When were hippies most popular? What happened to them?

Hippies never had a birthdate. They rose out of a foundation of beatniks, free love, peace activism, feminism, civil rights, rock music, dropping out of commercial culture and mind expansion. All that coalesced into a major social movement.

by Peter McCarthy

for Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

woman holding tambourine while sitting on grass
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Roots of the Hippie Movement

The core concept was a rejection of older generation values and instead embracing communal living, pacifism, individual freedom of expression and a back-to-nature lifestyle.

The first mention of the word ‘hippie’ was in an article about young people on Haight Street in San Francisco who dressed like they were attending a carnival. There is some debate as to if it was street slang for “hipster” or if it was evolved to “hippie.”

Hippies were also called flower children. A term that began with the publication of an article by poet Allen Ginsberg in 1962 that appeared in The Nation where he urged people to demonstrate against the House Un-American Activities Committee for their investigation of beatniks.

The first use of the term “flower children” to describe hippies happened in 1966 by Joplin Globe columnist Cathy Smith writing about major changes that were happening among American youth.

By late 1966, it was all over newspapers across America. In Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan wrote, in 1965, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” He was referring to generational changes welling up at the time.

The Beatles and the Grateful Dead helped bring hippies to a wider audience. The Beatles wanted their music to go down easy, while the Rolling Stones wanted everyone to get high and dance. Both were successful but didn’t quite have it in them to be “peace and love” hippies like the Grateful Dead. The Dead were full partners in the San Francisco, Haight Ashbury scene.

Bands like the Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds were at the forefront of the hippie movement. In 1966, three events helped provide a critical mass for alternative music.

The first was when Dylan, going electric, turned from a folk hero into a rock star who filled concert halls and made rock music a force for change.

The second event was when The Beatles helped open America’s mind to psychedelics. They were the first major rock stars to openly use LSD (or any drug, really), and they were very open about it in interviews.

The third event was the spontaneous birth of the San Francisco music scene with Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, The Charlatans and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

By the end of 1967, hippie music was dominating FM radio with bands like Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly, The Doors, We Five, Kaleidoscope & many more. Music festivals became all the rage with Monterey Pop Festival in June followed by Miami Pop Festival, Texas International Pop Festival and others.

The Zombies remember the day… and why once a hippie, always hippie…

Festivals brought hippie, psychedelic music across the country

The Monterey Festival was the first major rock music festival in history. It helped define hippie culture, featured Jimi Hendrix’s American debut, Janis Joplin’s breakthrough performance and gave us Otis Redding just before he died in a plane crash.

Monterey showed that rock and roll and hippie audiences were compatible. It also helped launch the careers of Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Miami Pop Festival was held two months later in a similar location (a raceway), but it had a different vibe with bands like The Blues Image, Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly, Joe South & Sly & the Family Stone.

The Texas International Pop Festival was organized by Chip Monck who later went on to become a premier festival designer. It was held just outside of Dallas in Lewisville, Tx, featuring Eric Burdon & War with special guest Stevie Wonder. It won coverage from Life magazine for freewheeling nudity as self-expression.

By 1968, music festivals had become a major facet of hippie culture with Woodstock & Isle Of Wight festivals coming later that year.

Hippies were more a movement than a definable group

The term ‘hippies’ is difficult to describe because it was a movement rather than a specific group of people. Generally, hippies were middle-class white kids who grew up in the suburbs and rebelled by listening to rock music, dropping out and taking drugs. And dressing weirdly. But they did so in their own unique way with lots of different factions within the movement having lots of different priorities.

There was no single unifying factor that created hippies. It was a convergence of several different factors that happened to occur at the same time. At one point in mid-to-late-60s, it wasn’t clear if hippies were going to save rock music or destroy it.

Besides Dylan’s influence, another reason why rock music took off in the mid-’60s was that black culture had become highly commercialized. In the early-to-mid-60s, Motown ruled the charts with a polished version of urban rhythm & blues music. The Beatles covered several Motown hits early on during Beatlemania, and it helped make them popular with white audiences, especially teenage girls.

They reached deep into culture…

Around this time, British Invasion bands like The Rolling Stones were also drawing inspiration from R&B while at the same time recording their own music, heavily influenced by American blues and rock.

The British Invasion took off in the mid-’60s with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, Kinks & Dave Clark Five all becoming popular.

A lot of the bands that came after were heavily influenced by what The Beatles and Rolling Stones did. That included Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Vanilla Fudge and The Byrds.

A whole new genre of rock music came about in the mid-’60s with new bands starting to play psychedelic rock & electric music for larger audiences. And the musicians themselves were living the hippie lifestyle – free love, psychedelics and somewhat unhinged.

They reached deep into culture among teens and young adults.

How did hippies affect society in general?

