The Greatest Generation grew up during the hard times of the Great Depression and fought and won World War II. They came home and worked hard to make a good life for their children, the Baby Boomers, who became teenagers in the 1960s. These Baby Boomers were a huge group, but they were very different from their parents.
Some of these teenagers rebelled against traditional society and their parents’ values. This counterculture was a small but powerful group of people who came up with a different way of living from the uniformity of the American middle class. They rejected typical social norms. They dressed and acted in new ways, and they turned to music to express themselves. They had sex before getting married and tried out new drugs, especially marijuana and psychedelics. They also protested America’s war in Vietnam.
For their parents, who had fought World War II, the counterculture was scary. They saw the counterculture as anti-American. Some thought the country’s teenagers were throwing away the country they loved.
What do you think? Was the counterculture anti-American?
CONTINUING THE BEATNIK LEGACY
In the 1960s, a group of people created a counterculture as they looked for new ways of thinking and living. They wanted to find truth outside of strict Christian teachings that they learned as children in the 1950s. They liked Buddhist and Hindu philosophies and many of them took up meditation and yoga.
The counterculture was similar to the Beatniks of the 1950s, who also believed that mainstream society was broken and tried to find new ways of living. However, the counterculture was different because they were more welcoming, while the Beatniks were a hard group to join. The teenagers of the counterculture also believed in social change. They joined movements like the African American and Mexican American civil rights movements, environmental movements, and women’s rights movements. They also famously protested against the war in Vietnam.
HAIGHT-ASHBURY AND THE SUMMER OF LOVE
The counterculture movement of the 1960s needed a place or a leader around which people and their ideas could gather. Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood in San Francisco, California, became the center of the counterculture movement. The neighborhood was not chosen to be the home of thousands of hippies, but it happened because San Francisco was already home to many Beatniks and Haight-Ashbury had inexpensive rents. What made it a magnet for hippies was the availability of drugs.
In 1966, the Psychedelic Shop, owned by Ron and Jay Thelin, opened on Haight Street. It became one of the unofficial community centers for the growing numbers of young people moving to the neighborhood. Other shops opened nearby, selling drugs openly as well as crystals, tie-dyed shirts, books, and other symbols of the counterculture.
The Diggers, a local group known for their street theater, also played an important role in the neighborhood. They believed in a free society and the good in human nature. To act on their ideas, they set up a free store, gave out free meals, and built a free medical clinic, which relied on volunteers and donations.
The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood’s fame reached its peak when it became the home of famous musicians such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin. They not only immortalized the hippie scene in song, but also knew many in the community.
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The hippies both defined and symbolized the counterculture of the 1960s. Their unique fashion, music, and social outlook left an enduring mark on American culture.
National media coverage of hippie life in Haight-Ashbury drew the attention of young people from all over America. In the summer of 1967, called the Summer of Love, the neighborhood was overrun, attracting teenagers, college students, middle-class vacationers, and even partying soldiers. There were not enough places to stay in Haight-Ashbury and the neighborhood scene quickly deteriorated. Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, and crime shot up. Shop owners capitalized on the crowds and sold clothing at enormous profits. The original residents and hippies who had helped create the movement thought the store owners were giving up the core ideas of the counterculture to make money.
By August, most people left to go back to school, and the Summer of Love had changed the neighborhood forever. What had once been a home for those who wanted to separate themselves from mainstream America had been overrun by the pressures and problems they had hoped to avoid. The neighborhood remained important in American memory, but it had changed. Never again would there be a place quite like it.
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As champions of anything alternative, hippies embraced Frisbee as a pastime. Ken Westerfield, pictured here, was especially important in organizing early competitive matches.
One of the things that people remember most about counterculture is the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” To really understand what the counterculture was all about, it’s important to know about these three things.
The young people of the counterculture believed in free love. This meant that they didn’t want to follow the usual rules about love and sex that their parents had tried to teach them. For example, they didn’t think that you had to be married to have sex. They thought that love should be free and not controlled by anyone else.
