Saturday, July 15, 2006

New Orleans: Coda and Capo

New Orleans, Louisiana

Six summers ago, my brother and I wept in each other's arms in Dodge City, Kansas.

We were parting at the end of a journey where we had found our grandfather's roots, roots that extended back to Delaware and the first Peterson's arrival around 1638.

Our lives had been changed on the hot plains of southwest Kansas, and we wanted to hold on and savor the grace of the moment.

Different ones had tears at the end of last night's performance at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in New Orleans.

We all wanted to hold on.

Yet, it is time for this tour to end. As someone remarked, “It feels like we've been down here forever!”

In five minutes, a third of our group will leave for the airport and Minnesota. The rest of us will follow tomorrow.

Finding a New Orleans venue - any kind of venue - had been problematic until very recently. Fifteen churches had said “no” before The Rev. Susan Gaumer at St. Andrew's said, “Yes, of course.”

Afterwards, Susan told James Davies that it all came together for her with a single image: 102 singers massed beneath a 16-foot figure of a resurrected Christ, arms raised in blessing.

In many ways, this was the best performance even though the venue imposed technical limitations.

In one of the week's countless sweet moments, the mother of tenor Michael Lahr flew down to hear his solo in “Michael's Letter to Mama,” by Armistead Maupin.

Several other Minnesotans joined us for the finale.

Acts of creation are acts of faith. This is what gives the arts their intrinsic value.

Some of us are called to create human life. All of us are called to live life daily.

In an interview on the bus on Thursday, Richard Long observed that “When a part of you is smothered, a part of you dies.”

Large portions of New Orleans were smothered, and much of it will die. Many people who left will never return. Those who remain have a hard journey.

However, I feel no guilt about our boutique hotel digs in the French Quarter: we are bringing much needed cold cash to a place that will need tons of it for decades.

The city will grow again. What was not broken will be stronger.

The Great Southern Sing Out Tour has been eight days of collective worship, of living life daily. The grace of the moment, the faces, names, and places, will abide with us always.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Biloxi: You Raise Me Up

New Orleans, Louisiana

They formed a tight circle on the white beach sands of Biloxi, Mississippi. In the center stood Richard Long, 61, and words written for the occasion by a black woman in Minneapolis were read.

They formed-up in two facing columns, two-deep, perpendicular to the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

Between the columns, they unrolled a white fabric runner leading to the water.

As Richard was led through the columns, they joined hands and sang their signature, "Walk hand in hand with me."

Stepping into the Gulf of Mexico, Richard was surrounded by more than 100 brothers singing, "We shall overcome."

No dry eyes on Biloxi's waterfront.

Several of those present were not born in 1965 when Richard was stationed nearby at the Keesler Air Force Base. Black people were not welcome on the Gulf beaches in those days. The power of the federal government, represented by 17,000 soldiers, was no match for the power of attitude in Biloxi, Mississippi.

A reporter-with-camera from the local newspaper was present to record the scene, as were the archival cameras hired by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus to follow their tour of four Southern states.

The day started with a 90-minute bus tour of Mobile, Alabama, narrated by three community volunteers.

Our Magnolia Express bus had the gracious stories of Linda, who told us "You can say anything you want about somebody in the South if you finish with the words, 'Bless their heart!'"

The City of Mobile (pop. 250,000) is built on a swamp, Mobillians claim to have started Mardi Gras with the arrival of the French in 1702. That other city, further west, did not start its Mardi Gras until "missionaries" arrived there from Mobile in 1850.

Live oak trees, 150-200 years old, are everywhere throughout the city. Unlike some people, they are protected by law, and cannot be trimmed in the slightest.

Mobile receives the highest annual rainfall of any urban city in the continental U.S., operates the 15th largest port, and provides 24% of the nation's seafood.

Mobile Bay is only 3-to-10 feet deep in all of its 30-mile stretch to the Gulf.

TCGMC's Mobile partner, Bay Area Inclusion, was exceedingly well organized, and obtained full underwriting for the performance. They feted all of us handsomely afterward, and many went clubbing with some of the guys until the wee hours.

