Underground in the fifties

!Read me First


Underground in the Fifties

The Angry No

The Transcendent Yes

Alternative Life Styles

The Tug of Gravity:Co-option, Absorption, and Shlock Rock

Artiness, Absurdity, and Excess

The Seventies: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Suggested Recordings

Music Quiz

Suggested Links

To understand the sixties, you have to understand the fifties - that both the mainstream against which the following generation revolted and the counterculture out of which the sixties sprang full grown.

And to understand the fifties, you must begin with World War II for that is where the mental set of the fifties began (and ended).

The most important thing to grasp about World War II is that it was not fundamentally good for America (or the world).

Crowds protesting the Vietnam war Vietnam war protest
It's never healthy having millions and millions of husbands and daddies - an entire generation, in fact - processed by the war machine, hair cut, bodies standardized into pressed and polished uniforms, minds standardized into drill field rows and blocks, eyes straight ahead, chin in, chest out, salute and return salute, all parts of a finely tuned machine that goes when it's told to go.

And, the khaki uniform is bound to rub off.

They came home after the war with no wish to return. Weary of war's confusion and alarm, they sought stability and security. When threatened, they shot first. Never did they ask questions. After all a generation that endured the depression, the war, and the postwar economic readjustment was entitled to peace, quiet and some of the good life.

I don't wish to be severe. I mean only to explain the remarkable cultural and intellectual vacuity, the social rigidity, the pervasive conservatism of mainstream postwar American life, and thereby both the counterculture that developed far below ground during the fifties and the eruption of the sixties.

Body painting-Oregon Rock festival body painting
Who, seriously is going to freak out over long hair - except a generation that mandated the military crew cut for all decent American males, despite the obvious and painful fact that it makes men look like bald eagles? And conversely where is the rebellion in dancing the twist or the jitterbug or the cool jerk - unless you have been indoctrinated with the basic box and the Arthur Murray rumba? Why should it be so radical to protest the executing of car thieves or the relegating of one-fifth the population to separate johns, restaurants, bus seats, and baseball leagues? Unless the moral sensibilities have been reduced to cowboy-Indian simplicities by something like World War II?

What the golden fifties were really about was the unnatural prolongation of World War II heroism and mindset, both of them narrow and barbarian during the war years, both of them narrow and barbarian in the fifties. It is no wonder that the young were complaining by 1958, rebelling openly in 1963, triumphing so easily - if temporarily - in 1968.

"Neck deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on." - Pete Seeger

"Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift" -- Bob Dylan, Subterrannean Homesick Blues
Subterannean WAVSubterranean Homesick Blues sound clip (438 KB)

The anger of the sixties arose directly from the realization that the system, not the individual, might be at fault when affairs got botched, that only in movies does everybody win big prizes, and that the system pays largely in money. And the fact that the individual was sacrificed at the altar of conformity thus producing stereotyped lifestyles.

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