American Hippies

American Hippies

Book - 2015
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"In the late 1960s and early 1970s hundreds of thousands of white middle-class American youths suddenly became hippies. This short overview of the hippie social movement in the United States examines the movement's beliefs and practices, including psychedelic drugs, casual sex, and rock music, as well as the phenomena of spiritual seeking, hostility to politics, and communes. W.J. Rorabaugh synthesizes how hippies strived for authenticity, expressed individualism, and yearned for community. Viewing the tumultuous Sixties from a new angle, Rorabaugh shows how the counterculture led to subsequent social and cultural changes in the United States with legacies including casual sex, natural foods, and even the personal computer."--Publisher's web site.
Publisher: New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, [2015]
ISBN: 9781107627192
Branch Call Number: 305.568 RORABAUG
Characteristics: vii, 239 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm


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Jan 03, 2017

The historian, W.J. Rorabaugh, has attempted to create a succinct history of the "hippie movement" in the U.S., not an easy task as the movement was both individualistic and constantly changing. Furthermore, as Rorabaugh points out, "hippie" was an outsider's term, not used by hippies themselves, so it is hard to define what a hippie is. (In my Canadian experience, such words as "freaks" or "counterculture" were commonly used at the time -- only high school students were likely to call themselves hippies.) Nonetheless, Rorabaugh does a commendable job of covering the topic. His book is worth reading, but has flaws.
Firstly, though the author claims to be covering "American Hippies", he focuses almost entirely on Greenwich Village in New York City and, more so, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco where the movement had its origins, while making passing references to their rural offshoots. Though the hippie movement was both national and international, Rorabaugh barely acknowledges either fact. He also neglects the thousands of "American Hippie" war protestors who fled to Canada as draft dodgers (political refugees) or as objectors to the Vietnam war and American politics generally.
Secondly, the author speaks in the "authoritative, detached voice", which, as a social scientist, I believed was a thing of the past. In his one reference to himself, Rorabaugh says that he was not a hippie, although one of his best friends was. Still, he was at Berkeley (UCal) during most of the period he writes about, so one wonders about his relationship with his subject. Did he venture to Haight-Ashbury on weekends? Did he attend the Human Be-In festival at Golden Gate Park? Did he go to concerts at the Fillmore? Or did he run away from anything involving hippies? One senses a strong bias, especially as Rorabaugh dwells on dirt and unwillingness to work, but the author doesn't share his own viewpoint. Rorabaugh has read many books, but what did his life experience teach him?
Thirdly, the time frame is confused. Although the social movement he discusses grew from a few people in mid-sixties Haight-Ashbury to a huge and scattered population, Rorabaugh focuses on Haight-Ashbury circa 1967-68, but jumps through time (as acid heads also did) without explaining the evolution of the movement. Perhaps his criticisms applied to Haight-Ashbury's daily-LSD-users in '67 and '68 -- I wasn't there, but I know that psychedelic drugs don't inspire housecleaning. However, most hippies, including Americans, who I knew in Canada in the 1970's, were both clean and hard-working, as were "freaks" I met in Boston (think of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, who produced Our Bodies, Ourselves). Furthermore, the historian, Theodore Roszak, pointed out in The Making of A Counterculture that by 1969, a second wave of younger hippies was combining the mystical, joyous, anarchic ideals of apolitical, first-wave hippies, with the politics of their close cousins, the new lefties. Rorabaugh doesn't address this new wave of hippies that far outgrew the originals.
Finally, Rorabaugh knows little about music, a major element in the hippie scene. He mentions the Grateful Dead, a number of times, but seems to think that Jerry Garcia was The Dead. At one point, Rorabaugh credits this band with creating the lengthy (10 or more min.) song, not knowing that this was standard in blues, a genre in which Dead member "Pigpen" McKenna was thoroughly immersed. Songs were shortened to three minutes only to fit onto 45 rpm records.
American Hippies is worth a read, even if the author discusses this carnivalesque, often-playful subculture in a manner nearly devoid of humour. The book serves as an introduction to its subject. The curious reader can then move on to numerous more personal accounts of the "hippie" experience. In his summary chapter, Rorabaugh shows clearly, many ways hippies instigated major changes in society, making pre-hippie America almost unrecognizable.


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