The Rag was an underground paper published in Austin, Texas from 1966-1977. The sixth member of the Underground Press Syndicate, The Rag was one of the most influential of the early underground papers, known for its unique blend of radical politics, alternative culture and humor. The Rag was closely associated with SDS and played a major role in bringing together the anarchist-leaning New Lefties and Austin’s rich countercultural community, helping to merge them into a major political force.
The Rag would become virtually indistinguishable from the community it served, helping to coalesce and mobilize the movement in Austin, both as a news source and as a direct agent of change. It would exert significant influence nationally as well, becoming what historian Laurence Leamer called “one of the few legendary undergrounds.”
The Rag featured news coverage and commentary on the War in Vietnam and the movement opposing it, the civil rights struggles, the student freedom movement, the development of the New Left and SDS, the psychedelic rock and folk music scenes, and the sixties counterculture movement, of which Austin was a major outpost. It also carried national and world news and opinion from Liberation News Service (LNS) and from other underground newspapers around the country.
The Rag first hit the streets in Austin on October 10, 1966. Thorne Dreyer and Carol Neiman were the original editors of the paper. (They were called “funnels” in keeping with the paper’s democratic structure). The first issue included the following articles:
The Truth *beep* Is On Page… by Carol Neiman
General John Economidy by Kaye Northcott
United Front Against Fascism by Bobby Seale
Playboy Morality by Jeff “Shero” Nightbyrd
The Bent Spokesman by Michael Beaudette
Review, Who Isn’t Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Gary Chason
Former staffer Alice Embree recalls that “The Rag covered what was not covered by the ‘straight’ press. The writers participated in the political and cultural uprising and also wrote about it. And they told you where to get a chicken dinner for 35 cents.” The Rag featured the writing of major New Left figures like Gary Thiher, Jeff (Shero) Nightbyrd, Robert Pardun and Greg Calvert. It covered the Austin rock scene which was one of the birthplaces of the psychedelic music phenomenon.
The list of contributors read like a Who’s Who of the times – Kerry Awn, William Burroughs, Gary Chason, Cesar Chavez, R. Crumb, Bob Dylan, Mike Eakin, Jim Franklin, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Guinn, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jack Jackson, Timothy Leary, Ralph Nader, Jeff Nightbyrd, Joel Oppenheimer, Alan Pogue, David Pratt, Todd Samusson, Danny Schweers, Bobby Seale, Gilbert Shelton, and Natalie Zoe.
The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Gilbert Shelton’s iconic sixties comic strip, was born in The Rag. Artist Jim Franklin — whose surrealist armadillos helped to place the ugly little armored critters right up there with the longhorn as a symbol of Texas — designed many of the paper’s covers. God Nose, a strip by the late Jack (Jaxon) Jackson, ran in The Rag. Jaxon is attributed by many with having created the first underground comic book. Alan Pogue, who was staff photographer for eight years, is now acclaimed for his vast body of work, marked by striking social commentary.
Over its life span the paper evolved with the times, for a while becoming one of the strongest voices of the women’s liberation movement and later focusing on local politics, covering Austin city government, neighborhood protests and the labor movement. As Glenn Scott recalls about the later Rag, one “could not have imagined a more democratic process than a Rag copy meeting. An all volunteer group of self-taught editors and copy writers debated the sexism and violence in pornography, the corporate influence in utility policies, and the CIA’s involvement in Chile. And how much space went to the Free Clinic benefit and the Freak Brothers.”
Many of the underground newspapers met with establishment opposition, harassment and even legal action. In Austin, the regents at the University of Texas sued The Rag to prevent circulation on campus. David Richards, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully defended The Rag’s First Amendment rights before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many of the forces behind the founding of The Rag later played major roles in developing other alternative media. Thorne Dreyer worked with Liberation News Service and, along with The Rag’s Dennis and Judy Fitzgerald, started Space City News (later Space City!) in Houston, one of the most accomplished of the second generation of underground papers. Dreyer, Gary Thiher and Jeff Shero (later known as Jeff Nightbyrd) worked with KPFT-FM, the Pacifica radio station in Houston. Shero started Rat in New York and Alice Embree joined him there. Carol Neiman later edited New Left Notes, the national SDS newspaper.
The Rag held a reunion on Sept. 1-4, 2005. The event was a rousing success, attended by over 70 former staff members who came in from all over the country for Rag art and photography exhibits, a rousing retro-rock concert and a series of group discussions. Many had not been in touch for 35-40 years.
The reunion resulted in a renewed alliance among many of the ex-Ragstaffers and birthed a group of websites including The Rag Blog, The Rag archives site, which includes full scans of the early issues, a Rag Reunionsite and a Rag Authors’ Page. And several Rag vets have reunited in Austin and are once more involved in political activism through the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS/Austin), associated with the newly revived SDS.