Because of this, more people started having sex before getting married. Birth control became legal in 1965, which made it easier for people to have sex without worrying about getting pregnant. Colleges also started letting male and female students live in the same dorms.
People who believed in free love thought that love was the opposite of hate. They wanted to promote peace and love instead of war. They often got together in parks and on college campuses to protest against the Vietnam War, listen to music, and share drugs. These events were called love-ins.
During the 1960s, many members of the counterculture experimented with drugs such as marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, and pills. However, they didn’t take just any drug. They avoided alcohol and sedatives which they believed would dull their minds. Instead, they tried hallucinogenic drugs that they thought would connect with their spiritual side.
A Harvard professor named Timothy Leary became famous by openly promoting the use of LSD. For many who followed the counterculture, smoking marijuana, which they called dope, and using drugs like LSD or acid were part of their identity.
But there were consequences to this drug use. With free love came a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. With LSD and acid came overdoses, addiction, and bad trips, where drug-induced hallucinations turned into nightmares. Unfortunately, some of the most talented musicians of the counterculture were lost to drugs, including Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix.
The hippie movement was all about breaking the rules of what was fashionable at the time. Instead of suits and dresses, men and women wore jeans and grew their hair out long. They chose to wear sandals, moccasins, or no shoes at all. Men often had beards, while women wore little or no makeup. Hippies liked to wear brightly colored clothing in unusual styles like bell-bottom pants, vests, tie-dye shirts, and long skirts. They were also into clothing inspired by Native American, Asian, African, and Latin American cultures. Many hippies made their own clothes to protest big business, and they shopped at flea markets and second-hand stores. Both men and women liked to wear Native American jewelry, headscarves, headbands, and long beaded necklaces. They decorated their homes, cars, and other belongings with psychedelic art. The hippies left a huge impact on fashion, and their iconic looks have been brought back many times on fashion runways all around the world.
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Further, the bus driven by the Merry Pranksters on their trip across the country. Icons from the counterculture such as the Grateful Dead were part of the journey.
THE MERRY PRANKSTERS
The story of the Merry Pranksters can help us understand what the counterculture meant to so many young people during the 1960s. It began with two writers. Ken Kesey was an author who helped connect the Beat Generation of the 1950s to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Together with his friend Neil Cassady, who was the inspiration for the main character in Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, they decided to travel across the country and record their trip.
In 1964, Cassady needed to go to New York after publishing his own book. Kesey and Cassady, along with a group of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters, came up with a crazy idea. They wanted to travel to New York in an old school bus, just like the pioneers did in the olden days but going from West to East, instead of East to West. They called the bus “Further” and decorated it with bright, psychedelic art both inside and out. The Merry Pranksters invited some famous people to join them, including musicians from the Grateful Dead. They also invited writer Stewart Brand, who later wrote a book called the Whole Earth Catalogue, which was a guide book for people who wanted to live like hippies.
Kesey and the Merry Pranksters wanted to make art out of their everyday experiences and see America from a different perspective. They decided to take LSD, a powerful drug that can change the way people see and feel things. During the trip, they filmed a lot of the journey using 16mm cameras. This footage was mostly unseen until it was used in a documentary film called Magic Trip, which came out in 2011.
After the bus trip, the Merry Pranksters threw parties called Acid Tests around the San Francisco Bay Area. While in New York, Cassady introduced Kesey to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the famous Beatnik writer, who then introduced them to Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who was a supporter of psychedelic drugs.
The cross-country trip of Further and the activities of the Merry Pranksters inspired other people to create psychedelic buses of their own. You might have seen a psychedelic bus in the Beatles’ 1967 movie the Magical Mystery Tour, or in the Partridge Family TV show in 1970. The Magic School Bus books and TV show for children also feature a psychedelic bus.
Some hippies in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to move far away from mainstream society. They felt that America’s cultural and spiritual freedoms were limited by city and suburban life, so they decided to leave it behind. These hippies went to communes, usually set up on farms or campsites in the countryside. There they tried to live closer to nature, respect the earth, and escape from modern life with its obsession with material things and money. Some communes grew their own organic food, while others shared everything they owned.
