The American counterculture refers to the period between 1964-1972 when the norms of the 1950s were largely rejected by youth.
Interpret the countercultural movement of the 1960s
- A counterculture developed in the United States in the late 1960s, lasting from approximately 1964 to 1972, and coinciding with America’s involvement in Vietnam. Counterculture youth rejected the cultural standards of their parents, especially with respect to racial segregation, the Vietnam War, sexual mores, women’s rights, and materialism.
- Hippies were the largest countercultural classification, and were comprised of mostly white members of the middle class.
- The counterculture movement divided the country. To some, it reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, and world peace; while to others, it reflected a self-indulgent and unpatriotic assault on America’s moral order.
- In an effort to quell the movement, government authorities banned the psychedelic drug LSD, restricted political gatherings, and tried to enforce bans on what they considered obscenity in books, music, theater, and other media.
- Several things caused the decline of the movement in the early 1970s, including significant progress on the goals of the movement and rising economic troubles that forced many former hippies to rely on mainstream institutions.
- quash: To defeat forcibly.
- mores: A term used to refer to social norms that are widely observed and are considered to have greater moral significance than others.
- counterculture: Any culture whose values and lifestyles are opposed to those of the established mainstream culture.
- stagflation: Inflation accompanied by stagnant growth, unemployment, or recession.
The Emergence of the Counterculture
A counterculture developed in the United States in the late 1960s, lasting from approximately 1964 to 1972, and coinciding with America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was characterized by the rejection of conventional social norms—in this case, the norms of the 1950s. The counterculture youth rejected the cultural standards of their parents, specifically regarding racial segregation and initial widespread support for the Vietnam War.
As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women’s rights, traditional modes of authority, and a materialist interpretation of the American Dream. Thanks to widespread economic prosperity, white, middle-class youth—who made up the bulk of the counterculture—had sufficient leisure time to turn their attention to social issues.
Ideals and Interests
Unconventional appearance, music, drugs, communitarian experiments, and sexual liberation were hallmarks of the 1960s counterculture, most of whose members were white, middle-class, young Americans. Hippies became the largest countercultural group in the United States. The counterculture reached its peak in the 1967 “Summer of Love,” when thousands of young people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The counterculture lifestyle integrated many of the ideals of the time, including peace, love, harmony, music, and mysticism. Meditation, yoga, and psychedelic drugs were often embraced as routes to expanding one’s consciousness. Spiritually, the counterculture included interest in astrology, the term “Age of Aquarius,” and knowing people’s astrological signs.
Rejection of mainstream culture was best embodied in the new genres of psychedelic rock music, pop-art, and new explorations in spirituality. Musicians who exemplified this era include The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Pink Floyd. New forms of musical presentation also played a key role in spreading the counterculture, mainly large outdoor rock festivals. The climactic live statement of this occurred from August 15-18, 1969, with the Woodstock Music Festival held in Bethel, New York. During this weekend festival, 32 of rock and psychedelic rock’s most popular acts performed live outdoors to an audience of half a million people. Countercultural sentiments were expressed in song lyrics and popular sayings of the period, such as “do your own thing”; “turn on, tune in, drop out”; “whatever turns you on”; “eight miles high”; “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”; and “light my fire.”
Cultural Divisions and the Collapse of the Movement
The counterculture movement divided the country. To some Americans, the movement reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, world peace, and the pursuit of happiness. To others, it reflected a self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive assault on America’s traditional moral order. In an effort to quash the movement, government authorities banned the psychedelic drug LSD, restricted political gatherings, and tried to enforce bans on what they considered obscenity in books, music, theater, and other media.
Ultimately, the counterculture collapsed on its own around 1973. Two primary reasons are cited for the collapse. First, the most popular of the movement’s political goals (civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism, and the end of the Vietnam War) had made significant gains, and its most popular social attributes (particularly a “live-and-let-live” mentality in personal lifestyles; i.e., the “sexual revolution”) were largely co-opted by mainstream society. Second, a decline of idealism and hedonism occurred as many notable counterculture figures died, and the rest settled into mainstream society to start their own families. The “magic economy” of the 1960s gave way to the stagflation of the 1970s, and many middle-class Americans no longer had the luxury of living outside of conventional social institutions.
