Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My (19)60s

The thinkers of the day are starting to look upon the year 1968 as the one that encapsulates all of what is commonly known as "the sixties." My dear e-friend the Eclectic Pundit sent me to a series of mini-memoirs in the City Journal by writers who were There At The Revolution during that year. After slogging through all those memories and considered conclusions, I came away thinking what I thought in 1968: we occupied the same time and space but our reactions couldn't be more different.

Here are the things that define the American sixties for me: the black civil rights movement, the student war protests, a true pop music revolution (a burst of intense creativity we haven't seen since that roughly followed this timeline: urban folk, Dylan's intelligent lyrics, the British invasion, concept albums, singer-songwriters) and a loosening of cultural strictures surrounding drugs and sex. These separate strands came together to form a throbbingly exciting backdrop against which to play out one's late-adolescent gropings toward maturity, and overall, I loved the times. But while some manned the ramparts and trashed their universities, in the backwater of Lexington, Kentucky, I watched, and felt differently about each separate phenomenon.

I was never so proud to be a son of this soil as when African-Americans started their protests for equal treatment. Having had Jim Crow racial attitudes forced upon me by the prevalent southern culture of Washington, D.C., and from the time I could think being aware that those attitudes were wrong, watching America struggling to live up to the promise in its founding document filled me with profound feelings of relief and hope. I didn't march, though, because doing so was inopportune. In Kentucky nobody was doing it, and when I was at home, participating in a protest march would have brought the roof of my parents' house, which still sheltered me at their expense, down upon my head. For me, discretion has always been the better part of valor, so my protests are discreet. I was overjoyed to be able to reach out quietly to black people whom I'd always wanted as friends. It hadn't been possible before because there was no social mixing of the races. Now, to the extent there was, I happily indulged. That was my "protest."

As for the anti-war protests, I thought their foundations were bogus, not much more than intellectual cover for guys like me who were afraid for their own skins. I didn't march then because I didn't believe in the movement. In my eyes, the validity of the protests grew in proportion with the realization by the nation at large that we were losing American lives in Viet Nam for not much more reason than macho posturing on the part of our leaders, who couldn't admit they'd made a mistake. In the end, my anger matched that of the rest of the country, but by then I was participating in my own protest in the Peace Corps. To this day, my Peace Corps service is my proudest achievement, a time when I truly did some good for the country.

I've already said so much about the music of the times that I hesitate to repeat myself. It's enough to let you imagine, if you didn't experience it, what it was like to live in anticipation of the next incredible release by (in no particular order) : Joan Baez, The Beatles, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint Marie, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan....need I go on? The music which young artists now consider their pop heritage, a part of our cultural warp and woof, was new then. Take the word "exciting" and multiply its meaning by a factor of ten, at least. That's how delicious the anticipation was.

Drugs: never did 'em then--unless you count alcohol, which I did plenty of. I was in Kentucky after all! That was the drug of choice, at least in my cohort. In the Peace Corps, drug use was (and remains) grounds for immediate termination, so for me the idea was a non-starter, though it certainly wasn't for many others I was with. I didn't experience marijuana until the 70s, and that's as far as I got with non-alcoholic drugs.

Sex: I experienced the unspeakable relief of coming out as gay. Thank you for that, sixties. 'Nuf said about that.

And there you have the Ralph Cherry tour of the sixties.

13 comments:

Zoey & Me said...

You missed Corvettes, XKE's, birth control and . . . wait a minute, The Harvey Trio who sang nightly at Mr Smiths.

Ralph said...

LOL! Hey, Z&M, write your OWN 1960s!

Mim said...

Ralph
Can you email me and I will tell you where... I can't get email pages to open on any of the blogs of people I'm trying to email. I have a new computer and all the glitches not worked out.
I'll explain when I email about where/why.
I figure if you email me then I'll have your email address and that will bypass the problems am having with computer.
Mim
Oh and 1968..that was my year"those were they days."
Remember "Resurrection City" on the mall in DC?
Mim

Anonymous said...

Hi Ralph,

Thank you for a thoughtful and poignant "remembering".

Since my relo, I've given considerable amounts of time in reflection. I often wonder if when we "cross that invisible line" of what some call that we become our parents - that we start to think we grew came of age at the best time? Yet, I do feel this way.

I miss the collective spirit of the 60's. As wonderful as the internet is and the doors it opens, it seems we are closing doors on our collective spirit.

One of the more significant factors is that the cost of our entertainment was seemingly less expensive. I remember going to Alexander's (a dept store) and purchasing three albums for maybe $9.99 - all from one label, but more often than not, it was a major label. Concert tickets were reasonable enough that it could be a date which included an after hours meal at the diner.

Economics aside because I could go on and start in on my pet peeve - the cost of denim jeans etc., t-shirts etc.

