To Kill A Mockingbird, Still Powerful and Popular

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on October 25, 2019.)

Almost 60 years ago, Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published and drew immediate and sustained acclaim from both critics and the public. In 1961, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and over the decades it has maintained its position at the top of America’s most beloved books.

The story takes place in the Depression Era, 1932-35, in the mythical town of Maycomb, Maycomb County, Alabama. It is told through the voice of a young girl, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who is six at the outset of the book. The other main characters include her older brother Jeremy (Jem), their friend Charles Baker Harris (Dill), their heroic father Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, a reclusive man who lives nearby, and Tom Robinson, an African American farm hand wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.

The story is back in the news today for several reasons. In December, 2018, the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opened on Broadway. It is based on the book and was adapted for stage by award-winning Aaron Sorkin. Second, our country is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to British North America. With its “Project 1619,” the New York Times is giving special coverage to slavery and racism in America, past and present.

Here in Rhode Island, two organizations are spear-heading drives to increase public awareness of the large role of slavery in the state’s history and to give the enslaved a measure of appreciation and dignity, denied them while living: the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project ( ) and the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization (

The novel deals with many issues on many levels. The most notable is racism/discrimination/segregation. While racism in the North is touched on, its focus is mainly racism in the Deep South in the 1930s.

A second theme is “other-ness.” In addition to “Negroes” as “others,” additional groups include women who do not conform, girls—such as Scout—who do not conform, lower class whites (“white trash”), and poor families (the Cunninghams). Even the persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany have a presence in the book. “Other,” non-conforming individuals include Boo Radley, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond.
A third theme is moral courage and heroism, most visibly in Atticus Finch who is the court-appointed lawyer defending Tom Robinson. While he stands out as a hero, he is not the only one. The heroism of others, including children, also emerges in several parts of the book.

A fourth theme is the unwritten codes of conduct we all follow. The book portrays several, both individual and group: that of Atticus Finch, of children, of gossipy women, of dominant whites, of oppressed blacks.

A final important theme is blatant hypocrisy, especially that of Christians behaving very un-Christ-like.

A few years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee stated: “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”

The novel has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold more than 40 million copies. Last year, PBS aired a program called “The Great American Read,” an eight-part series exploring America’s 100 best-loved books, based on public votes. To Kill a Mockingbird took the top spot.

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1962, the film adaptation of the book was released, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. It garnered three Oscars, including Best Actor for Peck. I invite you to a screening of the movie this Sunday, October 27, at 1:00 pm, at the Jane Pickens Theater. I shall be hosting the movie and offering commentary.

This movie can be the beginning of a great family discussion on some very important and still timely subjects. Take, for example, my favorite quote from the book and movie, stated by Atticus Finch: “…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.

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Un-Erasing Rhode Island Slave History

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on August 24, 2019. A version of it was published the same day as “My Turn: Fred Zilian: Opening Our Eyes to the Enslaved,” in the Providence Journal.)

Whether unconsciously or by my father’s conscious decision, the history of my grandmother, Zenobia Dubois Zilian, was essentially erased from my family’s history. When I asked my father about her, long dead when I was born, he would tell me scant little about her. “She was from the island of Martinique,” he would say and then drop the subject. I possessed only two, very old, poor-quality photographs of her which suggested that she might have African blood.

Nonetheless, it came as somewhat of a surprise when I was able to find through an ancestry organization my father’s family on the 1930 Census document and to discover that not only she but also my father, then 19, and all his siblings were categorized as “Negro”. After all my research, it has become fairly clear that she had slave blood.

As I brought my grandmother back into memory and my family’s history, so an organization called Rhode Island Slave History Medallions is seeking to “un-erase” the history of the enslaved in Rhode Island, who not only made up a significant part of the population of colonial Rhode Island but also played an enormous role in its economy in the 18th century. This organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations throughout the state with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. ( The first medallion will be unveiled Sunday, 1pm, at Patriots Park, Portsmouth, an event free and open to the public.