The counterculture, however, continues to influence social movements, art, music, and society today, and the post-1973 mainstream society has been in many ways a hybrid of the 1960s establishment and counterculture—seen as the best (or the worst) of both worlds.
Theatre and Novels
The counterculture of the 1960s gave rise to new forms of media, such as underground newspapers, literature, theatre, and cinema.
Examine the expression of countercultural values in media, such as newspapers and theatre
- The counterculture of the 1960s gave rise to several independent or underground newspapers whose publishers were often harassed by police. The term “underground newspaper” generally refers to an independent newspaper focusing on unpopular themes or counterculture issues. Typically, these tend to be politically to the left or far left.
- The boom in the underground press was made practical by the availability of cheap offset printing, which made it possible to print a few thousand copies of a small tabloid paper for a few hundred dollars.
- The Beats were a group of post-World War II American writers who came to prominence in the 1950s.
- Central elements of Beat culture included experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant means of expression and being.
- Musical theatre in the 1960s started to diverge from the relatively narrow confines of the 1950s; for example, the musical Hair was the first of many musicals to use rock music.
- Like newspapers and theatre, the cinema of the time also reflected the attributes of the counterculture.
- The Establishment: A term used to refer to a visible dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation.
- counterculture: Any culture whose values and lifestyles are opposed to those of the established mainstream culture, especially to Western culture.
- Offset Printing: A commonly used printing technique in which the inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface.
Counterculture in Literature: Underground Press in the 1960s
In the U.S., the term “underground newspaper” generally refers to an independent newspaper focusing on unpopular themes or counterculture issues. Typically, these tend to be politically to the left or far left. The term most often refers to publications of the period 1965-1973, when an underground newspaper craze swept the country. These publications became the voice of the rising New Left and the hippie/psychedelic/rock and roll counterculture of the 1960s in America; they were also a focal point of opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft. Underground newspapers sprang up in most cities and college towns, serving to define and communicate the range of phenomena that defined the counterculture: radical political opposition to “The Establishment”; colorful experimental (and often explicitly drug-influenced) approaches to art, music, and cinema; and uninhibited indulgence in sex and drugs as a symbol of freedom.
The boom in the underground press was made practical by the availability of cheap offset printing, which made it possible to print a few thousand copies of a small tabloid paper for a few hundred dollars. Paper was cheap, and many printing firms around the country had over-expanded during the 1950s, leaving them with excess capacity on their offset web presses, which could be negotiated at bargain rates.
One of the first underground newspapers of the 1960s was the Los Angeles Free Press, founded in 1964 and first published in 1965. The Rag, founded in Austin, Texas in 1966, was an especially influential underground newspaper as, according to historian Abe Peck, it was the “first undergrounder to represent the participatory democracy, community organizing and synthesis of politics and culture that the New Left of the midsixties was trying to develop.”
The Underground Press Syndicate
In mid-1966, the cooperative Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was formed. The UPS allowed member papers to freely reprint content from any of the other member papers. By 1969, virtually every sizable city or college town in North America boasted at least one underground newspaper. During the peak years of the underground press phenomenon, about 100 papers were publishing at any given time. A UPS roster published in November 1966 listed 14 underground papers, 11 of them in the United States.
Underground Papers in the Military
There also existed an underground press network within the U.S. military. The GI underground press produced a few hundred titles during the Vietnam War. Some were produced by anti-war GI coffeehouses, and many of them were small, crudely produced, and low-circulation papers. Three or four GI underground papers had large-scale, national distribution of more than 20,000 copies, including thousands of copies mailed to GIs overseas. These papers were produced with the support of civilian anti-war activists, and had to be disguised to be sent through the mail into Vietnam. Soldiers distributing or even possessing them might be subject to harassment, disciplinary action, or arrest.
Many of the papers faced official harassment on a regular basis; local police repeatedly raided offices, charged editors or writers with drug charges or obscenity, arrested street vendors, and pressured local printers not to print underground papers.
The Beat Generation
The Beat Generation was a group of American post-World War II writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, including the cultural phenomena they documented and inspired. Central elements of Beat culture included the experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, interest in Eastern religions (such as Buddhism), rejection of materialism, and idealizing exuberant means of expression and being.
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) are among the best known examples of Beat literature. Both Howl and Naked Lunch became the focus of obscenity trials. The publishers won the trials, however, and publishing in the United States became more liberalized. The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.
