American History

The Counterculture


*In the 1950s, the Beatniks rejected the conformity of materialistic middle-class suburban life.  Rejection of mainstream society continued in the 1960s, particularly as increasing numbers of people came to oppose and openly protest the Vietnam War (and thus the government’s policies). 

 

*They began to see a generation gap between themselves and their parents (sometimes known as the silent generation, who grew up during the Depression and World War II, and understood hardship, appreciated hard work and success, and trusted authority), feeling that the differences between their two age groups made it impossible for them to communicate.  This gave rise to the saying ‘never trust anyone over thirty.’  Some people under thirty began creating a new culture completely different from the one around them—a counterculture.

 

*The counterculture valued youth and doing what felt good.  They were called Hippies and said they wanted peace, love, and freedom.  Many of them opposed the draft (many of them were draft-age), experimented with drugs, and practised free love.  They listened to new types of music, wore different types of clothes, and lived unconventional lifestyles.  Furthermore, because these were the Baby Boom generation growing up, their sheer numbers made Hippie music, clothing, and other interests important parts of the economy—America could not afford to ignore them.

 

*Hippie clothing tended to be loose, and often colourful.  Clothing was often hand-made or at least altered as a rejection of materialism.  Hair tended to be worn long and loose.  Men and women might wear love beads (long necklaces, often with hand-made beads).  The (stereotypically) peaceful, colourful, drugged people who lived this way were also sometimes called flower children.  It is important to remember that these were stereotypes—many young people in the 1960s and 1970s embraced some parts of the counterculture without taking part in others.

 

*Some Hippies set up communes—large houses or small communities, often in the country, where they could live together and share their interests and resources.  Some people in the commune might make everyone’s clothes while others might cook.  Some members might work traditional jobs to support the others.  If they were in the country, they might grow most of their own food.  In many cases, communes also practised free love.

 

*Free love was the idea that people should be able to have sex without being married and without being criticised for it.  Sex was just one form of affection, and was something to be shared, not stigmatised (although some feminists said ‘free love’ was just a plot by men to make women who said ‘no’ feel guilty). 

 

*Free love became much safer after the development of the birth control pill (first sold in the US in 1961).  Later, the birth control pill would also allow more married women to work, as they did not have to worry about having to leave their job to raise unexpected children.  This freedom (and its abuse) is often known as the sexual revolution.

 

*For many Hippies, drug use was also an important part of culture.  Marijuana and LSD were thought to expand the consciousness and allow new spiritual insights (many Hippies were very spiritual—some wanted a return to the peaceful teachings and sharing life of Christ, others explored Eastern Hindu and Buddhist meditation).  Timothy Leary, a Harvard researcher (until he was fired) told Americans to ‘tune in, turn on, and drop out.’

 

*For many young people in the 1960s and 1970s, music was their favourite medium of expression.  The Rock and Roll of the 1950s developed in several ways during the 1960s.

 

*Folk rock was primarily acoustic (while other forms of rock that developed in the 1960s favoured electric instruments).  It was a mixture of rock, country, and traditional folk music.  It often had messages of peace and environmentalism.  Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were among the most famous folk rock musicians.

 

*Other rock music was focused on protest.  Protest songs were found in the Civil Rights movement, when unions went on strike, and particularly in the anti-war movement. 

 

*As the drug culture spread, psychedelic rock grew (primarily in San Francisco) out of more traditional rock music—even the Beatles and the Beach Boys began recording psychedelic rock.  It tended to openly or covertly glorify drug use and to create wild music that seemed like it had been inspired by drug use.

 

*Hippies gathered to share their ideas (and everything else) in the Summer of Love on the West Coast, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco, in 1967.  This was sometimes seen as the purest expression of Hippie culture.

 

*The most famous music festival of the 1960s was held in Woodstock, New York in 1969.  The 3-day festival rapidly grew beyond its organisers’ control, as music fans poured in, camped in the fields, and openly used drugs and explored free love. 

 

*Read the description and quote on page 682.

 

*People ended up covered in mud and some even went naked, rejecting such materialistic things as clothes.  Dirt and crime were a problem, and in the end, it got out of control and the Hell’s Angels, hired for security, stabbed a black man who approached the stage.  For many Hippies, this was a betrayal of the ideals of peace and love they had stood for.

 

*Furthermore, many famous musicians died of drug and alcohol abuse, and the optimism of the Hippie movement faded into more violent protests and irresponsible behaviour in the 1970s.

 



This page last updated 21 November, 2009.