Monday, April 4, 2011

The Spirit of '76

One of the significant events of my college years was the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, considered to be the birthday of our country. In Boston (where it all began), the hoopla began at least a year earlier, in 1975, when the Bicentennial of Paul Revere's Midnight Ride was celebrated. And it gathered momentum, as the first of the Bicentennial Quarters was issued (one design for each state). Everyone was getting into the spirit - even TimeLife Books, which decided to issue a serial collection of Beethoven's best known compositions - in honor of the Bicentennial. I had no idea what linked the two. It was like two entirely dissimilar objects in a pod...
Beethoven's bicentennial birthday had already occurred in 1970. The bicentennial of his death will occur in 2027. The Bicentennial of Tchaikowski's "1812 Overture" will occur next year - an event that will be celebrated by the flying of a flag at Fort McHenry, noting the defeat of Napoleon by the Czar's army.

But I digress.

In true countercultural fashion, there were not one but two Bicentennial celebrations. Ordinary people, fueled by the patriotic consumption of Coca Cola (it adds life!), decided to visit all the epic historic sites. Usually in the daylight hours, they'd pack their kids and their Kodak Brownie cameras in their station wagons and trundle off to the battlefields at Lexington and Concord to see where the intrepid Minutemen had fought the mighty British Redcoats to a standstill. However, this was not adventurous enough for Jeremy Rifkin. These days he rhapsodizes about Life Without Fossil Fuels as head of the Foundation on Economic Trends, but back in the '70s, he was a hairy populist (yes, he had hair at one time) and he promoted the idea of a People's Bicentennial, free from the grasp of commercialism, capitalism and Coca Cola.

The first salvo in the War of the Bicentennials was fought in late April during the commemoration of Paul Revere's midnight ride. Culturalists and counter-culturalists alike gathered at the Old North Church to hear stirring speeches about the events that occurred exactly 200 years ago that night. Then the counterculturalists dashed off to Concord for the re-enactment of the Woodstock Festival. We arrived just before midnight - and just after the rains had hit - and proceeded to camp out in a big muddy field to listen to Utah Phillips and Arlo Guthrie and other populist faves. Long past midnight, all ten thousand of us (the numbers may have been plus or minus 50 percent; I've never claimed to be able to estimate the size of a crowd - especially in the dark) were still awake, though considerably punch-drunk. Then, as the first rays of sun began to appear, a cannon-shot rang out. And another. And another - all at ear-splitting volume. The Official Bicentennial Committee had arrived with their flags, their 18th-Century Revolutionary uniforms, their marching bands - and Gerald Ford, the Accidental President. He may have been wearing a Whip Inflation Now lapel pin and he may have spoken on the historic occasion we were here to witness, but none of us on the Counter-Cultural side of the divide quite knew. At some point it all ended, and the cold, sleep-deprived and hungry Counter-Revolutionaries decided that it was time to go home.

There was one problem, though.  The Official Committee had brought with them ten or twenty or fifty or two hundred marching bands and fife and drum brigades (we lost count), and both mighty armies had to cross the same bridge to get to their cars. So as the players tried to leave the field, the marching bands refused to yield. A stand-off soon ensued over who was going to cross the bridge first, and after a tense half hour in which nothing moved, both groups crossed in a chaotic double-time. It was two in the afternoon, and as Air Force One soared overhead carrying President Ford back to the White House, I was sound asleep, lying with my head on my knapsack, next to my friend's station wagon. I went back to MIT and slept the rest of the day. After all, it was Patriot's Day.

But I digress.

My father was a Renaissance Man. He was a carpenter, auto and appliance mechanic, scientist, petroleum geophysicist, patron of the arts, reader of plays, moutaineer, avid cyclist, and he had even recorded a song for "The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men" (recorded one sweaty evening in an undisclosed location in Houston, Texas, by Bicentennial Folklorist Mack McCormick, it was a recording of drinking songs, bawdy sea chanties and playground taunts featuring the likes of Alan Lomax, Buster Pickens and Lightnin' Hopkins, and you can buy a used copy for $200 on

He hoped to share his Renaissance ambitions with his sons, which meant that I would get phone calls of inspiration bright and early at 7am, when I was in no mood for inspiration.
But I digress.

The crowning moment of the Bicentennial Year was not the big celebration on July 4, but in November, when America was freed from the last legacy of the Nixon years. Gerald Ford, having liberated Poland from the Russians, went down to defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter, who made an improbable rise to President after having been a crewman on a nuclear vessel, a peanut farmer and a governor. Carter would go on to suffer an improbable series of misfortunes that included winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and the euphoria of 1976 would give way to the ennui of 1977...
But I digress...

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