Festivals, Virtuosity and Psychedelia

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There are very few time periods throughout history that leave behind a fully realized aesthetic in its wake. One of those chapters that continues to shape how we see music today was the 1960s. The ‘60s were known for the re-introduction of a progressive sort of musicianship. That mentality is a known as an avant-gardist approach and is primarily applied in terms of experimentation. With very little “official standard” of music, interpretations obviously varied. This caused multiple different perspectives on the creation of music and one’s transcendence through a deeper understanding of oneself. This wasn’t just a personal affair either. Most of these new revelations and perceptions stemmed from festivals. Festivals impacted the community of music significantly, primarily because it was seen as a place of connectivity between those of all different sorts of backgrounds.

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Music festivals were a major social activity from the ‘60s all the way through the ‘80s. The significance of the festival grew with the importance of music. As artists began to look for new ways of expressing themselves, they began to incorporate their audiences more and more. One of the best examples of this is probably the Human Be-In, held in Golden Gate Park. Local bands each took their turns on stage, all the while joined by crowd members that were bold enough to dance on-stage. The Human Be-In’s significance resonated through multiple avenues by redefining what it meant to both participate in and attend a musical festival of that time period. It was one of the main events that the modern stereotype of a “hippy” derived from. Of course, it also affected the music scene for many festivals to come. A number of San Franciscan groups performed, such as musician Country Joe McDonald.

McDonald’s group, known as “Country Joe & the Fish”, were a notable left-wing psychedelic folk and rock group that has their grounding in events and festivals such as the Human Be-In. One song to represent this era of festivities would be I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die. This fits so nicely on account of its heavy political message. Its bass line (which is basically a Polka….), match its major intonation and upbeat melodic line. These are in complete contrast to the song’s lyrics, which are preaching about fighting against the draft. They also speak out about how wrong the Vietnam War was, and how the best option was to just retreat the troops as soon as possible. While this is only one example of many, it definitely covers several issues that brought so many people to these Festivals.

There were a number of festivals that followed the Human Be-In that functioned in very similar ways. There were multiple “Be-Ins” in Los Angeles, La Jolla, and Boston the first half of that year, and a few in Denver and Atlantic City by the end of ’67. There were even smaller ones that cropped up in small towns and unlikely non-hippy areas.

‘Wherever these festivals occurred, they always had quite the significant musical presence along the same vein as the original Human Be-In. Another Be-In known for its musical exhibition was the “KFRC Fantasy Fair & Magic Mount Music Festival”, which was held in June of 1967 at Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. A large number of well-known groups of the psychedelic era made an appearance. Country Joe and the Fish also make another appearance, this time performing with The Doors, Canned Heat, and Jefferson Airplane, among others. A week later, the Monterey Pop Festival took place, and there has never been a gathering of talent like this since, both in name and in quality of talent. Here we had Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane (again!).

These events are often considered the first real rock festivals in the US and could not have happened at all without the initial Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. These festivals took place over the course of the summer of 1967, which is often referred to as the “Summer of Love”. One of the most defining songs of this epic summer was White Rabbit, by Jefferson Airplane. In an interview, vocalist Grace Slick stated that she noticed how children’s stories always seem to rely on a substance of some kind that alters reality in some way. In Alice in Wonderland, she gets way too high and ends up too big for the room, while the caterpillar chills on top of a psychedelic mushroom while puffing some opium. In the Wizard of Oz, the protagonists end up in a field of opium poppies and notice the giant Emerald City only after regaining consciousness from their (presumed) drug-induced stupor. In Peter Pan, all you have to do is sprinkle some precious white dust-cocaine powder on your head and you’ll be flying high “straight on ‘till morning”. Slick decided that it was about time someone wrote a song about all of those references because of how overlooked they had been up to this point. That being said in conjunction with all previous statements about the events of the Summer of Love, it makes complete sense why this is basically its leitmotif.

As mimicking festivals popped up more and more frequently, the performing artists pushed themselves further and further in an attempt to reach a new “level” of enlightenment. Where music failed, though, drugs seemed to do the trick. This time period is known as the most psychedelic stint in the history, and hallucinogens akin to LSD were readily available for those seeking. LSD was supposed to guide the way to ideals and insights that normally sit just outside a human’s natural senses. This was also a reflection of Eastern gurus and their seeking of truths through spiritual discipline. Those who use hallucinogenic drugs in this manner are referred to as “hippies”. Timothy Leary, a major proponent of LSD, wrote a guide to this use of acid, titled The Psychedelic Experience. He was known to encourage the use of substance experimentation, saying “turn on, tune in, and drop out’. All the new “psychedelic music” that came from this movement was incredibly experimental, and primarily targeted towards college-aged listeners. Some of the most important bands that came from London’s psychedelic scene were the Doors, Love, and Iron Butterfly.