The people living in the communes had tried out new ideas about love and marriage, and some practiced free love openly. The most famous commune was The Farm in Tennessee, which was created in 1971. The people living on The Farm combined Christian and Asian religion. They lived together, owned no private property except tools and clothing, and promoted nonviolence. They tried to live as one with nature, becoming vegetarians and avoiding the use of animal products. Like other hippies, they also smoked marijuana to achieve a feeling of oneness and harmony.
Unfortunately, most communes did not last. Popular leaders left or money ran out, causing the commune to fall apart. Disagreements, rivalries, and jealousies also destroyed some communes. It’s important to remember that even though hippies were trying to find a different way of life, they were still human with flaws and problems.
Music was a big deal for many young people during the counterculture. In San Francisco, a new kind of music called psychedelic rock was all the rage. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors created new sounds with electric guitars, lyrics that questioned authority, and songs about drug use. When the Beatles made a psychedelic album called Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the music of the counterculture became popular with everyone.
Folk rock was also popular. Folk rock artists wanted to get back to America’s musical roots instead of making music for money. They played old songs with old instruments like acoustic guitars, harmonicas, and simple vocals. The most famous singer of the time, Bob Dylan, sang The Times They Are a-Changin’, which became an anthem for the generation.
Other folk singers like Janice Joplin, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher, and Peter, Paul & Mary continued the folk rock tradition.
Music was a way for the new generation to come together and celebrate being rebellious and different. In August 1969, a famous concert happened near the town of Woodstock, New York. It was a cultural moment that symbolized the independence and freedom of a whole generation of Americans who were part of the counterculture movement.
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The members of the Grateful Dead, one of the legendary musical groups of the counterculture.
The Woodstock Music Art Fair, usually just called Woodstock, was a huge music festival that took place in August 1969 on a dairy farm in the southern New York State’s Catskill Mountains. It is considered an important moment in popular music history and a defining moment for the counterculture generation.
The festival had many difficulties. Thousands of people came, leading to traffic jams. The festival site could not handle the number of people, and there was not enough food, too few bathrooms, and almost no first aid. The weather was bad, and the site was full of mud before the festival ended.
Despite the difficulties, most of the people who were at Woodstock had a good time. There was a feeling of social harmony that, combined with the quality of music and the sheer number of people, made it one of the most important events of the century.
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A poster promoting the music festival at Woodstock.
Jimi Hendrix, the great African American guitar player, was the last performer at Woodstock. Hendrix played for two hours, including a psychedelic version of The Star-Spangled Banner that was captured on film. This performance was a unique moment in time for the entire generation. Hendrix’s rendition of the song was both the National Anthem and also very different, reflecting the views of young Americans who loved their country but wanted to change it from what they knew in their childhood.
After the concert, Max Yasgur, who owned the farm where the festival took place, saw it as a triumph of peace and love. He talked about how nearly half a million people spent three days with music and peace on their minds, despite the possibility of disaster, riots, crime, and catastrophe. He believed that if people came together, they could overcome the problems of America and hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.
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Jimi Hendrix was one of the great innovative musicians who graced the stages of the counterculture’s concerts, and provided its defining anthem: his rendition of The Star Spangled Banner he performed at Woodstock.
Altamont Speedway Free Festival was supposed to be a celebration of music on the West Coast just like Woodstock had been in the eastern side of the country. But it turned out to be a very different event. A few months after Woodstock on December 6, 1969, around 300,000 people gathered at Altamont, California for the concert. Many famous musicians like the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young came to perform.
However, unlike Woodstock, at Altamont things quickly went wrong. One of the biggest mistakes was hiring a motorcycle gang called the Hell’s Angels to be security. They were supposed to keep people off the stage, but the organizers had agreed to give them beer instead of paying them and as they drank more and more, they started to fight. Tragically, one person, Meredith Hunter, was killed when the Hell’s Angels tried to get him off the stage.
There were also three accidental deaths, including two people who died in a hit-and-run car accident and one who drowned in an irrigation canal after taking LSD. Many people were hurt as well, and there was a lot of property damage.