The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the air conditioning in Bishop State Community College went out yesterday afternoon. Fans were on, wool tuxedos were dispensed with, and artists and audience got "pitty" together.

Seven Mobile police officers volunteered their services for security on their day off, and one of them gave his phone number to one of the soloists.

The three bus drivers who have been with us all week attended for the first time and said they enjoyed themselves a great deal. Their previous gigs have included multi-state transport for at least one George Bush campaign.

Driving along the Gulf Coast today, and into New Orleans, was a sorrowful, sobering experience of disbelief. It is as bad -- and then some -- as the pictures on television.

We have a few hours before starting the pub crawl to hand out publicity for tomorrow night's performance. And -- best news -- we don't have to be checked-out and on a bus by 9am in the morning.

Time to see this city, up close, on foot.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up to more than I can be.

-- Act 1, TCGMC, Great Southern Sing Out Tour

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Jackson: Jeers, Tears, and Many Cheers

Mobile, Alabama

Jesus told us to feed the hungry.

Last night's TCGMC audience in Jackson, Mississippi, was famished. Although our boys looked a touch tired on stage, they acted and sounded anything but as they served a stirring and satiating soulfood.

The audience appeared younger than those in Nashville (Sun.) and Birmingham (Mon.). Individuals later attributed their somewhat reticent responses to not knowing how to act.

"We've never seen or heard anything like this before!"

Invited to stand in place and have their relationships recognized, it took until the last 15 seconds of "Marry Us" before a few dozen couples dared to do so.

This audience, including an 80-something-year-old man, also probably did the most silent weeping throughout the evening.

The first two protesters of the tour, one with a bullhorn, appeared outside the Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson and maintained a vigil all evening. Police restricted them to the sidewalk and away from the city-owned hall. A security guard was posted at the back door, and doors were locked during the concert. After the show, several performers went out to confront the two with song: "We shall overcome!"

We sold as many TCGMC CDs in Jackson as were sold in Nashville and Birmingham combined.

Following the show, Thalia Mara's eight unionized stage crew members donated their labor for the day -- worth $1,200.

Also after the show, a recently-widowed woman offered to write a check to launch a new, Jackson Gay Men's Chorus, and pledged to support it for five years. I am told that she actually wrote the check. She reportedly told a Chorus member, "Every straight person in Jackson should have been here tonight!"

If you have checked TCGMC's web site, you may have noted the story about bass singer Richard Long. When serving in the Air Force in Biloxi in 1965, he was not allowed to join his Caucasian colleagues on the Gulf beaches. Richard has been across the aisle of our Magnolia Express for three days, and tomorrow we are stopping at the Biloxi beach where he will walk and dip a toe in the water.

Last night, a former Biloxi resident sought him out and offered her personal apology for 1965.

During the Civil War, the Union General, William Sherman, burned Jackson three times.

The ornate and monumental state capitol building in downtown stands as a solid testament to the principle of self-government.

Dake Dorris, a Magnolia passenger, served as "City Ambassador" for Jackson activities. As a native of Mississippi, it has been interesting to have his insights about the state and descriptions of the unfamiliar flora.

If this tour was a fashion photo shoot, then Jackson was the "money shot." It would have made the whole trip worthwhile.

TCGMC is a great group of people, doing their best to look after each other. One has spent two free afternoons laundering tuxedo shirts. Another has devoted two days of bus riding to patching and stitching rips and tears.

We lunched in Hattiesburg today. The caravan's arrival in Mobile a short time ago was filmed by a television crew for the evening news, with singing filling the hotel lobby.

The local partner, Bay Area Inclusion has put out the word, which also has spread from earlier stops. Let's see what tonight brings.

If you know people in New Orleans, let them know "curtain time" is 7:30 Friday night, at St. Andrew Episcopal Church, 1301 S. Carrollton Avenue. Admission is free, with a nominal donation of $15 requested. If $15 is a problem, have them ask for me at the door and I will pay their way.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Musings on the Road From Birmingham

Jackson, Mississippi

An enduring conundrum for artistic directors may be found in the differing expectations that audiences bring to performances about the proper mix of high- and low-brow art.

