In the spring of 1968, a 'counter-culture' rock musical hit the Broadway stage. It was called "Hair" and was a celebration of the bohemian live-style and anti-war idealism of a generation of young Americans known as "Hippies." Along with the famous gathering on a spread of farmland in New York state which has come down to us as 'Woodstock', (1969) the music of 'Hair' and the message behind it remains one of the great statements of what the anti Viet Nam War Movement was all about and, indeed what that whole era was about..
But why would they call a Broadway musical "Hair" ? Well, I guess it is, if not universally true in all cultures, then certainly consistent with Christian culture values that short hair on men is 'good' (a sign of seriousness, sobriety, and discipline) and long hair is dangerous, dissolute, and a symbol of rebellion. You will notice that there are two places where guys automatically and immediately must submit to the haircut: prison and the army. It comes across a kind of a punishment, but even more so is the dehumanizing aspect. Basically, there is more identity theft in these places that in a hotel full of internet hackers. The military seeks to strip you of your individuality and reconstruct you into a savage, blindly obedient fighting machine. And it all starts with chopping off your hair.
These days, hair and hair-style seems to be a matter of choice and certainly nothing worth fighting over. In the England of the '60s and early '70s it was even trendy for professional footballers to grow their hair long. The Brits were just cool cats, what with the Beatles and Stones, etc. And none of them were fighting in Viet Nam.
Viet Nam defined the America of that era just as much as the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe even more, although they were entwined in the sense that many young Black men, denied their civil rights as American citizens, were nevertheless drafted into the army to fight in Asia. These Black kids were easy prey for Uncle Sam (the US military) and had all the earmarks of the majority of young guys who end up fighting some Fat Man's war: they were poor, uneducated, and without the help of anyone influential. They were what is known as 'cannon fodder.' There weren't a lot of Black Hippies, although they developed their own hairstyle, which was known as "Afros." Some of them were quite spectacular. All the sheep in New Zealand couldn't produce that much wool (but black not white), and I thought it looked great, especially on some of the tall, cool, coffee-colored women. In fact, I cannot resist offering a short poem written, I believe, by Langston Hughes called "Brown Girl."
Something of old forgotten queens
lurks in the lithe abandon of her walk;
something of the shackled slave
sobs in the rhythm of her talk.
To me that little poem says it all.
But the hippes with the long hair were white people, and although they came pouring out of all walks of life -- for in the flower power era a lot of wandering minstels and misty-eyed waifs and strays (who tumbled off greyhounds buses from small-town USA and landed in NY and San Francisco) seemed to jell together -- the brainier Hippies, the ones that spear-headed the Movement, were highly educated people who detested the war and wanted to put a stop to it. The young women grew their hair long, kicked off their sandals, and sang old Celtic ballads in their best imitations of Joan Baez (the folk music queen), and the guys grew beards and let their hair grow as long as it could. As I look back on it now with the cynicism of hindsight, I see it all as a bit put on, a bit too 'precious' -- they were mostly playing a kind of role which involved both sincere protest against 'The Establishment' and a way of gaining the sweet perks within their own society. (Even among the Hippies where freedom, communal living, and total sharing was the ideal, it was interesting how the coolest and most well-hung guys always ended up with the coolest and most beautful chicks. Even the Hippies, it seems, had their pecking order. But, to their everlasting credit, they smoked a lot of weed and had a lot of sex (or love, if you will) . That part I can vouch for firsthand. Hooray !!
But without Viet Nam there would have been no Hippies, so what was Viet Nam? Many of us thought then, and many more think now, that Viet Nam represents one of the darker passages in the 250-year uproar known as American History. In a nutshell, it was sold to the 'Red-menace' paranoid American public as part of a theory known as 'the domino effect'. In other words, North Viet Nam was Communist and was threatening to impose Communism on South Viet Nam. The French had been fooling around over there for years without noticeable positive results, and now the Americans came busting in, determined to stop the Red Tide; otherwise, so went the domino theory, one country after the other would fall into the hands of the Reds. So America, yet again, felt it had to intervene to keep the world 'safe for democracy'. So, bellowing at the tops of their lungs, in they rushed.
What guys like me couldn't understand was why we should be drafted into the army (the draft was in force and obligatory back then), to go to the other side of the world and fight people who had not attacked us and seemed to pose no threat to us at all. Moreover, the war (which was never an officially declared war but rather what the US government euphemistically called a "police intervention to pacify enemy aggression") was unwinnable without the use of nuclear weapons. It was fought in the jungle and this was when we first heard the term 'guerilla warfare." Naive, wet-behind-the-ears American teenagers ended up 'engaging' an invisible enemy amid snake-infested rice paddies and bomb-rich minefields; the South Vietnamese didn't want us there either, and when these boys came home (if they came home at all), they were hardly given a heroes welcome; instead they were jeered at killers, murderers of innocent people. Some of these guys returned with alcohol and drug problems to go with their missing arms and legs, some became completely dysfunctional nutcases. And after Presidents Johnson and Nixon had escalated the war in Laos and Cambodia, the fact finally sank in the the US was getting its ass kicked. So the Yanks finally packed up and left. Defeated. Everything had been for nothing. For NOTHING.
Now how does long hair tie into all this? Remember that after the end of World War !!, everybody was had served in the American Armed Forces, was a hero. Just as in Russia, where there must be 10,000 films about the 'Great Patriotic War", so in America were films starring guys you never heard of like John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and, of course, in those films, the Americans 'won' the war. These guys all had crewcuts and were great patriots. Then, having beaten the Krauts, they were ready to take on the Commies. This became the Cold War. But it was also the so-called 'Baby Boomer' generation when all the ex-soldiers, returning victoriously to a suddenly very affluent America, started making babies with their happy wives. From these nocturnal exchanges came dudes like me. I was a Baby-Boomer.
The problems started with the Viet Nam War, when Boomers had become teenagers and thus draftable to go fight the 'The Gooks' in Viet Nam. Our Dads still wore crewcuts (sometimes known as "peeled onions") and their sons started growing their hair down to their ankles and chanting stuff like "Hell no, we won't go!" The result was chaos in many homes, begetting a terribly dividing animosity between fathers and son -- some of which never did heal.. Guys with long hair could not get jobs in ordinary businesses. In the high schools there were codes for hair-length. And the local rednecks and greasers in whatever burgh you want to mention were always on the lookout for some hippie whose "ass they could beat." You would even see Redneck pick-up trucks driving around with bumper stickers proclaiming "Stomp a Hippie for Jesus."
So in the Viet Name '60s, hair did not constitute merely a swath of follicles emerging from your scalp to cover a portion of your head. Rather 'hair' became a huge political statement, and a symbol of the mentality of those -- still the best, in my opinion -- who fought with ideas instead of napalm and hand grenades. The rock musical "Hair" captured this majestically. And, hey, it;s not too late to check in out. Try YouTube. Same with "Woodstock." Go visit the '60s.. Peace!!!
===Eric Richard Le Roy===