The Long, Strange Trip
It was the decade of free love and sit-ins, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Easy Rider, hallucinatory trips and lunar landings. It began with Camelot and ended with “Tricky Dick.” It saw the first American in space, the arrival of the Beatles, multiple assassinations, and the rise of feminism. And now, half a century later, everything Sixties is on the verge of turning 50—a series of anniversaries that is just getting started. We didn’t host Woodstock or birth Timothy Leary, of course, but Minnesota did play a part in that infamous, psychedelic, peaced-out decade of change. Here’s what we brought to the party. Dig it.
(page 1 of 2)
Let’s face it: Minnesota is hopelessly square. We rank high when it comes to such things as literacy, voter turnout, and the prevalence of hat head. But in the glamour and trend-setting categories, well, let’s just say we’re a long way from New York or Milan. We’re rarely flashy, flamboyant, or “out there.” Nor do we typically celebrate those attributes in others. Consider, for example, the oft-uttered phrase “real different.” As in, “That Governor Jerry Brown, he sure is real different, isn’t he?” ¶ You might think this reflexive suspicion of novelty would put the brakes on innovation and experimentation. Yet Minnesota has produced more than its share of outsized characters and change agents. And this was perhaps never more true than during the Sixties, that age of national ferment, when our state made significant and, yes, radical contributions to the counterculture—even beyond Bob Dylan. ¶ Over the course of the next 10 years, everything Sixties will hit 50. At the same time, a good portion of former flower children, Vietnam War protesters, and bra eschewers will cross the line into retirement. Nowadays, rather than turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, the children of the Sixties are more likely to be turning off (the lights), tuning out (the neighbor’s barking dog), and dropping off (to sleep just as the 10 p.m. newscast comes on). ¶ In honor of this half-century milestone—and perhaps to refresh a few failing memories—we’ve put together an account of just what Minnesotans were up to during the era of LSD, free love, and the smiley face.
PIONEER WOMAN: NELLIE STONE JOHNSON
Nellie Johnson, who died in 2002 at the age of 96, was a rabble-rouser from the get-go. The oldest child of black farmers in rural Minnesota, she got her start in politics as a 13-year-old, distributing Nonpartisan League pamphlets by horseback. She went on to become a union organizer, a civil-rights advocate, a feminist, and the first African American elected in Minneapolis (she was voted to the library board in 1945). Close friends with Hubert H. Humphrey, she wasn’t too modest to take partial credit for his famous 1948 speech urging the Democratic Party to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” A young Turk in the NAACP, she helped nudge Thurgood Marshall—then the organization’s lawyer—to take on the case that would lead to Brown v. Board of Education, a flashpoint for the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. She urged feminist groups to include black women, picketed against discrimination, and participated in lunch counter sit-ins. When Eugene McCarthy ran for president in 1968, Johnson backed him rather than her old pal Humphrey due to her opposition to the Vietnam War (she was one of the first to call McCarthy “Clean Gene”). Though many of Johnson’s hardiest efforts took place in the years leading up to the Sixties, the decade wouldn’t have been the same without her. As she put it in Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist, “Sometimes, people don’t realize how much the old-timers and the labor people did for civil rights.”
RADICALLY FUNNY: PEPPERMINT PATTY & FRANKLIN
The Peanuts comic strip has a reputation for gentility, though its creator, Minnesota native Charles M. Schulz, did participate in the thorny skirmishes of the Sixties, delivering controversial messages to mainstream America (at its peak, the strip ran in over 2,600 newspapers worldwide). In 1966, just three years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Schulz introduced Peppermint Patty, a tomboy who wore shorts and sandals and coached a baseball team that regularly trounced Charlie Brown’s team. A few years later in 1968, Schulz created Franklin, a black character whose father was said to be serving in Vietnam. His appearance made waves. After Schulz drew Franklin sitting with white kids at school, he received a note from a Southern editor who objected to his portrayal of white and black students in school together. Schulz, a self-declared secular humanist, didn’t respond to the note.
VOICE OF THE RANGE: BOB DYLAN
Dylan famously said of his hometown of Hibbing, “I left where I’m from because there’s nothing there.” He also referred to Minneapolis, where he lived for just 15 months, as “a mud puddle.” Yet, his time in Minnesota—in particular his brief stint in Dinkytown—profoundly informed Dylan’s artistic development. By his own reckoning, he took cues from the burgeoning folk and beatnik scenes found in places like the 10 O’Clock Scholar, a Minneapolis coffeehouse, and the Purple Onion, a St. Paul pizza parlor. Spider John Koerner, a West Bank fixture who often performed with Dylan, played a critical role, too, exposing the budding voice-of-a-generation to the deep blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton. The eureka moment came when local actress Flo Costner brought Dylan to the home of her brother, Lyn, who possessed a collection of Woody Guthrie recordings. “When the needle dropped I was stunned—didn’t know if I was stoned or straight,” Dylan recalled in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. After hitchhiking east to meet the dying Guthrie, Dylan reinvented himself over and over again—as folkie, rocker, born-again Christian, born-again rocker—obscuring his Minnesota roots. But it was here that he traded his electric guitar for a double-O Martin acoustic, and it was here that Bobby Zimmerman took the name of a great Welsh poet and made it his own.
DOOMED GENIUS: JOHN BERRYMAN
With the publication of 77 dream songs in 1964, John Berryman cemented his reputation as a leading voice of a transformative new paradigm: the confessional school of poetry (a term Berryman disdained), which focuses on the personal. Though trained as a formalist, Berryman shucked convention aside with Dream Songs, a work of rage, humor, and eloquence that won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Born in Oklahoma, Berryman moved to Minnesota in 1955 in a state of professional and personal desperation. (He’d just been sacked from a teaching post at the University of Iowa.) Berryman had Minnesota roots: His father, a banker named John Allyn Smith, was born near Stillwater. Smith shot himself in the chest when Berryman was just 12, a trauma that forever haunted the poet and his work, rendering his personal life a train wreck. While living here and teaching at the University of Minnesota, Berryman alternated between West Bank bars, local hospitals, and treatment centers. He beseeched his family not to bury him in Minnesota, but this wish was not granted. After leaping to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972, Berryman was interred at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights. Also buried in Minnesota are 57 cubic feet of Berryman’s papers, stored in the underground vaults at the Elmer L. Andersen Library in Minneapolis.
THE FACE OF RED POWER: AIM
In 1968, a group of Native Americans—including soon-to-be-famous Dennis Banks of Minnesota’s Leech Lake reservation—gathered in the basement of a Minneapolis church to discuss how they fit into the burgeoning civil-rights movement. Initially dubbed Concerned Indian Americans, the fledgling group quickly changed its name to the American Indian Movement, which came with a less problematic acronym. AIM at first focused on issues relevant to urban Indians. Like the Black Panthers, upon which the group was partly modeled, AIM patrolled city streets looking to prevent—or at least witness—instances of police brutality. Soon, though, AIM’s mission became less parochial. Catapulted into the headlines by high-profile actions, AIM became the public face of Red Power. They protested dishonored treaties, a lack of sovereignty in tribal governments, and, later, Indian-themed sports mascots. In 1973, after a disastrous occupation of the hamlet of Wounded Knee left two members dead, the group fractured. Its leaders were beset by legal and personal woe: Banks spent years as a fugitive before finding work in Hollywood and later returning to northern Minnesota. Clyde Bellecourt, another founder, remains active in the Twin Cities though his legacy has been marred with a 1985 drug-dealing conviction. Organizationally, AIM still exists, but bitter rifts between leaders have led different groups to claim the mantle.