Another of the most prolific artists that made his mark in this social setting was the charismatic singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jimi Hendrix. A fantastic example of his talent can be experienced in All Along the Watchtower. This song tells a quick story that holds an unbelievable amount of deeper meaning. He and his backup band, aptly referred to as the “Jimi Hendrix Experience”, set the initial trends for psychedelic clothing trends and hairstyles of that time. Though their single Purple Haze has differing interpretations, one popular theory is that it’s about the effects of LSD and other hallucinogens, a signature pastime of the 1960s.

The psychedelic scene of the ‘60s heavily influenced far more than just fashion. Quick to develop were progressive rock musicians with material unlike anything. They started to create music that was far more complex than before, utilizing elaborate instrumentation and new storytelling techniques. All of the up and coming virtuosos of this era saw music as an elaborate work of art instead of just another job. There was a new standard to be upheld, and the best way to do that is to consult the greatest of the greats. It was this train of thought that drove rock groups to incorporate certain aspects from classical music. The best example of this would obviously be Frank Zappa. With an impressive career spanning over thirty years, he was at one point declared twenty-second best guitarist of all time out of the top one-hundred. He has earned the respect of musicians everywhere because of his philosophies on music and freedom of expression in an avant-gardist manner. Zappa combined multiple genres together, which was still a relatively new approach to composition.

With all of the new philosophies relating to what music is and how it should be created, rock musicians felt a certain obligation or responsibility to keep producing more. They were to use whatever means they had at their disposal to delve deeper. Eventually their constant experimentation developed into what is now known as the “concept album”.

One of the best examples of a concept album would have to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. They managed to take “experimental” to the next level. In doing so, they were able to shift consumer focus from a single to the album as a whole. This album came about for several reasons. Ultimately, they were just sick of touring. They were just tired of a lack of coordination with each other on stage due to the sheer wave of screaming that ensued from their fans. So instead of touring, they put more focus into making music, and thus Sgt. Pepper’s was born. It started off with just having a singular theme overarching through all the songs. That single unifying theme focused on what it was like to grow up in Liverpool at this time. That led to the members of the band filling in the fictitious roles of each of these make-believe band members, and recorded as if they were presenting a show to the listener. That way, the album could “tour” and they wouldn’t have to!

Most people use music to reveal some truth about life. The experience of clarity through music has been compared to being under the influence of some sort of hallucinogen. The artists of the 1960s definitely embraced this, allowing the effects to influence not just their music, but also their social interactions. This decade was such a unique time period. It was revered by those who lived through it, and longed for by those who were born in subsequent years. As the messages of the ‘60s will never fade, so too, states Allen Cohan, will “our dream of peace, love, and community never [die]. We, as human beings, yearn for the dream of the Sixties, and despite many disappointments [and failures], our dream[s]…will live forever.”

Works Cited

  1. Bowie, Herb. “Reason to Rock.” Reason to Rock, www.reasontorock.com/tracks/watchtower.html.
  2. Cheng, Tiffany. “Why Did The Beatles Stop Touring in 1966?” Quora, www.quora.com/Why-did-The-Beatles-stop-touring-in-1966.
  3. Christensen, Eric. “My Memory of the Human Be-In.” Summer of Love, 15 Jan. 2017, summerof.love/human-be-in-memory/.
  4. “Frank Zappa – Classical Music Composers.” Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, www.pcmsconcerts.org/composer/frank-zappa/.
  5. Hendrix, Jimi. “Purple Haze.” Songfacts, www.songfacts.com/facts/jimi-hendrix/purple-haze.
  6. Meldahl, Nicole, and Arnold Woods. “A Gathering That Launched the Summer of Love.” Human Beings, Being Together, 14 Jan. 2017, summerof.love/human-beings-together-gathering-launched-summer-love/.
  7. “Purple Haze.” Songfacts, www.songfacts.com/facts/jimi-hendrix/purple-haze.
  8. “White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane.” Songfacts, www.songfacts.com/facts/jefferson-airplane/white-rabbit.
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Festivals, Virtuosity and Psychedelia. (2021, Apr 07). Retrieved December 1, 2022 , from

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