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Music is a naturally universal language...

"We can build a beautiful city

Yes we can, yes, we can

We can build a beautiful city

Not a city of angels

But we can build a city of man"

"Beautiful City" - from the musical Godspell by Stephen Schwartz

It is amazing how absolutely boring it can get to live on the edge of terror for a long time… It becomes kind of banal… The Laughing Warriors had been holding our own small-scale demonstrations in Downtown Greenville, SC for a few weeks, getting the lay of the land... We’d also been attending demonstrations held by other organizations… We try to act as one of things that disparate groups have in common and so we had been working with Black Lives Matter, Climate Reality, LGBTQ+ groups and voting rights groups, caring for folx at their actions and demonstrations for the past few months… For better or for worse, we had attracted the attention of the acting county Sheriff and found ourselves dogged by deputies wherever we went... One late summer evening proved to be no different… A deputy was parked far enough away to seem as if they might have nothing to do with us but close enough that they could watch our every move carefully… Our fellow citizens gave us waves or mocked us; one person tried to pick a fight… Most people just ignored us… Business as usual on a quiet and basically uneventful evening in the weird year that was 2020…

"Out of the ruins and rubble, out of the smoke…"

I think back on a lot of what I saw last year; the unconventional span from March 14th--when South Carolina canceled visitation at all facilities like the long term psychiatric hospital my son was in on that day, his 14th birthday-- to this past Jan 6th when violent insurrectionists violated the Capitol Building… That was the day I chose to go outside to finally begin cleaning out my studio because THAT I could do something about… It's a time which rejects easy categorization or encapsulation… When I think back on it I just remember things constantly shattering or feeling as if they were about to… I have been an activist for 25 years… It has never felt so much like war…

"Out of our night of struggle, can we see a ray of hope..?"

It felt as peaceful as it ever did that night downtown… Greenville SC experienced preternaturally beautiful weather in the summer of 2020 and the sounds of a street preacher mingled with the hoots of a local celebrity unhoused guy known as "Whoop-Whoop..!" on a light, fried egg roll scented breeze… You couldn't let your situational awareness drop, not in America 2020, not in a state with so many guns, not with an officer of the peace in view eyeing the situation with an unknown level of interest and itchiness of trigger finger... But on a mild summer evening in our quiet little city the chaos of the world felt harder to believe… By now, people holding signs and even our small troupe of lunatic performers had started to become just another bit of the background… If you didn't want to notice us you didn't have to and our familiarity with the situation had earned us the luxury of boredom…

"One pale thin ray, reaching for the day…"

I am fluent in many artist languages, I can express myself artistically in many mediums, genres and forms but music is the most beloved language of my heart… It is one of the human expressions which crosses all cultures… It is also an appreciation we can share with other animals with whom we share the planet… It is truly a universal language… In my work as a non-partisan activist performance artist, I seek to find concepts which speak to people no matter what ideologies they espouse… What are the things that we all care about, upon which we can build universal understanding..? Seeking the universal is a way to bring people closer and music is a natural medium for this…

"We may not reach the ending, but we can start…

Slowly but truly mending, brick by brick, heart by heart…"

We had been using our "safe" spot downtown for several weeks to try out different performances and demonstration techniques… We had held conventional signs, dressed as furry animals in medical masks, staged a Mock Funeral and just generally made one of the Downtown plazas our own free speech zone… We were spending this particular evening riffing into a megaphone, preaching an endless gospel of connection and mourning the losses we had all suffered this year…  It just didn't feel like we were particularly reaching people... The street kept on about its business all around us... An idea struck me suddenly and I jumped up on the edge of a flower bed, grabbing the mic as I went…

"When your trust is all but shattered, when your faith is all but killed,

You can give up, bitter and battered, or you can slowly start to build…"

I just started singing, no preamble… "Beautiful City" from Godspell… "Out of the ruins and rubble" And as my voice rang out to the restaurant across the street, I could see heads lift at the tables… People slowed on the sidewalks… "Out of our night of struggle" There were people pulling out their phones now and recording the impromptu show… The deputy assigned to keep tabs on the situation stood in the doorway of his cruiser looking on… I riffed some more between the verse and the chorus… "My Friends, we have all had such troubles this year… We miss our families and our friends, the ones we are separated from and the ones that we have lost… We fight our neighbors for the future of this beautiful place… And it IS such a beautiful place… We are lucky to share it, lucky to care about it together, lucky to raise our kids here and provide for one another here… We have been fighting over why we disagree when it is just as well to look at these things we hold sacred together… “

"Now, maybe now, we start learning how"

When I finished, emerging from the fog of performance, I felt the street hover in silent captivation for the briefest of moments… The last notes hung, vibrating in the now still summer air and everything seemed to stand in place, a moment of time frozen in the amber early evening light… Then the tableau broke and the plaza and surrounding street burst into cheers and applause… Even the police officer smiled before getting into his cruiser and driving off…

I am not certain if the song-- it's clear peaceful intent and the unity it spread-- had anything to do with it but when we arrived at our usual spot the next week there was no deputy hovering and there never was again…

"Music has charms to soothe the savage breast… To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak… " William Congreve

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What a GREAT sentiment, Ash!  I've been working on a FlashMob curriculum for us here in Wisconsin.  I'd love to discuss with you how it went over a longer term in South Carolina.  

One of my foreign language professors in college used to repeat a phrase I really value now: “you're going to need something to actually SAY once you learn the language.”  She was trying to get us all into a second, non-language major, so that we would have some way to show off our great University of Northern Iowa education - some way other than becoming a linguistics prof.  🙂  But it's a problem I'm running into often now: 'OK, so we're all talking the same language.  What do we want to actually SAY to each other?'  

I believe we can get the musical curriculum started without too much difficulty.  But I want it to mean something.  Once the bridge is ‘woven,’ will anyone use it?  Can we be effective speaking in Music-ese?  My communities include lots of educators and lots of cops - not communities that work together all that often.  The organization I work with, Cops ‘n Kids, has a big interest in making sure we get the ’common language' messaging right.

If you have some time and would like to chat, feel free to e-mail me, Tweeterbook or instatext me or call or whatever works.  Like I said, I'd really love to know how you think it went, now, several months on.

Cheers & Bravo to you for doing this!!!

Jeff Fuhrman

Ash, thank you for sharing the wisdom that we need to find a language that we all speak and understand again. Your story is lovely and I sense the emotional power of the song that summer evening. During the pandemic, I've been listening to a lot of folk music from the 60s through the 80s. Whether the songs are about love, loss or politics, they soothe me because they remind me of the feelings and longings and dreams we all share.

Michael Skoler
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