musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, Hugh Masekela, Otis Redding, and Country Joe and the Fish, what happened with the business side of things was insidious. “Monterey Pop was a deliberate attempt to incorporate San Francisco’s music scene into the structures of the music industry.” The Diggers understood this and resisted the festival. In the end, the performers and community were lied to. Promises were made that the “non-profit” show would give funds to a foundation to create music scholarships and give a portion of the funds to Digger programs to feed the increasing numbers of young people coming into the Haight in 1967. These funds never materialized, but the musicians were convinced to waive the rights to the recordings, both sound and film, album and movie, and the music industry cleaned up on the deal while the musicians and communities were robbed (102).
While Bill Graham had not been one of the promoters of Monterey Pop, he operated in the same money making spirit that was antithetical to the original movement. He put together an Event called “Day on the Green” in 1973 that on the surface looked like the previous wave of free festivals supporting the farmworkers, community projects, or anti-Vietnam War protests. Graham utilized crowd control methods to bring the masses into commercial events with the goal of profits. Eventually the standard concert format became the “stadium rock” experience, and the band best exemplifying the new “corporate rock” was born of the dissolution of Santana, with some members forming the band Journey (234).
[Journey: Come on! They have some nice songs...]
Callahan sees the capture of the music scene, and the concurrent stripping away of much of the radical content as a move to “classicism.” He defines this as “incorporating music of any kind into the structures of rule, of making it both a servant of hierarchy and a purely aesthetic pleasure.” Classicism is “a refinement of form, the professionalization of performance, and the institutionalization of artistic production.” He’s clear that this limits the role of music to “diversion from the alienation produced by life under capitalism” (112).
Critics and journalists help set the standards identifying which artists produced the “great works” of rock, which Jan Wenner’s magazine Rolling Stone helped portray as the supreme musical form, once again separate from Jazz, folk, blues, R&B, Soul, etc. Wenner patterned Rolling Stone on radical papers like the Berkeley Barb, but here again was the small matter of denuded radical political content. There were still politics, but they were safe for sanitized hip consumption. Rolling Stone “became a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party, not only championing rock’s return to the cultural mainstream, but encouraging the view that politics consisted of supporting the system” (113).
Why The Book Matters
2018 marked the 50 year anniversary of 1968, a year of world revolution. Some on the left were happy to mock the student movements of the day as a bunch of spoiled bourgeois children. Similarly there’s no shortage of leftists who relish trashing anything “cultural” or which focusses on the politics of race or gender that emerged in part out of this era. Critiquing past movements is vital to understanding the present situation. The problem arises when those critiques are based on shallow cartoon portrayals: the stupid hippies; the spoiled middle class white youth; the dirty drop outs seeking cheap thrills, stereotypes that skew reality toward the paranoid conservative imagination. What Callahan’s book does is to place the music, art, theater, politics, back into the geographical and political context of the Bay Area, with its radical traditions that were the very reason a movement arose there in the 60s.
Reading such a history reveals that most of the participants were more embedded in authentic working class activity than many of those who today seek to dismiss the 60s as mere excess or a train that flew off the rails of Marxism into mere utopianism. This honestly rendered, and contextualized Sixties movement is worthy of appreciation and critique, much more so than any two dimensional stand in presented by sectors of the left who are increasingly reactionary and nationalist and who sound and read more like Fox News populism every day.
"Revolution the Movie" links
Callahan references this movie as an example of media that captures the diversity of the San Francisco cultural scene at this time, perhaps in spite of its intended focus. It helps dispel the myth of the middle class white drop out as the archetype of the era.
Mime Troupe: https://ytcropper.com/cropped/W55d96db6631f8c
Lou Gottlieb: https://ytcropper.com/cropped/W55d96f20a19416