A tribute to the San Francisco Diggers by Jay Babcock
Author: Jay Babcock
I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona.
In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com
Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.
Uncredited author/artist of the visionary “Mutants Commune” manifesto, printed across the cover (see below) and centerfold of the August 18-24, 1967 Berkeley Barb — a piece so significant that news of its publication made the pages of the Aug. 21, 1967 New York Times (see below)…
Thanks everybody for the kind words and donations. As you may have noticed, I’ve used some of the funds to upgrade this site with WordPress; all ads have been removed, and the site now has a simpler address: diggersdocs.org
Meanwhile, I’ve been working on two major-ish projects.
The first is another in the Oral Histories series, this one a never-before-published long conversation with Nina Blasenheim and the late Freeman (Linn) House that I recorded at their home in 2010. I hope to have it for you before this year’s holiday season gets underway.
The second project is a bit different. I am working with close family members of the late Arthur Lisch (pictured above) to get a better understanding of who he was, how he came to be involved in the Diggers, what he did during that period, and what he did later. Arthur was a fascinating cat who played a major role in the Diggers story; although he is certainly present in contemporaneous media accounts and some scene/period histories, much of his specific work, ideas and impact has perhaps been overshadowed by other Digger voices. In an effort to set the record straight(er), I’m excited to share what I’ve been finding with everyone here soon… again, hopefully before mid-December.
There’s a few other things on the boil but I’m not yet sure if they’ll amount to much. We shall see.
Thanks again for reading. If you’d like to help cover the costs of this effort, donations of any amount at all are appreciated. Click here to get that happening.
Wow. December, 1966: Local (San Francisco) TV color news footage of a visit to the first Diggers Free Store/garage/studio location on Page Street, and an on-camera interview with the mysterious Billy Murcott (aka Billy Landout from Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio), a Digger from early on and later the author of the visionary Mutants Commune manifesto. Tremendous find. Shocking, really, to see this turn up out of the blue after all of these years. And for you Deadheads: “Phil Lesh is seen helping to carry in a vat of soup” at 0:41.
I first interviewed Harvey Kornspan in August, 2010, after I had traveled hundreds of miles to interview many other Diggers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and further up the coast, deep in northern California’s Emerald Triangle. This was a bit strange, given that Harvey lives in Silver Lake, less than two miles from the Atwater Village bungalow I was rented until 2008. For years I had been researching the Diggers, and there Harvey was all along, just a hop away.
But Harvey was not just a Digger, and he wasn’t just a local. Because unlike every other Digger I’ve ever met or contacted, before or since, Harvey had kept the figurative and literal receipts of the era. So not only did he have his wonderful memories — more of less: it was the ’60s, let’s be reasonable — but he also had unpublished letters, manuscripts, broadside drafts and business documents, as well as a sizable collection of flyers, newspapers, and other ephemera, which he was happy to share. (Some of them are shown here. Harvey is a mensch.)
For the uninitiated: in 2022, yes, the Diggers are little-known. But in 1966-8, such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight included the Diggers in their account. “A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor would later write, “[The Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.”
So, as the counter-culture came into being, the Diggers were there, the Diggers were important, the Diggers were well-known, but crucially, though they acted in public, the Diggers were anonymous. Nobody knew who they were, where they came from, or how they did what they did. In short, they had a mystique: a group of LSD-fueled street anarchists with a philosophy/practice of “everything is free / do you own thing.”
I recently came across a March 1967 article from the Foghorn, a student newspaper published by the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit school, that summed up the Diggers vibe succinctly:
The sign on the door said, “You are a digger.” About 50 people had accepted the invitation and moved into the house high in the hills over the Haight-Ashbury.
A cauldron of stew was cooking in the kitchen. The stew, eventually, would be trucked down to the Panhandle, free for anyone with a bowl and a spoon. No one know for sure who brings the food that goes into the stew. Some is donated, some bought, some stolen. The stew would be good today; someone had brought two chickens.
It’s all the work of the Diggers, a mysterious, amorphous group in the Haight-Ashbury dedicated to given things away free and “doing their thing.” They have been evicted from more than half a dozen flats, apartments, and store fronts in the six months of their existence in San Francisco.
One place of refuge is the All Saints Episcopal Church on Waller, where Father Leon Harris has let the Diggers use his church kitchen to prepare the food for the Panhandle for three weeks now.
