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Beatnik Culture


The word was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle as a derisive term to refer to the beats, i.e. members of the Beat Generation (this was a play off the name of the Russian satellite Sputnik). He wrote condescendingly that " Look Magazine hosted a party for 50 Beatniks... and over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand... They're only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work ..."

The word 'beat' was primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted. Jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow combined it with other words like 'dead beat'or 'beat-up' in his book Really The Blues.

When the term 'Beat Generation' began to be used as a label for the young people sometimes referred to as 'hipsters' or 'beatsters' in the late 1950s, the word 'beat' lost its specific references to a particular subculture and became a synonym for anyone living as a bohemian or acting rebelliously or appearing to advocate a revolution in manners.

Beatniks frequently rejected middle-class American values, customs, and tastes in favor of radical politics and exotic jazz, art, and literature. “Daddy-O” (a term of address); “Cool, man, cool”; and “strictly dullsville” are examples of slang expressions used by beatniks.

By the middle of 1959, it seemed as though you could hardly open a magazine without encountering a photograph or a caricature - in the fashion department as much as in the feature pages - of the typical beatnik: loose-fitting hooped T-shirt, beret, goatee beard, sunglasses, poetry book in hand; for chicks, subtract the beard and add deep fringe and heavy eye make-up. Playboy ran a version of an address Kerouac had given to students at Brandeis College late in 1958, "Origins of the Beat Generation". Much though he disliked its current manifestation, Kerouac still laid claim to being the founder of the Beat Generation. He explained to his audience that, yes, "beat" had originally meant low, down on your luck, but then he had had a revelation one afternoon in a church in his hometown, Lowell: suddenly, with tears in his eyes, he had "a vision of what I must have really meant with 'Beat'.... as being to mean 'beatific'".

"Life" took the anti-Americanism encrypted in the Soviet-sounding suffix more to heart than most other magazines. In September 1959, Life ran a feature entitled "Squaresville USA vs Beatsville". It was prompted by the news that three teenage girls in the Midwestern town of Hutchinson, Kansas, had sent an invitation to Lawrence Lipton, author of the recently published Holy Barbarians , an account of beatnik life in Venice, California. When word went round Hutchinson that the place was on the brink of invasion by beatniks, a parents' revolt took place, and they called in the law. A spokesman for the police department told Life that a beatnik was someone who ""doesn't like work, any man who doesn't like work is a vagrant, and a vagrant goes to jail around here"". Lipton was hastily uninvited, and the trio of girls who had innocently contacted him had their Americanness protected by being ""whisked away to seclusion by their distressed parents"". Before they disappeared, the journalist from Life elicited a quote from one of them, Luetta Peters: ""We know beatniks aren't good"", she said, ""but we thought they just dressed sloppy and talked funny. Now we know that they get married without licenses and things like that.""

Soon there was Rent-a-Beatnik, The Beat Generation Cookbook , and a MAD magazine special, featuring mock advertisements for ""Paint Smears - all colors, paste on easily"" and "Oversize Sweaters for Beatnik chicks - one size only (too big)". There was a glossary of "Square Terms" (" Daddy - the tag a square pegs his old man with") and a gallery of "Hipsters", complete with their philosophies. One was Wanda Kuhl, who used to "sit around at home nights with nothing to do", until she became a beatnik. "Now every night I go to some coffee house and sit around and listen to jazz records. I'm leading a real wild life now."

Rent-a-Beatnik was the brainchild of Fred McDarragh, a photographer who was making a speciality of beat (and beatnik) scenes. McDarragh placed an ad in the Village Voice : "RENT genuine BEATNIKS Badly groomed but brilliant, (male and female). The rental price was $40 nightly. ( MAD countered with "Rent a SQUARE for your next Beatnik Party"). Props, such as bongo drums and guitars, were extra."

Here's a list of some jazz slang.

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