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.

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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.



You’ve probably never heard of the monks or of the noise band’s lead singer and guitarist, Minnesota native Gary Burger. But modern acts like the Beastie Boys and the White Stripes list the Monks as an influence. First called the Torquays and formed in 1964, while Burger was a G.I. stationed in Germany, the band was made up of soldiers and played conventional, high-energy rock for German crowds thirsty for American music. After discharge, the Torquays stuck around Germany, playing small clubs but with the new name. The Monks dressed in all black, sometimes in cassocks, with nooses for neckties. In contrast to the mop-topped Beatles, they shaved their scalps into the traditional monk’s tonsures. The music was no less strange. Berger and his band mates pioneered a raw proto-punk filled with thumping beats, strangled vocals, and waves of dissonance. “Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam?/Mad Viet Cong!/My brother died in Vietnam!” Burger shouts in the signature tune, “Monk Time.” Such songs led Iggy Pop to declare of the Monks, “They may be the only legitimate anti-war rock group to come out of the ’60s.” Not long after releasing their debut album, Black Monk Time, the band fell apart. Nowadays, Burger is mayor of Turtle River, the Minnesota town where he was raised.


The first game to use human beings as playing pieces was born around 1964 in St. Paul at a company called Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design. Twister languished on Milton Bradley’s B-list until Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor got down on all fours to play on The Tonight Show in 1966. After that, Twister became controversial (and therefore extremely popular), as ’50s-style prudes condemned it as “sex in a box.” Thus, Minnesota did its part to usher in the sexual revolution.


If it wasn’t for the Vietnam War, there would have been no Vietnam War protesters. Minnesota played a significant role in the war via what’s sometimes called the military industrial complex. In 1964, Minneapolis-based Control Data Corporation developed the supercomputer. Being several times faster than any other in existence, it was used by the government to break codes and simulate nuclear explosions. The enormous Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, now shuttered in Arden Hills and New Brighton, produced more than 10 billion rounds of ammunition for the Vietnam War. But by far the most prominent target for protesters was Honeywell, which manufactured cluster bombs along with guidance systems for nuclear weapons and military planes. In the late 1960s, the Honeywell Project sprang up with one sole mission: to push the company, then Minnesota’s largest military contractor, to stop making weapons. To grasp  just how consequential the group was, consider that it was later discovered that the Project had been infiltrated by the FBI. In the end, the protests bore fruit. Sort of. Honeywell spun off most of its military operations into a new entity, Alliant Tech Systems.


We used to honor poor Humphrey in a fitting manner. Sports announcers referred to the “Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome,” not “Mall of America Field at the H.H.H. Metrodome.” Road signs near the airport directed travelers to the “Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal,” not “Terminal 2.” No question, Ozymandias had it better than the Happy Warrior. But even if the nameplates fall from every last monument to Humphrey, his fingerprints remain on some of the most significant legislative accomplishments of the Sixties. Most famously, Humphrey shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the U.S. Senate. He was also a pioneer when it came to federal aid for education, Medicare, and the Job Corps. By the end of the decade, though, Humphrey was a pariah to the Left—largely due to his support for the Vietnam War. When Chicago police thumped heads at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Humphrey, the party’s nominee, sat on his hands. Routed by Richard Nixon in the general election, Humphrey returned to his old job in the Senate. He mounted one more presidential run and mulled another, but he was never able to shake the ghost of ’68.


If you followed the culture wars of the 1990s, you may know Robert Bly as a leader in the so-called men’s movement and the author of Iron John, a book that urged the squishy modern male to nurture his inner “wild man.” In that role, Bly, a longtime Minnesota poet, has been occasionally ridiculed (see Susan Faludi’s seminal feminist treatise, Backlash). That Bly, however, is quite different from the fiercely political Bly of the Sixties. Part writer and part activist, in 1966 he co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, which conducted poetry “read-ins” on college campuses across the country. According to legend, the first event—at Reed College in Oregon—was attended by Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself and was back-dropped by conservatives yelling from the balcony, “You’re all cowards! Go back to Russia!” When Bly’s 1967 collection, The Light Around the Body, won the National Book Award for poetry, he donated the $1,000 prize to the Resistance, an organization of draft protesters. The book, which contained poems with titles like, “Listening to President Kennedy Lie About the Cuban Invasion,” was lauded by The New York Review of Books as “austere yet tender,” and dubbed “a jeremiad at half-mast.”


Few political figures of the Sixties underwent an ideological transformation as dramatic and perfectly in tune with the times as Eugene McCarthy. An ex-Seminarian-turned-academic, McCarthy was recruited into politics after World War II, where he worked alongside his future adversary Humphrey to purge the DFL of communists. “Our policy must be to assist within all possible means the liberation of people who are subject to Communist tyranny,” he said in 1960. When other Democrats first began to question the Vietnam War, McCarthy was unmoved. But by mid-decade, he’d changed his mind. In 1968, he became a hero to the pacifist left when he challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination, running on an anti-war platform. “Get clean for Gene” became a rallying cry, as McCarthy volunteers shaved hippie beards and cut hippie hair in order to canvass door-to-door. He showed so well in the New Hampshire primary that Johnson dropped out of the race. In the end, the Democratic nomination went to Humphrey, though McCarthy refused to step aside, leading some to charge that he hastened the election of Richard Nixon. In subsequent years, McCarthy mounted a series of increasingly futile presidential campaigns and by 1980 was so estranged from the Democratic Party that he supported Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.


Once the Sixties party was over, Minnesota stepped in to mop up the tears. Our state has always been fertile ground for treatment centers, beginning with the founding of Hazelden in 1949. But it was the Minnesota Model—the idea that alcoholics and addicts need not “hit rock bottom” in order to be helped—that revolutionized treatment across the country. For that, much credit goes to the late Reverend Vernon E. Johnson, former archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Johnson’s own drinking problem led him to Hazelden in 1962. As a recovered alcoholic, he pushed the concept of “interventions” by co-workers, family, and friends, promulgating his ideas through books (most notably, I’ll Quit Tomorrow) and the Johnson Institute, an organization he founded to help employers deal with alcoholics. Johnson, coincidentally, developed the first chemical dependency treatment program at St. Mary’s Hospital, where the doomed poet John Berryman dried out more than once. 

* Take a photo tour back to Minnesota in the sixties at