James Brown changed my life. When he cut “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” we had our fists in the air. It was like, “Man, black is cool,” because at the time it wasn’t cool to be black. Colored was the thing. Being called black was just like the "N" word, and people don’t know that now. “Say It Loud” empowered you.
The music gave us an opportunity to express what we were struggling through. The music today only frustrates you even more. If I can take young artists I’m working with and instill some of what we were talking about in ’68—as soon as you hear it, you say, “That’s the bomb! Ohmigod!” like we did with “Say It Loud”—then all the better. That’s my mission now. —Growing up in Cincinnati, home of King Records, singer-songwriter-musician William “Bootsy” Collins cut his musical teeth as a 17-year-old bass guitarist with James Brown—the Godfather of Soul and King Records’s top act in the 1960s. Shortly after returning from entertaining U.S. troops in Saigon, Brown began working on a new song, which he released in August 1968. The song would cost Brown with his white audience, who largely misunderstood it, as he related in his memoir, I Feel Good. But for Collins, “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” ushered in a positive, uplifting way of seeing himself and the world around him and was as influential as any guitar lick Brown ever taught him. In the 1970s Collins teamed up with George Clinton to help create a new wave in soul music with the whimsical P-Funk sound of Parliament-Funkadelic, and later with his own group, Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Collins is now head of Bootzilla Productions in Cincinnati.
JUDY COLLINS, 69
It was just this roller coaster of pain that year, all sorrow and mayhem. For me, the hell was personal, as well—my dad died, I lost custody of my son. I was a young woman learning to work, learning to continue, and learning to finish, no matter what. That lesson has stuck with me. Tragedy, comedy, whatever goes on, you have to keep moving, keep making art. It was a major artistic revolution and, for me, it was all about the music. The world changed because of the music. People began to listen to words, they wanted to hear one person telling a story. Because ultimately, it’s the personal that matters; it’s how we fight our daily wars. That’s what connects us. —One of America’s premier folk and contemporary singers and songwriters, Judy Collins has been making music for more than 40 years. She started her career as a classical pianist, but by 1961 she was making a name for herself as a folk lyricist and guitarist. She released her first album in 1961, but it was her classic 1967 album, Wildflowers, with its award-winning rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” that etched her place in musical history. (Today, “Both Sides Now” is in the Grammy’s Hall of Fame.) Collins’ version of “Send in the Clowns” won her a Grammy in 1975. A longtime social activist, Collins released Who Knows Where the Time Goes in 1968. She is currently on tour promoting her latest CD, Judy Collins Sings Lennon and McCartney, which was recorded on her Wildflower Records label. Her website is www.judycollins.com.
MARI MAHDI, 57
Reader from Dallas, Texas
I was never wild, so to speak. So when it came to dressing, I liked the “tight” skirts. Give me a tight skirt, with a sleeveless shell sweater (and a pointy chest!), and I felt like I had it going on.
GALT MACDERMOT, 79
Composer of Hair
It was a time of very interesting music, and I was listening to everything, because it was so exciting. I tried to use some of it in the show—some of it was rock ’n’ roll; some of it wasn’t. But when [writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni] brought me those lyrics to “Age of Aquarius,” I thought, “Well, wait a second.” Because it was all about—what do you call that?—astrology. I didn’t know anything about it then, and I still really don’t. —Canadian-born Galt MacDermot was an established jazz and R&B composer and Grammy winner when he was introduced to New York actors Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who needed someone to write the music for their new play, Hair. On April 29, 1968, Hair opened on Broadway, and MacDermot’s compositions immediately became anthems of an era. Now 79, he performs and records with his group, The New Pulse Jazz Band. His website is www.galtmacdermot.com.
TOMMY SMOTHERS, 71
Co-host of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
“I think I’m a pretty good candidate because…I’ve been consistently vague on all the issues and I’m continuing to make promises that I’ll be unable to fulfill.”
—Comedian Pat Paulsen, running for president on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
I like to say that we were at the scene of the accident in 1968. It was a great time to have a show on the air and be the only show on prime time reflecting what was actually happening in America.
Dickie and I were absolutely fearless. We were very polite in our satire but, even so, it was shocking, because no one else on television was saying anything like “Get out of Vietnam.” When nothing’s being said, something that is being said resonates pretty strongly. When we were fired, I couldn’t believe it, because we’d played by the rules.Funny thing, when I sit and watch the shows now, I keep saying, “Where’s this stuff everybody was talking about?” If you take all those zingers from all those shows and string them together, it might add up to an hour. —At the height of its popularity in 1968, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour drew millions of viewers, and the TV show consistently landed in the top 20 of the Nielsen ratings. Satiric, irreverent, and forthrightly anti-war, it also consistently ran afoul of CBS network censors and was abruptly canceled in April 1969. Today, Tommy and Dick Smothers perform 70 to 80 concerts a year, and they operate a vineyard in Sonoma County, California. Their website is www.smothersbrothers.com.
JANE ALEXANDER, 68
Actress and human rights advocate
When The Great White Hope opened on Broadway in 1968, it was an instant hit. The play was based on the life of the 1910 heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, but pieces of it also tracked the story of Muhammad Ali, who’d had his heavyweight champion belt taken away, too—in 1967, for defying the military draft. James Earl Jones played Jack Jefferson; Jane Alexander, his white mistress—and in one scene the two, running from the law, end up at a railroad station in Hungary. There, in a moment of defiance, Jefferson beats his chest and booms, “If they want me, they’re gonna have to come and get me. Here I is! Here I is! Here I is!” Alexander, 68, who won a Tony for her performance, says the scene resonated on many levels:
Muhammad Ali came to see the play, I think, three times. And I had a crush on him. Of course, he wouldn’t pay me any attention—he notably said, “Well, this is my story, except for that white chick.”
