1976 was the U.S. Bicentennial year, and that’s the year the T-Shirt Chronicles start, with this blue T from that year’s Festival of American Folklife. The festival started in 1967 and has been held annually ever since (except, need I even say, in 2020), but that may have been the only one I ever attended, even though I lived in D.C. 11 years altogether — and wasn’t living there when I went to the festival. I probably went with one or both of my best buddies from my Georgetown University undergrad days, both of whom lived in the D.C. area.

What prompted me to buy the T-shirt? No idea. I don’t have a single clear memory from that festival: what I saw, what impressed me, nada. I had no clue that 44 years later I would be writing about this T as the first in a very long series.

But what better place to start? It wasn’t the Bicentennial celebrations that took me back to D.C. that summer. In mid-1976 I was trying to reconnect with the city I’d thrived in as a student activist, hoping this would reconnect me with the me who had lived there, the dean’s list student who was passionately involved in antiwar organizing and student politics and who was also getting a crash course in sexism thanks to the unapologetic misogyny of Jesuit-run Georgetown University.

When 1976 began, I was stuck. After graduating as a history major from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, I’d spent fifteen months in the UK, the first twelve pursuing but not completing a master’s degree and the last three hitchhiking solo around Britain and Ireland. Just before Thanksgiving 1975 I landed back in my suburban hometown of Weston, Massachusetts, in the unhappy home I’d grown up in. I had no idea what to do next, I had no friends in town, and I’d lost contact with my college friends.

In February, Grandma, my paternal grandmother, had a stroke. She died ten days later. Since she lived only a mile away, she was very much a part of my growing up. We weren’t close in the emotional sense — in my quintessentially WASP family, no one was close in that sense — but she introduced me to the two passions of my preteen and teenage years, horses and the Middle East, and I felt closer to her than to anyone else in the family.

After she died, my uncle Neville, who had lived with her for many years in the house he and my father grew up in, committed himself to a psychiatric hospital. Eventually he got his feet on the ground and walked himself into a happier and less isolated life than the one he’d been leading, but his cracking up presented an immediate dilemma: Who would look after Grandma’s house and take care of Max, her red Lab, till her estate could be settled?

The obvious answer was me. Whether this was a good thing or not — on one hand it gave me the literal space and time to get my feet back on the ground, but on the other being stuck under the same roof with my parents might have kicked my butt into gear sooner. Whether I was clinically depressed I can’t say because I never saw a clinician, but depression, alcoholism, and other forms of stasis are endemic on both sides of my family and I’ve got tendencies in all those directions.

That winter and spring I did a lot of walking with Max. When we weren’t out walking, I read Grandma’s letters from her young womanhood, learned that she’d been reluctant to enter into a marriage that eventually ended in divorce, explored her house (which I already knew pretty well), played a lot of solitaire, and taught myself to bake bread. In England I’d gotten hooked on unsliced bread from neighborhood bakeries; the cellophane-wrapped loaves then available in suburban supermarkets no longer satisfied. Neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers ever baked bread, at least not in my lifetime; none of them were cooks either. My teacher was a mass-market paperback. I’ve been baking all my own bread ever since.

Not long after I moved into Grandma’s house, Linda, my father’s girlfriend (he was still married to and living with my mother, an active alcoholic), recruited me as research assistant on a project she was working on, about what was going on in England at the time of the American Revolution. This involved reading period sources at Harvard’s Widener Library — which got me out of house and hometown and reconnected me with something I enjoyed and was good at. Linda was the only adult around who realized I was not in good shape; her intentions must have been at least partially therapeutic. It helped.

So did going back to D.C. that July. My D.C. years had drifted so far from me that it felt like they’d happened to someone else. Hooking up with friends from my activist student days pulled those days back within reach. I was on the right track, but because I was improvising the track I was trying to follow, it took a while.

Here’s where my memories of 1976 diverge from the facts of the matter. Time was fluid that year, with few dates to use as signposts, and contrary to popular belief you can’t find everything on the internet. Non-famous people who lived and died before news went digital can be elusive: I knew Grandma had died in February but had forgotten the date, and Googling didn’t refresh my memory. My sister, however, has been maintaining the family tree on Ancestry.com and she had it: February 17.

Easier to verify online — and disorienting when I did — was the date of a benefit concert I attended at Boston’s grand old Orpheum Theater for U.S. Senator Fred Harris, Democrat from Oklahoma, who was running in the Democratic presidential primary. Arlo Guthrie was the headliner, and my sister and I were sitting in the first or second balcony way over at house right, looking down at the brightly lit stage with its glittering mics, amps, and guitars.[1]

This is one of my most vivid memories from that year, and I’d already slotted it into my chronology. In an early draft of this post I wrote: “Thanks to the state ERA campaign I paid more attention to electoral politics in 1976 than I ever had, or that I would for the next 40 years.” But it didn’t take long to turn up incontrovertible evidence online that the Harris-Guthrie concert-rally had taken place months before I started volunteering for the ERA campaign, on February 26.[2] Harris’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, always a long shot, was over by the end of April.

Harris was an antiwar, pro-racial-and-economic-justice populist who inspired the kind of enthusiasm that Senator Eugene McCarthy had in the previous decade and Jesse Jackson would in the next. His was exactly the kind of campaign that would have attracted me with my grassroots activist background, which had largely ignored electoral politics.[3] Could it even have been the Harris benefit concert that put the state ERA campaign on my radar?

The state ERA, Question #1 on the ballot, passed on November 2, election day 1976. By then it had brought three T-shirts into the collection I didn’t realize was a collection. More about that in my next post.

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Notes


[1] I could go on and on and on, but seriously, if you weren’t around in the 1960s and 1970s, or don’t remember much about it, look up Fred Harris and his then wife, Comanche Native American rights activist LaDonna Harris. They divorced in 1982. As of this writing, they’re both alive at the age of 89. Fred was elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma in 1964, the year of the LBJ landslide and the last year a Democratic presidential candidate carried Oklahoma. He was an active member of the Democratic majority that implemented the Great Society legislation, and he was part of the Kerner Commission, officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commissioned to investigate the causes of the rioting and urban unrest that swept the country in 1967. The report was issued in 1968. Harris is the last surviving member of the commission. Arlo Guthrie did a 30-stop fundraising tour for the Harris campaign. According to a 2001 story, the campaign gave Arlo the wheels to travel in. He paid off the lease when the campaign ended and the Guthrie family spent years on the road in that bus.

[2] I’d also forgotten that Tom Paxton, well on the way to being a folkie legend, was the opening act. Both his set list and Arlo’s can be found online, and a couple dozen attendees seem to have made bootleg tapes of the show.

[3] However, the first — and until January 2017 the only — political party I ever belonged to was the D.C. Statehood Party, which I signed up for when I first registered to vote as a Georgetown University freshman. In those days the only municipal office D.C. residents could vote for was school committee. Electoral politics were only a big deal in presidential election years. Statehood for D.C. Now!

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