To many, the American hippie is often seen as a direct result of the various national and international struggles that defined the 1950s. The mammoth disaster that was the Korean War (1950-1953) kicked off the ‘idyllic’ era of the 1950s and continued with the groundbreaking and terrifying hydrogen bomb test in 1954. The African-American Civil Rights Movement also started in the middle of the 1950s and culminated in events such as Brown V. Board (1954) and the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Along with these developments, technology was rapidly advancing as the Soviets sent the satellite Sputnik I into space in 1957 and started the billion-dollar space race between the two rival superpowers. Along with this, the 1950s were also defined by major events like the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the failed Hungarian Revolt of 1956. Although many have the preconception that the 1950s were a perfect post-war paradise, they were actually as rocky as the 1960s and single-handedly helped spawn the hippie movement that we know today.
Often seen as the precursor to the hippie movement of the 1960s, the Beat Generation was primarily a group of young writers who explored the strange cultural shifts in post-World War II America. The Beat Generation was one of America’s first counter-culture movements and embraced drug use, liberal sexuality and obscenity in their writings and works. Authors such as Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac were some of the most famous Beat writers and were often the center of American controversy over literary censorship and obscenity. Many writers from the Beat Generation met at Columbia University but mostly ended up on the West Coast in places like San Francisco and Big Sur. Although the Beat Generation was mostly a literary movement, it has been long studied as a movement that heavily influenced the musically charged hippie movement.
One of the groups that have been labeled as the ‘first’ major hippie group was Ken Kesey (of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fame) and The Merry Pranksters. Kesey has often been seen as the major link between the late Beat Movement and the early hippies of the 1960s. Kesey and The Merry Pranksters were a large community of like-minded people in California and Oregon who took epic road trips and traveled in a brightly colored school bus while ingesting large amounts of LSD, which was legal until 1965. The group traveled the nation, housed famous parties, gave out large quantities of LSD and helped define the long hair and bizarre fashion that came to symbolize the American hippie. One of the major events that established the Merry Pranksters in American society was the so-called ‘Acid Tests’ where large groups would drink Kool-Aid laced with LSD and attempt to experience a community-oriented trip. The group was also famous for its experiences with the Hells Angel Motorcycle Gang and The Grateful Dead.
The Vietnam War was a near 20-year conflict of massive proportions which helped propel the hippie movement into mainstream American consciousness. In the mid-1960s, the United States Government started a huge military surge wherein large qualities of American troops were sent to Vietnam to destabilize and destroy the communist North Vietnamese government, which was supported by the Soviet Union and China. Originally, the war was somewhat popular, but the seemingly never-ending conflict strained the American populace who were getting more and more frustrated with the tremendous loss of life and crazed politics of the war. After some time, large protests of students, veterans and hippies started to erupt everywhere (including internationally) and slowly twisted the average American’s view of the Vietnam conflict. The American hippie became famous for their influence in the widespread Vietnam protests and helped to define their role in the tumultuous 1960s.
The summer of 1967, or the ‘Summer of Love,’ has often been referred to as one of the most important widespread social and political gatherings in recent American history. During the famous summer, over 100,000 people convened and relocated to the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. Although many people mostly remember the ‘Summer of Love’ taking place in San Francisco, hippies actually convened in most major cities in America, Canada and Europe. The San Francisco summer is often remembered best because it was the cultural center of the hippie movement where free love, drug use and communal living became the norm. This period of time also helped spawn the ubiquitous ‘flower children’ that became a major American symbol in the 1960s. Many historians have reclassified the ‘Summer of Love’ as a major social experiment wherein people from all over congregated to question the social spheres and practices in which they grew up.
For many hippies and children of the 1960s, the original Woodstock Festival in 1969 was the culmination of years of experimentation and changing social practices. Originally billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,’ the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was a four-day festival comprised of 400,000 people on a dairy farm in rural New York State. The festival, which was originally planned as being three days long, drew people from all over the world and was a major point of controversy as the festival was almost shut down. A multitude of famous artists performed at the concert and included Santana, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and The Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix’s famous psychedelic performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ became one of the most famous moments of the entire festival and helped to cement the hippie movement as a deeply political group that strived to rethink general society and its constraints on the average person.