“On the Offbeat”: the Original Hipsters

By Clark Historical Society

The term “Hipster,” as used in the 1940s, referred to aficionados of jazz. The first printed dictionary to list the word hipster is the short glossary “For Characters Who Don’t Dig Jive Talk,” published in 1944. The entry for “hipsters” defined them as, “characters who like hot jazz.”

At first, the American jazz musician is referred to as a “hipster” or a “beatnik.” Musicians used the word “hep”  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.”

Subsequently, around the 1940s, the word “hipster” was coined to replace “hepcat.” White youth began to frequent African-American communities for their music and dance. These youths diverged from the mainstream due to their new philosophies of racial diversity and their exploratory sexual nature and drug habits. They were disappointed about American society, the strict rules and the rigid lifestyle. So they found this way to express their opinions about freedom and love.

Generally, most of these young hipsters came from the participants of the “Lost Generation.” The Lost Generation is a bunch of young men and women whose lifestyle was simple.  They loved to wear fancy dress, rejected work and refused to attend school, or accept any social obligation and usually wandered for pleasure, against all stereotypes and the secular rule of monopoly capital, and they always looked for absolute freedom in order to be a decent challenge to traditional values. To the hipsters, the bird was a living justification of their philosophy.

In addition, these hipsters adopted the lifestyle of the jazz musician during that period of time, including some or all of the following: dress, slang, use of cannabis and other drugs, relaxed attitude, sarcastic humor, self-imposed poverty, and relaxed sexual codes.

Modern hipsters pride themselves above all else as being “original”, but today’s hipsters are actually very similar to the hipsters of the 1940s. As well as their dislike of conformity, modern and original hipsters share a connection to music, in the case of early hipsters, jazz.

The 1940s hipsters’ adoption and imitation of aspects of black culture, mentioned above, caused controversy among conservatives. Hipsters wore zoot suits and “continentals,” dressing to represent the hope African-Americans had of moving up in the world (Hebdige, Subculture 47-49).

They also adapted jazz lingo, or jive talk. They especially enjoyed rhyming similes, which were an opportunity to show off their wit. With an attitude that would not be out of place among modern hipsters, those ‘40s hipsters who adopted jazz lingo “tend[ed] to drop out of their usage terms taken over by “squares” (Gold, “Vernacular” 276-278).

It was Anatole Broyard who painted the first psychological portrait of the hipster, in a 1948 article published in Partisan Review.  He was both a scholar attempting to define this new culture, and a member of it himself. The hipster, in his view, is someone who is “superiorly aware.” (Ford, “Somewhere/Nowhere” 51-2).

The crux of his argument was that the hipster was always trying to be “somewhere,” always trying to locate himself (Broyard’s hipsters all seem to be male) in the world, “nowhere” being the hipster’s favorite insult.  The struggle for definition led the hipster to reconcile himself with society symbolically.

Rather than dwelling on the hipster’s origins, Broyard tried to characterize the hipster of the time in terms of language and music.  Language, in the form of jive, was the ‘40s hipster’s tool in the quest to “re-edit the world with new definitions.”

The language had no neutral words, since words were used not just to describe but also to evaluate.  They were all good or bad, “solid” or “gone.”
As for music, the hipster used it as the soundtrack to his life, never as a reason to dance.

The ‘40s hipster did not dance, except in the offbeat, a “half-parody” way that today’s hipster might call ironic.  The ‘40s hipster first adopted blues, then jazz.  Bepop was the final genre to which the he attached himself.  Bepop is full of surprises (again, one might even say irony), playing with the audience’s expectations.  Its lyrics are usually nonsense syllables, which suited the hipster; he had made himself so abstract that he had nothing left to say.

Broyard then describes the downfall of his era’s hipsters.  They were set on a pedestal by intellectuals who were impressed by the hipsters’ aloofness from society.  They were treated as “ambassadors from the Id,” and idolized, and so they finally got the “somewhereness” they had always wanted.

Once that was in place, the language and philosophy of jive became routine and rigid, and the subversiveness of hipster culture was gone.  It became like an indie band that finally gets the mainstream success it always aimed for, and thereby loses its image and cachet.

Broyard’s Portrait has been overshadowed by Norman Mailer’s 1957 Dissent Magazine article “The White Negro.” In the article, Mailer described hipsters in a way that “managed to offend almost everybody” (Ford 50).

“Like children,” Norman Mailer wrote on the hipsters of his day: “hipsters are fighting for the sweet, and their language is a set of subtle indications of their success or failure in the competition for pleasure.” He believed that hipsters, seeing death as inevitable, sought mindless pleasure at the expense of morality. “[T]he hipster,” he wrote, “is a psychopath, and yet not a psychopath but the negation of the psychopath for he possesses the narcissistic detachment of the philosopher, that absorption in the recessive nuances of one’s own motive which is so alien to the unreasoning drive of the psychopath.” He characterized hipsters as a result of “the Bohemian and the juvenile delinquent” adopting black culture (Mailer).

The most criticized aspect of the article was that Mailer’s portrayal of African-Americans, which he intended to be positive, cast them as primitive seekers of meaningless pleasure (Ford 51).

The story continues next week, as CHS explores the hipsters of the Beat Generation.

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3 thoughts on ““On the Offbeat”: the Original Hipsters

  1. Ignorance is bliss with you people as usual! African Americans created the Hipster movement in the 1940’s and the rest of you are self proclaimed posers and thieves of a culture.

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