I first cracked John McMillian’s excellent 2011 book, Smoking Typewriters, which bolstered my knowledge of the impact that the underground press had on the ’60s. Next, I turned to David Armstrong’s 1981 bible on alternative American media, A Trumpet to Arms. This was the book I’d been searching for to help chart my professional course. A Trumpet to Arms, like Smoking Typewriters, is based on a series of interviews with alt-media pioneers. A former editor of the influential Berkeley Barb in the mid-’70s, Armstrong was able to leverage his credentials and connections to score revealing stories from a wide range of counterculture stalwarts: the political cartoonist Ron Cobb; Steve Post, a free-form radio pioneer and early WBAI host; and John Shuttleworth, the former ad executive who started Mother Earth News out of his Ohio farmhouse in 1970, to name just a few.
Where Trumpet differs from McMillian’s work, however, is in its sense of history and scope. Smoking Typewriters focuses primarily on the 1960s as the defining decade for the underground press. But A Trumpet to Arms begins long before Vietnam radicalized Baby Boomers, and addresses alt-media developments all the way through 1980. By covering underground feats from the American Revolution, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the age of nuclear proliferation, Armstrong connects rabble-rousers throughout history—and makes clear that the alt-media ethic existed long before the Summer of Love.
I’ve only been contributing to the alternative press for a decade. But in that time, I’ve witnessed modern theaters of every battle in this book: the debate over escort ads; the fight to organize newsrooms; the arrests of journalists. But only now, peering back through the lens of A Trumpet to Arms, do I realize that while a lot of methodology has changed—I have a phone, camera, post office, and encyclopedia in my pants pocket—the purpose of alternative media has not. My peers are simply the latest longshots against Goliath in a predictable and cyclical race to record history as one sees fit.
A Trumpet to Arms is out of print and essentially forgotten these days—it was last published by South End Press in 1999. Nevertheless, the book packs timely, relevant insights about the enduring cycles of alternative media, and it does so with style. Armstrong shows why the alternative press is, was, and will remain a crucial cultural force, and demonstrates that while certain books and publications may cease printing, this journalistic legacy will live on.
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In 1980, right around the time when Armstrong was finishing A Trumpet to Arms, the liberalism that characterized much of the previous two decades was vanishing. A score of formerly aggressive alternative media outlets were shedding their activist leanings in favor of softer news that played friendlier alongside stereo ads. The New Haven Advocate and the Aquarian in New Jersey, notes Armstrong, began covering fashion. The Phoenix went so far as to release a four-color, glossy insert—an ode to urban pampering—called Savor. Against that backdrop, and with the bogeyman Ronald Reagan taking office, the apathetic climate was ideal for a book charting the alt media’s past, present, and potential future.