Along with Rhode Island historian, Robert Geake, and web page designer and researcher, Peter Fay, I was honored to contribute to the content of the web page on the Park’s connection to slavery through the First Rhode Island Regiment, commonly called the “Black Regiment, and the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. We uncovered information on at least some of the former slaves who served in the regiment.

Ruttee Gardner was sold to the RI General Assembly on May 8, 1778 for £30 by Nicholas Gardner of Exeter. He served in the regiment with Capt. Lewis’ company. He appears to have served out his time with the regiment and likely was injured or became ill during his time of service. He was listed as “sick in North Kingstown” in March 1779 and was honorably discharged from service in April of that year. His illness or injuries seem to have continued to plague him, for on March 28, 1785, Hezekiah Babcock submitted a bill to the town of Hopkinton for the “boarding and nursing of Rutter Gardner, a negro man who formerly belonged to Nicholas Gardner of Exeter, and a late soldier in the Rhode Island Continental Regiment”.

Prince Brown was a slave owned by the influential Brown family of Providence. When Joseph Brown and cousin Nicholas Power discovered their slave Prince had enlisted in the 1st Regiment, they immediately petitioned and persuaded the General Assembly to “resolve that a negro man Prince belonging to [them]… be discharged from the said regiment.” He was returned to slavery on their farm in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Ichabod Northup of North Kingstown was sold to the Assembly for £120 by one of the Northups of North Kingstown. Ichabod not only fought in the Battle of Rhode Island but also at Croton, N.Y., when attacked by loyalist forces. He was captured, threatened with hanging for not divulging troop movements to the enemy, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. He returned after the war to East Greenwich, purchasing a house which still stands on Division Street. In 1820 he testified that he relied on charity, was unable to work—his toes having frozen in the war—was “impoverished”, “could not support himself” and family, and his house was “much out of repair”.

London Hall was 40 when he enlisted in 1778 for three years in Capt. Dexter’s Company. However, in 1790 his former master, William Hall of North Kingstown, claimed he had never been appraised for his value before enlisting and demanded his re-enslavement or £80. Luckily, by 1790 the legislature considered his required three years’ service sufficient for his freedom and dismissed the claim.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is a writer and an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI.

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Woodstock: An Amazing and Unreal Four Days

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 15, 2019.)

Fifty years ago in America, the summer of 1969 was punctuated by two major events. In mid-July the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, and in mid-August the counterculture movement peaked at an amphitheater-shaped hillside on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, NY, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. It was there that 400,000 mostly young people gathered for the Woodstock Music Festival, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”


But beyond the peace and music were also drugs—some bad, rain and mud, bad sanitation, food shortages, and a general no-rules atmosphere. Nonetheless, even with all that humanity gathered in one place, there was no reported violence and only two deaths, one when a farmer ran over someone sleeping in his field and the other from either insulin usage or heroin overdose.

Earlier in the year pop music hits were apt precursors for Woodstock. In April the song, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” hit #1 on the billboard charts, proclaiming a new age and promising peace, love and harmony. The month before the festival, the dark, ominous song, “In the Year 2525,” reached #1 and remained there till after the festival had concluded.

For over three days the enormous crowd listened to 33 musical acts, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Grateful Dead.

Declining invitations to perform were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan, who lived in the actual town of Woodstock about 43 miles away. He stated: “I didn’t want to be a part of that thing.” “I just thought it was a lot of kids out and around wearing flowers in their hair, taking a lot of acid.”

Richie Havens opened the festival at 5 pm, Friday, Aug 15. When the next act, Sweetwater, was delayed, he agreed to keep playing, belting out his improvised chant “Freedom,” which became a touchstone of the festival. He remarked: “It was about love, about sharing, about helping each other, living in peace and harmony.” Of course, “freedom” as interpreted by most of the Woodstock Generation was the shallow kind: freedom to live without restriction and obligation.

Another high point came when Country Joe MacDonald and the Fish performed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” one of the anthems of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Now come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books pick up your gun
Gonna have a whole lot of fun

And it’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn
The next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s 5, 6, 7 open up the Pearly Gates
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.

