In today’s world, it’s commonplace to hear someone say “take a beat” in ordinary conversation. But in the 1950s – the early years of the Cold War – the word BEAT was used quite differently. Then it referred to a literary movement, an individual who was a nonconformist, even a generation.
The Beat Movement is most often regarded as America’s first major literary movement of the Cold War Era. I know you’ve heard of some of its most famous writers. Jack Kerouac, for example, famous for his novel “On the Road,” and Allen Ginsberg, notorious for the poem “Howl.” They rebelled against conformity and materialism, instead promoting artistic expression, individual freedom, and counter cultural values.
Adherents of the movement – Beatniks – hung out in dark smokey coffee houses, arguing about the meaning of life, reading poetry, listening to folk music and improvisational jazz, laughing at stand-up comedians like Mort Sahl, and watching experimental theater. You can watch Mort Sahl on YouTube here.
The Beat Generation
The Beat Generation emerged as a countercultural response to the conformity and materialism of post World War II America. Their rejection of mainstream society and emphasis on individual freedom reflected a critique of the capitalist values associated with the United States, indirectly challenging the American system that positioned itself as the antithesis of Soviet Communism. Their literary works and cultural contributions became a significant voice of dissent and a harbinger of later cultural transformations.
Representative authors and their notable works include:
- Jack Kerouac: On the Road
- Allen Ginsberg: Howl
- William S. Burroughs: Naked Lunch
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A Coney Island of the Mind
- Gregory Corso: Gasoline
Cold War Influences on the Beat Movement
While the Beat Movement wasn’t explicitly political, it was influenced by the ideological struggle and tensions of the era. Cold War influences on the Beat Movement can be observed in several ways:
- Countercultural Response/Spirit: The Beat Generation’s rejection of mainstream American society and values was, in part, a response to the perceived conformity and materialism associated with the United States during the Cold War. The Beats sought alternative forms of self-expression, advocating for individual freedom, spontaneity, and non-conformity, challenging the rigid social norms of the time.
- Critique of Consumerism and Capitalism/Materialism: The Beats’ critique of the materialistic consumer culture prevalent in the United States was influenced by the perceived shallowness and conformity they associated with capitalism, instead seeking a more authentic and spiritually fulfilling existence.
- Anti-Establishment Sentiment/Stance: The Beats’ writings often embodied an anti-establishment sentiment, which was influenced by their opposition to the political and social systems associated with the Cold War. They challenged the authority and perceived conformity of the government, institutions, and mainstream culture, reflecting a broader critique of the Cold War-era power structures.
- Influence of Eastern Philosophy: The Beats were deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism and Zen. This interest in Eastern spirituality can be seen as a reaction to the materialism and the political tensions of the Cold War, a stark contrast to the consumer-driven capitalist society of the United States.
- Quest for Personal Freedom and Escape/Alternative Lifestyle: The Cold War climate, characterized by the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and the anxiety surrounding ideological tensions, contributed to a desire for personal freedom and escape. The Beats often explored themes of wanderlust, seeking liberation from societal constraints through travel, experimentation with drugs, and exploration of alternative lifestyles. This quest for personal freedom can be seen as a response to the anxieties and restrictions of the Cold War era.
Commodification of the Beat Movement
Historian Stephen Petrus tells us that the new subculture was turned into a commodity.
From the end of 1958 through 1960, popular magazines, newspapers, television shows, and even comic strips bombarded Americans with images of the Beat Generation . . .
Take a look at what Bullwinkle had to say below.
“Beat” became a caricature in the popular imagination—think pretentious youths in black turtlenecks smoking and writing in French cafes. An early hint at what would be regarded by the mainstream as beatnik style came in 1956 musical Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. In one scene, Hepburn dances around a smoky Parisian jazz cafe dressed head to toe in black, in tight pants and a polo neck sweater. You can watch her dance below.
Similarly, in Jean-Luc Godard’s stylish 1960 new wave classic Breathless, Jean Seberg plays an American in Paris, dressed in tight black pants, ballet pumps and a white t-shirt. You can rent Breathless on Amazon here.
In July 1959, Playboy magazine featured a “Beat Playmate,” actress and pin-up model Yvette Vickers, who told readers she liked “driving her Jag through the desert for kicks.”
William Burroughs once said that On the Road “sold a trillion Levi’s.”
He went on to say:
The iconic denim brand is just one of the fashion companies to benefit from the disaffected, worn-out look popularized by the Beat Generation . . .
Blue jeans, white t-shirts, workwear jackets and battered canvas holdalls were practical essentials for a life on the road, and they soon came to define the uniform for a generation of post-war youth disenchanted with traditional values . . .
. . . for Beat women, black jeans, capri pants, and pencil skirts, paired with silk shirts and oversized sweaters, defied the popular hourglass fashions of the 1940s and 50s.
If you want to try the look, here’s a list of must haves:
- Black Turtlenecks
- A Black Beret
For women, you’ll want to add pencil skirts in black, gray, or navy blue.
Men will want to have a full beard or at least a goatee.
