Frye Gaillard’s website announces him simply as Frye Gaillard, writer. He is the former Southern editor for The Charlotte Observer and current writer in residence at the University of South Alabama. Gaillard’s just-released “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost” recounts the turbulence of that decade. Published by NewSouth Books in Montgomery, “A Hard Rain” is the latest of more than two dozen books he has authored.
Gaillard lived through the ‘60s, progressing from junior high school student to young journalist, and threads his personal memories of events into a broad retelling of the decade. His journalist’s storytelling skills helped him create a compelling read that has garnered glowing early reviews.
Publishers Weekly in a starred review wrote: “For those who didn’t live through the ‘60s, it’s an enlightening picture of America at a historic juncture.” Kirkus Reviews called Gaillard’s book “a smart, readable survey, at once personal and universal, of a decade that is still under debate today.”
Below is a Q&A with Gaillard edited for clarity and length.
Alabama NewsCenter: Why, after more than two dozen books, did you decide to tackle the ‘60s?
FG: A couple of things. It was such an important decade for me personally, I went from a kid in junior high school, high school, college at Vanderbilt, and to a career as a young reporter. I was energized, writing about things that I thought mattered. It was always sort of with me. The other thing was, in recent years, from the election of President Obama in 2008 to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it just seemed like a lot of those issues we’d tried to deal with were still, for better or worse, alive and well. The issue of race clearly was not solved in that time. I thought I heard echoes from the ‘60s, idealism and cynicism. Younger historians who weren’t there will be writing from a perspective of more detachment, which is certainly valid, but I thought I could add maybe a personal sense of how it felt while writing the story of what happened.
ANC: The ‘60s are obviously ground that’s been plowed by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. What do you feel like you wanted to do that would be different or that would advance the understanding of that decade?
FG: One thing, there haven’t been too many books that have tried to write about the decade as a whole. There have been some. One of the best, I thought, was a book called the “The Sixties” by a guy called Todd Gitlin who was an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) radical during the ‘60s and is now a professor. My perspective is a little different from his in that I was certainly involved and fascinated and all of that, but I always came at it with a writer’s eye. I was in a few demonstrations, not very many. But I did have occasion to encounter a lot of the major figures in the decade – Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and others. I just thought I could bring an overview and a storyteller’s eye to the flow of events and, where it added to the story, a little bit of personal perspective. I view myself more as a bystander than a shaper of events. I had occasion to ride in a car with Robert Kennedy
when he came to Vanderbilt. There are some insights you gain from something like that. I saw Martin Luther King arrested in Birmingham in 1963, so there are those moments that I could use the first person and add to the story.
ANC: It reminds me a little bit of Diane McWhorter’s “Carry Me Home,” but it’s not really a memoir within a history book like hers is. You obviously made a conscious decision on that approach. Was it because you had interactions with some of the main characters, or did that just seem like the right format for the material?
FG: Yeah, it did. It just kind of felt organic. I admire Diane’s book very much, but at regular intervals she would break off from the narrative into a little piece of memoir that was kind of set apart but certainly added to it. I didn’t quite break off in that way. I would just appear in the narrative every now and then when all of a sudden, I would use the word I. And, I hoped it wouldn’t be distracting. As I look back on it I think it works OK. It’s not like the memoir is set apart from telling the overall story. And I also knew that I wanted to be as broad as possible. I thought that the experience of the ‘60s was not just social movements and politics, not even just music, although that was key. There were just so many things that made up the decade. I knew I wanted to touch on a lot of that so the question became, how do you do it, and without it seeming to bounce around or sprawl out of control? The thing that finally occurred to me is that the passage of time becomes the thing that holds the thread together, just like it did in real life. I think it’s a simple concept for organizing it and yet it seemed to work.
ANC: You manage to tie some seemingly disparate events together in a way that makes perfect sense. Telling it in chronological order probably made that easier.
FG: I think so. That’s the only way I could figure out that made sense. So there’s a place where I literally go from one chapter on the Berlin crisis when John Kennedy was president and the next chapter is Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chasing Babe Ruth’s homerun record. Again, at the time, you experienced the homerun race as a reprieve from the tensions that were so much in the news the month before. So it was the chronology not only of how it happened but how it was experienced.
ANC: How did you decide on the title, and how should readers interpret its meaning?
FG: I had pondered all sorts of titles, none of which I liked, for probably the first year or two of writing the book. And then, I just happened to hear that song. And I thought, wait a minute. “A Hard Rain.” The whole song is a kind of metaphorical look at turbulence in troubled times and all of that. It just seemed like, duh, this ought to work. I couldn’t think of anything better. And so, it’s really a pretty literal interpretation of what I thought Dylan was trying to say in the song. It was a hard time, but I also thought of some of Dylan’s other songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” There was an optimism then in some of his early stuff. The times are going to change, and the implication is they’re going to change for the better. That sort of aura that Dylan had, at least early in the decade, kind of fed into it, too, that Dylan would be an appropriate person to think about in trying to assign a title that encapsulated everything.
ANC: Music plays a large role in your narrative, more so than in a typical history. How much was that driven by music’s impact on that decade versus your love for that music and how it affected you personally?