One of the biggest things that hippies did was to encourage more people to use drugs. For example, tens of thousands of Americans tried marijuana for the first time in the mid-to-late-60s.

By 1969, there was much less stigma attached to drug use after the Woodstock Festival that year. Tens of thousands of people on a farm in upstate New York, smoking pot and tripping on acid was not only a big event, but it also made taking drugs seem like something normal and acceptable among youth culture.

During the 60s, hippies advocated free love between consenting adults. They also were very vocal about protesting the Vietnam War which led to a lot of young men dodging the draft while others fled to Canada or turned themselves in as conscientious objectors. That created more problems for the US government and military who were bogged down in a war that was going nowhere fast.

By 1970, both public opinion and most Americans had turned against the war in Vietnam. The hippie movement helped to end the draft and bring about an all-volunteer army by 1973 which is why we’ve been able to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with no military draft ever since. Hippies put peace first in American culture, but they couldn’t end wars altogether.

peace word carved in wood
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The hippie peace movement and establishment violence

The influence of conservative violence in attacking the hippie-inflected counterculture can’t be understated. A police riot brutalized peace activists outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Violence escalated into government murders at state colleges in Jackson, Missippi, and Kent, Ohio, in 1970.

State-sponsored violence against peaceful protests had a huge negative effect on activism, scaring off many who would otherwise choose alternative cultural choices.

During the late 1960s, the hippie movement was at its peak. However, by the late 1970s, most hippies had either changed their political or cultural views or simply outgrown them.

Many historians say that after the Jackson and Kent State massacres in May, 1970, killing six college students, there was a decline for hippies who were now in fear.

By 1970, America had become even more divided over the war in Vietnam and with drug arrests mounting, many hippies moved on with their lives, starting families and launching careers.

Hippie popularity at its high point

What few historians acknowledge is that only three years earlier there were still about 100,000 hippies in San Francisco attending the Human Be-In.

That event prefigured Woodstock, but it was also a response to increasing violence against protesters in Berkeley and elsewhere in California even though they were protesting peacefully. Careful watchers could see it coming. Conservatives making money from war and preparations for war would not go down easily.

Hippies rose to prominence in the early-to-mid-’60s because society at large viewed them as politically active, accepting of others and a good influence on the young.

They were not only a major force against segregation but also at odds with those who supported the war in Vietnam.

In addition to calling for an end to the war, hippies were also vocal about women’s rights and promoting civil rights to overturn laws that discriminated (and still discriminate) against minorities and other underrepresented groups.

As a result of all their activism, many people looked up to them as rebels and trendsetters. However, the American government & military didn’t like having to answer to university protestors and antiwar activists which is why they used law enforcement agencies (operating under the authority of the Department of Justice) to harass them. Constitution, be damned.

woman in gray knitted sweater
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The 1970s Decline

Although drugs increasingly became a law enforcement issue by the mid-1970s, the hippies’ association with far-left politics played a bigger role in their decline.

Because the conservative establishment used violence to counter peaceful protests, the movement grew fearful of being targeted for standing up for what they believed in. Many decided it was time to take off their flowers and go home so they could avoid being arrested or sent to fight an unwinnable war in Vietnam.

If hippies had won the battle at home on their terms, they might have gone down in history as heroes rather than losers who couldn’t keep up with changing times.

All that changed very quickly once conservatives like Richard Nixon began to use “law and order” tactics – including violence & dirty tricks to make the antiwar movement look bad in public.

The result was that it became too dangerous for most hippies to stick around when they were being targeted by the FBI & CIA who wanted them dead or in prison.

In short, the zeitgeist of the 1960s changed from peace and love to war and hate as it usually does during times of uncertainty & social upheaval. Security pulls extra value as threats are exaggerated for political leverage.

As a result, hippies became scapegoats of Nixon’s “silent majority” and lost all political power by the end of the decade because they didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late.

All this combined led to hippies becoming less popular around 1970 before fading into obscurity by the 1980s. The movement itself may have died out, but its spirit has lived on in American society ever since with artists and musicians who continue to bring that influence into the modern day.

While there’s no one specific date when hippies were most popular, the best period would be between mid-’67 and early ’69. That’s because you had so many different elements come together, starting with The Beatles who landed as the direct opposite of American conservative, conformist culture.

By comparison, hippies were less popular from the early 1970s until the early 1980s because of how the US government began cracking down on drug use and demonizing protest.

In conclusion, the most popular year for hippies was between mid-’67 and early ’69 because of a number of different factors coming together to make it a true movement. After that though, drug use – especially now illegal LSD – started going down as many hippies gave up on the movement and got back into society, started families and stepped into more traditional career paths.

Peter McCarthy is a New York-based writer who experienced the popular hippie movement first hand.

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