Hippies: How Music, Protest, And Media Led To Peace: The Countercultural Movement

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As part of the generation Z in the United States, today’s youth have never been a part of a massive war or political upheaval. Since the U.S. is so big and powerful it gives off the impression of complete domination over any potential enemy. However, for those born during the 1950s and 1960s they faced a different set of circumstances. The time from 1946-1964 was known as the baby boom since men had returned to their families following the end of World War II in 1945. Professor David Chalmers wrote, “There were 1.7 million college students in 1946, 3.8 million in 1960, 6.5 million in 1965, and 8 million in 1970 (Chalmers 68). These 8 million young teens were thrown into a society wrought with the Vietnam War without being given a choice. The U.S. had begun its long and arduous battle in the Vietnam War and gained only small victories at the cost of mass casualties on both sides. Likewise, the Vietnam War caused upheaval within the United States and many people attempted to rebel from their violently driven societies. These people became known as hippies who formed the countercultural movement. It is easy to get confused about what the countercultural movement really was and who it involved. The countercultural movement specifically addresses the hippies which includes everyone involved in any type of rebellion from society whether that be through protesting, activating for the anti-war movement, or even for the right to vote. The hippies hoped to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War by joining the countercultural movement. The hippies, both activists and experimentalists, played a major role in creating upheaval that caused president Nixon to slowly withdrawal troops from Vietnam. While the hippies themselves may not have ended the Vietnam War, they ensured that their voices were heard and strides towards peace were taken. The hippies made a lasting cultural impact on United States through the New Left protests and Woodstock festival despite the media’s lacking coverage on the significance of the countercultural movement.

The New Left was a group of hippies, mainly students, that strongly advocated for social and political rights. According to professor David Chalmers, “More than at any other time in American history, there was a series of characteristically youth involvements and causes: civil rights, the Free Speech movement and university reform, fighting in Vietnam, fighting against the war, and the counterculture” (Chalmers 69). New Left hippies had a specific aim and objective to rebel from the universities and institutions which restricted their political rights. Chalmers also explains that “The university itself was seen as servant, symbol, and battleground for what was wrong in national life” (Chalmers 68). One major student protest occurred at the University of California at Berkeley. The school administration began to restrict political rights such as Free Speech because they were following the pattern of an evolving nation. Likewise, the students held a protest on campus that led to “suspensions, arrests, a sit-in in Sproul Hall, an early morning police bust, and massive rallies” (Chalmers 70). Jack Weinberg, former graduate student from Berkeley, coined the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” and got arrested for holding sign-ups for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) (Chalmers 71). At the sight of this arrest, a thousand students gathered and sat down around the squad car so Weinberg would not be arrested (Chalmers 71). Student protestor, Mario Savio, even “politely removed his shoes so as not to scratch the top of the police car while standing on it to make his speech” (Chalmers 76). This shows that the students actively disobeyed the law with non-violence in order to make a stride towards free speech. However, this non-violent approach did not last long because “the Vietnam War was eroding the belief in reform and the commitment to nonviolence” (Chalmers 73). The riots and protests backed down when President Nixon began to withdraw troops from Vietnam showing the immense power the president possessed. However, radicalism turned violent after “the war continued for four more years, at the cost of another twenty-five thousand American and uncounted Vietnamese lives” (Chalmers 77). The hippies felt that, “It was exciting to be standing up against authority on behalf of moral values, to feel part of a movement that you read about in the newspaper and saw on television” (Chalmers 74). The hippies of the New Left showed that they could have a powerful voice and influence in society when they gained the right to free speech by protesting instead of living passively as they had at the beginning of the Vietnam War.

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While the New Left hippies strongly advocated for advanced political rights and the anti-war movement, there were those that wished to escape reality through different means such as music and drugs. The Beatles launched the idea of rock-and-roll as well as the “wearing of long hair by men and dressing up in outlandish fashion” (Chalmers 91). The ultimate culmination of rock-and roll and the hippie culture was found at the Woodstock festival in August 1969. Some bands that performed at the festival included Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Richie Havens whose performances gained them widespread popularity. While the music was great, the physical conditions of the festival were poor. Designer Arnold Skolnick attended the first day of Woodstock and said, “There were so many people. All day long, people kept coming… the cars broke down, and then I found out the rains were coming. I had no tent, so I left on Saturday morning. I must have damaged 50 cars getting out of the parking lot” (Skolnick). According to professor David Chalmers, “More than a quarter of a million people, clothed or naked, got turned into the rain by pot, drugs, rock, and being together, and shut out the rest of the world” (Chalmers 99). However, this festival was more than just a concert on a farm in Bethel, New York. It was a form of rebellion carried out through sex, drugs, and rock and roll that allowed the hippies to escape from reality and achieve peace which had been forgotten since the start of the Vietnam War. Their goal was simply to have “3 days of peace and music,” not to have a huge revival or protest (Skolnick). The hippies that came to Woodstock were young teens looking for a way to resist their capitalist societies. These young teens thought that becoming a hippie and travelling to the festival would get them out of being drafted for the war, and for a short time this was true. The use of psychedelic drugs during the festival was a means of escape from reality. LSD made illegal following the Woodstock festival due to discoveries about its health effects. Rather than just an unorganized and massive concert, the Woodstock festival stands to represent hippies who successfully challenged common values in search of unity within the U.S.