Yet, I do miss the times for the media coverage of events - the magazines that are no longer in print. Our generation was part of a the new frontier with the trip to the Moon etc.

When you really consider the whole picture or as much as can be absorbed in one sitting - it has been an incredible time in history to have lived and live through.

Linda
SE PA

Kat said...

Ralph,
Our protesting started in the 8th grade when we began working with SNCC. In college we stepped up the pace. We picketed at the produce center every Friday from 5-7 in support of migrant workers and it was there I met Cesar Chavez. There were other protests and marches, against Wallace and against the futility of war, but, like you, I found the Peace Corps my shining achievement.

Ralph said...

Linda, I do think we grew up in "the best of times," and I know I sound like a self-congratulatory boomer in saying so. (But I'm only saying it to another boomer who happens to agree with me! So nice to be in the same church AND pew!) I can say that in my own memory, my parents' formative years in the late '20s and early '30s did have their moments, especially since they were pretty much unscathed by the Depression. But my sister's time in the Eisenhower years has nothing to recommend it to me. Today's 20-somethings are being animated by their hatred of George Bush and his war, so that's at least exciting and it's producing some interesting music....

"Collective spirit": hmmm...as a group I do think we're still pretty satisfied with ourselves, and IMHO we have at least some right to be, in spite of the collosal stupidities some of us committed along the way. It's definitely sad to see how some thinking has devolved into conditions worse than when we hit the scene--Madonna, for one, took womens' liberation and turned it on its head, saying it was good for women to parade themselves as sex objects as a sign of being "liberated" because it was "their choice." She got rich being "liberated" while many of the teenyboppers who emulated her just became victims. (WHERE were their Boomer parents???)

And we as a nation are less and less informed in spite of having more and more media to choose from, because entertainment, ideological posturing, and titillation have taken the place of news. Yes, I think we definitely had it better!

Oh for the days of those cheap LPs!

Ralph said...

Kat, I think the fact that you were in New England had a lot to do with your early activism. My own may ahve been different if I'd been in "college city" (Boston) among tens of thousands of like-minded kids. As it was, Kentucky was quiet, quiet. REally. Nobody marched. he SDS struggled to maintain a chapter. Cesar Chavez didn't really enter my consciousness until after the Peace Corps.

Eclecticity said...

Was fun reading all you's guys. I am part of the second bump of boomer (late) so it's kinda hard to really relate.

Really enjoyed your memories Ralph.

Ralph said...

Eclec, I knew when I read those things in the City Journal something stirred, but I didn't know what until I started writing. All those writers actually "did" something germane to the politics of the time, and each lived to regret it for one reason or another. Since I "did" nothing, I had nothing to regret. What I mostly remember is that panoply of earth-shattering events swirling around me and enjoying the hell out of being present as a witness.

Jenny said...

I can relate to your comments about going to school in Kentucky--fairly quiet, but I still sensed that "there's something happening here" beginning in my freshman year at Eastern Kentucky University in 1967. By graduation we could all see that that a lot had changed during those few short years--the music, the civil rights movement, speaking out against the Viet Nam war--even the clothes we wore (or DIDN'T in the case of bras!). Many of the friends I made during those times remain friends today and I wouldn't trade those times for anything.

Bob said...

I graduated from college in Atlanta in 1968. I had been in one little march, to protest Julian Bond's removal from the Georgia Legislature, and I had been involved with a few groups on campus. I have always had a secret pride at being in Atlanta at that time -- it seemed to be near the center of something important. On the night before Martin Luther King's funeral, a guy came in the student center and said that some help was needed at SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue. People from across the country were arriving in Atlanta and coming there to find a place to stay and get transportation. There were about five of us -- all white guys and one girlfriend -- who said we would go. Auburn Avenue was literally filled with people. We must have gone down the street at two miles an hour. This was around 10:00 PM. Over the next five hours I drove four people to different locations in the city, from the new Regency Hyatt with its revolving restaurant to a very small house far out in the west end. This last trip was with an elderly man who held on to a record of King's speeches and talked to me all the way about what a great man King was. I got back to my apartment about five o'clock and slept through the funeral. My roommate, who went to the funeral, said he tried to wake me, but I might as well have been a rock. (The other day I found the hand lettered SCLC Courtesy Car sign that was taped on my car. I had not thought about this in years, even though it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Ralph said...

Bob, I love that story--thanks so much for sharing it. It illustrates my idea that the little things we do are at least as important as the bigger, symbolic ones, and do more good in the long run.

Ralph said...

You know, Jenny, I do seem to remember hearing about students storming the University President's house the year after I left UK--that would have been in 1969. Never knew what it was over, but it was a sign that the placid surface was finally getting some ripples. From your description it sounds like Kentucky made up for the lost time in a big way! If it was as you describe in Richmond, I can't imagine what Lexington must have been like!