Celebrating the Rag: Austin’s iconic underground newspaper

 

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Gilbert Shelton

 

Good morning Austin:

I miss The Rag.

Of course, I only arrived in Austin in December 2012, so I missed The Rag, which published its first issue in October 1966 and its last in May 1977, by several decades.

But, reading Celebrating The Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper, a remarkable collection of more that 100 articles spanning what, for an underground paper, was its lengthy and hugely eventful eleven-year run, I miss it and the era it embodied and reflected.

 

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On Sunday, the editors of Celebrating the Rag will be at the Austin History Center to talk about the book, along with the maker of an excellent documentary about the paper.

Event: ‘Celebrating the Rag’
What: Discussion, film screening, book signing
Who: Editors Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree, and Richard Croxdale, and film producer Glenn Scott
When: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, 2-4 p.m.
Where: Austin History Center
Address: 810 Guadalupe St., Austin 78701
Phone: 512-974-7480
Cost: Free and open to the public; Refreshments

‘Celebrating The Rag’ at the Austin History Center!

Editors Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree, and Richard Croxdale will speak and lead a discussion on the book, “Celebrating The Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper.” The book will be available for purchase and the editors will sign copies. Glenn Scott of Peoples History in Texas will screen a sneak preview of a new documentary film made about The Rag.

The event at the Austin History Center is free and open to the public. And there will be refreshments!

Background: Fifty years ago, Austin gave birth to the highly influential underground newspaper, The Rag. Noted for its unique blend of New Left politics and ‘60s alternative culture – presented with a hearty dose of irreverent Texas humor and psychedelic art — The Rag was one of the earliest and most influential of the 1960s-‘70s underground papers that spread across the country in what the New Yorker called “one of the most spontaneous and aggressive growths in publishing history.”

The book features more than 100 articles from The Rag’s 11-year history, plus contemporary essays and vintage art and photography. This collection captures the radical politics and subversive humor that marked the pages of this upstart newspaper between 1966 and 1977.

 

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Here is some of an appreciation of The Rag by Austin novelist Thomas Zigal from The Rag Blog.

I came to UT-Austin in the fall of 1969 as a transfer student in my junior year. I had spent the previous year studying at a Swiss university, putting an ocean between myself and the Galveston County draft board, which had mistakenly classified me as 1A and began pressing me to show up for army induction and the prospect of Vietnam. (The 1A was eventually changed to a student deferment while I was in Europe.)

By the time I arrived in Austin, I’d hitchhiked around the Continent (including into East Berlin), Great Britain, Scandinavia, and yes, to Morocco, where the hashish was exquisite. So on my first day of class as a UT English major, I left Brackenridge dorm dressed like a walking Bob Dylan song (shoulder-length hair, a natty black vest over my t-shirt, a Moroccan ring, and brown suede Spanish boots of Spanish leather I’d bought in Barcelona) and wandered down to the Drag, where I encountered Alan Pogue selling The Rag. I was hooked after the first issue, and that underground rag became my guide star for the next several years.

The Rag was magnificent. Informative, hilarious, righteously angry when it needed to be, and the perfect melding of New Left politics and hippie dope-smoking, Hendrix-loving cool. I read every word of it every week and discussed the Serious Issues with my friends and classmates. It shaped my thinking more than any other publication at that time in my life, more than Rolling Stone or Mother Jones or whatever else we were reading. 

And while The Rag didn’t pretend that all politics is local, to quote Tip O’Neill, it did educate us about what was going down in Austin and in the rest of Texas, a place we hated and loved. Don Weedon’s Conoco station, the Austin cops’ hostility and indifference (whichever suited them), the undercover surveillance, the tear gas (I got a face full of it) down at the Capitol, the continuing emergence of Feminism, Black Power, La Raza, Gay Rights, Ecology (before it was called environmentalism), and all the progressive movements on the right side of history.

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Celebrating the Rag is a luving homage to quite possibly the best underground newspaper of its era, selecting and reprinting The Rag’s greatest hits, but also providing excellent reflections and recollections written from the present day. The new contributions, like Alice Embrees’ heartbreaking “The Murder of George J. Vizard IV,” are fond and often very moving evocations of another time and place, with affectionate tributes to their friends and comrades.

But the writing is never maudlin or sentimental. And in his superb and informative introduction to the book, “Rag Mama Rag,” Thorne Dreyer puts The Rag in historical context, describing where it fit in the underground newspaper movement of the ’60s and quoting numerous scholars and notable observers who praise The Rag’s originality in a crowded and colorful field.

The secret was humor. The Rag had an edgy, irreverent sense of humor we all admired and shared. Even the letters to the editor were funny:

Fellow Trouble Makers:
I love you too, even if you don’t have chairs, or pencil sharpeners.
Enclosed is a check for $10. Buy something.
Bill from Waco

What an amazing era in an amazing town, and The Rag was there to capture the times and help change them. As the Rag writers explained at the recent 50th anniversary celebration, they would join the protest marches and boycotts, then come back to their funky office in the old University Y and write about what had happened. Participatory democracy, participatory journalism.

