By Lynn Oldshue
The drive from Mobile to Birmingham began with the stories of a truck mowing down a crowd watching fireworks on Bastille Day in Nice, France, but those were bumped for breaking news of a coup in Turkey. This was only one week after five policemen were killed in Dallas and less than two weeks after the police shootings of two black men set off protests around the country. President Obama made a call for calm, JD Crowe drew a cartoon to soothe our pain, and the flags flew at half-staff. Again.
A weekend in The Magic City for The Sloss Music and Arts Festival was a reminder that people care, music heals and crowds can be safe. Birmingham is still working through its own dark chapter, but the city proves that we can come together and bring change.
The reminders started in my hotel lobby, where members of the Hicks and Moore families wore purple T-shirts with the names Velmer, Hattie, Hubert and Pearl on the branches of their family tree. Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins came to Birmingham from the Carolinas and New York for their first family reunion. Two hundred attended and it was the first time for some to see each other in 30 years, or the first time they had been to the city that holds the root of their family’s tree.
During a “How are you?” on the hotel elevator, a man wearing ripped jeans splattered with white paint and a glittered baseball cap answered, “Better every day.” He glanced up from his phone, looked me in the eyes and said, “I really am. Even in times like this.”
Saturday morning, before the festival, I went to the Civil Rights District where 53 years ago a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four girls. Across the street at Kelly Ingram Park, policemen and firemen confronted demonstrations of children and high school students with arrests, police dogs, and fire hoses, bringing national attention to Birmingham and helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Freedom Trail tells of the events and history of the park and the sidewalk winds through iron sculptures of water cannons aimed at a boy and girl, and another depicting three dogs ready to attack.
A sign on the trail reads: “No man can make us hate, and no man can make us afraid,” from Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s speech on May 17, 1957.
Those are the words I was looking for. The ones that balanced out the newspaper headlines pointing to our “nation on edge.” Birmingham shows that we have been on this edge before, but we didn’t fall over.
It was “Silence the Violence” day in the park and the announcer said, “It is time to squelch the malice and hate in our hearts.” Church volunteers served the homeless and before the rally I met a woman named Raenita wearing a shirt that read: “Positive Mind. Positive Vibes. Positive Life.”
“I have to keep it positive. There is so much killing and violence going on.” Raenita says. “People need to come together. Regardless of race, we need to come together and talk about our problems.
“Wherever you go there will be problems, but we can make it positive.”
At Sloss Fest, I spent time with my friend Kenn McCracken. He is a jaded, cynical, self-described asshole, and proud of it. But the last few weeks have gotten to him too and he posted a challenge on Facebook to do a nice thing for someone:
“Buy a cool bit of music or a book for one of your Facebook friends that you don’t really know. Donate to a random GoFundMe thing. Do some yard work for your neighbor,” he wrote. “Tell someone how pretty or smart or funny they are. Bonus points if you do something nice for a stranger.
“This whole being a decent human being ain’t hard, and if you find that it is, you should probably go play in traffic.”
He posted this the next day:
“Y’all, it’s Saturday, and I don’t care how far apart our political or religious or musical beliefs are: it’s a damn good day to do something nice for another human being. Double ticket bonus points to you if you do it in place of an angry or sad reaction, because that helps turn bad into good.”
Kenn went public that he cares about other people and he is even trying to be nice to them. All weekend he told me about the responses to his challenge. “If I have to be the asshole that starts a movement, I will be that asshole.”
Sloss Furnaces, once an iron-producing blast furnace, is now a historic monument surrounded by train tracks, smoke stacks and sheds of steel and tin. On July 16-17, the Blast, Steam and Shed stages were filled with bands, drums, amps, speakers and guitars that blocked out the rest of the world. The “Music Makes Me Feel . . .” chalkboard was covered with words and messages of “safe,” “connected” and “like I’m not dead inside.”
But news still seeped into this bubble and a text from my husband said, “Someone just shot police in Baton Rouge. Please be careful.”
A few hours after the shooting, Los Colognes ended their set with Bob Dylan’s song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
“Mama, put my guns in the ground/I can’t shoot them anymore/That long black cloud is comin’ down/ I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
Our interview with Jay Rutherford and Aaron Mortenson, founders of Los Colognes, became a conversation about taking action. “That song is pertinent to where we are today. It is hard because most of us are watching these events through a screen and not experiencing it first-hand,” says Rutherford, the lead singer. “It becomes difficult to know how to take action. I think that is all what we are trying to figure out.
“How do we respond beyond clicking on something on Facebook?”
“It comes down to giving a strong focus to each person you encounter on a daily basis,” says drummer Aaron Mortenson. “We have to stop and pay attention and be more active about caring about people around us. There is a communal aspect to music that can unite 50 people or 50,000. We are all one people for a little while. I live for these moments to be in the crowd or if I am playing. There is a high of being on a higher level and trying to survive together.
“There is an energy that has to be love. We have that here this weekend.”
At Sloss Fest, the musicians and crowd were in the moment together. Ryan Adams told of his dad being from Birmingham and said he was “happy as hell to be here.” He made up a song that mentioned going to the Nick and hanging out with Jason Isbell. Burning Peppermints, a new local band, had to remind themselves the packed crowd was there to see them. Several members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones stopped by their hometown festival on their only free weekend before the next tour and promotion for the new album begins.
Anderson East and Dylan LeBlanc (backed by Courtney Blackwell and The Pollies with Jay Burgess on guitar) showed that on a weekend filled with some of the most popular bands in the country, this is the time of Alabama music. Fitz and the Tantrums thanked Birmingham for helping make their dreams come true and Ben Harper dedicated “Shine” to Harper Lee and The Blind Boys of Alabama.
Before an interview with Shovels and Rope on Birmingham Mountain Radio, Paul Bannister, the band’s manager, explained that “Grief into Gratitude” tattooed on his right arm is the story of life.
“Life goes from grief into gratitude. It happens to everyone,” he says.
Late Sunday afternoon, a short storm left behind a rainbow over the festival and puddles in the field where some people slid, splashed, danced and played. Wet, barefoot and packed in close together, the crowd sang with the Struts, “I did all I could, so kiss this one more time ’cause I’m gone for good.”
My souvenir of the Sloss Fest and the weekend in Birmingham is a black T-shirt from the group To Write Love on Her Arms. The back of the shirt reads: “You’ll need coffee shops and sunsets and roadtrips. Airplanes and passports and new songs and old songs, but people more than anything else. You will need other people and you will need to be that other person to someone else, a living, breathing screaming invitation to believe better things.”
I want to live in a world where we are safe to come together and sing along at concerts and feel alive inside. Thank you Birmingham for being the “living, breathing, screaming invitation to believe better things.” You turned my grief into gratitude.