“The Diggers are industrious, cheerful and benevolent,” he said. “They also give away free clothing and find lodging for homeless people. It seems to me they put a lot of professing Christians to shame by their goodness.”
What follows is a consolidation of various conversations with Harvey, which, to some degree, builds on my previously posted Diggers oral histories, and, as it includes the inside story of why the Altamont disaster happened, offers something of a conclusion. So, many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let any unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you might get something out of the next part.
I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work,please make a donation in my PayPal TipJar. All contributions, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Harvey Kornspan: I was born in Youngstown, Ohio. My dad sold used cars, had a very successful business. Not rich, middle class. Jewish, both sides. My mom was a homemaker. I have a sister who’s four years older and a brother with Down Syndrome.
Excerpt from The Human Be-In (Basic Books, 1970) by the brilliant Helen Swick Perry. Perry was 55 in 1966-7 and was employed at the Haight-adjacent Langley-Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, working on a community mental health project, when she began to explore (and participate in) the goings-on of the “flower children.”
…There was another tool for effecting the psychedelic revolution in the Haight-Ashbury, and this seemed the most effective, the most lasting. For want of a better term, I will call it instant theater; it emerged in the Haight-Ashbury primarily in the phenomenon of the Diggers. In my estimation, much of what the Diggers stood for in the Haight-Ashbury will survive—by word of mouth, by a picture in people’s minds of what they did, by their example of simple kindliness and humanity, by their reaffirmation of the importance of every person and of everyone having his “thing,” and by their emphasis on the destructiveness of property values in a society moving toward technological affluence.
…[T]he living theater of the Diggers as it combined eventually with the wisdom of the black man in the slum represents the significant survival potential of the Haight-Ashbury. Audience participation in theater has, of course, a long and intricate history; and the young people who began the Diggers movement had knowledge of this, as evidenced by their publications and actions. But the instant theater that was developed by the Diggers was more spontaneous and politically sophisticated. This kind of living theater had an immediacy and a communication potential that bypassed the failure of the establishment to listen to the words of the songs sung by the young—even the civil rights songs. All the skill of the medicine man, as the young had witnessed it in the TV ads in their growing-up years, was brought to bear on the audience. The Diggers knew how to make a point without words. They also recognized that a commercial ad would do no good; there must be conviction and dedication, which also had some element of being quite willing to suffer for their beliefs, if that became necessary.
…The Diggers’ drama was a group effort, and it evolved out of the sensitivity of several young artists to a particularly tragic incident in the city; most of these artists were part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In the early fall of 1966, San Francisco had experienced a so-called race riot, and the city was upset and puzzled that it could have happened at all. On the afternoon of September 27, three young Negro boys were stopped by a policeman in one of San Francisco’s slums, on the chance that the car they were driving had been stolen; the policeman was correct in his surmise, although his hunch was not based on any report of a stolen car—the owner had not even missed the car by then. The policeman was white, and the boys were understandably scared; they fled, and continued to run after the policeman ordered them to stop. One of the boys, sixteen years old, with the same last name as the policeman but a different shade of skin color, was shot in the back and died almost instantly. Thus began the San Francisco riots of 1966, with three days of “racial turbulence,” as it was described in the Chronicle, and six days of curfew in certain disturbed areas of the city, including the Haight-Ashbury. In the slums of the city—and in this instance this included the Haight-Ashbury, which was not primarily a slum area at all—many people were caught without food because of the curfew and the rioting. Some members of the Mime Troupe, calling themselves Diggers, began to prepare food and serve it free to all comers. There was no formal organization; it was more a state of mind.
