Like all 20th century American countercultures that followed, the Beats wanted something real and pure that hadn’t yet been ruined by the marketplace. They went in search of it, by foot, by car, by bus and train, and in the end, as with so many of America’s greatest cultural advancers, they wound up lifting it from black people. “Hipsterism began in a complex effort of the Negro to escape his imposed role of happy-go-lucky animal,” Gold wrote. “[And] then their white friends took up the fashion, complicating the joke by parodying a parody of themselves.”
The early hipsters were intellectuals, students, motorcycle-riding petty criminals, even lawyers and ad men. As a group they were hard to pin down, but they found common ground in bop: “the still unravished bride,” as Gold called it. It was their secret language, not easily accessed, loaded with style and furious energy, and it baffled or frightened the white middle-class sensibility -- which is historically the point of American, or really any, counterculture. Bop was the soundtrack for the Beats’ assault on a whole range of ’50s taboos: sex, profanity, drugs, and, well, I guess hanging around with black people.