The fluid counterculture of Boston

By Carissa Dunlap

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The music of the 1960’s brought forth an electric, psychedelic vision of rock, folk, blues and jazz, also known as the beats of the counterculture. It marked generations that lived, breathed and followed a culture radically opposed to mainstream and traditional America. The counterculture of the 60s marked the legendary music festivals like Woodstock, the emergence of legends with the British Invasion and the rise of hippie and edgy stylings through the West and East coasts.

60s culture revolutionized political and cultural landscapes, as well as the musical spectrum. As the followers of the lifestyle shouted their antiwar rhetoric, musicians gave voice to popular protest songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Masters of Wars” and Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”.

Rock music that most people know today was further developed in the 60s mainly in the UK and US. The style drew from blues, folk and jazz, while stressing lyrics about versions of romantic love and addressing a variety of social and political issues. Sub genres like blues rock, folk rock, country rock, jazz rock, and heavy metal emerged as artists blended musical styles.

The hippie scene was born in California and an edgier, avant garde music scene emerged in New York City, both spreading and blending together creating the counterculture of the 60s. But today, this alternative music scene, underground culture is in a decline everywhere.

Here in Boston, people once lived in a thriving folk, punk and indie music scene. It was the breeding ground for independent cinemas such as Symphony and Orson Welles. The Rat, a nightclub on Common Ave. was a punk mecca, but is now operated by Eastern Standard. BU was considered slacker and grungy. Harvard Square was the home of the hippies. And Newbury Street was alive and actually cool. The art, writing and music scene was alive in the 60s, but over the years has slowly disintegrated into the modern cosmopolitan uppity twin of today’s New York City.

The road to folk stardom began in Harvard Square at Club 47 on Mount Auburn Street. It is here where Bob Dylan would travel all the way from New York to 47 to beg to play or for a job, but was almost always denied before he had his big break. Artists like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and more would come to play at Club 47, just to say they had. And it was here where Boston’s counterculture began. Of course, there were early spouts of examples of counterculture like behavior, such as H.Z Mencken in 1926 was arrested for selling copies of his banned magazine The American Money in the Boston Common or even way back to when the colonists threw tea in the harbor. But the folk era was launched in Cambridge spreading outward to Boston, ultimately tearing a hole in the conservative fabric of the city.

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This change in culture created a potential opening for musical and literary experimentation, an increase in political consciousness, and all that comes with the bohemian style of living. Ultimately, this rising scene created a whole new city.

There was a tug of war between the old and the new. Anti-war protests and smoke fogging up the city forced Mayor Daniel Hayes of Cambridge to declare “War on Hippies”. Squatters and drifters ruled the Boston Common. Harvard fired Timothy Leary, the godfather of psychedelic drug use. Even so, the Bostonian alt-culture continued to thrive well into the 90s. The attitude persisting because of the enormous student population of “rebellious and ironic smart-asses” with a cause.

As the cities economic pressures and increased gentrification rose, Boston’s alt hubs were dismembered and its counterculture began to lose relevance. Alternative newspapers died. Kenmore square was scrubbed clean of its art and seedy underbellies. Fort point was renamed an “innovation district” than an artist hub. BU evolved from a slacker commuter school to an NYU lookalike. Record stores and indie theaters faded away, only to be replaced by an abundance of high end stores and luxury condos. Many alternative artist and musicians, well, they left, since the city had nothing to offer them and became less affordable.

The question that remains, is counterculture music dead today? Critics argue that the fading of counterculture to more mainstream material is because these alt artists learned how to make a buck. There is a blurring between mainstream and underground, with a demise of local flavors and cosmopolitan flare within the city. All of this has burned and upturned the existing cultural foundations, but has allowed for alternative culture to change and bloom in unpredictable ways.

The old counterculture is definitely extinct. Though an entirely different one has emerged and taken root. Improv and standup shows have created a new comedic entertainment niche in the city. Poetry and new aged coffee houses have allowed for more artistry to flourish. Artists have take contemporary and political art to the streets. Garage rock acts and local bands travel the city to play in localized venues. All have created this entirely new and exciting acts of counterculture to experience today.

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