Hip: The History
by John Leland
A review by Gerry Donaghy
The definition of hip is as elusive as it is fleeting. Yesterday's outsider hipster
is today's Maynard G. Krebs. Anybody who tries to define hip in its current incarnation
runs the risk of having their assessment become outdated before the ink has even
dried. Perhaps the soul group Tower of Power summed up the quandary best in their
1973 single "What Is Hip?":
What it is!
Sometimes hipness is
What it ain't!
In Hip: The History, John Leland wisely eschews discussion of what exactly
hip is. Rather, he spends the majority of his pages exploring what creates hip.
Starting with the etymology of the word "hip" (a term of enlightenment
first used by slaves from Senegal and coastal Gambia in the 18th century) through
its current, already-on-the-verge-of-obsolete usage, Leland traces the history
of the concept of hip as a signifier of everything from social status to national
According to the author, there are many things that contribute to the notions
of hip. Its origins are borne of two distinct cultural movements: American anti-establishment
writers such as Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau and the blackface minstrel shows
popular at the turn of the last century. From this primordial stew certain members
of the establishment abandoned their European traditions of culture and values
and appropriated African American entertainment, language, and a sense of physical
and metaphysical isolation from the status quo. As in the past so today: once
the nucleus is formed, hip begins to spread in almost concentric circles until
the outré becomes the common, whereupon it retreats inward again to seek
out a new identity.
Leland's examination of what constituted a century of hip is fascinating and
well researched. Tracing the history of hip movements through bluegrass, the
Jazz Age, early cartoons (a very adult form of entertainment at the time), the
writers of the Beat Generation and ultimately hip-hop and cyber culture, he
shows the factors that lent these movements their potency and why many of them
are still relevant to forming the hipsters of tomorrow.
What is of particular interest is how Leland illustrates the role of technology
as a transmitter of hip. For example, ragtime music did not become popular with
most Americans until the invention of the player piano. Because of this, white
Americans who would never set foot in a honky tonk bar could now buy rolls with
the music already on it and listen to this new music in the relative tranquility
of their own homes. This continues on through history as phonographs and wireless
radios begin to pipe the sounds of jazz from Harlem to white enclaves across
America. Motion pictures show how other cultures act. Even if what they show
are often crude stereotypes, Americans are being presented with the new and
exotic. Technology acts as the undertow that takes Americans from their established
culture and presents them with the new, the foreign, and the just plain different.
The youth seeking to identify themselves as different from their parents can
embrace and further mutate these new forms of expression and the status quo
can scratch their heads in either bewilderment or consternation. Technology
doesn't necessarily create hip, but it accelerates its frequency and amplifies
When all is said and done, Hip: The History is not concerned with passing
fads. The transient notions of hip that have passed through history still leave
their cultural fingerprints on society today. Leland writes: "The triumph
of hip requires two operations working in tandem -- the cultist and then the
universal, each delivering the right drug to the right habit." While it's
impossible to say what will be hip in the future, Leland does a commendable
job in not only explaining what was hip and why, but also in presenting the
test kitchen requirements for something to become hip in the future.