During 1969, media coverage failed to include the overarching impact of the Vietnam War and the Woodstock festival on society. Sociologist Katherina Haris points out in her article, “The Legacy and Lessons of the 1960s,” “Much of the excitement, of the sense of worldwide upheaval, was provided and tied together visually and in the imagination by the media- television, especially, with its dramatic and instant images… Recall that all this was before the internet” (Haris 88). Professor David Chalmers wrote, “By the 1960s, every family had a television set, and the president could reach into almost every household in America to command the attention and manipulate the national symbols” (Chalmers 114). Since the media was readily available to all Americans, it possessed the power to control the ideas of the people. The Vietnam War had been more highly broadcasted by the media than any other war in history. The graphic images of “the burning Buddhist monk, the Vietnamese mother and children swimming across the river to escape the war, the little, napalmed girl running naked down the road,” and many more made the hippies at home turn to action and experimentation (Chalmers 109). Media coverage began to not only focus on the Vietnam War but the hippies at the Woodstock festival and the student protests resulting in the rebellion from social norms. In an interview with New England Public Radio, designer Arnold Skolnick spoke of his creation of the famous Woodstock poster. Skolnick said, “They had a first poster which nobody liked- it was called Age of Aquarius… A poster is supposed to be so simple that if you’re driving by slowly in a car, you can see it” (Skolnick). This poster, a simple form of media, was more than effective in attracting over 400,000 people to attend the festival. Media is something that endures for years and certainly this simple poster design of a white catbird perched upon a blue and green guitar has been replicated on many t-shirts and signs today. More important than the poster that attracted hippies to the festival, was the media coverage following the event. In Michael Sheehy’s study of the media coverage of the Woodstock festival, he found that most newspapers and magazines writing about Woodstock in 1969 “relied mostly on official sources and consulted few young festival attendees for their perspective” (Sheehy 238). The Rolling Stone had some of the first coverage of the event, featuring “a black and white photo of a nude man with long hair wading in a pond and holding the hand of a young child” (Sheehy 240). This image alone conveyed the impact of Woodstock on the generational gap during the 1960s. Despite that fact that over 400,000 hippies attended this massive festival, Woodstock never “merited the status of a lead story” in the media (Chalmers 240). For the New York Times, media coverage of Woodstock was subdued due to the pressing political matters associated with the Cold War, the hurricane that hit the gulf coast, and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Daily newspapers focused on “conventional media routines and overlooked the historic cultural significance of the festival in reporting the breaking story” (Sheehy 245). The hippies gathered at Woodstock were portrayed as dirty and a threat to their own health by the media, but this points to the significance of the disturbance in social norms. The media did not fully grasp the concept that while the Woodstock festival was a means of experimentation, it created a whole new group of hippies who just wanted to have some peace for a few days.

There are some who believe the efforts of the hippies in the New Left and the Woodstock festival failed. In his article, “The Failure of the New Left?,” philosopher Hebert Marcuse attempted to argue that the New Left primarily failed because it “in part destroyed itself by failing to develop any adequate organizational forms” (Marcuse 5). Since the youth started to experiment with societal norms in search of peace, Marcuse argued, “the counter-cultures created by the New Left destroyed themselves when they forfeited their political impetus in favor of withdrawal into a kind of private liberation” (Marcuse 5). While drugs played a role in the countercultural movement, this was the means by which the young hippies grew up and did not solely rely on the media for news but got to experience it first-hand. Marcuse too quickly deemed the hippies a failure for their rebellion against society. Perhaps Marcuse, writing in 1979, experienced the same faults as the media coverage around that time. Due to the lack of hindsight, both the media and Marcuse failed to recognize the overarching cultural significance that the hippies had on society.

The Vietnam War was a major cause of the development of the countercultural movement, but not the only cause. Widespread upheaval among students caused them to reevaluate their standings on racism, free speech, feminism, parental constraints, and other political and social freedoms. After years of rebellion and protest, the hippies did not lose their activism for social and political rights but channeled this energy in a more positive way. The teens of the 1960s were more grown up by the mid 1970s and got more involved in American consumerism and capitalism rather than rebellion. Feminism which was a prominent issue during the countercultural movement is more prominent today than ever. Baby boomer, Andrea Levy, claimed that the New Left hippies influenced “New Social Movements, and particularly the early feminist movement, the peace movement, and the ecology movement” (Levy 30). Without the hippies, the culture and evolution of the media that is known today would not exist in the same way. The fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival occurred this past August, bringing with it many stories, news articles, and the rebirth of a new counterculture. Music, protest, and media during the 1960s created the counterculture of hippies who created new societal norms and advanced political rights.

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