Sitting in an old oak pew in Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, "the Mother Church of Country Music," I'm waiting for American roots music apparitions to rise from the dark pine floors and whisper to me the secret key to a rebirth of a progressive nation. A guy can dream.
You may think my hope grandiose and based on idle superstition, but you would be wrong. The occasion is this week's 2008 Americana Music Festival, and I'm giving witness that the spirits rose, and they told me their secret. More on that in a minute.
As I made this pilgrimage, my little brother and his family, along with millions of other survivors, are putting it back together in post-hurricane Houston while another old friend writes that she's hunting a friend in Galveston who has not yet been found on the island city devastated by Ike.
Wall Street, too, is drowned, victim of a sea of greed. Financial security and federal oversight gave way like long-forgotten levees to Republican winks, nods and the old special interest quid pro quo.
If you want more portents, the Chihuahuan Desert is flooding. A storm lingering over the mountains of northern Mexico has sent the Rio Grande out of its banks south of El Paso. Four are dead, including the two leaders of the bi-national border flood control agency. Their flood survey plane crashed two days ago.
Also, there's a war on, and a presidential election, too.
America's up to its ass in alligators, so I head for the high ground, in this case a Nashville bar called the Mercy Lounge. That seems like a well-named place to be these days. I listen to blues star Marsha Ball sing, "Ride It Out," a song about a Mississippi family's hand-built home so strong that when a great storm lifts it from its foundation, it doesn't sink or break apart, but just sails on over to Alabama.
Now would be a good time to make a wish that we could all live in a house like that, one that floats without a balloon payment.
Back at the Ryman, before the Levon Helm Band cranked up, one of my pew-mates wondered why a political guy like me was looking for salvation in, of all places, the spiritual home of country music. That's where the spirits come in.
"Americana" music is a newly named genre whose deep roots go way back, further even than the colonial era since there are Native American licks in this broad category. Levon Helm sure qualifies for the genre. So does Marcia Ball, Steve Earle, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Delbert McClinton. They all played Wednesday night at the Ryman.
But most definitions of Americana are too lean. Bluegrass, rockabilly, blues, hip hop, jazz, and country, to name a few, all seem to fit. Let me try this. In Australia, some displaced indigenous people have an egalitarian ritual tradition that re-connects them to one another and to the land they've been forcibly removed to. Inma kuwarritsa, it's called. It means New Ritual. Every citizen of the community is expected to sing a song of new attachment, to the land and to each other.
That's what Americana music is to us. We're a nation of immigrants and displaced natives who won't be still and won't be quiet, and we reach again and again for one another in song and story. Hank Williams did it. So do Lil Wayne and the Dixie Chicks. And we sing and tell stories to one another in extraordinary numbers of garage bands, book clubs and, yes, bars.
That's the secret told to me by the ghost pickers and spirits in the Ryman Auditorium. While it's true that Levon Helm's heartfelt smile is big enough to win an election, they reminded me that Americans' political views are not shaped by cable news or politicians' speeches. Politics is nothing but the public negotiation of solutions to our common problems and opportunities. We bring to those negotiations deeply human values, hopes, fears, and dreams that rise from our songs and stories, from our culture.
See, one old grizzled spirit whispered to me, facts and rational arguments have neither rhyme nor reason. "You wanna touch somebody, you gotta sing to them. You wanna know what makes 'em tick, don't ask 'em how they vote. Ask 'em to whistle a favorite tune."
Despite a glorious American tradition of resistance singing (think of the abolitionist songs of the Hutchinson Family in the 19th Century), progressive political types often think it's enough to have a celebrity singer deliver our arguments at fundraisers or benefit concerts. But that's not what it's about.
It's about our individual journeys to the aboriginal Dreamtime and the songs and stories we bring back to share with one another. We are social animals, and our beliefs are embodied in these diverse and multi-colored traditions, and we'd do well to heed the authentic voices singing like angels all around us. And we'd better sing back to them.
Yes, I said to my pew-mate in the Ryman, some country music tilts toward the conservative end of the scale. I still think it's sung by people trying to find their way in a perpetually new land.
Americana is a good name for some new innovations in some very old cultural traditions. It's artists aren't, by and large, sentimental traditionalists or lost romantics. They're tough, they're skilled, they're scared, they're hopeful, and its all in their songs.
Levon Helm, joined by Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Little Sammy Davis, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hiatt and others, ended the show Wednesday night with a poignant version of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." They were singing to a country that doesn't feel especially young these days.
May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.
When the last note faded, the bluesman Davis lingered on stage a moment. He tipped his top hat to the crowd, put his hands to his lips and waved the world a kiss.
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