Few social movements marked the twentieth century in the United States as the protest movement of the 1960s. However, despite the scope and scale of such a wide movement that encapsulated so many different peoples and causes, including voting rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and ending the war in Vietnam, the movement is better known by a stereotype of the type of people that seemed so instrumental in perpetuating the movement: hippies.
Though the great majority of those in the protest movement were not hippies, the movies, music, and cultural events that marked the times were dominated by hippie culture, and few events represented this fact as the stereotype-reinforcing Woodstock Music Festival. By the time Woodstock happened in 1969, the hippie movement was already something that had been growing the entire decade and most people who were not hippies had a good idea what a hippie was. If one would have to describe a hippie then, it could be said to be a young man or woman that was dirty, hairy, unemployed, and on drugs.
While these are only a few attributes ascribed to a few hippies, the stereotypes became so strong that they were hard to remove from the other significant contributions they made, including in music, art, culture, and social awareness. So, while hippies were far more complex than most people chose to see them, they were pigeonholed to the stereotype of spoiled middle-class kids with too much time and freedom, and who refused to do their patriotic duties as their mothers and fathers had done before them, most specifically by starting families and fighting in the country’s wars.
However, the decade leading up to Woodstock only helped reinforce many of these stereotypes. Hippie culture could have been said to begin the words and ideas of the Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others. These writers laid the foundation for the rebellious, anti-establishment ideals that would come to be so strongly embraced by the hippie culture during the 1960s. However, it would be Bob Dylan, who was strongly influenced by the Beats, who would use their ideas in his folk music.
Dylan’s popularity not only made folk music popular, but his songwriting also tackled many of the issues of the time, including war, civil rights, and the basic questions of whether America was heading in the right direction, and if not, why. Dylan’s music influenced the songwriting of almost every major recording artist that came after him, or at least any that achieved any amount of success. Through Dylan and those he influenced, music became the first defining characteristic of hippie culture, showing a long history of music defining cultural movements and times through its almost religious effect on those that listen to it.
Religious forces, like art, music, and everything that inspires classification as sacred, Emile Durkheim (1965) writes: “do not translate the manner in which physical things affect our senses, but the way in which the collective consciousness acts upon individual consciousnesses” (1965, p. 254). Music has the ability to act as a symbol of this collective consciousness, bringing the masses together to celebrate a shared philosophy or perspective. While many contend that art and music is nothing more than an escape from the everyday anxieties that life offers up, it is far more than that.
Similar to the sacred in religion, which Durkheim asserts is not rooted in fear as humanist and existentialist theorists claim, but in the idealism of the collective mentality, music becomes sacred when presented in a way that appeals to the individual and the collective. Music and those who perform it act in ways similar to religious totems, representing the ideals of the collective and how they inhabit the individual, and take their roots in exhalation and celebration. According to Durkheim, “In fine, the sentiments at the root of totemism are those of happy confidence rather than terror and compression” (1965, p. 56).
Music became the inspiration for hippie culture and gave them the confidence to fight back against ideals they saw as wrong, including the Vietnam War. There was no better representation of this than Woodstock. The Woodstock Music & Art Festival that took place on a farm near Woodstock, New York, August 15 through August 18, 1969 not only assembled some of the greatest rock, pop, and folk musicians of the day, but also had a half million enthusiastic young and old fans celebrating life and music in a concert that changed the way the younger generation was viewed.
After Woodstock, the burgeoning counter culture exploded into the mainstream, as the entire United States realized that the hippie culture was a force that could not be ignored, and its icons such as The Who, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Jimi Hendrix reinforced many of the stereotypes of long hair, reckless behavior, and sexuality. Woodstock would become a legendary orgy of drug use, sexual intercourse, nudity, and mud, but also of peace, love, and a general togetherness that also characterized hippie culture. Another popular stereotype was the hippie general disregard for all authority, and Woodstock was no different.
Over one-hundred thousand tickets had been sold to the event, but soon fans were crashing over fences and simply began streaming in to see the show (Woodstock. com, 2009). However, there were very few incidents of violence and the festival went on to become one of the iconic points in the culture of the 1960s. It also marked the beginning of the end of hippie culture. Woodstock was the last hurrah for a generation of young men and women that did their best to rebel against the previous generations and create their own persona.
Unfortunately, stereotypes were rich and long concerning hippie culture, and Woodstock did well to encourage both the good and bad stereotypes. They displayed their amazing music and free-loving culture, but also their drug abuse and contentment with filth. By the time the 1970s began, hippie culture was all but dead, even though many of the hippies continued to live on. Today, hippies are seen as largely a joke and very superficial, which may speak of their ultimate failure to live up to their own ideals.
The country is still largely conservative in many regards, still refuses many of the ideals of peace and love that the hippies inspired, and is still at war with foreign countries. Hippies are now seen in modern form as environmentalists, annoying activists for un-American or unethical causes, potheads or vegetarians. Hippies are no longer seen as a viable threat to the conservative ideals of the United States, and have in essence become all style and no substance. While stereotypes helped perpetuate the romantic notion of the idealistic hippie, they just as equally helped destroy a notion that never really existed in the first place.