FG: I think it was both of those things. Somebody who loves music less than I do could say that I write about it too much and that would be fair enough. But because it’s a personal history and because my love of music coalesced in that decade with that music, it just seemed important. The first book I ever wrote was called “Watermelon Wine, the Spirit of Country Music” back in the 1970s. I saw music then and continue to see it as a window on the times, just like any other vantage point that a historian might use. Usually, history is written through politics or social movements or whatever. I think you can sometimes write it through music. So it just wasn’t a very big leap for me to write about Dylan or Joan Baez or Johnny Cash or Janis Joplin or Linda Ronstadt or the Byrds. Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Odetta. I write about how some of the young people in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964, when they were scared out of their minds at night hoping they would survive until morning, would listen to Sam Cooke’s record “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Music for them provided this kind of private sustenance, emotional nourishment that they needed. There was “We Shall Overcome” and all those civil rights anthems, and the decade closed with Woodstock. I don’t think I overstated it. I think it really was an important thread.
ANC: Tell me how the Spotify playlist came about.
FG: My research assistant, Justine Burbank, came up with the idea. She went through the book and put it together and then I wrote a little essay to go with it, why I would write about Gene Pitney or the Beatles or Motown or Hendrix as the decade progressed.
ANC: Having lived through the ‘60s, I’m sure you felt like going into this you knew a lot about the decade. What did you learn that you thought, “How did I miss that?”
FG: There was a whole lot of that. I did think I knew a lot about it. A lot of what I did was read some summaries of the decade that you can find online, almost sort of a Cliffs Notes version of what happened. There were mass murders in 1966 or whatever. Oh yeah, the Manson killings. There was this reminder of things that needed to be in there. That was part of it. But also, there were details I didn’t know or remember, that I thought were really cool. That Betty Friedan wrote the purposes of the National Organization for Women on a napkin,
those kind of little details that you find as you dig through the stories. Or that the Black Panthers in Chicago tried to form an interracial coalition in 1969. There was a Black Panther whose name, I kid you not, was Robert E. Lee, and he reached out to a bunch of Appalachian white guys and got them into this coalition. There were all kinds of little fun, ironic factoids that you find out. I found myself learning a lot, obviously.
ANC: You mentioned some of the parallels between what’s happening now and what was going on in the ‘60s. What lessons from your book can people today apply?
FG: I think there are a couple of things in terms of big lessons. One is that the ‘60s began with these young idealists in the civil rights movement and it spread to other corners of the society. If you wanted to make the country better, if you wanted to help it live up more fully to its founding ideals, you could, and they did make the country better. They did push it in the direction of greater equality and justice and freedom for everybody. There were politicians in both parties back in the ‘60s who thought their job as political leaders was to heal our divisions and to reach across our divisions. Robert Kennedy comes to mind, but there were Republicans, too, like John Lindsay, the mayor of New York, or Charles Percy of Illinois, Nelson Rockefeller and others, who felt the same need to do that. But by the end of the decade, there was another whole political calculation. You could argue that George Wallace in that phase of his life was important in giving it credence, and that was to exploit division, to exploit anger, to exploit disillusion in order to turn out the vote. And Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was based on that. Certainly, we see that today. In my view, the current president of the United States, that’s his thing – to exploit the anger and the division and the disillusionment in the country. He can use that to keep himself in power. I think that’s terribly destructive. You can see the destructiveness of it in the ‘60s and you can see the destructiveness of it now. In that time, you saw the power and example of men and women in both parties who were trying to do the opposite. I hope we can remember that example from the ‘60s as well.
ANC: For Boomers who lived through it, it’s hard to think about another decade in our country’s history that compares in terms of the sheer impact. The Greatest Generation may say, what about the ‘40s and World War II? Our children may say, what about the Oughts with 9/11, the Gulf War and changing technology, for example. Does every generation have its decade? Or were the ‘60s something more than just another generation’s decade?
FG: I do think there are decades that are in some ways more pivotal than others. The Greatest Generation, the ‘40s, that’s certainly huge. What if Hitler had won? So, yeah, that’s true. But the ‘60s seem to me more eventful than the ‘50s, or the ‘70s or the ‘80s or the ‘90s, but maybe not more eventful than where we are right now. I do think the intensity of the decades tends to ebb and flow. History never stops, but it just seems particularly intense as a decade. On Feb. 1, 1960, there was the first sit-in of the decade, this incredibly brave, idealistic thing that happened. By the end of the decade, the issue of race had turned bitter and the black power movement was in full swing. So, we moved on the racial front from total idealism to rage and disillusionment, but in between, we passed civil rights legislation and voting rights laws. The country had to reckon to some extent with its legacy of racism. There’s a kind of arc there, and it’s the same with other issues. It’s a pretty rich time and so many fascinating characters. My goodness, as a writer there are just so many interesting people to write about.
Author Frye Gaillard’s Alabama book tour stops
Aug. 16 at 5:30 p.m.: Read Herring Books, 105 S. Court Street, Montgomery; 334-834-3556 for more information.
Aug. 28 at 5 p.m.: Alabama Booksmith, 2626 19th Place South, Birmingham; 205-870-4242 for more information.
Sept. 6 at 6 p.m.: Page and Palette, 32 S. Section Street, Fairhope; 251-928-5295 for more information.
Sept. 13 at 4 p.m.: Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, Pebble Hill, 101 S. Debardeleben, Auburn; 334-844-4903 for more information.
Sept. 30 at 2 p.m.: Mobile Public Library, Bernheim Hall, Mobile; 251-208-7097 for more information.