Additional thoughts on Bonnaroo 2011: Do we even get it?
On the first day at Bonnaroo, there was an orientation held under the sizable press tent. Not everyone attended, but the tent was still packed enough that most of us were standing, and a few were left outside the tent, squinting their ears for anything necessary.
There was a lot of press there. If you go to Billboard or Spin or Paste or Rolling Stone or CMJ or Brooklyn Vegan or Joe’s Music Blog, you’ll probably find some mention of the events which took place at Bonnaroo. You’ll find detailed descriptions and analysis, interviews, that sort of thing.
You’ll find that here at No Depression, in the form of my previous posts and those from Dustin Ogdin. But what I personally got out of Bonnaroo was something else altogether. And, now that my critical analysis is out there, I thought I’d follow up with a little bit of existential exploration.
Let’s start with Mavis Staples.
Staples was the one artist above all else who I wanted to see at this year’s Bonnaroo. If I only saw a couple of songs from AKUS (one of my favorite bands) or Mumford & Sons, if I could barely see Robyn through the nearlynude throngs, or only catch Loretta doing one classic tune, I’d be fine if I could see an entire set from Mavis Staples.
So I left the Head and the Heart’s stunning set in the Other Tent a few songs early to get to the What Stage for Miss Mavis.
Nobody was there.
My companion and I approached the beer tent to grab a beverage. “Who are you seeing out here today?” the guy asked. “Mavis Staples!” I exclaimed, expecting he’d share in my excitement. After all, he looked old enough to have at least experienced the Staples Singers’ 1970s funky soul. Turns out, not so much. His eyes glazed. “I don’t know who that is,” he said. My heart sunk, my brow furrowed.
Again, where were all the people?
We walked up to the front and center and stood against the barrier, wondering if the set hadn’t been canceled for some reason. I checked Twitter. No reports of cancellations. Finally, with about eight minutes to spare before Ms. Staples took the stage, people showed up en masse. A few thousand perhaps. Small compared to…every other show I saw that weekend.
What the hell?
But, she didn’t seem to care. She launched into a series of gospel tunes. She was joined by Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller for “The Weight,” and gave some props to Levon Helm and the Band. She talked about the civil rights struggle and launched into “Freedom Highway” – a song her father wrote for the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Let me talk about that for a minute.
What was happening in Alabama in 1965 was that African-Americans were being denied the right to vote more or less because of Jim Crow. The right to vote may seem like small potatoes when you consider the lynching and beating and terrorizing of African-Americans and white activists. (Students who went to Mississippi and Alabama on their own accord to organize something were bludgeoned to death; others were kidnapped by the KKK, beaten to death, decapitated and thrown in the river.) This wasn’t that long ago, and yet the severe brutality of the Jim Crowe era is so often glazed over in our history books.
For those of us who have forgotten or just never learned to the full extent of the story, there was terrifying violence and threatening repercussions for anyone who dared defy segregation. Whether you were trying to start a revolution, or whether you were a black man who didn’t avert your eyes when a white woman passed on the street.
It existed all the way up the line – from average Joes up through law enforcement to elected officials.
A group in Selma which was focused on voting rights called up Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who brought in a bevy of other leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and numerous activists, and they all got together and had a meeting. They decided to do something big and peaceful. They decided to walk from Selma to Montgomery – about 51 miles. When they got to Montgomery, they were going to stand on the lawn of the capitol building and ask Governor Wallace to not only let them register to vote but to protect that right.
You see, the population of Dallas County, Alabama, (where Selma is) was 57 percent African-American, but only one percent of African-Americans in that county were registered to vote. (You had to pass a literacy test to register, not to mention get around the intimidation of the local government and the KKK.)
A year earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been signed into law, but federal law didn’t mean anything to the segregationists in Alabama. Local judges and government filed special injunctions to repress even the discussion of equal civil rights between more than two people, much less the willful gathering of hundreds to have a meeting on the matter, or to try to register to vote.
They started down that road to Montgomery – 600 people – until they came to a bridge. At that bridge, they were met by, basically, a riot of local and state police. Those cops chased and grabbed them with their fists, by the hair and by the limbs, and beat them. They unleashed tear gas. The crowd, who had been singing songs like “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around” dispersed. Human nature. Fight or flight.
Two days later, they tried again. Again, they were deterred.
It was disgusting and embarrassing, and the news and images spread so well and so far that the rest of the country got upset. The president ordered the US Army and the National Guard to escort the activists from Selma to Montgomery, and the troupe gave it a third go a couple weeks later. This time protected by their own military, the march started with 8,000 people and ended five days later with upwards of 25,000 joining in. All they wanted to do was walk from one town to another, to stand on public property and have their voices heard. Simple. What’s threatening about a long walk? But it took the American military to keep their terrorizers away.
Pop Staples, who was a good friend with Dr. King, wrote a song called “Freedom Highway” for that big march. By that point, his family band – the Staple Singers – were more or less the spiritual musical voices of the movement. Everything I just wrote about what was happening in Alabama, was in that song. Absolutely everything.
