By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
IOWA CITY, Iowa, March 5, 2019 — O.K., so we people of the 1960s — the first and best wave of the Baby Boomers — do know what you all think about us. That we are old, that we’re “stuck in the ’60s,” and that we “won’t leave the stage.” Truthfully, we are moving on. The obituary pages are full of us. So before we’re all gone, let us tell you a few stories that may well convince you that, really, our time was better than your time.
That’s what will happen this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the renowned Prairie Lights bookstore here in Iowa City, where highly respected Southern journalist Frye Gaillard, author of 28 books that generally explore history and culture, will introduce his latest — “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost.”
Gaillard, 72, who is in his 15th year as writer-in-residence of the University of South Alabama in Mobile, was a student contemporary of mine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. We not only lived the 1960s, we loved them. And, yes, maybe in some ways we’ve never gotten over them.
Frye Gaillard, in a photo from his publisher NewSouth Books of Montgomery, Alabama.
It seemed back then like a lot of big, important stuff was happening all around us — in Tennessee, Alabama, Iowa, across the nation and around the world. Civil rights movement, assassinations, Vietnam, women’s movement, great music, street drugs, birth control pills, early environmentalism, great thrills, major heartbreaks. It was a fantastic time to be coming of age, and an even better time to be in a university that encouraged you to think about and experience it all.
For all of us who were there, Gaillard’s “A Hard Rain” can almost stand as a personal history. At 687 pages, it is thorough beyond belief. You will encounter characters and incidents that you hadn’t thought of in 50 years, and you’ll understand why they were important in the first place.
The title comes from a 1962 song by Bob Dylan that Gaillard sees as “a great metaphor for the ’60s. Of course, Dylan was as pivotal as any musician in that decade. And ‘A Hard Rain’ is poetic, prophetic and rebellious, and it seems more enigmatic and more descriptive to me than Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which some people would’ve probably thought of first.
The best part of this book is Gaillard’s reporting and analysis. The second best part of the book is his writing, which makes the long tale completely enjoyable. It’s the longest book I’ve ever read, and I spent four months reading it because I didn’t want to miss a sentence or a paragraph.
He starts the story on Feb. 1, 1960, with a sit-in by African American students at North Carolina A&T University at the segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth Store in downtown Greensboro, N.C. He ends the story in late 1969, noting dramatic changes that had occurred in race relations but recalling all the pain and suffering that had been required.
I came away feeling the ’60s were just as good, bad, cool and important as I’ve been remembering them.
But what’s the reaction of people younger than us that Gaillard has been seeing? He’s been traveling the nation since late summer, promoting the book.
“Well, they seem to be keenly fascinated by the ’60s,” he said in a recent phone chat. “First of all, it was the time of their parents or grandparents, so they’ve heard a lot about it in their families. The level of knowledge that younger people have of that time is actually pretty high, high enough to surprise me.
“Most younger people know that was a troubled time, and they talk a lot about how today, this is a troubled time. A lot of the social issues now are like extensions of the social issues from the ’60s. The venom of the immigration debate today, for example, is sort of a reflection of the venom of the racial debates that we went through. But younger people see differences, too. They sense that in the ’60s, young people really got involved in the issues, really made a difference, and young people yearn for that today.”
He will likely tell students how personal experiences reached out, grabbed and shook him, and almost made him become a writer. And he can talk about how writing has not only been his profession, it’s also been a lifeline for him in times of personal challenge and sorrow.
He takes us to a Friday in April in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was shocked to become a witness to a rough arrest of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to the city to start a national speaking tour about the racial divide.
“I lived in Mobile, but I was in Birmingham that day on a high school field trip,” he writes in the book. “I had little idea of what was going on, but as I was leaving the hotel, there was Dr. King, barely three feet from where I was standing. Two Birmingham policemen were shoving him roughly up the sidewalk. I remember thinking that he looked so small, and there seemed to be a sadness in his deep, expressive eyes. At my impressionable age of 16, the moment shattered an illusion that everything was fine, that the racial problems in the South would subside if not for ‘agitators’ like King.
“Somehow in this instant he embodied the truth, a reality white Southerners were seeking to deny,” he continues. “The racial problems in our region ran deep in our hearts and deep in our history. I had no idea what to do with this epiphany, one that was not uncommon in my generation, and though I might have tried to shove it from my mind, I could not. Looking back, I’m certain that it set me on the path to becoming a writer. Though I could not have put it into words at the time, it was clear to me that this was history, and history had a face, and a face had the power to touch a conscience.”
That has probably guided Gaillard the rest of his life.
