When “Nature Boy” hit #1 on the Billboard charts in May 1948, post-war Americans viewed its composer, eden ahbez, as both a prophet of hope and a novel curiosity. His image of choice (long hair, beard and sandals) stood in opposition to that of the average red-blooded American male of the period. Yet as this interview with author Gordon Kennedy reveals, there was strong precedence for the alternative values that ahbez introduced to popular music 20 years before they dominated youth culture of the late 1960s.
Kennedy is the author of Children of the Sun, a book that chronicles the emergence of primitivism, naturopathic medicine and eco consciousness as it traveled from 19th Century Germany to the West Coast of the United States between WWI and WWII. I had a chance recently to interview Mr. Kennedy about those years leading up to free love and flower-power.
-Brian Chidester, 4/8/2012
Brian Chidester: You’ve spent a lot of time considering the roots of the hippie movement, for lack of a better term. Tell me how you think eden ahbez fits into this.
Gordon Kennedy: Well, eden ahbez is one of the most important individuals simply because his hit song “Nature Boy” made him famous, which brought so much media attention to him that we have a lot of photos, news articles and personal encounters from others who met and knew him. Since this was the 1940s, it gives us a window into what the world he lived in was like then, in comparison to what the world became during the hippie period 20 years later when millions of people adopted an image and lifestyle similar to his. Since he was born way back close to the early 1900s, and also lived through the 1960s, he helped pass the torch into another era and beyond.
I once gave a complimentary copy of my book, Children of the Sun, to Stanley Mouse, the well known ’60s artist who designed psychedelic album covers and concert posters for the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead and such, and he was extremely cheerful and appreciative. He had heard of eden ahbez, but knew more about Arnold Ehret and Rudolf Steiner, and was at that time in touch with his friend Augustus Owsley, who was then living in Australia where it seemed that some of the old San Francisco vibe had taken root near Nimbin and Byron Bay.
BC: When you wrote Children of the Sun, how aware were you of the controversial nature of writing about Germans during the first half of the 20th Century?
GK: I had an idea that, since my work was about a positive aspect German history and those immigrants who brought some of their ideas to America, that the photos alone would overule anything the text had to say, since most people never read the book anyway… just looked at the images and read some captions. To me these folks I profiled don’t look militant or anything close to the American media perception of the “Germans as villains” stereotype. But many of these lefty bookstores on the West Coast have their own forms of censorship, and at the time (1999) it surprised me that Bookshop Santa Cruz called a staff meeting and passed my book around to 15 employees, so shocked were they that this all might be true. They knew who Herman Hesse was, but for most of them this was their first look at eden ahbez, William Pester and Fidus’ proto-psychedelic art. This odd wrinkle in American history meant that they could no longer tell their customers that the Beat Generation alone had set the stage for the hippies. And the very thought that their “Summer of Love” was preceded by a whole generation of naked forest-dwelling Germans who never tasted Owsley acid or heard of the Grateful Dead… seemed unthinkable. The Lebensreform lifestyle also appealed strongly to American Jewish kids like eden ahbez, Gypsy Boots and Buddy Rose so much that they turned their backs on everything Judeo-Christian and instead embraced this new form of radical German paganism transplanted onto American soil.
BC: Funny how people protect their territory.
GK: Well, what I learned from all this is that lefties, new-agers and liberals are just as prone to totalitarianism as conservatives and right-wingers, and that many of the neo-hippies that write about or promote that bohemian period of American history were never there anyway. Same with the latter-day Beat types in Boulder, Colorado. Children of the Sun was rejected by every hippie bookstore in Santa Cruz, Mt. Shasta, Eugene [Oregon], Arcata [California], as well as Harbin, Hot Springs, Esalen Institute and more… and the people who banned it are the same ones who describe themselves as open-minded and spiritual.
BC: But back to this whole idea of precedence: It’s not only Germans that were intent on living this type of paganism, correct? I mean, historically it comes in many forms, from the transcendentalism of Emerson and Whitman to the mystic romanticism of William Blake… the whole romantic movement itself was a return to nature, its power and mystique, the idea that men weren’t born to inherent privilege, the revolutionary spirit that comes from viewing nature as the great egalitarian mediator.
GK: Certainly there were strong antecedents throughout Western history going back thousands of years, and a book I suggest to many people is one written in 1935 titled “Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity” by Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas. There was no photography in those ancient days of course, but this work has many descriptions of various groups of people even back to the old Greeks, who became so disgusted with the dominant cultures of their times that dropping out seemed the only viable option. My publishing company Nivaria Press has released three works about the white Indians who lived in the Canary Islands prior to the European westward expansion in the 15th Century, and they have also been described by Lovejoy and Boas as idyllic antecedants to the cultural malaise that became European civilization after the Romans had spread their terror across the continent. I’ve written a lot about the Guanche Indians on my web site: www.whiteindians.com.
BC: It’s an interesting spin of the notion of revolution… to drop out. In that context, it’s sometimes easier to see the Lebensreform Germans and their Southern California offspring as kind of kooky, mild pacifists. But in truth they were revolutionaries with a radical message, no?
GK: What happened in Germany near the end of the 19th Century was more radical in many ways because of their sheer numbers, the nudity and creation of what later became known as psychedelic art, and yes, their American descendants like the California Nature Boys were certainly revolutionaries just by living their lives as they did… eden ahbez once told Gypsy Boots, as they were enjoying the rocks and granite pools of Tahquitz Canyon back in the 1940s, “Someday there will be a million beards.” He certainly was right about that prediction.
BC: Ha! So true. But I guess what I’m getting at is: Just how much were the Germans who came before ahbez influenced by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Matisse, themselves looking for a primitivism beyond the general vogue of “going native”? I mean, these guys felt trapped by the dominant haute bourgeoisie lifestyle. Trapped might even be too light of a word. They were looking to re-discover the wildman in all of us. Would the Germans who came to Southern California have been armed with the same ideology? That civilization is insane? We think of that as being something very strongly played out during the 1960s, but it seems that paganism and primitivism were already in the air at the turn of the 20th Century.
GK: Yes this is very true, and Hermann Hesse, who probably outsold Tolkien in the 1960s, was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and German romanticism. The wildman theme was later acted out by Doors singer Jim Morrison, who instead of asking for a car after his high school graduation, wanted The Complete Works of Nietzsche.
Also, all of these German immigrants had read the immensely popular books by Karl May, whose work romanticized the Native American cultures in stories of fiction that sold in the tens of millions. So stepping onto the American continent was like a blank slate, and most folks in 19th Century Europe had already seen the lovely photographs of Yosemite Valley, the Sequoia forests, Big Sur and beaches and deserts of California, so obviously the far west was the place to empty out your head and re-invent yourself for the future, with the new lands and mild climate being part of the deal, so this attracted these idealists.