Why thousands of teens ran away from home in the 1960s

Source: BBC News

By Benjamin Ramm

Fifty years ago, a song topped the UK charts that expressed the fears of a generation of parents. She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles tells the story of a girl who runs away abruptly, leaving only “the note that she hoped would say more”, and of her parents’ shock and sadness at awaking to her absence. It is based on the true story of Melanie Coe, a teenager from north London, whose account is told in counterpoint to the laments of her parents: “we gave her most of our lives / sacrificed most of our lives / we gave her everything money could buy”.

The song succeeds in capturing the trauma of the ‘generation gap’, which was particularly acute during the late 1960s. Although overshadowed by more catchy and colourful tracks, She’s Leaving Home has an abiding resonance, in part because it helps us understand the lack of mutual understanding. Conceived by Paul McCartney, the ‘Greek chorus’ of sorrow was added by John Lennon, “based on typical sayings of his Aunt Mimi”.

The teenager in the song feels “something inside that was always denied for so many years”, and Coe later told the press that “as a 17-year-old I had everything money could buy – diamonds, furs, a car – but my father and mother never once told me they loved me”. Like Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 song Richard Cory, She’s Leaving Home explores the disconnect between wealth and happiness (“what did we do that was wrong? / we didn’t know it was wrong / fun is the one thing that money can’t buy”).

Alarming tales of runaways filled the tabloids – Paul McCartney read about Coe’s case in the Daily Mirror, and has said that “there were a lot of those [stories] at the time”. For Karen Staller, author of the book Runaways, 1967 was the “crisis year”, when panic gripped the media. Children who once played on the streets now drifted into areas associated with the counterculture, such as New York City’s East Village or San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the ’67 Summer of Love.

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