Books
12:08 pm
Thu September 4, 2008

With Music and Justice for All: Some Southerners and their Passions

Frye Gaillard, now writer-in residence at the University of South Alabama, has earned a place on the top shelf of interpreters of the recent South. This is the shelf occupied by popular writers such as Hal Crowther and Roy Blount Jr. and academic scholars such as Wayne Flynt.

Frye Gaillard, now writer-in residence at the University of South Alabama, has earned a place on the top shelf of interpreters of the recent South. This is the shelf occupied by popular writers such as Hal Crowther and Roy Blount Jr. and academic scholars such as Wayne Flynt.

Gaillard is an established, seasoned professional, and this is his eighteenth book on southern life. These essays, chosen from the work of the past 35 years, have been revised, updated, and in some cases consolidated and rewritten from several different pieces on the same subject.

Gaillard had arranged these essays into four groups--A Change is Gonna Come--civil rights essays; Amazing Grace--essays on religion: Soundtracks--essays on Southern music; and Characters--profiles of some truly special people.

Much of the material in the civil rights section is familiar now. I enjoyed the in-depth treatment of the students at North Carolina A & T who staged the first lunch counter sit-in. It is hard now to recapture emotionally the desperation and the courage that were required to do that in 1960. We may not live in paradise today, but a mediocre tuna fish sandwich is in the reach of anyone who wants it. Of Alabama interest is the profile of Tom Gilmore, the first black sheriff of Greene County, who went about his law enforcement chores without carrying a gun.

Several times in his writings Gaillard has written of his personal encounter with Robert Kennedy, while Gaillard, a Mobilian, was at Vanderbilt. It still hurts to think about what promise was there and what a loss the nation suffered. Gaillard is obviously still affected by that and the other assassinations, and his writing is at its most powerful when it is most personal--and this includes his painful quarrels with the older members of his own Old South family--bright and virtuous people but not ready for the huge changes integration would bring.

I had not realized that after college Gaillard had worked as religion reporter in Nashville. His profile of Will Campbell should be required reading for every high schooler. Campbell's theology of faith and love for victims , but also for Klansmen and vicious murderers, is astounding to contemplate. Most of us are content to think in an ethically simple-minded way--we're for the good guys and condemn the evil ones. Campbell should be canonized, if there were Baptist saints.

In previous writings, in my opinion, Gaillard has been too kind to creatures like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and others of that ilk. In his profile of Billy Graham, he is again gentle and balanced, explaining that Graham was traumatized by the Watergate scandals and the audio tapes?Nixon and his gang had all seemed like such nice Christian gentlemen--and retreated quickly when his sermons on social justice caused controversy. I guess he'll just leave that to Will Campbell.

There are essays on Johnny Cash and his religious conversions and atonements, The Allman brothers, Charlie Daniels, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Emmylou Harris, the flamboyant Marshall Chapman, who has also taken up memoir. Music people will enjoy them, I am sure.

The volume closes strong with Characters. Gaillard actual interviewed John Scopes of Scopes Trial fame, in 1970. Most interesting here are Scopes's own reservations about the godlessness, as he saw it, of Darwinism: a world of survival of the fittest seemed harsh.

Gaillard has written extensively of President Jimmy Carter in the past, but this piece focuses on Carter's recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which raised such a storm. Carter, like Will Campbell, feels compelled to follow his conscience, however it might affect his public image.

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