The final signature moment came at the end with the performance of Jimi Hendrix, clad in a blue-beaded white jacket and red scarf in his Afro. Because of delays, Hendrix could not take the stage until 8:30 am, Monday, Aug 18. Central and climactic was his piercing, exploding, transfixing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as part of his two-hour set.
Despite the chaos, disorder, poor sanitation, and mud, most of the attendees probably had very positive memories and feelings about the event. But not all. Pete Townsend of The Who was horrified: “What was going on off the stage was beyond comprehension—stretchers and dead bodies and people throwing up and people having bad trips.”


Mark Hosenball writing in Newsweek in 2009 said: “Woodstock was, if not a nightmare, then a massive, teeming, squalid mess.” “If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat.”

Portsmouth resident, Joe Lubiner, drove to the festival on Friday but was stopped in Monticello, NY, and was forced to walk the remaining 10 miles to the festival site. When he arrived, he could not find sufficient space to unroll his sleeping bag. Then the rain came. “I regretted it, because I never really got to experience the music, and the basics [of life] were lacking.”

At 20 and entering my senior year at West Point, I had just assumed command of the summer training camp for sophomores, “Camp Buckner.” My world of order, military training, uniforms, parades, rules and regulations, and military music rather than psychedelic rock was the polar opposite of the free and unrestrained unreal world of Woodstock.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly Daily News columnist.

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In Colonial Rhode Island, the Enslaved Resisted

(Note: This essay is the fifth in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published on July 19, 2019, by the Newport Daily News.)

In the 18th century the colony of Rhode Island came to dominant the slave trade in British North America, explaining why the colony had the highest percentage of slaves of all New England colonies. These enslaved African Americans lived and worked, and even sometimes prayed and played next to their white masters; however, without basic human and civil rights, without ownership of their own bodies and destinies, their lives were always less than whole.

So they resisted, with multiple motives and means. Some sought freedom by escaping on foot or on a water vessel; others wanted revenge and justice by burning their masters’ property or even killing them. Others simply wanted community and social connection, perhaps denied them by their masters.

In 1707, an unnamed “negro” man from Newport reportedly murdered his master and drowned himself rather than be captured. The colonial General Assembly’s reaction to this is shocking to us today; however, it was clearly at the time morally and legally sound. It ordered “that his head, legs, and arms be cut from his body, and hung up in some public place, near the town [Newport] to public view: and his body burnt to ashes, that it may, if it please God, be something of a terror to others from perpetrating of the like barbarity for the future.”

In many cases in the colony, the enslaved had easy access to waterways. Therefore, stowing away on a ship or simply paddling away must have been an attractive option, especially for a young enslaved man. In 1728, Jethro, an enslaved “negro,” stole a canoe from his master in North Kingstown and paddled to Martha’s Vineyard to live with the Native Americans.

In 1714, it was reported that a “mulatto” man ran away from Newport, depriving his owner of his work. Such actions must have been a great concern to the government because in 1714 the RI General Assembly forbade enslaved from boarding ferries alone. In 1757 the Assembly continued its attempts to control the enslaved by passing a law allowing slave masters to search private ships in search of runaways.

The resistance to slavery is also indicated by the publicized attempts by masters to find runaways. According to Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, RI slaveholders during the colonial period placed one hundred runaway slave ads (92 men and 8 women) in local and regional newspapers.
She also states that the vast majority of runaways were young men and that about 29% of the runaways in the colonial period were from Narragansett Country (South County), about 19% from Newport, and 11% from Providence.

Despite the laws to control the social lives of the enslaved, they resisted. Throughout New England the enslaved had annual celebrations usually in June called Negro Election Days, great celebrations with much dancing and music. As part of these celebrations, they would even elect a “governor” or “king,” a position that came to hold great prestige within the enslaved communities.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, indicates that such celebrations occurred in Newport, with elections being conducted through a formal ballot system. By 1756, elections took place at the head of Thames St. It appears that slave owners competed to have the best dressed slaves providing clothing, jewelry, wigs, horses, and carriages. Having a “governor” or “king” for a slave evidently gave a certain amount of prestige to the slave owner.

