Since yesterday afternoon I’ve been refreshing my memory, re-reading parts of books in preparation for a phone call at noon today with a man from BBC radio. He first contacted me on Monday, but we could not get things scheduled until today.
He wants to know about the Wandervogel and what we’re doing here with their ideas. Based on what he has already told me, I think he wants to know how the Wandervogel ideas first migrated to America, became part of the DNA of the hippie movement of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and survive today in our New Age culture.
I know how I first learned about the Wandervogel—in East Africa from a young vagabond who spent just one night at my house—but that is not what this journalist wants to learn about. He wants to hear how these ideas came to America before I was even born. So I have been reading and preparing.
The key person in this story is a young man named Bill Pester. He was born in Saxony, Germany in 1886. (The Wandervogel movement was started nine years later in 1895 near Berlin when Bill was nine.) By age fourteen Bill was most likely part of a pack of Naturmenschen who roamed Germany as the vagabonding of the Wandervogel grew in popularity, and it is certain that Bill and his companions became steeped in Wandervogel ideals and influences during this time.
Bill was educated in Germany until 1906 when he was 19 years old, and then he left Europe to escape military service. He came to America and worked his way across the country to California. He lived in a log-and-palm hut, built with natural materials from the surrounding terrain, on Cahuilla Indian land in the mountains near Palm Springs.
Just look at this guy. This photograph was taken in 1917. It could just as well have been taken just yesterday here in Terlingua. There are at least a dozen guys around here—river guides and old hippies—who look and live like Bill. Women, too.
He was a creative and industrious outdoorsman, writer, and musician whose friends and visitors included Rudolph Valentino and other luminaries of the day. He brought with him Lebensreform ideas from Germany, which included vegetarianism, nudism, natural medicine, abstinence from alcohol, clothing reform, etc. Bill was one of the first to introduce these ideas to Americans and became a mentor to a group of young men who became known as the “Nature Boys.” With their long hair, beards, and white robes, the Nature Boys became the model in the 1920s for the cartoons one sees ever since of Christ-like street-corner prophets holding “end-of-the-world” signs.
But Bill wasn’t proclaiming the end of the world. His message was, in his words, that, “man was intended to live in a state of nature. All man’s troubles, sickness, anxieties and discontent comes from a departure from nature. I would advise you to go back to nature, if you want to be cured; give up your extravagant habits, your high-priced hotel life, quit taking medicine and discharge your doctor.”
Bill’s ideas and lifestyle were modeled by the Nature Boys, and later, by the originators of the beat and hippie movements in the following decades.
One of the Nature Boys was a young man named eden ahbez (he never capitalized his name, believing that capital letters should be reserved for the Diety), a Brooklyn NY orphan who hopped freight trains and walked across America to California, where he met Bill, who was 23 years his senior and probably the most influential person in his life. Eden was a poet, composer and songwriter who wrote the famous standard, “Nature Boy,” which was based on Bill. Nat King Cole made the song hugely popular in 1948, and it has been performed ever since by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Celine Dion, Cher, and David Bowie.
When the songwriter of Nat King Cole’s monster hit was discovered by the media, he was camped out with his wife and son beneath one of the Ls of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, subsisting on wild fruits and nuts. It created a sensation, and eden was featured on the covers of the major news magazines of the day.
See and hear Nat King Cole performing “Nature Boy.”
It is so astonishing for me, an American, to have been contacted by a major European news organization to throw some light on a piece of near-forgotten European history that has had a mighty yet generally unrecognized impact on modern culture. It is a weighty responsibility. The legacy of thousands of idealistic young people, now long dead, will be momentarily in my hands.
I hope I do them justice.