Origin of the Beats
Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948 to characterize a perceived underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York. The adjective “beat” could colloquially mean tired or beaten down, but Kerouac expanded the meaning to include the connotations upbeat, beatific, and the musical association of being on the beat.
The origins of the Beat Generation can be traced to Columbia University, where Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Hal Chase, and others first met. Classmates Carr and Ginsberg discussed the need for a new vision to counteract what they perceived as their teachers’ conservative, formalistic literary ideals. Later, in the mid-1950s, the central figures of the Beat Generation (with the exception of Burroughs) ended up living in San Francisco together.
Beatniks and the Beat Generation
The term “beatnik” was coined to represent the Beat Generation and was a play on words referring to both the name of the recent Russian satellite, Sputnik, and the Beat Generation. The term suggested that beatniks were far out of the mainstream of society and possibly pro-Communist. The beatnik term stuck and became the popular label associated with a new stereotype and even caricature of the Beats. While some of the original Beats embraced the beatnik identity, or at least found the parodies humorous (Ginsberg, for example, appreciated the parody), others criticized the beatniks as inauthentic posers. Kerouac feared that the spiritual aspect of his message had been lost and that many were using the Beat Generation as an excuse to be senselessly wild.
The Beat Generation Lifestyle
The original members of the Beat Generation experimented with a number of different drugs, from alcohol and marijuana to LSD and peyote. Many were inspired by intellectual interest, believing these drugs could enhance creativity, insight, and productivity. Many of the key Beat Generation figures were openly homosexual or bisexual, including two of the most prominent writers, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Both Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch contain explicit homosexuality, sexual content, and drug use.
The Beats’ Influences on Western Culture
The phenomenon of the Beat Generation had a pervasive influence on Western culture. It was influenced by, and in turn influenced, the sexual revolution, issues around censorship, the demystification of cannabis and other drugs, the musical evolution of rock and roll, the spread of ecological consciousness, and opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization.
The End of the Beats and the Beginning of the Hippies
The 1950s Beat movement beliefs and ideologies metamorphosed into the counterculture of the 1960s, accompanied by a shift in terminology from “beatnik” to “hippie.” Many of the original Beats remained active participants, notably Allen Ginsberg, who became a fixture of the anti-war movement. Notably, however, Jack Kerouac broke with Ginsberg and criticized the politically radical protest movements of the 1960s as an excuse to be spiteful.
There were stylistic differences between beatniks and hippies—for example, somber colors, dark sunglasses, and goatees gave way to colorful psychedelic clothing and long hair. The Beats were known for playing it cool (keeping a low profile), but the hippies became known for being cool (displaying their individuality). Beyond style, there were also changes in substance: the Beats tended to be essentially apolitical, but the hippies became actively engaged with the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Counterculture in Theatre
Musical theatre in the 1960s started to diverge from the relatively narrow confines of the 1950s. For example, rock music was used in several Broadway musicals. This trend began with the musical Hair, which featured not only rock music, but also nudity and controversial opinions about the Vietnam War, race relations, and other social issues. Hair is often said to be a product of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s.
As the struggle for minorities’ civil rights progressed, musical writers were emboldened to write more musicals and operas that aimed to expand mainstream societal tolerance and racial harmony. Early works that focused on racial tolerance, though now recognized to have many problematic elements, included Finian’s Rainbow, South Pacific, and The King and I. The musical West Side Story also spoke a message of racial tolerance. Later on, several shows tackled Jewish subjects and issues, such as Fiddler on the Roof. By the end of the 1960s, musicals became racially integrated, with black and white cast members even covering each others’ roles.
Counterculture in Film
Like newspapers, literature, and theatre, the cinema of the time also reflected the attributes of the counterculture. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) focused on the changes happening in the world. The film Medium Cool portrayed the 1968 Democratic Convention and Chicago police riots, which has led to it being labeled as “a fusion of cinema-vérité and political radicalism.” One studio attempt to cash in on the hippie trend was the 1968 film Psych-Out, which portrayed the hippie lifestyle. The music of the era was represented by films such as 1970’s Woodstock, a documentary of the music festival of the same name.
Art and Music
Forms of art and music in the 1960s, ranging from rock and roll to psychedelic art, reflected the characteristics of the counterculture movement.
Examine the expression of countercultural values through music and art
- During the early 1960s, British rock become popular in the United States; one of the most influential groups of the era was the Beatles.
