Guitar music and politics: gotta’ tell you about an interesting experience. I just returned from a couple of weeks on the road with Beppe Gambetta in Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. And as it happened, I was there when our recent presidential election occurred. Although Beppe and I do the Spaghetti/Hamburger tour (the Australians call it the “I-tye/Septic” tour… need to get an Aussie friend to explain that one) once or twice a year, for me to watch the US election from there was a first.

What was most notable about it was how much the European folks I met cared about the US election, and how fiercely they held opinions about it, the candidates and the various Europe-related issues of the campaign. Some of them brought it up in conversations, and when they did others would chime in too. Once I realized that it was on their minds, I made a point of making some gentle jokes about US politics, because I figured it was a way to lighten up on it, and I always tried to do it did it in a way that showed respect to their concerns, but also in a way that they never knew how I voted. And neither will you, because what I learned was not just some lessons about international politics…I learned a lot more about guitar music.

Here’s another story to put next to the one above… some of you have heard me tell this one before. In 1972 I played at a bluegrass festival in Missouri where Bill Monroe was the headliner. Bill had agreed graciously to do a radio interview with me for a program I was airing in those days, and Bill and I were walking away from the stage across a recently mowed hayfield to find a quiet spot for the taped interview. We came across a scene I’ll never forget: two guys were literally sitting on opposite ends of a big log having a jam session.

The guitar player was your stereotypically perfect hippy of the Viet Nam era… he wore tie-dies, bell-bottoms, boots, long hair, peace symbols and beads, just like they came direct from the mail-order dept. of “Hippies Unlimited.” The banjo player fit a different stereotype: he was the perfect, stout, 240 lb. farm lad, sporting short blond hair, blue overalls, blue denim work shirt, heavy boots, and a sunburn. Both of these guys could have come from a calendar photograph, but from two very different companies. And they were having the prettiest little jam-session-on-a-log you ever did see.

I remember thinking, “this is the only place in America today (1972) where two guys who look like that are not yelling at each other about politics and ideology.” And Bill Monroe said, “Oh, I love to see that.” Later we talked about it in the interview… Bill observed that what we saw was possible “because Bluegrass is just good music for the country people of America.” Yes, and all the rest of the people as well.

So, you guitar thrashers, here is your mission. You are now ready, maybe prior to your thinking that you’re ready, to start jamming and performing more actively than you have been. And it’s no longer just a good idea to do that, now it’s becoming increasingly urgent. There are lots of musical reasons for this: it’s great practice, it’s fun, beats the hell out of watching TV, etc. But consider this sorta’ sociological, humane reason: playing music for and with people is an almost sure-fire way to connect with people across those divisive barriers of politics, ideology, race, religion, and yes, presidential politics.

In other settings, some of my European acquaintances, audience members, and workshop attendees might well have wanted to engage in debates or arguments about politics, and we might have wound up on opposite sides of some “fence” or another, just as we did here at home. Instead, these folks and I had a more powerful thing in common: we got together over guitar music, and nothing in the political winds that howled around the globe was as strong as that connection.

Ah, but somebody will say, “well that’s nice (tone of withering sarcasm here), but playing music doesn’t ever resolve the real issues… and eventually we have to argue and disagree and vote and sometimes fight. Music can’t help that.” Wrong. Bone-headedly, stubbornly, dogmatically, and come-on-down-from-your-tree-and-join-civilized-people wrong. The international ubiquity and it’s-everywhere commonality of guitar music is the single most powerful thing I’ve ever witnessed to get people together and get them immediately on the same side. I’ve worked in a lot of arenas that are supposed to get people peaceably together; religion, academia, and so on. Hats off to those worthy endeavors. But nothing cuts through the things that divide us like a few old rusty Black Diamond git-tar strings pickin’ out the Wildwood Flower. That, my friends, connects people across oceans, and by god it still holds.

So my friends, let’s do more of it. Lee Hays said of The Weavers, “We felt that if we sang loud enough and strong enough and hopefully enough, somehow it would make a difference.” Well, guess what, it does make a difference. Add “play” to “sing” and you’ve got it for flatpickers.

Playing the guitar for/with people is important, it helps, it makes a difference, and it provides some common ground for negotiating the rest. So let’s do it… loud, often, well, in tune, with determination and authority (and picking down on “1″ and up on “and”). And let’s make our jam sessions and workshops and reading Flatpicking Guitar little cells of enlightenment where we know our mission is to put out there the most peaceful and neighborly thing in this world, the music of God’s favorite instrument (he told me so), the old steel-stringed guitar.

Dan Crary, January 2005

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