This tour is not all about lifting people up and promoting social change. Some attendees take the music seriously as music.

This morning's Birmingham News carried Michael Huebner's music review under the headline "Message from chorus is it's ok to be gay." Huebner gave four out of five stars for last night's performance to "a taut group with power and precision." []

I learned about touring in the summer and fall of 1970, when traveling Minnesota's parade and county fair circuit with Hubert Humphrey's Senate campaign. Us minions drove VW microbuses around the state while the candidate flew by helicopter or plane. (It remains true today that to generate an instant crowd anywhere, all you have to do is land a helicopter in any clearing.)

Most of my touring in recent years has been with dancers, and then only with nine or 10 other people. We have sent them to more than 300 venues, but never with the logistics of moving 130 people across four states this week.

Planning by this largely volunteer organization, TCGMC, started two years ago, and staff members made a phantom foray along the route in March.

Tour Coordinator Jeff Brand is an icon of effective organization. Had he been in charge of our Iraq adventures, the enemies of freedom would have been defeated and the troops returned home years ago. Our arrivals and departures all happen within five minutes of schedule.

Captains of our three buses -- Southern Belle, Magnolia Express and Delta Queen -- hand out donuts and candy (the Twizzlers just came by), collect trash, and tell jokes. James Davies and I are on Magnolia, the "quiet bus," chosen for reasons of age and temperament.

Tall, green trees line the Interstates in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, not unlike northern Minnesota in summer. Today's 240-mile jaunt along I-20/59 is the longest segment of the week; more than yesterday's 183 and less than tomorrow's 140.

It's called "hump day," falling in the middle of the five performances. In other words, everyone needs to conserve and renew energies in order to go the distance.

Just after crossing the Mississippi line at 11am this morning, for about 1,500 yards it seemed as though my worst stereotype about the state was true -- that of a snake-infested swamp. The landscape quickly improved, however.

At our lunchstop in Meridian, we talked about how Jackson was never on any of our lists for a visit or vacation -- certainly not in July. But here we are.

There are many reasons why the TCGMC took on this tour. Not being a member, I won't get into their thinking.

Why did I come? First, because I have never been down here. It's also vacation time, and it was a chance to spend time with James Davies. Life has been so relentlessly busy for both of us for too many years. Certainly, I have been mindful of analogies to the civil rights activities of the 50s and 60s, but those were not romantic draws for me.

There are forces abroad in our land that are trying to claim our patriotism, our country, its flag, and its ideals as their exclusive, private property. They use the tools of language and symbol all too well to serve their own crass and selfish ends. They care not who they hurt in the process.

They hide behind symbols and words about "family," "decency," and "Christianity," to hide their efforts to divide and conquer in exchange for 10¢ worth of power. That 10¢ goes a long way.

We need to meet them word-for-word and symbol-for-symbol.

Two younger men stopped by our lobby table in Birmingham last night. They fear for their
jobs and cannot tell friends along this route about the performances.

Of course, we have fearful people in Minnesota, and we can find as many wackos in the woods
of northern Wisconsin as we can here.

We have arrived in Jackson. About 184,000 people live here, the largest city in the state.

Birmingham ... Venues, Audiences and Politics

Birmingham, Alabama

Whoever she was, and whatever else she accomplished in her life, Alys Stephens was the woman behind creation of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts and the Jemison Concert Hall in Birmingham. This means she probably paid for a good chunk of it.

It is among the most beautiful performance complexes in the United States, and the Jemison is one of the most acoustically exacting spaces for choral music. Alys's life-size portrait hangs in the entry. Garrison Keillor, Diavolo Dance Theater, and River North Dance will grace the center's stages in 2006-07.

The scene at Monday night's continuation of the Great Southern Sing-Out Tour by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus was another of high emotion for artists and audiences.

The guys are starting to hit their stride as the rhythm of the tour develops and sinks into their bones.

Yesterday's drive from Nashville to Birmingham was uneventful -- save for the truckstop in Decatur that was overrun by occupants of three motor coaches stopping for lunch.