People often compare Altamont to Woodstock. While Woodstock was peaceful and showed how people could live peacefully together, Altamont showed the opposite. The Altamont concert marked the end of the hippie era and the youth culture of the 1960s. After Altamont, many Americans decided that young people could not create a loving community if there were no rules.
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The days of free love, experimental drug use, new age clothing, communes and flowers adorning uncut hair, were fleeting, but have left their mark on America’s identity, and certainly on the generation that grew up in the 1960s.
Only about 10% of the young people in America had been hippies. Most people wanted to have jobs and lives like their parents, but the counterculture was so different that the media made them seem more popular than they really were, and it had a lasting impact on the country.
For starters, the hippies in the counterculture changed the way Americans ate. They started stores that sold healthy foods like yogurt, wheat germ, and granola, which had not been common in the 1950s. They also made being vegetarian more popular.
The counterculture made it more acceptable to use drugs, and they changed what people thought about relationships and sex. They created new kinds of music and influenced the social movements of the time, including the African American, Mexican American, environmental and women’s rights movements. They even changed America’s foreign policy by protesting the war in Vietnam. Fashion also changed because of the counterculture.
However, the idea that the hippies could make the world perfect by starting communes or using drugs to find a deeper meaning of life did not work out. While drugs could make people see amazing things in the short term, they ruined lives over time. Like earlier dreams of building perfect societies, the hippies’ dreams of creating a perfect society did not succeed.
Most of the members of the counterculture grew up, got jobs, had families, and left their hippie past behind. Others kept searching for what they wanted and moved to far-off corners of America. Now that they are retired, these aging hippies raise interesting questions about whether or not it is wise to try to stay young forever.
When the Greatest Generation came home from World War II and started their happy families in the happy suburbs of the 1950s, they tried to build a safe, happy life for their children and to teach them to behave well. They took them to church, added “under God” to the pledge of allegiance, let them watch westerns on television in which the good cowboys won, and taught them to love their country.
But to the horror of these parents, their Baby Boomer children grew up and rejected this purified world of backyard barbeques and school dances. Instead, they did drugs, listened to rock and roll, had sex before marriage, did yoga, became vegetarians, and protested the government.
In the eyes of the Greatest Generation, the children of the counterculture had thrown away everything they knew to be American. For the Baby Boomers who joined the counterculture, they simply had a very different idea of what kind of country they wanted to live in.
What do you think? Was the counterculture anti-American?
BIG IDEA: The Counterculture of the 1960s was a youth movement that focused on finding oneself and breaking social rules, especially related to love, music, fashion and drugs. It was centered in San Francisco, influenced by the anti-war movement, and fueled by new music.
The counterculture refers to a time during the 1960s when many young Americans rebelled against the traditional rules of society. The idea of rebellion was not new. In some way, they were continuing the legacy of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. However, the hippies of the counterculture were much more widely known and far more influential.
Fueled by the emergence of the Baby Boomer generation as teenagers, the counterculture, its music, art, fashion, and political ideas shaped the entire generation.
The counterculture was centered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. The climax of the entire movement was during the summer of 1967.
Hippies rebelled against many social norms. They experimented with new drugs, especially marijuana and LSD.
The hippies broke social rules about sex and marriage. They practiced free love and participated in love-ins.
The Merry Pranksters were a group of hippies who travelled from California to New York in an old school bus. Joined by popular musicians, they tried to demonstrate the ideas of the counterculture and recorded their experience.
Some hippies rejected modern life all together and tried to create perfect societies in communes where they shared property, and sometimes, sexual partners.
Rock and roll changed with the counterculture. Psychedelic rock became popular, as did folk rock. Music was an important part of the identity of the decade and the movement. For some, the climax of the counterculture was the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.
The Altamont Music Festival in 1969 was the opposite of the Woodstock Festival and showed all of the dark sides of the counterculture. The organizers hired a biker gang to run security, drug use was rampant, and violence ensued.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Hippies: Young people during the 1960s who rejected traditional cultural norms and values. They listened to rock and roll, experimented with drugs, broke rules about sexual behavior. They wore bright colors, created communes, supported many of the social movements of the decade, and generally opposed the war in Vietnam.
