There was a point during Valerie June’s performance at the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, last night where she spread her arms out wide, cocked her head back, and, eyes closed, sang out, loud, in a way that felt like she hadn’t planned it: “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley / You’ve got to walk it by yourself.” The packed crowd fell silent and she pressed on. “Ain’t nobody here gonna walk it for you / You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.” She pulled the notes out long, like a stretched rubberband — her voice big, forceful, banging against the top of my ears, like an angry cat in the night — that unignorable, wholly Valerie June-ness of her music-making.
She became distracted by a noise onstage and made a joke about aliens being in the room. “Any kind of aliens are welcome here, though,” she said, and the crowd erupted.
On a night full of love songs, songs about hope and curiosity and being lost, the show was beginning to feel like a rare apolitical moment in a world where everything feels a little overcharged, where little can be discussed among people without someone bringing up some political scandal. Even being a person inclined toward social justice issues, I’ve become a bit tired of sensationalized speculation about what’s next and why all this is happening. So even I was a little relieved to feel like I was back in the Obama years again, for a moment, when a show was just a show and the singer was just singing.
But June’s comment was perfect, coming the same night a new travel ban was signed for six majority Muslim countries, from a man who has been known to call foreign immigrants “aliens” — that antiquated term from the ’80s, before we were all connected on the internet, before we could tweet back and forth with people overseas in seconds, before the average citizen came to understand that people everywhere are just people, that calling a human being an alien is ludicrous at best, and also deeply offensive and dismissive of their humanity.
All of that was packed into the implications of the phrase “aliens are welcome,” and June laughed to herself as the crowd exhaled a bit more, laughing and clapping, and loosening up. She leaned into the next line:
Some people say John was a baptist
Some folks say he was a Jew
But your holy scripture tells you
That he was a preacher too
In this diverse crowd of college kids and 30-somethings, many of them women, many of them hipsters, I wondered if they knew this song already. If they knew that it was one of the strongest links in American roots music history — George Jones sang it, and so did Pete Seeger — a song so universal it’s been sung as a hymn of praise and a hymn of defiance, and sometimes both in the same breath. Woody Guthrie liked to sing this song, now nearly a century ago. What would he think of what’s going on in America now? What would he have to say to Valerie June?
By now, the audience was silent again, and June’s arm had folded over her face to keep out the punishing stage lights. She wasn’t going to be distracted again. She was going for it. She started in on the opening verse again, and someone started stomping on the ground. “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,” and the stomping spread. By the end of the second line, the whole room was walking — a crowd of lonesome individuals had joined together, had consented to do this, to add their footfalls to the rhythm chorus, and the sound of a crowd of likeminded souls coming up the road started to drown out the singer. She just lifted her face up and smiled. “Nobody here gonna walk it for you / You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.”
And there in that old warehouse on the edge of town, which had been founded as a meeting place for Asheville’s now-somewhat-marginalized black community, which has long since been taken over by the nightlife leg of the tourist industry that’s swept downtown, this magnetic black woman with the banjo and the ruminative love songs was leading a crowd of (mostly) white folks in the notion that, yes, it is a lonesome choice to start down that road, but there are a whole lot of us here who are walking together, and we don’t care what you look like or where you’re from; we’re on a journey.
Music, man. It can do things.
And then just like that — like the moment had started in a sort of improvised, distracted way — it ended. The light shifted. June picked up an instrument and got back to the business of sharing songs from a new record. (And what a record it is!) After a short time, as she talked about how songs come to her like voices when she’s out living her life, she lamented that she’s yet to write a hit song. Then she paused. “Maybe,” she added quietly, “I just make music for the spirit.”