From Michael Hoinski, who wrote about The Rag for Texas Monthly in October on the occasion of a four-day celebration of the 50th year of its founding in 1966.

To most people, the story of Austin’s progressive streak begins in the early seventies, when the Armadillo World Headquarters opened, Willie Nelson moved to Austin from Nashville, and people started getting high on cosmic country. But Austin’s roots in weirdness extend even deeper into the caliche soil, to at least 1966, when a handful of members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the University of Texas founded the underground newspaper the Rag. The paper took aim at  UT’s administration, which was threatening drastic tuition hikes, among other ostensibly draconian measures. It also covered civil rights, the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the Chicano movement, and unions like the United Farm Workers. In its eleven years of publication, the Rag would evolve into a national voice, playing a role in at least one major Supreme Court case and, as one of the first underground papers, becoming a template for the alternative newsweeklies that would follow, in effect influencing the business of journalism.
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Jim Franklin

I had dinner with Thorne Dreyer at Threadgill’s this week. Here is some of what he told me.

One thing that’s different is the sense of community that was around the underground newspapers and, in some ways, I think the progressive blogosphere, or whatever we want to call it. It’s a bunch of people sitting in their cubicle or their home in their pajamas. There’s not that kind of connection. In some ways you can be connected in amazing ways but The Rag was a community center, always.

And it pulled people together in very personal and real ways. The layout sessions, there’d be 20 people in the office and artists would be siting there doing drawings. The Rag office was always a center of activity. It was where all the people who sold the paper came.

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Dreyer said the office and the staff were all within blocks of each other on West Campus.

It was a real community.

The Rag was really the voice of a community that already existed.

It grew out of SDS.

The SDS group in Austin, the core group, were really a unique and special group of people and they were very close and communal and smart. They were smart politically, and they were serious New Lefties, and in general, very into the culture as well.

I think just being physically around other people is very important and the kind of collaboration that happens when you’re together.

The Rag was always intimately involved in organizing and then often wrote about the stuff that we organized.

It was never seen as just a journalistic enterprise. It was a very weird mixed bag, but it was always seen as part of the movement and an organizing tool, although it wasn’t an organizing tool in that it was a propaganda organ. It was very much not that.

I think Austin was unique. Austin always had this unique vibe about it.

It was always a center, not just for rogue artists and maverick politicos. And this was a time when this energy was exploding. The counter-culture thing and the music and the drug scene – drugs were incredibly important in this story and they aren’t told much. Drugs meant a very different thing than what they mean now. That whole psychedelic thing, the openness, the kind of Eastern metaphysical kind of approach.

But especially the critical thing was, number one, the commitment to participatory democracy, which was really at the core of what SDS was about, but also the idea that, which was unlike the old left and a lot of the left, which is that we had to change our lives, as well as being philosophical or ideological about how society had to change. We had to change the way we related to each other.

That was part of the time. The politics was personal.

Do these seem grimmer times?

Oh yeah. Totally different sensibility. There really was an underlying sense of joy, even when we were surrounded by people that opposed us. Even when there were fraternity cowboys who were antagonistic toward us.

The Rag was really centered around the University of Texas. Everybody lived within a few blocks of each other. The nature of the university community was incredibly different than it is now. The times, the economics.

You could go to school. You could drop out. There were people who were professional students, they would call them, who had been in school, out of school for ten, twelve years, and were in the community, and maybe they taught at some point.

Professors and students had more interaction. Students and non-students, there wasn’t this rigid line. People could live cheaper. I don’t think they felt the incredible pressure that students feels now.

It was a much freer time, they were free in their minds, the sense of possibility, right now I don’t think that’s possible, they’re just trying to figure out how they are going to navigate this.

I dropped out. I was a drop out.

From John McMillan’s  Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America

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 Dreyer:

They banned Gentle Thursday, which made it a political event.

Kissing. Seriously.

What they were afraid of was that Gentle Thursday was changing the boundaries of the campus. People just did all these things they weren’t supposed to do. The University freaked out.’

It became political, because it was organized by The Rag and SDS. It also became political because it was banned.

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Could The Rag exist today?

It was very much of its time. I don’t know if we could do that  now, because the world has moved so far. The technological revolution has just totally transformed things. You can’t even keep a traditional newspaper publishing in this day and time, even though our model had nothing to do with making money. Our model had to do with coming up with enough money every week to make sure we could get it out.

Here are the first two of three parts of The Rag documentary, which give a very good sense of the time and place.

 

And here are some gleanings from the film.

 

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There was just a palpable sense of history. A sense that something very important was happening. You could feel it. Everything was just a little larger than life.