As fully feeling human beings with the range of human emotions and desires, the enslaved sought sexual intimacy, for which permission was evidently needed. Clark-Pujara states that in 1673, “negro servants” Maria and George were found guilty of fornicating and sentenced to “fifteen stripes.”

It is clear that the enslaved resisted, not only passively but also actively. They resisted the attempts by their masters to reduce them to simply cold, unfeeling property, like a chair, a horse, a fence post. The enslaved were fully human beings, with yearning hearts, minds, and souls, and they demonstrated this.

Two local organizations now exist to raise our level of awareness of slave history in Rhode Island, making it more complex and comprehensive. The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project seeks to remember, honor and commemorate the contributions of those Africans who perished in the middle passage journey and to acknowledge those survivors who helped build Newport and the nation economically and culturally. ( )

The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.



Benard, Akeia. Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI. (forthcoming)

Clark-Pujara, Christy. Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. NY: New York University Press, 2016.

Crane, Elaine F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era. NY: Fordham University Press, 1992.

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D-Day Invasion Succeeds: The Beginning of the End for Nazi Germany

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on June 6, 2019.)

Seventy-five years ago on June 6, 1944, the combined air, naval, and army forces of the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada successfully invaded the Normandy coast of France held by Nazi Germany, the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe and of the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

By the spring of 1944, there were 1.5 million American soldiers in the United Kingdom. Southern England and much of the rest of the country had become a vast military camp: depot upon depot of ammunition, mines, engineer supplies, and wire; ubiquitous motor parks of tanks, wheeled vehicles, and artillery pieces. Giving life to all this materiel were the armed troops: 20 American divisions, 14 British, 3 Canadian, one French, one Polish, special forces units, and headquarters’ staffs. As Max Hastings states in Overlord: “ Week by week, the transatlantic convoys docked in British ports, unloading new cargoes of artillery shells from Illinois, blood plasma from Tennessee, jeeps from Detroit, K ration cheese from Wisconsin.”

The organizational feat which the military staffs accomplished in the 17 weeks prior to D-Day was, in Hastings words, the “greatest organizational achievement of the Second World War,” and something which “may never be surpassed in war.”

The plan for the D-Day invasion, code-named Overlord, called for amphibious assaults on five beaches over a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coast, two American attacks on beaches code-named Omaha and Utah, two British attacks on Sword and Gold, and one Canadian assault on Juno. Three airborne divisions—two American and one British—would make supporting attacks preceding the main amphibious landings. Ranger and commando units would also assist. Two hundred warships would pound German coastal fortifications. In the first 24 hours, the Allies hoped to land 150,000 troops, requiring 1200 ships and 4100 landing craft.

A key to the Allied success would be its air supremacy, won weeks before D-Day in the skies over Europe. Once a beachhead was established, a tremendous push of men and materiel would follow. Of course, another key factor in the operation’s ultimate success were the Soviet military offensives on the eastern front which kept much of the German military might fixed and occupied.

Accompany Operation Overlord was Operation Bodyguard, an elaborate deception plan to trick the Germans into thinking that the main assault would be at Pas de Calais, the shortest distance from England to France. The Allies formulated a huge but fictional invasion force, called the First U.S. Army Group, consisting of 50 divisions preparing to invade from the Straits of Dover and under the command of Gen. George S. Patton.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower talking to troops of the 101st Airborne Division shortly before D-Day

Leading the entire operation was American Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Allied Commander with British Gen. Bernard L Montgomery commanding the land forces.
Since occupying France in 1940, the Germans led by Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, had built the Atlantic Wall, a line of defensive fortifications on the coast stretching from Norway to southern France. Hitler said in December 1943: “If they attack in the West, that attack will decide the war.” German Gen. Erwin Rommel, the commander of Army Group B along the coast of France, said: “We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy, and that is when he is in the water. Everything we have must be on the coast. The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”

In his letter to the troops just before D-Day, Gen. Eisenhower stated: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade….” “We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, song writers wrote tunes touching every sentiment of the war for lovers. These were the songs which played in the men’s minds as they waited for D-Day. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo,” “Cleaning My Rifle (and Dreaming of You),” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams),” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

I’ll be seeing you/In all the old familiar places/That this heart of mine embraces/All day through

I will find you in the morning sun/And when the night is new/I’ll be looking at the moon/But I’ll be seeing you.

