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Sat, Dec 27, 2014

VINSON: Stephen Gaskin: ‘King of the Hippies’ in Tennessee

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Hippie (also spelled Hippy): a person, especially of the late 1960s, who rejected established institutions and values and sought spontaneity, direct personal relations expressing love, and expanded consciousness, often expressed externally in the wearing of casual, folksy clothing and of beads, headbands, used garments, etc. (reference: Dictionary.com)

I can’t say I remember the first time I heard the word “hippie.” I bet, though, it was sometime around 1967-1969, because the hippie counterculture in the Haight-Asbury District of San Francisco was growing and getting national attention during that time frame.

Next thing you knew, boys were coming to school dressed in bell-bottom jeans, psychedelic-colored shirts, beads around their necks, hair down to their shoulders, and talking a new lingo: “Hey, man, everything is, like, cool,” followed by “peace sign” made by holding up the middle and index fingers, forming a “V.”

While I was intrigued by this new cultural trend, most of the older, conservative country folk here in Bible Belt Middle Tennessee were aghast and had the overall opinion of: “A bunch of draft dodging, long-haired, dope-smoking, lazy misfits who listen to that wild rock ‘n’ roll!”

Ironically enough, it was “rock ‘n’ roll” music that caused me and some of my friends to tune in more acutely to the hippie scene because, as of 1969, we were listening to the music of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin (both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), who, in my opinion, best expressed the hippie culture: musically, stylishly, socially and politically.

But all that hippie stuff was going down out on the West Coast, “clean across the country” from Tennessee, and the country folk could tolerate a tad-bit of long hair and psychedelic rock here-and-there . . . then . . .

Sometime in 1970-1971, it was headline news, locally and nationally! More than 400 hippies led by another hippie named Stephen Gaskin had traveled in a caravan of approximately 60 vehicles (cars, trucks, and many vans) from San Francisco to Lewis County, Tennessee (City of Summertown the county seat), pooled their financial resources and purchased 1000-plus acres.

On that acreage, they’d built a hippie commune, which would become known as “The Farm.”

Too, it is key to note Stephen Gaskin and his followers came to Tennessee on the heel of the “Summer of 1969,” which, as discussed previously, had produced the movie “Easy Rider,” the Charles Manson murders and the Woodstock Rock Festival.

With all three of the aforementioned events directly tied to the hippie movement, it’s easy to understand why Gaskin & followers were viewed with both apprehension and curious excitement.

Come to find out, though, Stephen Gaskin had served in the U.S. Marine Corps and also had been a professor of English and creative writing at San Francisco State College. Many of the hippies who’d followed Gaskin to Tennessee were also highly educated: nurses, doctors, engineers, attorneys, etc.

As is the case with most “Movements,” Stephen Gaskin and The Farm would experience highs and lows over the decades.
During the early, formative years, The Farm grew so large and was so self-substantive that the “Wall Street Journal” called it the “General Motors of American Communes.”

In addition to considerable humanitarian work, there was The Farm Band, a jam-type group with Gaskin on drums. The Farm Band had a noteworthy following during the ’70s and ’80s.

On the downside, there were run-ins with law enforcement. In the early ’70s, Gaskin and a few other Farm members did short prison stints for marijuana-related offenses. Further, advances in modern technology forced many Farm members to branch out and get “real jobs.”

These days, approximately 175 members reside on The Farm in Lewis County, Tennessee. Of that 175, I wager there still are a few of the originals who made the historical exodus from San Francisco to Tennessee in 1970.

At age 79, Stephen Gaskin passed away on July 1, 2014, in Lewis County. Far as I’m concerned, Stephen Gaskin will always be “King of the Hippies” in Tennessee. His move here helped create a Movement that forever altered our Volunteer State and its residents.

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Hippies, King, Mike Vinson, Stephen Gaskin
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