- In the United States, the West Coast generally promoted hippie music, such as the Grateful Dead, while the East Coast produced edgier artists, such as the Velvet Underground.
- The 60s also saw an emergence of large-scale music festivals. The Monterey Pop Festival was the first modern music festival, while Woodstock became the most famous.
- As with film, press, and music, art in the 1960s responded to the new counterculture, primarily in pop art (which integrated elements from popular culture) and psychedelic art (often inspired by drug-induced creativity).
- counterculture: Any culture whose values and lifestyles are opposed to those of the established mainstream culture, especially to Western culture.
- Woodstock: A music festival in the town of Bethel, New York, from August 15 to August 18, 1969; it is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history.
Counterculture in Music
The music of the 1960s moved towards an electric, psychedelic version of rock, reflecting the off-beat, psychedelic characteristics of the counterculture itself. The Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds, paved the way for later hippie acts, with Brian Wilson’s writing interpreted as a “plea for love and understanding.” Pet Sounds served as a major source of inspiration for other contemporary acts, most notably directly inspiring The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Rise of Rock Music
Rock music is a genre of popular music that developed during the 1960s, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll. Rock music also drew strongly from other genres, such as blues and folk, and was influenced by jazz, classical, and other musical sources. Like pop music, lyrics often stressed romantic love but also addressed a wide variety of social and political themes. Rock placed more emphasis on musicianship, live performance, and an ideology of authenticity than did pop music.
By the late 1960s, a number of distinct rock music sub-genres emerged, including hybrids like blues rock, folk rock, country rock, and jazz-rock fusion. Other genres that emerged from this scene included progressive rock, which extended the artistic elements; glam rock, which highlighted showmanship and visual style; and the diverse and enduring major sub-genre of heavy metal, which emphasized volume, power, and speed.
The British Invasion
In 1964, the Beatles achieved a breakthrough to mainstream popularity in the United States. Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated 73 million viewers (an all-time record for an American television program) and is often considered a milestone in American pop culture. They went on to become the biggest-selling rock band of all time. Over the next two years, British acts dominated both U.K. and U.S. charts with Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, and Donovan all having one or more number one hit singles.
The Beatles themselves were influenced by many artists, among them American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, who was a lyrical inspiration as well as their introduction to marijuana. Other folksingers, like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, took the songs of the era to new audiences and public recognition. The Beatles went on to become the most prominent commercial exponents of the “psychedelic revolution” in the late 1960s.
Meanwhile in the United States, bands that exemplified the counterculture were becoming mainstream commercial successes. These included The Mamas & the Papas (If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears), Big Brother and the Holding Company (Cheap Thrills), Jimi Hendrix (Are You Experienced?), Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow), The Doors, and Sly and the Family Stone (Stand!). Other bands and musicians, such as The Grateful Dead, Phil Ochs, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Melanie, Frank Zappa, Santana, and the Blues Project did not achieve such commercial success, but are nevertheless considered key to the counterculture movement.
While the hippie music scene was born in California, an edgier scene emerged in New York City that put more emphasis on avant-garde and art music. Bands such as The Velvet Underground came out of this underground music scene and were predominantly centered at artist Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory. The Velvet Underground supplied the music for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of multi-media events staged by Warhol and his collaborators in 1966 and 1967. The Velvet Underground’s lyrics were considered risque for the era because they discussed sexual fetishism, transgender identities, and the use of drugs.
The 1960s also saw the rise in protest songs, with Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” among the many anti-war anthems that were important to the era.
The 1960s was an era of rock festivals, which played an important role in spreading the counterculture across America. The Monterey Pop Festival, which launched Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix’s careers, was one of the first of these. This festival was held in 1967 and had an estimated 55,000 to 90,000 attendees. The Monterey Pop Festival embodied the themes of California as a focal point for the counterculture, and is generally regarded as the start of the “Summer of Love.” This festival became the template for future festivals, most notably Woodstock.
In August 1969, the Woodstock Festival was held in Bethel, New York, and quickly became a symbol of the hippie movement. During this festival, 32 rock acts performed outdoors in front of 500,000 people. It is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history and has been regarded as a cultural touchstone of the 1960s.
