Some thoughts on beatniks and such
“Time is a sandpile we rub our fingers in.” — Carl Sandberg
Kind readers (writers used to start their musings like that), allow me for a minute or two to wax nostalgic — that’s a slightly nicer way of saying show my age.
I think that in our minds’ eyes, we humans measure time not in minutes, or hours or even years, but rather in moments, and the images of those moments can lie dormant for quite a while, but are obliged to come back when summoned.
Our memories, you see, come equipped with triggers, and one of mine was pulled the other night, by of all things, an infomercial — this one trying to get me to buy a folk music album prominently featuring Peter, Paul and Mary.
The Mary part of that most harmonic trio, who along with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey made up this country’s most successful folk singing group of the 1960s, was Mary Travers and she died just about exactly nine years ago this week, an event which I remember as having made me much sadder than I would have imagined.
Most who remember at all, likely remember Peter, Paul and Mary harmonizing on “If I Had a Hammer” or Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but perhaps those of my generation, a generation whose childhoods were at least partially colored by “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” are most likely to associate that most misunderstood song with the group.
After all, the more conspiratorial among us had “figured out” that song was about smoking marijuana, that most forbidden of fruits, when in actuality, it was exactly what it appeared to be — a song about the lost innocence of childhood.
And that stupid infomercial triggered all those thoughts, summoned them, and I had to feel sad all over again that nine years earlier Mary Travers had died at the age of 72 and I caught myself mouthing aloud, “Puff’s head is hung in sorrow…Jackie Paper came no more.”
I’ve always felt that American music mirrored the contemporary American culture — a pretty scary thought when you consider today’s — and folk music occupied a relatively short and transitional period in this country. In the sense, the folk music period from the mid-l950s to the early 1960s in advance of the British rock invasion, was something of a bridge to what was to come — the calm before the storm.
The United States of America, the country that had been one thing in the post-war Eisenhower years (“Father Knows Best,” for heaven’s sake), was in the process of becoming something very different. Just over the horizon, perhaps visible to only the longest-sighted, lay the 60s counterculture of rebellion, free love, flowing acid and hippies.
Ah, but before the hippies, there were the beatniks. Haven’t heard that word in a while, have you?
Actually, an unrecognized preview of coming attractions, the beatniks were sort of Hippie Lite. Great taste, less filling.
What quickly became known (but not widely understood) as the Beat Generation sprang from a small group of beneath-the-grownup-radar writers, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, primary among them. They were neo-Bohemian hedonists, who paraded non-conformity, different for different’s sake, with a side order of shock value.
And it was caviar to a nation’s youth reared on pablum.
The term beatnik was coined by a San Francisco newspaper columnist in the aftermath of the launch of a Russian satellite called Sputnik, and it was almost exclusively an East Coast/West Coast phenomenon. In San Francisco and New York clubs and coffee houses young men with goatees, turtlenecks and berets recited esoteric poetry and played bongo drums while young women danced around with no one in particular, in black leotards.
It didn’t exactly mark Western Civilization’s finest hour, but brother, it was sure different from “Father Knows Best,” and it started to form the shape of things to come.
But by far, middle-class America’s greatest exposure to the esoteric Beat Generation came in the form of a character on a not otherwise particularly noteworthy television show, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” which aired from 1959-1963.
When most folks in the Heartland thought of beatniks, they thought of Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver of future “Gilligan’s Island” fame. The character was pure satire, of course, strictly a parody, but that finer point was largely missed by Middle America, most of which thought all beatniks answered, “you rang?” whenever they were addressed.
It seems almost unthinkable to me that in the span of 60 years America has gone from Peter, Paul and Mary to Kanye West, from beatniks to neo-Nazis, from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump, and even contemplating such begs the question of where it might go from here.
But at least this, we were advised: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.