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." [www.bhamnews.com]

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.

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