If you lived through the 1960s and still don’t have a handle on that kaleidoscopic era, or if you’ve heard about the wacky Sixties and want to understand them, then run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookseller and buy “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility and Innocence Lost.”
Longtime journalist and award winning Alabama-based author Frye Gaillard has earned my everlasting gratitude for writing a historical memoir that makes sense of an era I lived in, reported on, and have been head-scratching about since.
Gaillard has two speaking stops on the Island: Saturday, August 10, at 3 pm at the West Tisbury library, and Tuesday, August 13, at 7 pm at the Vineyard Haven library. You’re also likely to run into him as a guest at the Islanders Write conference on August 11 and 12 at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs.
“A Hard Rain’s” title comes from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” released in 1963. As the 1960s unfolded, a hard rain did fall, along with some rays of bright hope, a couple portions of justice, and some damn fine music.
Gaillard describes the Sixties as “history on a forced march,” and he lays it out for us in three sequential periods of the decade that he defines as “Possibilities,” “Inspiration/Loss,” and “The Unfinished Story” of the final years of the decade.
Goodreads, that arbiter of books and books archiving, says there are 1,131 recommended books about the Sixties. We can only imagine how many didn’t make the list. “A Hard Rain” makes it, it says here, because a bright and vigilant teenage boy remembered what he saw and wrote it down. Truth is in the details. Gaillard was standing a few feet from Martin Luther King Jr. when he was arrested in Birmingham, and was standing with civil rights militant Julian Bond and archconservative William F. Buckley as they talked together. Imagine that happening in today’s corrosive divisiveness.
Gaillard brings to light the humanity of great and not-great famous people, sometimes in delicate detail that makes scenes real for us. We learn, for example, that Mahalia Jackson prompted Martin Luther King to can his prepared speech in mid-delivery and to ad lib “I Have a Dream,” words that changed our nation.
We learn that Buzz Aldrin took Communion before stepping out of his spaceship to go where no man had ever gone before. We also learn that Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential bid was submarined because he and his lover divorced their spouses to marry each other.
Former Senator Prescott Bush (of the presidential Bushes), a former Rockefeller pal, called Nelson a homewrecker — a quaintly humorous opinion by today’s presidential behavior standards — and ushered in Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate in 1964. Goldwater lost, but birthed the neoconservative wing we have today.
See what’s happening with this book? Gaillard connects dots, including some we didn’t know about, in an easy, striding tone that promotes readability.
Last week, the Times spoke by phone with Gaillard from his Alabama home.
‘A Hard Rain’ has three segments: ‘Possibilities,’ ‘Inspiration/Loss,’ and ‘The Unfinished Story.’ Why those titles?
It seemed to me that as the decade unfolded, and as I thought back, that it began with optimism — about civil rights, J.F.K.’s ability to have us believing in possibilities like reaching the moon, a better relationship with Russia, and a more just country. You know, at his last Cabinet meeting, Kennedy doodled the word “poverty” over and over. We learned later that Kennedy also had feet of clay, but that family, rich and powerful as it was, has left a legacy of caring about and helping the poor.
When we assess [the middle Sixties], we see the loss but also the inspiration from leaders like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We made environmental strides, got the Civil Rights and Voting Acts 1964 and ’65 under Lyndon Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine life without Medicare and Medicaid. But L.B.J.’s legacy included Vietnam, an American — and Vietnamese — tragedy.
A lot of people felt overwhelmed by the crush and intensity of events in the decade’s later years. [The social advances] also created a backlash of conservatism, led by Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Darker still was Gov. George Wallace of my home state, though he had the decency to later apologize. And the upward redistribution of wealth had its initial intonations in the Sixties.
Why call it ‘A Hard Rain’?
I knew the subtitle for several years, but not the title. Then I heard the song on Sirius radio. It painted a picture of the times before it all took shape. Seemed prophetic to me.
Do you personally have a context, an overview, of the decade you are explaining? Many of us, it seems, have fastened onto some aspects of that period.
One thing for me is that my experience with the Sixties began in the South, so I was shaped by civil rights. I remember standing next to King in 1963 in Birmingham when he was being arrested. I was 16, and my teen brain took a picture of his face and the sadness I saw in his eyes that day, and it has remained to this day. If history has a face, it is Martin Luther King’s.
Is that why you wrote it?
I thought, for one thing, that a time experienced very deeply might be useful today, the lessons and warnings for the time we’re living in. We had divisions and cynicism, but we also had hope.
Though I wrote about drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, that’s not my definition of the Sixties. Hope and disillusionments are topics for fertile discussion.
I find the Sixties to be more hopeful than now. Where are the Kings and Kennedys? And we get information differently [digitally] today. How do we continue a national dialogue, how do we deal with politicians who exploit rather than heal? Wallace exploited, but people like Bobby Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, and your own U.S. senator, Ed Brooke, wanted to heal. Trump has gone beyond Wallace, who at least apologized in the end.
What’s the public reaction to the book?
I’ve toured pretty extensively from Berkeley to the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. For older readers, it’s like memory lane on steroids. I hear them processing their own feelings and disillusionment about things they hoped would happen. Younger people are hungry for information.
Was there anything in the American experience that could have prepared us for change like the ’60s brought?
I suppose a time like the Civil War. We had 600,000 Americans die to resolve the slavery question, and there was a possibility we could have moved forward to true freedom. but we didn’t. Lincoln was assassinated, and the attempt to bind the nation together again died with him.
What do you see ahead?
I’m not as hopeful [as in the Sixties]. Trump goes beyond Wallace. We are seeing American backlash against our first black president. I didn’t know we were capable of racial backlash like that. But I see a younger generation that is very bright and committed, so that’s hopeful.
“A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility and Innocence Lost,” by Frye Gaillard, NewSouth Books, Montgomery, Ala. $39.95. Available through Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, through Edgartown Books in Edgartown, and online.