Music 101: Bebop and the Beat Poets

“I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun with joyful interpenetration for all.”

—Gary Snyder, “For All”

The Beat poets came of age in the 1940s, with New York and San Francisco acting as the Beats’ epicenter. Their impact crossed many artistic lines, from literature to jazz, which flourished in post-WWII America. The freedom to ramble and roam, long a trademark of American culture, was vastly opened in post-war culture, and the Beats not only embraced it – they practically defined it.

Not only were the roads open and free – so was the way we spoke. Listen to the spoken-word virtuosity from “High School Confidential,” a 1958 movie which became a cult classic for its “beat poetry scene.”

In many ways, jazz became the soundtrack of The Beat Generation. Charlie Parker’s free-flowing bepop loosened the constraints of previous jazz, acting as a metaphor for the freedom and discovery inherent in the Beat lifestyle. This take with Dizzy Gillespie is essentially America in motion – improvisational and on a road to some magic creation. One is left to wonder if Parker even knows where his solos are going to take the band. It must have been pure joy to play with such an open-ended destination.

And how did one become a Beatnik? As Bullwinkle tells us – “The first step into becoming a Beatnik is to grow a beard.” (Ladies?!)

“Beatniks hang out in unemployment lines, health food stores,” Bullwinkle goes on, “but most of all in coffee houses.”

Jack Kerouac epitomized all of this and more. “On The Road” became the movement’s manifesto. In that book, he writes some of the generation’s most meaningful lines:

  • “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
  • “The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”
  • “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
  • “Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
    ‘Where we going, man?’
    ‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”

In this interview with Steve Allen, he expounds that philosophy in spoken word.

And out of this comes a Bohemia for peace-niks,  a utopia for creatives, searching for that place. Kerouac writes, “What’s Your Road, Man?” That question still lingers over our society, in arts, culture, and more.



In each episode of Music 101, your host Margot highlights a different chapter in music history, bringing you songs you love and the stories behind them.

Listen to Music 101 on the Colorado Sound every Sunday at 10am MST, with the same episode repeated Wednesday at 8pm MST.

You can also hear recent episodes on our Music 101 show page