One night, after the play, everybody had left the theater, but he was definitely hanging around, waiting for something. And I watched him. But he couldn’t see me—I stood in the legs, the long black curtains in the wings along the edge of the stage. The ghost light—the one light that stays on in the theater all night long—was the only thing illuminating the stage. And Muhammad Ali emerged from the shadows, he went out to the middle of the stage, he looked out at the empty house, he lifted those big beautiful arms, and he brought his fists down on his chest, and he said, “Here I is! Here I is! Here I is!”
I got chills watching this from the wings. And then he left. And I made my way home. —Jane Alexander went on to become a celebrated actress of the screen as well. She won an Emmy for her role in the HBO movie Warm Springs, and was an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for roles in several movies, including Kramer vs. Kramer and Testament. In 1993 Alexander was named chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Long an advocate for human rights (she’s blogged for the International Leadership Forum and Common Cause), Alexander currently plays the therapist in the critically acclaimed HBO series Tell Me You Love Me.
KAY NIGHTINGALE, 62
Reader from Beloit, Wisconsin
I was a senior in college and reconnected with my old high school sweetheart after almost three years. He was serving with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. We began letter-writing and exchanged audiotapes, and discovered we shared a love that would last a lifetime.
At Christmastime, my boyfriend’s parents came to my parents’ home while I was on Christmas break to share holiday spirit during a difficult time. They gave me a gift, and inside was an engagement ring from Vietnam, along with a letter and tape from their son asking for my hand in marriage. With tears in his eyes, my boyfriend’s father got down on his knee and, at his son’s request, proposed. I said yes, and we were married when he returned, unharmed and whole, eight months later. We will have been married 40 years this August 2008.
That experience in 1968 taught me many lessons about love, patriotism, patience, and faith, and I am ever so blessed for it all.
KENNETH H. COOPER, M.D., 77
Author of Aerobics
When I published Aerobics in 1968, I was immediately under fire from the medical community. Exercise after 40? Build bone and muscle over 40? Run over 40? That was contrary to everything med school taught back then—over 40, act your age. “What are you trying to do, kill people?” Nineteen books later, the 38th anniversary of the Cooper Clinic, and I’m still fighting to get the message through. Unfortunately, we’re still better at changing the oil in our cars than we are at caring for our bodies. —Kenneth Cooper is a scientist, author, and the founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas
Read more of this interview with Kenneth Cooper.
JOAN GANZ COONEY, 78
Pioneer of children's television
I was a TV producer at a noncommercial station, and we were producing some good documentaries—on Head Start, on poverty. But I was struck by the children, and the damage that poverty was doing to them. I didn’t think filming them was helping much, so I wondered how we could use TV for them, to teach them. What would the ideal show for kids look like? It needed a strong educational basis—an actual curriculum—but had to be fun, and funny. Smart, lighthearted, with characters who reflected the diversity of the kids sitting there watching. Children’s Television Workshop was born in 1968; Sesame Street, in 1969; The Electric Company, in 1971. Now, we’re in more than 100 countries, co-producing with educational and cultural leaders in each market. To see the young faces light up when they learn a word, discover a concept—even now, I’m constantly amazed. —Joan Ganz Cooney is an innovator, educator, and founder of Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street.
Read more of this interview with Joan Ganz Cooney.
PAUL EHRLICH, 76
Human population expert
When Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was published in 1968, he hoped that its premise (that the population explosion was rapidly leading to world famine) would somehow influence the upcoming election. “Naive,” he says now, in light of the events that ultimately defined the year. “But we were right, or nearly so, on the numbers, even if they didn’t climb as fast as I thought they would.” According to CARE, 840 million people worldwide are malnourished; of those who die, six million are children under five. “There’s no shortage of canaries in the coal mine,” Ehrlich says. “Climate change, epidemiological environment, the migration of organisms. But the news covers which starlet is wearing panties, and the political debate is, ‘Do you believe in the Bible word for word? Should we have a 20- or a 25-foot fence at the border?’ This is trivial, compared to what we’re facing. In fact, we’re fighting the first big resource war right now—over petroleum.”
In 1968 Ehrlich quickly went from biology wonk to pop-culture “public scientist,” thanks to TV personality Arthur Godfrey passing the book along to Johnny Carson, who had a deep interest in population and environmental issues. Ehrlich became a frequent Tonight Show guest, appearing 20 times. Zero Population Growth, the activist organization that grew out of his published work, grew from “an organization with six chapters and 600 members to one with 600 chapters and 60,000 members.” No stranger to controversy, Ehrlich (who’d been involved in civil rights sit-ins in Lawrence, Kansas) received death threats in the mail every day. “Anybody who said, ‘There are too many people’ was obviously a fascist,” he says. “They wanted me shut up, and gone.” His new book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment (Island Press, June 2008), co-written with his wife, Dr. Anne H. Ehrlich, may raise the same hackles. That’s fine with him.
“What keeps me going is what moved us all back then—concern for the kind of world we leave behind us. That, and the support from my scientific colleagues. I’ve always had that, and still do. Scientists don’t care what Rush Limbaugh thinks; they care what other world-class scientists think. And they think I’m right.”—Paul Ehrlich is a biologist, entomologist, and human population activist at the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.