He enrolled at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1964, tall, thin and a little “nerdy” as we called it back then. “I was certainly a shy freshman when I got there,” he said, “and all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I struggled academically. I was third in my high school class, but at Vanderbilt, it was like, ‘Oh, shit! Most of these people here are smarter than me!’ I was smart enough to buckle down, start studying and look for a place to fit in. I found that with the Hustler and with Impact.”
The Vanderbilt Hustler was the student newspaper. “I loved the idea of journalism — asking interesting questions to interesting people,” Gaillard said.
That “Impact” was a university-financed, student-run lectures program that was bringing nationally and internationally known speakers — real difference makers — to campus to speak. By his senior year of 1967-’68, Gaillard was chairperson of Impact.
Over the previous three years, he and his student colleagues on Impact had hosted the likes of Dr. King, Senator Robert F. Kennedy as he launched his campaign for the presidency, conservative columnist William F. Buckley, the LSD-using hippie poet Allen Ginsberg, the militant young civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace, young Georgia state legislator Julian Bond and many others. Gaillard interacted personally with all of them, and you can imagine how that helped him develop unusual confidence for a college student.
A young Frye Gaillard, hosting U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy at Vanderbilt University in 1968. (Vanderbilt photo)
After graduating in history at Vanderbilt, Gaillard began his professional journalism career with a year at the Mobile Press-Register, then a year with the Associated Press back in Nashville. He went on for a couple of years writing with the Race Relations Information Center, a Ford Foundation-financed program. Then from 1972 to 1990, he joined the highly-regarded Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, where he covered the civil rights movement, religion (including the ministries of hometown heroes Rev. Billy Graham and televangelist Rev. Jim Bakker), music and more. Eventually he became the paper’s “Southern Editor,” charged to travel the region and write long stories defining its character.
He left the Observer when the paper started squeezing its travel budget and there wasn’t as much call for long, interpretive stories. He spent the next dozen years successfully building his career as an author and freelance writer.
His first marriage ended, and then he fell in love again and married a career teacher and educational administrator, who became Nancy Gaillard. They had a blended family of Frye’s two daughters and Nancy’s son. When they moved to the Mobile area, so that Frye could become writer-in-residence at the university, Nancy became an instructor in its college of education.
They lived right on the Gulf Coast, in a little town of Coden, “a place so beautiful that the moment you step outside and look around, you can feel your blood pressure drop,” Frye said. Many around the community fondly called the Gaillards “the professors,” and one neighbor kidded them “about having the only Obama sign in the neighborhood.”
From 2014, Frye Gaillard poured three years into “A Hard Rain,” doing intense reading, research, interviewing more than 100 people and writing. “It was a big project, a real labor of love, and Nancy was so supportive of me while I was doing it,” Frye said. Then in the summer of 2017, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
“Until then, she’d always had excellent health,” Frye said. “But despite getting excellent treatment, she just had one year between diagnosis and death. But we made it a really good year, focusing on our relationships. Nancy was a radiant spirit.”
She died in July of 2018.
The book was in the editing stage then. Frye forced himself to stay on task, complete the revisions, see it through publication in the early fall, and then embark on an ambitious national book promotion tour, which continues with his trip to Iowa and extends into next August.
The reviews — which have included major national media — have been very favorable, and you can catch up to many of them on the website www.fryegaillard.com.
He said “it was really difficult figuring out how to try to get my arms and mind around a topic as big and broad as a whole decade of time and experiences. And then there was the dilemma of how much back-story do I need on each person and event that I was writing about. A lot of readers who were around in the ’60s might not need as much explanation, and people who weren’t born yet would need more but I didn’t want to overwhelm them.”
He finally decided to “organize it year by year, and use the chronological thread to pull the readers through it.” And he “sprinkled memoir into chronology” to personalize it. That helped the story come alive and stay alive.
It became an examination of our whole ’60s culture, going way beyond straight history to include music, sports, religion, business, media, medicine and more. Gaillard does a wonderful job of putting it all in context in the momentous decade.
Not to be missed is that Gaillard and his editors at NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Alabama, took an extraordinary step of arranging approval for a “sound track” to go with “A Hard Rain.” It includes the songs that moved millions in the ’60s, and you can play it on Spotify while you’re reading. You can read more about the sound track on the Gaillard website, and you can click into the song list right here.
As the music — in fact the whole book — will remind you, the ’60s came “with a lot of tragedy and a lot of hope,” Gaillard said in our conversation. “By the end of the decade, I had a deep sense of the tragedy of it all, with the war, the assassinations, the anger, the sorrow. But you can’t forget the idealism, either. The ’60s inspired a lot of people.”
And we forced a lot of change.
We relics from that time owe Frye Gaillard great thanks for telling our story so well, and telling it in a way that will make it meaningful for a long time to come.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.