Food, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll: New Perspectives on the 1960s-Era Counterculture

AHA Session 181
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Grace Elizabeth Hale, University of Virginia
John McMillian, Georgia State University

Session Abstract

In the rapidly expanding scholarship on the US counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s, most research has centered on the movement’s worldview and counterculturists’ relentless struggle to achieve a higher state of consciousness while rejecting the alleged artificiality and anomie of mainstream society. In a recent article, historian David Farber charts an intersecting scholarly path, one that “explore[s] exactly what so many people who thought they were members of an alternative culture did to bridge the gap between their visions and their lives and then between isolated countercultural enclaves and the larger communities they meant to build.”[1]

This panel is focused on answering Farber’s call for a greater consideration of the “lived experience” of the counterculture and, simultaneously, on expanding our still-growing knowledge of the nature of and the influences on counterculturists’ (often problematic) cultural borrowings. In centering on questions related to health, region, music, drugs, and spirituality, the presenters broaden our understanding of the multifarious perspectives that counterculturists used to formulate and implement their critiques of the technocratic wasteland they called Amerika.

Zachary J. Lechner’s paper examines the countercultural reception of the late 1960s and 1970s rock group The Band through the lens of the counterculture’s romanticization of the oft-maligned American South. Rather than viewing The Band’s songs about the hardscrabble lives of rural white southerners as idealizations of a racist, backward culture, counterculturists widely praised the group’s music for presenting a portrait of an admirable, upright people who embodied hippies’ anti-modern, back-to-the-land ideals.

Andrei Znamenski’s paper on countercultural icon and author Carlos Castaneda extends this notion of hippie cultural borrowing by highlighting the underground popularity of Castaneda’s character, Don Juan, a fictionalized Native American shaman. As Znamenski explains, Don Juan came to personify the countercultural embrace of Indians as noble, socially uncorrupted primitives, as well as hippies’ postmodern notion of multiple realities and discourses.

Maria McGrath and Joshua Clark Davis’s papers push the conversation in the direction of the counterculture’s “lived experience.” In her discussion of integrative medicine guru and psychedelics proponent Andrew Weil, McGrath highlights an important connection between the counterculture’s promotion of mind-expanding psychedelics and natural foods and the rise of the holistic health market. Davis’s related paper on head shops and natural foods stores details hippie entrepreneurs’ efforts to live out their movement’s ideals by creating a countercultural business model and building alternative communities of activists and politically conscious consumers.

Collectively, these papers promise to lend new insights into the depth and impact of both the counterculture’s disaffection with America in the Age of Abundance and its efforts to put its solutions into action. The panel notably includes a diverse group of junior and senior historians that showcases the exciting scholarship coming out universities, community colleges, and elite prep schools.

[1] David Farber, “Building the Counterculture, Creating Right Livelihoods: The Counterculture at Work,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture 6, no. 24 (2013): 18.

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