To sum up:
- Beatniks rejected mainstream fashion and social norms, focusing on unique expression in fashion.
- They were influenced by French bohemian styles and exuded an air of bohemian nonchalance.
- A minimalist approach to fashion emphasized their disgust with the consumerism and conformity of mainstream culture.
- Facial hair on males was seen as a rejection of traditional grooming norms and a way to express individuality.
- An eclectic mix of styles added to the sense of individuality and artistic expression.
- Smoking was pro forma, and long thin cigarette holders contributed to a rebellious and unconventional image.
Want to pull off a similar look today? Think individual expression: bohemian and boho chic; dark colors and unconventional accessories; and unique and personalized styles.
The Beats and Music
Most of this section was not written a human. It was written by Chat GPT (3.5). I have no idea whether it’s accurate or not. I’d love for any musicians who read it to leave a comment pro or con.
The Beat literary movement exerted a profound influence on music, shaping the countercultural music scene of the 1950s and continuing its influence today. The Beat’s emphasis on freedom of expression, spontaneity, and rejection of mainstream values resonated with musicians who wanted to explore new avenues of creativity.
Modern jazz artists like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. sound-tracked the movement, and the style of the Beat Generation was heavily satirized and co-opted by the mainstream.
I have to admit: while I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, I just don’t have the expertise to say very much about this. So I relied on Chat GPT 3.5 (the free version) to help me out. Please let me know if you find mistakes or bad info because I don’t really know how much GPT knows about this either.
Here’s the prompt I provided: Please provide in-depth information on the beat literary movement’s influence on music and its legacy.
ChatGPT’s reply: Here’s an in-depth look at the Beat literary movement’s influence on music and its lasting legacy.
1. Spoken Word and Jazz Poetry: Beat writers, particularly Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, often performed their poetry in a spoken word style, accompanied by jazz music. This merging of poetry and jazz became known as jazz poetry or bop prosody. The syncopated rhythms of jazz music complemented the free-form and improvisational nature of Beat poetry, creating a dynamic and evocative performance style.
2. Beatnik Coffeehouses and Folk Music: Beatnik coffeehouses, such as the San Francisco’s Caffe Trieste and New York City’s Café Wha?, became vibrant hubs for artistic expression. Musicians would often perform folk music and protest songs in these establishments, echoing the social and political themes present in Beat literature. Folk musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were influenced by the Beat ethos, blending storytelling and social commentary in their songs.
3. Influence on Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beat Generation’s anti-establishment and rebellious spirit found resonance in the emerging rock ‘n’ roll movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley embodied the “cool” and “outsider” persona championed by the Beats, fusing elements of rhythm and blues, gospel, and country to create a new and energetic sound.
4. Psychedelic Rock and the Counterculture: As the Beat movement evolved into the counterculture of the 1960s, its ideas continued to influence music. Psychedelic rock bands, such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors, embraced the Beat philosophy of spiritual exploration, nonconformity, and challenging social norms. Their music often incorporated elements of Eastern spirituality, surrealism, and experimentation, mirroring the themes explored in Beat literature.
5. Beat Influence on Punk and Alternative Rock: The rebellious and anti-establishment ethos of the Beat Generation found a kindred spirit in the punk movement of the 1970s. Punk musicians like Patti Smith and Richard Hell drew inspiration from Beat literature, infusing their music with raw energy and provocative lyrics that challenged societal norms. Alternative rock bands of the 1980s and 1990s, such as R.E.M. and Nirvana, also acknowledged the Beat influence on their music and lyrics.
Legacy of the Beat’s Influence on Music: The Beat literary movement’s influence on music has had a lasting impact on the development of various music genres and subcultures. Some notable aspects of this legacy include:
- Continued Spoken Word Performances: The tradition of combining spoken word with music remains popular in various forms of spoken word poetry and hip-hop, where artists use rhythm and flow to deliver powerful messages.
- Emphasis on Authenticity and Individuality: The Beats’ emphasis on authenticity and individuality has become a guiding principle for musicians seeking to create honest, meaningful, and personal expressions through their music.
- Fusion of Genres: The Beat Generation’s willingness to blend different art forms, styles, and cultures has inspired musicians to experiment with various genres, leading to the creation of innovative and hybrid musical styles.
- Social and Political Engagement: The Beat’s engagement with social and political issues, as seen in their literature and music, has left a legacy of music as a powerful tool for protest, social commentary, and activism. (end Chat GPT)
Overall, the Beat literary movement’s influence on music transcends generations, continuing to inspire artists to challenge conventions and break boundaries. If you want to know a little more, take a look at this article.
Some think the Beat Generation is hard to visualize because it’s so closely identified with the written word. But Far Out Magazine urges us to give it a try. Here is their list of the best films about the generation.
If you want to get a feel for how it all began, or you just want to take a road trip while sitting in your armchair, pick up On the Road, the book by Jack Kerouac, or watch the movie based on that work. You can rent it online – I watched it on Amazon.
Featured Image: Beatnik by Keira McPhee on Flickr
For more on the coffee house scene click here.