The Human Be-In – Saturday, January 14, 1967

Saturday afternoon
Yellow clouds rising in the noon
Acid incense and balloons
People dancing everywhere
Loudly shouting I don’t care
It’s a time for growing, and a time for knowing
Jefferson Airplane, Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon (1967)

On Saturday, January 14, 1967, the Gathering of the Tribes was held at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It was labeled the Human Be-In.

The lineup of counterculture luminaries was astonishing. Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Dick Gregory, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jerry Rubin, Alan Watts, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service. The day was in part to mark the recent criminalization of LSD, so famous chemist Owsley Stanley provided acid specially produced for the event.

Just months later, legendary music festivals such as Monterey Pop and Woodstock were held. Those same months later, with an influx of lost and searching souls, part of the counterculture of San Francisco evolved and devolved into the Summer of Love, which said to some that the counterculture was not only wrongheaded, but dangerous and deadly. The dominant culture, it seemed, had been proven right and won, and all these counterculture tools and philosophies were right where they belonged—on the scrapheap of history.

More than fifty years later, if you don’t believe that the counterculture has been mainstreamed, look again. Maybe fifty million Americans practice yoga. Millions practice non-Western or alternative religions. Maybe fifty million smoke marijuana regularly. Millions also use psychedelics. Millions are vegetarians and vegans. The cultural staples of war, racism, inequality, intolerance and alienation are still with us, though being slowly (too slowly) pushed aside. Sexual hypocrisy and shame are being replaced by honest expression. Strict compartments of music (and literature and film and theater) have been replaced by art without borders.

As for the observation that counterculturalists would grow up and drop in, sung about by Donavan in Season of the Witch (“Hippies are out to make it rich”), well, yeah, kind of. Noted San Francisco counterculturalist Steve Jobs thought different, made a fortune, changed the world.

There is fortunately film of the Human Be-In. You’ll notice a number of men and women spinning freely and wildly to the music, or to music in their heads (“To dance beneath the diamond sky / with one hand waving free”, Bob Dylan). You’ll also notice a lot of people who by later standards look pretty straight and sober. Some were, being curious onlookers, some not, so don’t be fooled by appearance.

Some who pay attention to the 1960s counterculture and the Human Be-In, if they bother noticing at all, are quick to box it up as a failed moment. They propose that you can move forward by moving backward. That Saturday afternoon, the Human Be-in asked the question “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” You know the answer.