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Biblical Scholar’s ‘Roots’ Reach Back to Woodstock

January 23, 2013 By:
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In the summer of 1969, a year after Andy Warhol announced that  everyone would have the chance to be “world-famous for 15 minutes,” Alan Cooper took the stage at the Woodstock festival in Bethel, N.Y.

Cooper’s rock-’n’-roll fame could be quantified in seconds, rather than minutes. His group, Sha-Na-Na, appears in the three-plus hour, 1970 documentary Woodstock for a total of 52 seconds.

Bare chested, Cooper — the group’s first lead singer — sported thick sunglasses and a black leather cabbie hat while performing  Danny and the Juniors classic “At the Hop.” It was shortly after sunrise on the festival’s final day, a few minutes before Jimi Hendrix appeared on stage.

Cooper, now a noted Bible scholar and provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, spoke about his previous career at a Jan. 17 JTS alumni event on the Main Line. 

Though there was nothing particularly shocking in the light-hearted talk, the scholar who grew up on Long Island acknowledged that he had never before spoken publicly about his time in Sha-Na-Na, a group that remained active long after he left.

Even 40-plus years ago, Sha-Na-Na represented a throwback to an earlier era in which music was supposed to be fun and was meant to entice people to dance, not transform their consciousness. The best-known member of the group was a singer who went by the name Bowzer.

“This is the first time I have ever spoken without notes,” Cooper, a trim man who wore a kipah over his short, gray hair, told the roughly 50 people who attended the program at Adath Israel in Merion Station.

Cooper’s isn’t a tale of someone who became lost in the chaos of the counterculture and later found his true self in Judaism. He said he’d always intended to go into biblical scholarship and that the band started off as something of a lark. 

The group originally formed at Columbia University just a few months before Woodstock. Most of its members, including Cooper, were students at the school. At the height of acid rock — which featured lengthy — and some would say pretentious instrumentals — Cooper said he and a few classmates thought it would be fun to perform the doo-wop music made popular in the ’50s. 

They found a regular gig at a club on the West Side and A-list people started turning up in the audience, including Michael Lang, who asked the group if they wanted to perform at a music festival he was putting together in upstate New York.

Cooper recalled that, when he saw half a million people in one place, he knew he was part of something historic.

He left the group when he graduated Columbia in 1971 and went on to graduate school at Yale University. He wrote a dissertation on the linguistic structure of biblical poetry and later became the first academic appointed to teach at both JTS and Union Theological Seminary, the Christian institution that stands just across Broadway from the Conservative movement’s Jewish seminary.

Cooper said there is one aspect of his musical career that carried over to his academic one: The best teachers, he said, are performers who understand the role that entertaining students plays in cultivating a passion for the material.

“My students find me entertaining, despite all my efforts to the contrary,” he joked.

At the end of the talk, one member of the audience asked what his parents thought of a nice, Jewish, Ivy League boy performing at Woodstock. 

“I don’t think my father ever forgave me for leaving the band and going into graduate school,” he said. “His great goal in life was to get rich. I had the opportunity to get that and I threw it away.”

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