Operation Overlord was the greatest multi-service and multi-national operation in history. As planned, the three airborne divisions made their drops the night before the invasion, though many units missed their drop zones. The allied divisions successfully stormed the five beaches on the Normandy coast.

The Americans at Utah faced light resistance. One private stated: “We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.”

This was not the case at Omaha where casualties were the heaviest of all five beaches. Sgt. Bob Slaughter of the 29th Infantry Division was in the lead elements. “About 200 to 300 yards from the shore we encountered artillery fire.” Once the ramp went down, the water was still deep for men wearing 60 pounds of gear. “Many were hit in the water and drowned.” “There were dead men floating in the water and live men acting dead, letting the tides take them in.”

By nightfall the Allied forces had succeeded in establishing beachheads one-half to three miles inland.

Not expecting an invasion during the stormy weather, German Gen. Rommel, was away on D-Day, visiting his wife on her birthday. Upon his return that night, his worst fears had come true. His forces now faced nearly 156,000 allied soldiers with their feet already on French soil.

The Allies had suffered only about 3,000 dead, a figure which Max Hastings calls “a negligible price for a decisive strategic achievement.”

A retired Army officer and paratrooper, Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

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Technology’s Incompetence with Tragedy

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on May 25, 2019.)

Technology is transforming our world at an alarming rate. However, as it transforms and offers such promise, we must be very cautious about it affecting the core elements of what it is to be human. This imperative has become clear to me recently as I have confronted a personal tragedy.

Many of the new technologies hold such great promise for making our lives easier and healthier. To help people with disabilities, Japanese scientists are developing a headset which can read and translate a person’s thoughts into speech. For people who have lost their voices, the Scottish company, CereProc, is developing technology which will convert their typed words into their original voices. Advances in battery life may make a pacemaker last, not for ten years, but for hundreds.

Last December, USA Today reported that the Kroger Company, the world’s largest grocery chain teaming with the robotics company, Nuro, began delivering groceries in driverless vehicles in Arizona.

For the first time scientists with nanotechnology are building materials one molecule at a time, machines as small as a human hair. Some of these microscopic computers, “micro-doctors,” will swim in our bloodstream, analyze, seek out, and destroy cancer cells. Unravelling the secrets of the human genome, engineers now predict that within two decades, technology will exist to extend life expectancy.

These are all wonderful developments with great promise. I am all for them, and even if many of us were not, history has shown that technology will march on inexorably.

However, technology is no elixir or panacea when tragedy strikes. All the technologies of the world will not bring back my son. And while it assisted in what might be called the administration of tragedy, it showed remarkable incompetence and fecklessness in addressing the deepest human needs of me and my family. While it was good at spreading his obituary, it could not show up, show empathy, or express sympathy very well. Cell phones proved to be destructively distracting. Of the 526 people in my Linked In network, two used the platform to express their condolences; one of those followed with a card. (I am not on Facebook.) The more important point is that even if hundreds had, the messages would not touch my deepest needs.

Thomas Zilian (1973-2019)

The things that really helped me and my family were those friends and family who gave the gift of presence: they showed up, touched, hugged, wept, and came bearing gifts—chicken soup, mounds of fruit, muffins, calzones, chicken soup, rice pudding, tuna-noodle casserole, gallons of ice cream, and Brenda’s baked ham which I ate every day for ten days straight.