Counterculture in Art
As with film, press, and music, art in the 1960s responded to the new counterculture, primarily in pop art and psychedelic art. For example, pop art challenged traditional fine art by including imagery from popular culture, such as advertising and news. The concept of pop art refers as much to the art itself as to the attitudes that it led to, and Andy Warhol is often considered representative of this type of art.
Psychedelic art also emerged in response to the counterculture, and is defined as any kind of visual artwork inspired by psychedelic experiences induced by drugs, such as LSD. During the 1960s, psychedelic visual arts were often a counterpart to psychedelic rock music. This psychedelic art also represented the revolutionary political, social, and spiritual sentiments that were derived from these drug-induced, psychedelic states of consciousness.
Youth Culture and Delinquency
Youth culture during the 1960s counterculture was characterized by the “Summer of Love,” and the casual use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs.
Examine the role of drug use in the counterculture of the 1960s
- During the summer of 1967, San Francicsco became a melting pot of music, psychedelic drugs, sexual freedom, creative expression, new forms of dress, and politics.
- The unprecedented gathering of young people, known as the “Summer of Love” is often considered to have been a social experiment because of the alternative lifestyles that became common.
- As members of the hippie movement grew older and moderated their lives and their views, and especially after U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s, the counterculture was largely absorbed by the mainstream.
- During the 1960s, casual LSD users expanded into a subculture that extolled the mystical and religious symbolism often engendered by the drug’s powerful effects, advocating its use as a method of raising consciousness.
- commune: A small community, often rural, whose members share in the ownership of property and the division of labor; the members of such a community.
- “Summer of Love”: A season in 1967 noted for the flourishing of the hippie movement.
- free love: The practice of sexual intercourse without the restraints of marriage or commitment.
Hippies and the Summer of Love
In 1967, musician Scott McKenzie’s rendition of the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” brought as many as 100,000 young people from all over the world to celebrate a “Summer of Love” in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The Summer of Love became a defining moment in the 1960s as the hippie counterculture movement came into public awareness.
San Francisco was the center of the hippie revolution; during the Summer of Love, it became a melting pot of music, psychedelic drugs, sexual freedom, creative expression, new forms of dress, and politics. This unprecedented gathering of young people is often considered to have been a social experiment because of the alternative lifestyles that became common. These lifestyles included communal living, the free and communal sharing of resources (often among total strangers), and the idea of free love. When people returned home from the Summer of Love, these styles and behaviors spread quickly from San Francisco and Berkeley to many U.S., Canadian, and even European cities.
Some hippies formed communes to live as far outside of the established system as possible. This aspect of the counterculture rejected active political engagement with the mainstream; following the dictate of a Harvard LSD proponent, Dr. Timothy Leary, to “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” many hippies hoped to change society by dropping out of it. As members of the hippie movement grew older and moderated their lives and their views, and especially after U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s, the counterculture was largely absorbed by the mainstream, leaving a lasting impact on philosophy, morality, music, art, alternative health and diet, lifestyle, and fashion.
Drug Use in the Hippie Counterculture
Experimentation with LSD, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, MDA, marijuana, and other psychedelic drugs became a major component of 1960s counterculture, influencing philosophy, art, music, and styles of dress. Casual LSD users expanded into a subculture that extolled the mystical and religious symbolism often engendered by the drug’s powerful effects, advocating its use as a method of raising consciousness. The personalities associated with the subculture—including Dr. Leary as well as psychedelic rock musicians such as the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and the Beatles—soon attracted a great deal of publicity, generating further interest in LSD.
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters
The popularization of LSD outside of the medical world was hastened when individuals, such as Ken Kesey, participated in drug trials. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters helped shape the developing character of the 1960s counterculture during the summer of 1964 when they embarked on a cross-country voyage in a psychedelic school bus named “Further.”
Beginning in 1959, Kesey had volunteered as a research subject for medical trials that tested the effects of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelic drugs. After the medical trials, Kesey continued experimenting on his own and involved many close friends; collectively they became known as “The Merry Pranksters.” The Pranksters visited Dr. Leary at his Millbrook, New York retreat. Experimentation with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, primarily as a means for internal reflection and personal growth, became a constant during the Prankster trip.
The Pranksters created a direct link between the 1950s Beat Generation and the 1960s psychedelic scene. The bus was driven by Beat icon Neal Cassady; Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was onboard for a time; and they dropped in on Cassady’s friend, Beat author Jack Kerouac.