Hipster (1940s subculture)
Hipster or hepcat, as used in the 1940s, referred to aficionados of jazz, in particular bebop, which became popular in the early 1940s. The hipster adopted the lifestyle of the jazz musician, including some or all of the following: dress, slang, use of marijuana and other drugs, relaxed attitude, sarcastic humor, self-imposed poverty, and relaxed sexual mores.
The words hep and hip are of uncertain origin, with numerous competing theories being proposed. In the early days of jazz, musicians were using the hep variant to describe anybody who was “in the know” about an emerging culture, mostly black, which revolved around jazz. They and their fans were known as hepcats. By the late 1930s, with the rise of swing, hip rose in popularity among jazz musicians, to replace hep. Clarinetist Artie Shaw described singer Bing Crosby as “the first hip white person born in the United States.”
Initially, hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely black jazz musicians they followed. In The Jazz Scene (1959), author Eric Hobsbawm (originally writing under the pen name Francis Newton) described hipster language—i.e., “jive-talk or hipster-talk”—as “an argot or cant designed to set the group apart from outsiders”. This group crucially includes white jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Mezz Mezzrow, Barney Kessel, Doc Pomus, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Joey Bishop, Chet Baker, and Gene Krupa who ought to be counted as some of the true original hipsters as they were instrumental in turning the white world onto jazz and its underground culture in the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1939, the word hepster was used by Cab Calloway in the title of his Hepster’s Dictionary, which defines hep cat as “a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive”. In 1944, pianist Harry Gibson modified this to hipster in his short glossary “For Characters Who Don’t Dig Jive Talk”, published in 1944 with the album Boogie Woogie In Blue, featuring the self-titled hit “Handsome Harry the Hipster”. The entry for hipsters defined them as “characters who like hot jazz.”
Hipsters were more interested in bebop and “hot” jazz than they were in swing, which by the late 1940s was becoming old-fashioned and watered down by “squares” like Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo and Robert Coates. In the 1940s, white youth began to frequent African-American communities for their music and dance. These first youths diverged from the mainstream due to their new philosophies of racial diversity and their exploratory sexual nature and drug habits. The drug of choice was marijuana, many hipster slang terms were dedicated to the substance.
The subculture rapidly expanded, and after World War II, a burgeoning literary scene grew up around it. Jack Kerouac described 1940s hipsters as “rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality”. Toward the beginning of his poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg mentioned “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”. In his essay “The White Negro“, Norman Mailer characterized hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death—annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity—and electing instead to “divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self”.
The new philosophy of racial role reversal was transcribed by many popular hipster authors of the time. Norman Mailer‘s 1957 pamphlet, entitled “The White Negro“, has become the paradigmatic example of hipster ideology. Mailer describes hipsters as individuals “with a middle-class background (who) attempt to put down their whiteness and adopt what they believe is the carefree, spontaneous, cool lifestyle of Negro hipsters: their manner of speaking and language, their use of milder narcotics, their appreciation of jazz and the blues, and their supposed concern with the good orgasm.” In a nod to Mailer’s discussion of hipsterism, the United States’ Cold War deployments of African American culture and personalities for the purposes of public diplomacy has been discussed as “hipster diplomacy”.
- Jezer, Marty (1999). The Dark Ages: Life in the United States 1945–1960. South End Press. ISBN 0896081281.
- Tirro, Frank (1977). Jazz: A History. Norton. ISBN 0393961877.
- Marcus, James, “The First Hip White Person.” 2001. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 2008-03-02
- Dan Fletcher (July 29, 2009). “Hipsters”. time.com. Retrieved November 1, 2009.
- “At that time musicians used jive talk among themselves and many customers were picking up on it. One of these words was hep which described someone in the know. When lots of people started using hep, musicians changed to hip. I started calling people hipsters and greeted customers who dug the kind of jazz we were playing as ‘all you hipsters.’ Musicians at the club began calling me Harry the Hipster; so I wrote a new tune called ‘Handsome Harry the Hipster.'” – Harry Gibson, “Everybody’s Crazy But Me” (1986).
- “Hipster Glossary”.
- Kerouac, Jack. “About the Beat Generation”, (1957), published as “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation” in Esquire, March 1958 Archived November 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
- “Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” Fall 1957, reprinted in Dissent, Winter 2008″.
- “The White Negro”.
- Roberts, B. R., Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), pp. 145–148.
- “A Portrait of the Hipster” by Anatole Broyard, a critical dissection of the hipster phenomenon from 1948.
- “The White Negro” by Norman Mailer from 1957.