Klaus Schwab, writing in Foreign Affairs, on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” December12, 2015, was correct in questioning the impact of the digital revolution on “not only what we do but also who we are.” He said: “I am a great enthusiast and early adopter of technology, but sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation.”

This subject is so important that Senator Ben Sasse, in his latest book, Them, Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, calls for a national discussion on the subject. “Now is the time to pause for a national family meeting—and lots more individual family meetings—to discuss what we want from these coming technologies, before they make the decisions for us.” In so doing, let’s give little credence to the bold but self-serving proclamations of some of the big tech companies that they are “making the world a better place.”

During the hours of visitation, it was gratifying to see my son’s friends come through the line. Many I knew. The greater impact came from his friends I had never met and from what they said about my son. There was the stranger who came alone, limping, with a cane. He paid his respects at the coffin then came to me and related his story. “When I fell,” he said, “Tom came to me and picked me up. He spoke to me; he helped me.” The man, his walk, the scene he gave me with this story–these will forever give me comfort. No technology could ever replicate or replace that.

Fred Zilian, ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, is an opinion contributor to The Hill, and is a monthly columnist to the Newport Daily News.

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Song “Aquarius” Beamed Hope during Chaotic Sixties

(Note: This essay was originally published as “50 Years of ‘Aquarius,'” in the Newport Daily News on April 27, 2019.)

It is quite a feat for a song to achieve the #1 position on the Billboard charts, let alone to occupy the top spot for six weeks in a row. Fifty years ago, the song “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” sung by the Fifth Dimension, accomplished this. It hit the Top 40 chart on March 15, 1969, reached #1 in April, and remained on the chart for 16 weeks.

The song, actually a medley of two songs, was written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with the music written by Galt MacDermott. Bill Holman wrote the instrumental backing, played by session musicians of the Wrecking Crew. The actual recording of the song was unusual in one part was recorded in Los Angeles and the other in Las Vegas, before mixed together.

The idea for the song came from serendipity. Billy Davis, Jr., the lead singer of the Fifth Dimension, left his wallet in a New York City cab. The man who found it was involved in the production of the musical Hair. He invited the group to see the show, in which they heard a segment of music entitled “Aquarius.” Enthused with the segment, they contacted music producer and engineer Bones Howe who took two segments of music and “jam[med] them together like two trains.”

The singing group, the Fifth Dimension, originated in Los Angeles in 1966, and included Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue, Billy Davis, Jr., Lamont McLemore, and Ron Towson. Before “Aquarius,” they had seven Top 40 hits, the biggest being “Up, Up, and Away,” and “Stoned Soul Picnic.” During the group’s high period, 1967-73, it had a total of 20 Top-40 hits.

Fifth Dimension, wiki
After the original group ended in 1975, the group with different members has continued to perform. Their music, published on many labels, includes the genres of R & B, pop, soul, sunshine pop, and psychedelic soul.

The lyrics of the song were rooted in astrology. Though astrologers differed on the year this new age would begin, the song proclaimed that a new “Age of Aquarius” was at hand sometime after the 20th century. This age was to be characterized by love, light, and humane, kind relationships, unlike the current “Age of Pisces.”

The lyrics:
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius

Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the…

The singles version ran for 4 minutes, 49 seconds and finished with lead singer Billy Davis pumping out words of exhortation, “open up your heart” and “you got to feel it,” while the rest of the group sang “let the sunshine in” in bursts of three for a total of eleven times to end the song.

The song won Grammys in 1970 for “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group.” In the US Billboard Hot 100 list (1958-2018) it ranked #73.

In the divisive and discordant Sixties, this song was so popular, I believe, because it offered the hope that larger cosmic forces were mysteriously at work to bring peace and harmony to an America—and a world—marked by chaos.

This could not have contrasted more with my ordered, predictable life at the time. When the song hit #1, I was finishing my junior year at West Point, very much in love with my future wife, and trying to win the conference title as a member of the Army baseball team.

Fred Zilian ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, is an opinion contributor for The Hill, and is a monthly columnist for The Daily News.

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