Sweet Athens, Georgia
“Sing it out, y’all!”
Something happened in Athens, Ga., this past weekend. I can’t say exactly what, but I was there, I heard it, I felt it. At one point, I swear, the ’60s erupted out of the sweltering night, full blown, as a band called Abbey Road lit up College Avenue. What was happening was the town’s 32nd annual Human Rights Festival — its 32nd annual fusion of politics, music and spirit. “Stop All Wars!” proclaimed the banner on the stage. This was about the creation of peace, profound and joyous, you heard me, smack dab in the middle of Georgia.
It was a festival of rock and roll and blues and bluegrass, of folk music, hip-hop, jazz and dance; it was also a festival of immigrants’ rights, animal rights, gay rights, universal health care, environmental sustainability and, of course, justice for all, peace on Earth, and activism, activism, activism. And each cause, separate and distinct, glowed as part of a larger whole.
“Put your feet in the street!” long-time radical lawyer Millard Farmer cried from the stage, as he has done at the festival for years. This was what I felt come alive during the festival: a fearless and joyous, born-again, unapologetic, naïve belief (and I mean “naïve” in a good way, unbroken by the hard lessons of politics and life) that citizenship equals participation; that the world belongs to us, not to the high financial rollers and corporate elite; and that the time to take a stand is now.
I asked Ed Tant, one of the festival’s organizers and a long-time columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, if the space-time continuum had been altered to allow the ’60s to show up suddenly in all its youthful enthusiasm (after all, one of the bluegrass bands that played, led by Tommy Jordan, was called String Theory). Ed’s response: “Here in Georgia, the only ’60s that usually erupt are the 1860s, so events like the Human Rights Festival are important anywhere, but especially here in the South.”
I was down there because I’d been invited to speak from the venerable old wooden stage that’s been reassembled every year for a generation, for most of the duration of the festival: the same stage graced by Dave Dellinger and Bill Ayers and Jesse Jackson and many other uncompromised, defiantly controversial activists and pacifists over the years, who have kept alive a belief in the world that is to come, that must come, if the human race is going to survive and grow up.
“Sing it out, y’all!”
This is what one of the members of Caroline Aiken’s band shouted out to the audience at one point, and the words were so clear, so right, so Georgia, I still feel them calling to me. Maybe peace has to be set to music — made to vibrate — before it can come into being.
I don’t say this simply. The festival contained plenty of hard-edged commentary, plenty of outrage and analysis, and if you were only casually present at it you might not have felt or cared about the connection between the words and the music, or you might have distinguished in some automatic way between performance and lecture, heart and head. But I began to feel a continual hum at the festival, magnifying and unifying everything that was going on — and the hum wasn’t emanating from the sound equipment.
The hum was the passion we ourselves brought with us to the festival. The hum was human rights, a fair world, a just world, a world without war. And it was more than that as well. It was more than idealism: a mocked, damaged word, no longer fit to describe the heart’s biggest yearnings. The hum was love.
“According to Plato,” writes Diarmuid O’Murchu in Quantum Theology, “love is the pursuit of the whole. Our broken, fragmented world yearns to be whole again.”
So this brings me back to Abbey Road, a band that — how can I put this? — doesn’t merely play Beatles music but seems to channel the Beatles themselves, with a driving energy that evokes the original music in all its complexity. They were the final act on Sunday night, and the last song they played (before their extended, non-Beatles encore) was the one that ruptured the space-time continuum.
“All you need is love, all you need is love,
“All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
“All you need is love (all together now)
“All you need is love (everybody)
“All you need is love, love, love is all you need.”
And that’s my last memory of Athens, with people of all ages dancing and swaying in the street in front of the stage on a perfect night, arms interlocked, singing out at the top of their voices. The whole weekend was fused into that word, “love,” and it was all we needed.
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