Peter Fonda died last week so, not unnaturally, most newspapers carried articles about him and his most iconic film Easy Rider. Both he and his co-star explained that they chose the title because ‘an easy rider is a person that is not a pimp, but lives off a woman,’ (Hopper). Fonda went further, saying it was a comment on the state of America at the end of the 1960s. The film was hugely popular, but not with the Hollywood moguls, and Fonda struggled to find films and roles that would bring him equal fame. But were they right about the meaning of easy rider?
Originally the term meant an expert horse rider, or horse that was easy to ride. (Transfer this to a motorbike and the film title seems apt for Fonda, a skilled motorcyclist, if not for Hopper). By the 1900s the term had become slang for a free-loader (again could be relevant to the film), or a woman with a liberal, not to say generous, approach to sex. A decade or so later, during the Depression, the term was applied to the slow moving freight trains that criss-crossed America. These were magnets for hobos and bums (slang terms from the era) who lived and travelled on these trains. One such train company was the Colorado Central, abbreviated to CC. The hobos were sometimes referred to as CC riders. It wasn’t a big step, the story goes, to start referring to them as easy riders, especially as the term had already acquired some pretty down-market connotations. (The film also deals with a lengthy trip across America, albeit by road, not train.)
Easy rider developed a slightly different meaning during the Second World War, when some American soldiers serving abroad unofficially employed local youths to do mundane tasks for them, such as cleaning their boots. They were said to be getting an easy ride. Later, some of these ‘easy riders’ started employing local women for domestic help, which often extended to sexual services.
Getting nearer to the production of the film and the term went mildly up market with the arrival of hippies and free love in the 1960s. Many of the more liberated young women intended to enjoy this era of free love and equality, but ended up with all the domestic chores and child care responsibilities – giving their hippie lovers an easy ride. However it seems the term easy rider was coined as the term for the women who put up with this state of affairs, not the men who took advantage of it. It wasn’t long before it went down-market again to become a term for a gullible prostitute who provided sexual services for a pittance – maybe a few cigarettes or a small amount of drugs. More recently the term has evolved again, according to Merriam-Webster, and is used to describe a hanger-on or a pimp.
After the success of the film, easy rider also became intrinsically associated with motor bikes, in particular, the Harley-Davidson. Ironic really, as the one thing Peter Honda’s bike in the film was noted for was being difficult to ride. So difficult that Hopper never managed to make riding such a model look easy, and ended up doing the film on a bike with more modestly raked handlebars.
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