Diggers: A group of hippies in San Francisco who hated capitalism. They opened a store where everything was free and opened a free medical clinic.
Merry Pranksters: Group of hippies led by Ken Kesey and Neil Cassady who travelled across the country in a school bus. They documented their quest to achieve the ideal hippie lifestyle in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Timothy Leary: Harvard professor in the 1960s who promoted the use of LSD and other drugs.
Grateful Dead: Psychedelic rock group formed in the 1960s. They were led by Jerry Garcia and participated in the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country road trip.
Jefferson Airplane: Psychedelic rock band from San Francisco. They became popular during the Summer of Love.
The Doors: Psychedelic rock band led by Jim Morrison.
The Beatles: British rock band who formed in the 1950s, then came to the United States and transformed their sound during the 1960s, eventually performing psychedelic rock.
Bob Dylan: Folk rock singer after World War Ii who wrote songs such as The Times They Are a-Changin’ and is remembered as the storyteller of the generation.
Janice Joplin: Folk rock and blues singer who performed Mercedes Benz, among other popular songs of the 1960s.
The Mamas & the Papas: Folk rock group from the 1960s that performed California Dreamin’ among other hits.
Simon & Garfunkel: Folk rock duo. They performed Bridge Over Troubled Water and Sound of Silence, among other hits.
Sonny & Cher: Folk rock duo formed in the 1960s. After Sonny Bono died, Cher went on to have a long solo career.
Peter, Paul & Mary: Folk rock group formed in the 1960s. They performed Blowin’ in the Wind and other anti-war songs.
Jimi Hendrix: Innovative guitarist from the 1960s. His rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock is famous.
Free Love: Idea popularized by the young people of the counterculture during the 1960s that sex was beautiful and being free included freeing oneself from society’s rules about sexual behavior.
Haight-Ashbury: The neighborhood in San Francisco that became the center of hippie culture, especially during the Summer of Love of 1967.
Communes: Communities formed by hippies during the 1960s in which they sought to implement their philosophy about the ideal ways to live. In some they abolished private property, in others they experimented with free love. The most famous was The Farm. Like the utopian communities of the early 1800s, they usually failed.
The Farm: Most famous of the communes of the counterculture. Located in Tennessee, its residents held a blend of Christian and Asian beliefs, rejected private property, and became vegetarians.
Summer of Love: Nickname for the summer of 1967 in San Francisco during which the hippie culture in that city climaxed.
Love-In: An event during the counterculture in which hippies gathered together to protest, listen to music, sing, meditate, share drugs and have sex. It was intended to be the opposite of the war in Vietnam.
Woodstock: Major music festival held in New York in 1969. It featured many of the greatest groups of the decade and is sometimes considered the climax of the counterculture.
Altamont: Music festival held in California in 1969. It was the opposite of Woodstock in many ways. It was on the opposite end of the country, was violent, and showed the worst of the counterculture.
Marijuana: Drug that, like tobacco, is derived from dried leaves that are smoked. It is a mild hallucinogen and was popularized by the hippies of the counterculture. Today it has been legalized for private use in some states.
LSD: Powerful hallucinogenic drug popular in the 1960s. Hippies believed it could help a person get in touch with his or her spiritual side.
Psychedelic Art: Style of art popularized by the hippies that included bold colors and patterns reminiscent of dreams or hallucinations. Tie died clothing is an example.
Psychedelic Rock: A variation of rock and roll music that used electric guitars, subversive lyrics and was played in the 1960s and 1970s by bands who were famous for experimenting with drugs. Some included the Grateful Dead and the Doors.
Folk Rock: Variation of music that became popular during the counterculture. It mixed rock and roll with traditional music and instruments. Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, and Peter, Paul & Mary are a few performers of the genera.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: Book documenting the journey of the Merry Pranksters as they journeyed across the country during the 1960s.
Whole Earth Catalogue: A how-to book for hippies explaining such things as how to live in communes.