Recently observed on the notice board of a small-town restaurant, a flier announced the local choral society’s upcoming spring concert: “60’s Forever.” Given our addiction to screens, it is gratifying to be reminded of the degree to which ordinary Americans still come together to do things voluntarily “in concert,” things that they could not do alone. They sing in choruses and choirs; they act in community theaters; they play summer softball more for the fun of it than to win; they gather together family and friends for a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park. This town’s choral society, which has been making joyful noise for over fifty years, musters two to three score singers for its seasonal concerts and produces a sound faithful to its modest purpose and democratic composition. Whether or not its performances achieve artistic excellence, it brings joy to singers and listeners alike. Everyone needs to get out of the house and spend time with others. With fewer and fewer of us actually going out to work anymore, or going to church or the bowling alley, the need is greater than ever. The Waynesboro Choral Society, and hundreds of others like it, faithfully serves this purpose.
Yet something seemed out of tune between such civic wholesomeness and this concert’s “60’s Forever” theme. The use of nostalgia to motivate performers and attract audiences looks innocent enough—but is it? The average age of the singers in this little ensemble must be well north of fifty, the older of whom will have experienced the Sixties firsthand. Belonging to that threshold (and then some), I was aware of what, in the priceless idiom of that long-ago time, managed to “light” one’s “fire,” and which now brings a shudder. For younger folk today, particularly those of a progressive bent, that convulsive decade casts an inspirational spell like no other, largely, I suspect, for reasons of supposed ideological congeniality. Still I ask, how is it that the Sixties, which began so buoyantly with the orderly passing of the torch between generations, from Ike to JFK, and ended with the shambles of Chicago, Columbia, Woodstock, and Kent State, prompts such awe among today’s young as well as nostalgia among today’s old?
The answer may lie in the two-sided nature of nostalgia. On the cynical side, nostalgia selects an era from the large catalog of times past and shamelessly romanticizes it into the “good old days.” It is an instance of reverse chronological snobbery, in which not the “now” but the “then” is held up as the best of all possible worlds. This being America, a not-small nostalgia industry has been built on this cynical side. Judgment as to what exactly made the good old days so good is completely arbitrary, as is judgment about what was not so good and needed to be swept under the carpet. Past-as-refuge can be a comforting way to think if you find the present disorienting, as many now do, though it usually leads us away from real history. Or, is the content of the longed-for past, whether real or romanticized, really what matters at all? On nostalgia’s other side, what matters is not what things were like back then but that we were young back then, and regret at youth’s passage is a hard thing to resist. Youth, as the old saying goes, is far too fine a thing to be wasted on the young.
The “60’s Forever” flier featured the symbol of that decade: a Volkswagen minibus done up in psychedelic colors, its old “VW” logo refashioned into a peace symbol. The sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll message was understood well at the time and not just by a few beat poets and hippies-in-the-making, but by every high-school and college boy and girl. The shorthand of that season was “Just do it!” Of course not everyone did do it, but the disruptive excitement of it all fixed us on the thrills of the time. I was fifteen in 1963, only beginning my education and utterly blind to what the decade’s end might look like. We had not a clue that what was being sold as “Liberation Now!” would lead to slavery not far down the road. Our generation’s ignorance was not unique. Turning the clock back, I wonder if the same thing might have been experienced in Germany during the Weimar years, when a youth, who would have known only the horrors of the Great War, would have seen the Republic’s values of cultural liberation and hopes for a peaceful, unified Europe as the next bright new thing, promising heaven but delivering hell. Such a boy or girl would have had no more inkling than we had, thirty years later, of catastrophe just over the horizon. That catastrophe proved exceptionally violent and destructive but was also, relatively speaking, acute, playing out in only a dozen years, 1933–45. Our catastrophe, now dating sixty years from the decade of the psychedelic minibus, has proved chronic, is suffused more and more with the totalitarian temptation (as yet mostly of the soft sort), and shows no signs of abatement. Time may not be on our side. Habits take long to develop, and bad ones, once ingrained, can take even longer to break.
Youth’s naiveté should not surprise. Grownups’ gullibility should appall. Perhaps I overstate, and I do not mean to ascribe to the little community chorus in the neighboring town anything but positive motivation. They sang their songs and no doubt delivered a right good time. All the nostalgia in the world, however, won’t change the history, which in the Sixties took a wrong turn that we have yet to correct. I did not make it to the “60’s Forever” concert, but, had I done so, I probably would have applauded with everybody else and thought wistfully of youthful times. Be careful, though, of what you wish for. This present time is beginning to feel like “forever” and in all the wrong ways. I wonder if there was a sad song about that.