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History of the Hippie Subculture

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will chart the evolution of hippies as an American subculture. We will explore how the general public became aware of the concept of hippies and how that concept changed over the years.

Precursors to the Hippies

The notion of pot smoking, bellbottomed hippies dancing to the Grateful Dead is one of the most iconic stereotypes in American popular culture. The hippie subculture of the 1960s was more than just free love and psychedelia; it was one of the most important social movements of the 20th century.

The origin of the hippie subculture that coalesced in the 1960s is a matter of some debate. Early precursors can be seen as far back as the 19th century with the transcendentalist movement and in various utopian communal movements. These movements emphasized an idealized notation of nature, a sense that family life needed to be reevaluated, and a general tendency to challenge authority.

The Beat movement that began in the 1950s is broadly seen as the first genuine precursor to the hippie subculture. The Beats, sometimes called beatniks, were primarily a loose group of friends who gained international recognition on the literary accomplishments of its three most famous members: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and especially Alan Ginsberg. The Beats celebrated jazz, homosexuality, non-conformity, drug use, and mysticism.

The Beats were in certain respects still the product of the World War II generation; Kerouac was a hard drinking man's man, while Burroughs was an avant-garde novelist with a penchant for heroin and guns. Alan Ginsberg stands out as the most obvious link between the beatniks and the hippies with his strong interest in Buddhism, social activism, and free love.

Greenwich Village

The hippies were actually numerous different groups that came to be perceived as part of a unified youth culture movement during the 1960s. Some factions were very politically focused with roots in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the radical left. Other factions had little interest in traditional politics, with much stronger inclinations towards drug use, exploring alternative sexualities, and occultism.

In the United States, two major scenes of activity gave rise to the hippie subculture: the Greenwich Village folk music scene in New York and the various pockets of activism and youth rebellion in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Greenwich Village, folk singers, jazz musicians, blues enthusiasts, and poets had been performing in various clubs since the mid 1950s. The scene that developed in Greenwich Village had strong ties to the political left, the civil rights movement, and the beatniks. This scene eventually produced hippie icons like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, as well as Peter, Paul and Mary.

The Bay Area Scene

The Bay Area hippies that were focused on politics and social change were centered on the University of California, Berkeley. The Bay Area hippies that were more drawn to LSD and psychedelic rock music congregated around the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Although the various factions within these scenes often viewed each other with contempt, they came to be depicted by the mass media and the general public as part of a generalized youth insurrection that was both dangerous and fascinating.

The Politics of the Hippies

Opposition to the Vietnam War was perhaps the most unifying aspect of the hippie subculture. As the Vietnam War intensified throughout the 1960s and more young people were drafted, youth opposition to the Vietnam War increased. Conservative Americans were horrified by the spectacles being beamed through their television sets of long-haired hippies marching on college campuses, brandishing signs bearing anti-war slogans, and smoking marijuana.

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