 

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Democracy wasn’t about electing someone to office and waiting around hoping they would do something you would like. Democracy was about taking direct action.

 

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Part of the ethic was that we were not only reporting about the news but we would make the news, so we would organize a demonstration, we would be at the demonstration and then we would come back and write about the demonstration.

 

 

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There was a lot of stuff in the Rag that I didn’t understand, but I was very aware that what we’d later call the straight media were not giving us straight skinny. The underground press was needed,  and we had to protect it, no matter what it was printing.

 

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We had room for everything. We had a motorcycle column.

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We had artists on God knows what drugs sitting in the corner for hours.

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Frank Erwin was the president of the University of Texas and it was his domain. He didn’t want any embarrassment to the university of the president of the United States, and I think he took personal offense that this newspaper even existed.

(note: Erwin was not president, but chairman of the UT board.)

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You had SDS, which is broken into factions, so you’d have progressive labor, and, I don’t know the difference, the nihilists.

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You had SDS, which is broken into factions, so you’d have progressive labor, and, I don’t know the difference, the nihilists. You had Marxist-Leninists. You had cultural people, like the Yippees – the Abbie Hoffman types. And then you had the political street people, called the Hotherf**ckers, socialist feminists, and then you had the awful Trotskyite feminists who were trying to take over women’s liberation in Austin.

They tried, unsuccessfully.

And then you had the lesbian separatists, who thought the planet would be better off without men entirely.

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So imagine a room with these divergent views, and sometimes it would descend into screaming matches.

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What I did at first was hang around and watch the process and the process was really mind-boggling.I had never seen a miracle of functioning anarchy, but that was The Rag.

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So when they said this was a model of functioning anarchy, this was no joke. It had to function.

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(On the most common way of entering the Rag office) We went in through the basement window … Maybe that’s why it was an underground newspaper, because it was in the basement.

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And the political arguments that went on, i just flat did not understand.

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Over time, The Rag became an important location for the rise of feminism.

It played a central role in the germination of Roe v. Wade

From David Garrow’s 1992 review of Sarah Weddington’s book, A Matter of Choice.

Abortion was illegal in Texas then, as in almost all states, unless a pregnancy threatened a woman’s life. In a few Texas cities, midwives or even a doctor quietly offered abortions of uncertain safety, but across the border in Mexico, where abortion was also supposedly illegal, some skillful doctors ran thriving practices for American women. Ron Weddington spoke with some friends, made a few calls, and on a Friday morning in the fall of 1967 Sarah and Ron drove south to Eagle Pass, Tex., and crossed the border into the Mexican town of Piedras Negras to meet an unnamed man wearing brown pants and a white shirt. They followed him to a small clinic with clean facilities and a pleasant staff. Ms. Weddington recalls that her final memory, before waking up hours later after the anesthesia had worn off, was of thinking “I hope I don’t die, and I pray that no one ever finds out about this.”

The 25 years since that traumatic but successful visit to Mexico have offered Ms. Weddington scores of appropriate opportunities to tell her story, but not until the writing of this autobiographical memoir did she disclose her own abortion to any friend or relative aside from her now former husband. Her 1967 choice allowed her to complete law school as scheduled, but to her dismay no law firm offered her a position.

Through Ron, who was still completing his own law degree, Sarah met several women graduate students, all active members of the political community that revolved around Austin’s “underground” newspaper, The Rag. The women were operating a birth control counseling and information project, and they also wanted to advise women with unwanted pregnancies about which Mexican clinics were reputable. They asked Sarah for free counsel as to whether they might be criminally liable for providing such advice. One of the women, Judy Smith, had been impressed by how easily The Rag had initiated a Federal court suit when the university had sought to prohibit distribution of the paper on campus, and she voiced a further question: Couldn’t the Texas abortion law itself be challenged in Federal court?

But, in the early days, the woman at The Rag mostly typed and …

When the sales were low on The Rag we would move our nude from the centerfold to the front page, or at least we were discussing this one night at a meeting planning The Rag., and some said, `Well, who’s going to be the nude, who’s going to be the next nude?’

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And somebody else said, `What about you Sharon, you haven’t been the nude?” And there was something in me that said, “No,” and it was just a very rebellious feeling, but I didn’t want to pose nude to sell The Rag, and so I said, `No,” and somebody said,Oh, that’s just because you’re from Wichita Falls, you’re just being prudish.’ And I knew that wasn’t it. And I just heard myself saying, and it was unpremeditated, I wasn’t thinking about this, and I heard myself saying, `What about a boy?’ And the women and I exchanged looks, almost startled looks, because it was something we never thought about and I trace my feminist consciousness, and I teach women’s studies today, to that moment, because it was the first time I imagined an alternative to being someone who did the work, and was used for sex, or whatever.

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