Birmingham, the Pittsburgh of the South, is an old industrial city shaped by the steel mills fed by underground limestone and iron ore. From his perch atop Red Mountain, the Vulcan (the largest cast metal statue in the world) watches over the city with -- for some inexplicable reason -- his butt hanging out of his tunic. This of course required all three buses to climb the mountain for a 30-minute photo op.

Last night's audience was, to say it mildly, enthused. And moved. The music resonates, particularly when you have never heard any of it before. "Marry Us" received a mid-concert standing-O.

"Not In Our Town," possibly the most powerful piece -- and this contention has strong competition -- related the 1993 incident in Billings MT when the Ku Klux Klan announced its presence. A cinder block was thrown through the bedroom window of a small Jewish boy who had placed a menorah there. Although not 100 Jews lived in Billings, thousands of menorahs appeared in windows of homes and businesses all over the city. (You can Google for the details.)

Two groupies from Nashville drove down for last night's show.

There is a Baptist convention here at the Sheraton Hotel, making for a few interesting moments in the elevators and other public spaces.

We head in an hour for Jackson MS for tonight's concert at the Municipal Auditorium.

As I gaze at the countryside, my thoughts are with my mother in Minnesota who, on Sunday, kicked off her campaign for the Minnesota Legislature. She is the Democratic endorsed candidate for State House District 19A.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Gay Men at the Grand Ole Opry

Nashville, Tennessee

This is a great country.

One of several, sustained rounds of applause at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium Sunday night erupted after Joanne Usher, executive director of the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, noted the occasion as the first time a gay organization had performed from the stage of the historic home of America's Grand Ole Opry.

The mostly gay audience lept to its feet with an enthusiasm that appeared to stun most TCGMC members on stage. For the locals, this event brings them into the mainstream of their hometown.

Known for the plethora of historical music stars who have graced its stage for decades, Ryman Auditorium is known as the Mother Church of country music. It has earned its place in America's story by being the people's stage -- and it continued to add to the legitimacy of the claim with Sunday night's performance.

Nashville was the first of five performance stops on the TCGMC's "Great Southern Sing Out Tour."

One hundred two members of the 150 member chorus are traveling for nine days, along with about 24 TCGMC staff, friends, and partners.

One of several emotional highlights of Sunday evening's performance was the rendition of Robert Seeley's "Marry Us" -- during which partners of Chorus members joined them on the historic stage (don't worry, mom, I wore my Sunday best).

The best was saved for last, however, with a fabulous version of "We Shall Overcome" followed by the TCGMC signature song, "Walk Hand In Hand." No one -- least of all Music Director Stan Hill -- will ever forget it.

Excitement about the performance had been building among the singers for months, weeks, days, and hours leading up to Sunday's performance. Few, if any, avoided feelings of humility about their presence on sacred ground -- how would you feel, for example, being assigned to Minnie Pearl's dressing room?!

Nashville has been nothing but friendly. We arrived here in two batches on Saturday morning and afternoon.

Activities have included the "Nash Trash Tour" (an entire article by itself), visits to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Parthenon, and a Saturday evening reception at Tribe.

This morning, James Davies and I visited Christ Church Cathedral for divine services.

Beneficiaries of the Nashville performance will be Nashville In Harmony, a two-year old choral group, and the Tennessee Equality Project.

Tennessee voters will decide this November whether to amend their constitution to prohibit gay marriage. The good news is that here -- in the home of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- voters favor legal protections for gays by a 60/40% margin, while 60% oppose marriage. More than 40% oppose amending the constitution, however. It takes a majority of all those voting in this November's governor's race to pass a constitutional amendment. If it fails, the issue cannot resurface for four more years.

In just two days -- so many stories, sights, and sounds, including that of the 81-year-old man next to me on the plane from Detroit. He lives in Warren MI and fought at D-Day and through nine European countries before returning home and pursuing his American Dream. But, there is not enough time for that right now.

In eight hours, we are "on the bus" headed to Birmingham, and Monday night's performance at the University of Alabama.