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The Varmint Show

making tracks

In their second exploration of music and archaeology, the Varmints embrace the free-love ethos of the 1960s, journeying (or 'tripping'?) to San Francisco, and the Olompali State Historic Park, where archaeologist Breck Parkman is uncovering the 'Whitehouse of Hippiedom'. In 1967–69 this was home to the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and others before a fire ended their occupation. Now, archaeological work has uncovered finds including a collection of fire-damaged LP records. John Varmint takes up the story.

A recent email from Breck Parkman got the Varmints' ears and tails wagging. Here was an archaeologist whose job involved sifting through fire-damaged LP records in the very home of The Chosen Family, a hippie commune of the 1960s which included for a time The Grateful Dead. 'Home' to The Chosen Family was Burdell Mansion north of San Francisco and now part of Olompali State Historic Park, where Breck is Senior State Archaeologist. The Grateful Dead's (1969) Aoxomoxoa album includes photographs (on the rear cover and in sleeve notes) of the band at Olompali in 1969. According to Wikipedia, the photograph on the rear cover includes a five-year old Courtney Love. The Grateful Dead song Rosemary perfectly captures the mood of the time.

A fire consumed Burdell Mansion on 2 February 1969, creating what Breck refers to as a 'hippie time-capsule for future analysis'. The future came forty years later when Breck and his team recovered commune-associated artefacts from the fire debris, including 55 records, mostly LPs, but also some singles and 78s. But being an archaeological site, things were not straightforward. With most of the record labels missing, Breck (with project cataloguer Elizabeth Fernandez) had to identify the recordings from serial numbers etched on the vinyl discs. So, what were the 50-70 members of The Chosen Family listening to in this 24-room mansion in the heyday of hippiedom?

Breck told the Varmints: 'When I first spotted the pile of vinyl discs protruding from the fire debris, I assumed that the records contained a bunch of rock and roll tunes. After all, this had been a Sixties hippie commune.'

To date, 16 of the 55 records have been identified, but they are not what you'd think. The list appears below, and with access to iTunes or other online music catalogues, readers can compile their own Olompali 'Varmints' playlist. Breck goes on to explain more about the context of this intriguing collection of small finds:

'In recent months, I've determined that a good number of the records probably belonged to the late Sandra Barton. Sandra was the oldest female in the commune and truly the community's matriarch. She was about 50 years old at the time of the fire. Sandra was an entertainer (singer) and had often performed in San Francisco and Los Angeles nightclubs prior to the creation of the commune. Her bedroom was on the second floor of the mansion, directly above the communal dining area. Some of the artefacts in the collection are her personal possessions, such as jewelry, cosmetics, and clothing. Sandra's daughter, Noelle (my main informant), remembers that her mother had records in her bedroom. Noelle was also a resident of the commune and was 18 years old at the time of the fire. Because Sandra was fifty, I found myself dismissing her and her music as not being representative of the times. But then I reminded myself that Sandra was actually the "hippest" of them all. That's why she was there and why she was viewed as the matriarch. On accepting Sandra as a true hippie and thus accepting her musical interests as a vital ingredient of the commune, I realized that the commune was a lot more complex than I had first imagined. This wasn't just a bunch of young people with long hair and love beads. It was a multi-generational community with various political and spiritual viewpoints, kind of a melting pot if you will. Given the diversity of people comprising the commune, it is not surprising that the hippie discography would be eclectic. This music represents multi-generations and multiple viewpoints on almost any given subject.'

Breck goes on: 'I'm not yet sure if The Chosen Family was typical of Sixties communes or if it was somewhat unique given its musical pedigree (Grateful Dead, etc.). I would assume that any such commune that was multi-generational would share many of these same traits. The thing about being multi-generational is that it created a sense of "family" in ways not possible with like-age groups. In this context, an eclectic discography seems to make a lot of sense.'

What emerges from this study therefore is not a dilution of the impression of a hedonistic hippie lifestyle of extremes and indulgence, rather a fascinating insight to a perhaps more diverse and inclusive range of interests and influences, and to the sense of family that seems to have characterised hippiedom. We look forward to learning what else was on The Chosen Family's playlist, back in February 1969.

Playlist album covers
The sixteen Olompali album covers, showing what has been identified to date.

Playlist

  1. Bill Cosby – Why is there air? (LP, Warner Bros 1965)
  2. Judy Garland – Judy at Carnegie Hall (LP, Capitol 1961)
  3. Beatles – Rubber Soul (LP, Capitol 1965)
  4. Frank Sinatra – Pal Joey (LP, Capitol 1957)
  5. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook (LP, Verve 1957)
  6. Eddie Duchin and his Orchestra – The Eddie Duchin Story (LP, Columbia, Red Label 1956)
  7. Nina Simone – Forbidden Fruit (LP, Colpix 1961)
  8. Herman Levin – My Fair Lady (LP, Columbia Masterworks 1956)
  9. Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonic Orchestra of London – Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (LP, EMI 1961)
  10. Tony Bennett – I left my heart in San Francisco (LP, Columbia 1962)
  11. Dean Franconi and his Sound Stage Orchestra – West Side Story (LP, Spectrum 1963)
  12. Babatunde Olatunji – Flaming Drums! (LP, Columbia 1962)
  13. Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills – Super Session (LP, Columbia 1968)
  14. Burl Ives – The Versatile Burl Ives (LP, Decca 1961)
  15. Cast of the Musical 'Music Man' (LP, Warner Bros 1962)
  16. Stan Getz Quartet and Quintet – Stan Getz (LP, Jazztone 1956)

© All photos are courtesy of Breck Parkman.

Some links to other articles about this project:

• Sacramento Bee, July 21, 2009, "Groovy Artifacts from 1960s Marin County Commune Sorted" by Susan Ferriss
www.sacbee.com/2009/09/02/2154527/groovy-artifacts-from-1960s-marin.html

• Utne Reader, June 23, 2009, "Dig It: Hippie Commune Unearthed" by Keith Goetzman
www.utne.com/blogs/blog.aspx?blogid=36&tag=hippie

• Spiegel Online, March 10, 2009: "Grabung bei San Francisco: Was von der Hippie-Kommune übrig blieb" by Angelika Franz
www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/0,1518,610323,00.html

• Sueddeutsche Zeitung, March 12, 2009 "Ausgrabungen in der Hippie-Villa" by Sebastian Herrmann
www.sueddeutsche.de/wissen/872/461498/text/

• San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 2009 "A Very Groovy Kind of Archaeology" by Peter Fimrite
www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/01/14/BAOH159AN9.DTL

• Santa Rosa Press Democrat, January 16, 2009 "Park Relics Uncorked" by Bob Norberg
www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/01/14/BAOH159AN9.DTL

• Marin Independent Journal, January 14, 2009 "Trove of Hippie-Era Remnants Revealed at Olompali" by Brent Ainsworth
www.marinij.com/ci_11446212?source=most_viewed

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