Who were the hippies?

Intrigued by my hippie posts and new novel, some of my younger friends have asked for a nutshell clarification on who the hippies were. They are aware that a kind of cultural revolution was taking place in the late 1960s, but remain a little vague on it. Here’s my one-page summary.

Let’s start with the Vietnam war, which probably more than anything drove the urgency of the hippie movement. Teenagers were being sent involuntary (through the draft) and in droves to fight, die, and get maimed for no clear reason they could see other than to save the pride of some old white guys in stuffed shirts and suits in Washington. And it was ubiquitous – everyone in every neighborhood knew kids who went to Vietnam: hence, widespread anti-war rallies and public (and illegal) burning of draft cards.

The anti-war movement brought anti-Establishment thinking, which already had some threads in rock and roll and beatnik culture, in recent memories of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Gandhi’s pacifism, to a new level of cohesiveness and to a whole new set of ideals. It was no longer just, “Fuck the Man, I’m going to celebrate my own eccentricities”; now it was, “There’s a whole generation of us fed up with the Establishment, and we’re bonding together in the public sphere – we can do this, we can effect a cultural paradigm shift and move out of the era of materialism, the era of the crushing corporate state, into a new age of peace and harmony, with a newfound respect for nature and simplicity.” So you had this fairly coherent anti-Establishment movement, absorbing the anti-war movement, civil rights and feminist movements, old beatniks like Allen Ginsberg, nascent environmentalism, a mushrooming interest in Eastern religions and philosophies as a possible alternative to the dead-end Establishment of the West. You had all of these groups together on the anti-Establishment wagon, and then you had the emerging phenomenon of the outdoor rock festival, a moveable public venue for the expression of mass solidarity. In 1962, Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was the biggest hit of the year; by 1967, it was Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers – an enormous change in the sonic contours of the culture in a very short span of time. It did look like it might be a millennial paradigm shift, a tidal wave ready to sweep all away before it. At least it scared the hell out of my grandma and Richard Nixon.

By the early 1970s, the hippie scene was faltering, a victim of both inner contradictions and external forces. The Vietnam war resistance, psychedelic drugs, sexual openness, the freedom of the commune – it seemed that everything about the 1960s could be incredibly liberating or wildly destructive. The hippies were perhaps not savvy enough to counter the destructive forces within and without and bring their beautiful ideals to full flower. But the cultural ground they broke was broken for good, and their legacy continues threading its way through subsequent cultural formations (from music to the fight for gender and racial and sexual orientation equality to organic foods and yoga centers). One could argue that the hippie dream of rewriting culture from the ground up around the ideals of peace, love, and flowers, not war, money, and machines, is not dead but running in multiple channels underground. The next time the Establishment gives us a catalyst with the same level of urgency as the Vietnam war, hippies might return in a more mature aspect, and “the world might wake up and burst into a beautiful flower” (Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums). Is this just a pipe-dream like Shangri-la or Atlantis? Maybe, but could it not also be that such visions in the collective unconscious only await a strong enough call from the next generation? Might I refer you to flower-child hippie, Donovan Leitch, as he invokes messianic forces from those submerged regions in the 1968 “Atlantis”?

And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind
Let us rejoice and let us sing and dance and ring in the new
Hail Atlantis!

(YouTube h/t: Carlos Lara)

The HIPPIES are coming(click to view)

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My new HIPPIES Facebook page

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17 thoughts on “Who were the hippies?

  1. My parents were republican hardliners who had cocktail parties every weekend and thought if your country called upon you to die in a war, that’s what you did. So to me the movement was not about drugs, sex and rock and roll. It was – there has to be another way to live. And the battle many of my friends fought ended with them being institutionalized by their parents or locked in jail for a lifetime for smoking weed. But that’s just my story.

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  2. Yes, I’m with you, Gary, and I think a mood is suddenly afoot that may reignite those ideals. Perhaps paradoxically, it comes (I think) as a result of the illiberal Far Right movement sweeping across the Western World. The centre ground of politics has gone, it seems, as has any centre ground of moral passivity — just standing still with your ‘whetevers’ will only get you run over. Choose amity or enmity; that’s what it’s come down to. Oddly enough, I’ve just posted about what some people may well regard as a hippy ideal, even though I never was one.

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  3. Pingback: Who were the hippies? - Worldwide Hippies

  4. Living on the edge, whether that’s the fringe of society or psyche, is not always the bohemian dream it’s cracked up to be; I know too many casualties of the commune and not enough cool cats thanks to the dichotomy of any ideal that promises to be too much of a good thing, flower power certainly had its own underbelly, full of weeds.

    Speaking of Donovan, ‘Sand and Foam’ takes me to that happy place, exhaling innocence 🙂

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    • True. My novel tries to minimize neither the ideals nor the dark side, but the hippie idealists are, in the end, the protagonists who gain our sympathies. Could just be autobiographical luck. I saw both sides as you did, but the bright outweighed the dark in my perhaps lucky experience.

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