The name “Diggers” was somewhat obscurely derived, and different people had different theories about its meaning. Some of the members of the movement clearly connected the name with the Diggers in Cromwell’s England who began to dig and plant the commons in towns throughout the country, distributing free the food produced, as a protest against a government insensitive to the hunger of some of its people. These early Diggers were a branch of the group in England known as the Levellers, who, like the Quaker movement begun in the same general period, had as one of their main tenets the idea of leveling all differences of position or rank among people. At the same time, the word Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury had other connotations, some of them continuous with the Negro culture, for instance, where the term “hip” had long implied that one really “dug” what was happening; and I heard various sympathetic puns on this usage in the Haight-Ashbury coffee houses. There was a free frame of reference for words on Haight Street, as there had been for James Joyce, and it would be restrictive to think that the word Digger meant only one thing in that rapidly changing culture. The use of the word was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that a North American Indian tribe had once been known as Diggers because they lived chiefly on roots, and Ruth Benedict‘s book Patterns of Culture (1959), which was well read by the young, had as its epigraph a “Proverb of Digger Indians”: “In the beginning God gave to every people a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life.” The seekers had an affinity for odd pieces of information floating around which coalesced in remarkable ways from time to time, and they were considerably influenced by the romance and lore of the American Indian. For some of the young people, the name Diggers was connected with grave-digging—a macabre association in light of the young boy’s death. They pointed out that the original Diggers in England had been Levellers, that they had acquired the name Diggers when they had to dig the graves for their own dead on the commons in the morning, after a night’s encounter with the local officials; altruism has always been a peculiarly red flag for the establishment of whatever century or country. At any rate, the word “Diggers” captured the imagination of many people throughout the Bay area, and the concept eventually stirred up as much anxiety in the San Francisco establishment as it did in Cromwell’s England…
In 2010, I drove to northern California from my home in Joshua Tree to interview as many living Diggers as would talk to me. Each conversation over those few days felt like a breakthrough—a motherlode of historical detail and insight beyond what I had gleaned from book research. And each Digger I interviewed was excited to learn that I was headed to Humboldt County to interview Jane Lapiner and David Simpson at their forest home. This couple, together since April, 1967, was beloved by other Diggers. If I was interviewing them, it meant that I was really doing my work. Instant Diggers cred.
In 2022, the Diggers are little-known. But in 1966-8, such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight included the Diggers in their account. “A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor would later write, “[The Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.”
Jane Lapiner and David Simpson were in their mid-20s during the Diggers period. Jane was a single mother from New York City with a background in leftist, avant garde dance; David was a Chicago-bred lefty dropout from the University of Wisconsin, who’d been a competitiveboxer in high school, shared a house with pre-stardom Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, served in the Coast Guard and was trimming trees in the East Bay when… But hold on, I’m telling their stories, instead of letting these award-winning storytellers tell it themselves.
What follows is a consolidation of conversations the three of us had one night and the next morning inside their farmhouse home, warmed by a wood stove and good food. I am grateful for their hospitality, and the life-example they continue to set (for example, see: “Judge Dismisses Case Against Four Septuagenarian Rainbow Ridge Activists,“ North Coast Journal, Dec. 15, 2020). There are some ‘60s people who went back to the land and didn’t fail. Jane and David are those people.
Please note that this conversation has not been edited down for a general audience. Many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let any unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you’ll like the next part. You’ll see why these two are so beloved.
I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please drop a nickel or more in my TipJar. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
(Note: Poets Robert Duncan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti also read)
The Band’s Perfect Goodbye
A Behind-the-Scenes Report by Emmett Grogan
On December 6, 1969, I attended a concert at a race track in Livermore, near Altamont, California. Three hundred thousand people gathered on the grounds to see and hear rock performers on a crowded stage. Several cameramen were positioned at various angles to record the event as part of a documentary on The Rolling Stones’ concert tour of America. One of the cameramen got lucky. His lens was focused on the right place at the right time. The scene he recorded — the murder of an audience member by Hell’s Angels “security men” — became the dramatic highlight of the documentary Gimme Shelter. Like the photographing of this scene, the Altamont concert itself had happened by accident. And most of it went wrong. Nothing was planned. Everything was winged, improvised on the spot. Like life. Like death.
Six years passed before I went to another concert in the San Francisco Bay area, and this was an orchestrated event in which nothing was left to be played by ear, not even the music. The Band’s Last Waltz was as calculated as a pension. Every aspect of the production was carefully charted, as were the planets governing the stars. Nothing was overlooked or given space to simply happen. The planning was meticulous, the affair thoroughly cased, like a Willie Sutton bank job.
The Last Waltz was not only a hit, it was a major-league home run with the bases loaded. A grand slam. The Los Angeles Times called it “the most prestigious collection of rock stars ever assembled for a single show.” An elegant rambling moved Eric Clapton to remark, “Don’t think there will be anything like it ever again. Ever.” He’s right. There won’t be another gathering quite like it. In the year of Nadia Comăneci, the timing was perfect. According to a professional astrologist, the day was excessively rare. The sort of day you wait for years to happen. The kind of day that won’t happen for perhaps another decade.