Hippie Culture Just Keeps Truckin' On

The Grateful Dead are gone, the original Woodstock is ancient history, but the hippie movement just keeps truckin' on.

In one corner of New York's Central Park last weekend, it looked like 1969 never left, as the New York Rainbow held its local "Gathering of the Tribes," complete with a drum circle, incense, and 150-odd people sporting the shoeless, tie-dyed look that is synonymous with hippie culture.

"We're everywhere," Aron Kay, the "Yippie Pie Man," said with a grin as he listened to eight drummers pound out a syncopated rhythm.

"We're still everywhere."

Kay has been an activist and self-proclaimed hippie since the mid 1960s, and he says the movement is still alive and well.

Although most will admit hippies' ranks have thinned considerably since its 1960s and 1970s heyday, there are still thousands of flower children in America.

There are few hard statistics on the number of new and aging Aquarians, and estimates vary wildly.

As many as 50 million Americans are broadly sympathetic to hippie values, say Paul Ray, a business consultant, and Sherry Anderson, a psychologist, in their 2000 book The Cultural Creatives.

"I'd have to say it's somewhere down around 5 to 10 percent [of the general population]," says Albert Bates, a New York University Law School graduate who has lived at The Farm, a several-hundred-member commune in Tennessee, since 1972.

Tie-Dyed Diversity

The annual Rainbow Family of Light Gathering of the Tribes draws some 20,000 people for a weeklong backwoods celebration of '60s values.

This year's gathering is expected to draw fewer people, perhaps 15,000 total, due to the group's legal battles over the need for permits for the event. It is scheduled for the first week of July, somewhere in the Great Lakes Region.

Last week's New York Rainbow gathering was an offshoot of the main, national event.

Attendees come from every age group and diverse background, says Rob Savoye, a computer programmer, former Deadhead, and Rainbow Family Gathering regular.

"You would be amazed at the diversity," he says. "You'd meet all these young kids with dreadlocks in a drum circle with their dogs, but you could also meet vice presidents of finance."

"There's a small collection of graybeard types like us," he says, but most Rainbow-goers are under 25.

The Rainbow Gathering is not the only evidence of the modern America's tie-dyed diversity.

Hundreds of communes still operate around the United States, says Tim Miller, a sociologist at the University of Kansas. He estimates there are "hundreds of thousands or millions" of hippies in the country today.

The Hippy.com Web site identifies "hippie havens" in 39 states, including not just New York, Oregon and California, but also Alaska, Hawaii and Arkansas.

Tie-Dyed Diehards

For Savoye and many other original members of the 1960s counterculture, the values and attitudes of the period have never left.

The underground mores of the Beat Movement spread to young people across the country with the explosion of rock music, drugs, and the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, experts say.

Other elements such as the introduction of the birth-control pill, the civil rights movement, and the beginnings of the popular environmental movement contributed to the cultural shift.

"You had this convergence right at this point," says Bates.

The size of the Baby Boom generation that came of age in the 1960s and '70s also helped cement the place of hippies in American culture, he suggests.

Hippie Values Still Hit Home

But most involved in the movement point to a more fundamental reason why the hippie phenomenon has lasted where other cultural trends have faded.

"The reason is that hippie era ideals were very, very sound," says John McCleary, author of the forthcoming Hippie Dictionary. "The whole movement wasn't based completely on sex drugs and rock and roll."

The hippie values of anti-materialism, environmentalism, non-violence, and so on, are both valuable and appealing to a broad range of Americans, McCleary says.

"The truth of the matter is that there are literally millions of people in this country who still live with and are interested in the ideals of the counterculture."

McClearly and others also point to the roots of 1960s counterculture, which they trace back to the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many other artists and intellectuals from centuries past.

Younger hippies today have embraced different elements of the original movement, and added their own twists.

For many younger scions of the '60s, constantly touring jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident have taken the place of the Grateful Dead.

Phish — which Rolling Stone called the most important band of the 1990s — disbanded a year and a half ago, but not before spurring another wave of free-form rock musicians to hit the road. Some experts also suggest the drug-friendly dance culture that emerged in the 1990s has roots in the '60s.

Moving to the Mainstream

If hippies have become more restrained in their rejection of mainstream values, it is also true that the mainstream has embraced many elements of 1960s revolution.

Recycling and the organic food movements have roots in the hippie movement, Miller argues, as does the widespread use of illegal drugs and relaxed attitudes towards sex.

The fashion world has repeatedly tapped into flower power for inspiration, too. This year, style writers across the country trumpeted the return of peasant blouses, crochet work, ponchos and hip-hugging bellbottoms.

"American youths' relentless hunt for fads has unlocked the 1960s counterculture," wrote the Knoxville News-Sentinel last month. "Knoxville teens and 'tweens have embraced it — faded jeans, tie-dye, incense, hemp belts, Grateful Dead and all."

Today's hippies aren't that different from those 30 years ago, says Bates.

"They know how to stay out of trouble better," he says.

"On the other hand, they still freak freely."

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