Mavis Staples was 25. She’s 71 now and, as she said, is “still marching that highway.”
This weekend at Bonnaroo, she sang the everloving shit out of that song. I wanted to cry, but didn’t.
The audience for the most part put their heads down and grooved to the rhythm. Sure, a few people clapped as hard as they could, mouthed some words, or just sang along. Mostly, though, it felt like just another audience watching just another artist sing just another song.
You see, people, music can be – and often is – nice and fun and groovy and cool. But more often, still, it comes from a place of deep longing and grief. More often than not, it comes out of an oppressed voice – whether it’s the voice which wants to say “I love you,” but is afraid; or whether it’s the voice which wants to say “You can’t destroy me,” but is unsure.
When Mavis Staples sings “Made up my mind that I won’t turn around,” she’s not just talking about getting through life. This is no gospel song. This is a song which says, “Go ahead and throw your tear gas; go ahead and shoot those hoses at us; go ahead and grab me by my hair and beat my body until the skin breaks; I’ve made up my mind that I won’t turn around.”
There’s a point to all this.
There’s a story here. And it’s more powerful and extraordinary than anything you can take away from singing along to some song whose lyrics you’ve never considered beyond their hook.
That truth kept poking at me this weekend, keeps poking at me today. The question it raised in me was this: will we ever know what that really means? Will we – my generation – know what to do when it comes time to “march the freedom highway”? Is there any chance in hell the other bands at this festival would pitch in the way Mavis and her family did, and to that extent? With that unwavering level of passion and commitment to the pursuit of not only freedom but the integrity of humanity in all its shapes, sizes, income brackets, and skin colors?
I walked the festival grounds at Bonnaroo 2011 breathing in the countless wafting stenches of various flavors of marijuana, looking at the eyes of hallucinating youngsters – bugged out from seeing something nobody else was looking at – listened in on their conversations, eavesdropped on their logic about their daily crises, the songs they love, the bands they came all this way to see, the reasons why. And I couldn’t help but keep that question in my head.
Here we were – ninety miles from Nashville, Tenn., where the commitment to nonviolence was made, one of the epicenters of the new American ideology on the pursuit of freedom. Watching on stage Mavis Staples, one of the week’s few African-American performers (Lil Wayne, Bootsy Collins, Black Joe Lewis, and Big Boi were also there), ruminating on her statement: “Until Dr. King’s dream is realized.”
Sometimes I worry that we’re getting further and further from our own music. That the things which have kept music radical for its entire history – from Mozart’s defiance of his royal commissioners to the music of the American civil rights movement, and beyond – have become blurred by its popular overexposure.
We can now download hundreds of tracks without so much as knowing the name of the person who made them, much less where that person came from, what matters to them, what informs their music, from which deep hole or high mountain within themselves does their voice come calling through the music. It doesn’t matter now. Or doesn’t seem to, sometimes. Our information specialists, so to speak – bloggers and hobbyist reporters – talk about the music from the point of view of a fan (nothing wrong with that at all – it certainly has its place). This is unbalanced, though, by as many true storytellers who are able to talk to and understand artists, to tell these backgrounds, explain these things, talk us over these bridges, past the riot cops and the tear gas. Figuratively speaking.
Where does it get us? Crushed from the stomach out, in a crowd of kids at an Eminem concert; so far from the music and the person making it that we can’t even see; sound cranked so high in the speakers to reach the back of the crowd that it deafens those of us in the thick of it. That’s part of something which music can do, too – remove all the extranneous stimuli and leave you with just a breath, a rhythm. And, as I said in my last post about Bonnaroo, I have nothing but love for Eminem’s craft.
But, when that experience is followed by the opportunity to celebrate and ruminate and spiritualize and transcend through the music of someone who has committed their whole life and career to celebration, rumination, spiritualization, and transcendence – we don’t seem to show up with the same enthusiasm.
Am I missing something here?
Is the experience of being near-crushed, trapped in a space with nothing but strangers and melodies, mind-altering substances and lyrics muddled by too-loud sound systems somehow equivalent to everything I’ve just said about Mavis Staples? (I could have just as well focused this tangent on Loretta Lynn, or any number of other artists, for what it’s worth – the meaning in their music comes from a very similar place.)
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Mumford & Sons, the Strokes, Eminem, Widespread Panic, or any number of other mainstage performers from this year make music devoid of meaning. In fact, I believe from the artist’s point of view, the music always comes from that place – the place which cannot be accessed through conversation or workaday experience. From the artist’s perspective, you’re always alone on a hilltop calling into the ether. If you have your friends playing with you, it can feel like just you and your friends, and a homemade bullhorn.
But the audience. Does the audience get it? Have we wrested ourselves so far from meaning that it suffices to just be able to say “I was there,” without walking away changed? I don’t mean changed in the sense that you just had a wicked trip, but rather in the sense that – “I’ve made up my mind that I won’t turn around.”
Am I overthinking this?
photo: C. Taylor Caruthers/Bonnaroo