When I read the following on page 12 of Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture, I darn near slammed the book shut: “[W]riting the intellectual history of hipness is an inherently contradictory and perhaps impossible act, to be judged largely in terms of it’s inevitable failure … [T]he development of hip culture is a dialectic of the enduring necessity of the printed word against hip culture’s conviction that experience can never be captured in printed words.”
Really, Phil Ford, associate professor of music at Indiana University—Bloomington? You’re giving up and in that easily? Do you so desire to not be thought of as square by the type of people about whom you are writing that you immediately cede this territory to them?
Is it not the job (even the responsibility) of an academic to entertain the possibility that these folks might be …
oh, what’s that word … wrong?
I think so, but to paraphrase that song from back in 1969, “I never was a hipster, [I] was never hip.”
And I have to give Professor Ford credit for not being completely hagiographical in his history of hipsters. After all, he does write,
“Hipsterism is about a lot more than recreational drug use, funny haircuts, weird lingo, and the hipster’s infuriating attitude of superiority.”
Although the book focuses on the hipsters who inhabited the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s, such a description is exquisitely applicable to those of any era.
Being a musicologist, Ford takes a few meandering detours into music theory while discussing jazz artists such as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Thankfully, these detours are limited, making Dig primarily a work of history, but certainly not the dusty textbook stuff that that might suggest.
Ford backs into the 1940s, hipness’s first full decade, through the mid-to-late ’30s, when the hipster “began to show up in the black press … [I]dle, insolent, shady, affected, and unpatriotic, the hipster was an embarrassment to the middle-class columnist who wished their young men might better advertise the progress of the race.”
Dan Burley became what Ford calls “the first hip literary voice” through his column “Back Door Stuff,” which first ran in 1935. In 1946, Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe’s book Really the Blues appeared. This was what Ford describes as “the first sustained piece of writing to consider what underlying principle might make sense of the hipster’s funny clothes, weird jargon, and love of jazz.”
1948, however, was “a historical pivot,” the year in which “the first hip little magazine [Neurotica] appeared,” along with John Clellon Holmes’s “Tea for Two,” which was “probably the first piece of hipster fiction,” and Anatole Broyard’s essay “Portrait of the Hipster.”
In 1957, hipness re-pivoted with the publication of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”
“Like nothing before it,” Ford writes, this was “a hip manifesto … It was a vision of jazz, drugs, and orgasm; the new revolutionary society mapped by the free exchange of human energies; the hipster as the revolution’s New Man.”
Moreover, “Before 1957 … there were none of the hipster bars, restaurants, and boutiques common to gentrifying city neighborhoods.”
Worse yet, “There were no free alterna-weeklies to guide hip consumers or filter local art and politics through a lens of hip snark; for that matter, there was no hip snark, Mad magazine aside …”
It is not necessary for the purposes of this review to delve into the content of Mailer’s epochal essay, but an at least brief consideration of its title is required in order to grasp the history of hipness.
Why “The White Negro”? Because even though all of the individuals whom Ford discusses at length—e.g. Jack Kerouac (and other Beats), Bob Dylan, Mailer, and John Benson Brooks—are white, “Hipness must be understood as originating in an African American project of defining and asserting the self along particular lines and through a certain set of symbols.”
(“When Dylan laughs his way through Try, it is the laugh heard around the world, the worldwide youth tribe’s judgement of the square.”)
Two incontrovertibly essential elements of hipness are language (“weird lingo”) and music (“the royal road to hip”)—i.e., sound and music.
With regard to the former, jazz “has ever been honored as the parent of hipness.” As for the latter, Ford writes,
“Really the Blues suggested, as Mailer would later write, that jive can ‘add metaphors to abstractions, put movement in static phrases, throw warmth into frozen logical categories’ because black hipsters have been excluded from the canons of white literacy and because, as outsiders, they can see just how little action, movement, and warmth there is in white speech.”
And as author LeRoi Jones wrote, “The Negro jazz musician of the forties was weird. And the myth of this weirdness, this alienation, was sufficiently important to white America for it to re-create the myth in a term that connoted not merely Negroes as aliens but a general alienation in which even white men could be included.”
During the 1960s, “hipness abruptly moved from the margins to the center of American life” and “rock siphoned off jazz’s traditional audience of hip youth at an alarming rate.” As a result, according to Ford, “The countercultural idea leaves its fingerprints on contemporary discourse in exhausted words now applied to ordinary things.”
Overall, Dig and its author paint a somewhat-aggrandizing portrait of hipsters in all of their assorted forms. How else am I to interpret the assessment that the hipster’s “very being offends the proprieties of American society”?
But perhaps Professor Ford views hipsters from the vantage point from which he claims that the Beats viewed themselves, that is, as “acting out a chosen belief that they were living epochal lives.”