Friday night at Oxford, Mississippi's Double Decker Arts Festival, we stood a block south the Square, looking south toward the stage where Old Crow Medicine Show was playing. The band could see the old courthouse behind us, lit up, just past the Confederate soldier monument. Ketch Secor was wearing an off-white suit and a white hat as he juggled harmonicas, fiddles and banjos while singing some down home, new age bluegrass to a crowd of mostly college students, solo cups in hand. The ghosts of William Faulkner and Larry Brown were surely out, sharing a nip, on a night just as clear as good moonshine.
But Ketch broke the mood a bit when he dedicated I Hear Them All to the victims of nature's fury in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere. We're still learning the extent of what happened as the total death count hits 329. Alabama lost at least 238, and the Governor of that state says that 1700 people were injured there. President Obama was in Alabama yesterday, saying he's never seen such devastation.
Mississippi lost 34 people to the storms. The tornado in Smithville measured as one of the worst in history (205 mph) and killed 13 people in that small town. One of my colleagues graduated from high school in Houston, Mississippi 30 years ago - she says a half dozen of her high school classmates lost their homes in the tornadoes there.
Despite all this, life goes on. It's spring, so we have music festivals this weekend: Jazzfest in New Orleans, Memphis in May, Merlefest, Double Decker, etc.
Old Crow also played their song about the death of an American soldier named Levi who died in a desert war: "Lord, Lord, Lord, they shot him down." Here's a video of the song from their New Year's Eve show at the Ryman:
So, it's not just the terrible disaster of this past week. Thousands of Americans are in uniform in the far corners of the world, happy to serve but probably wishing they were free to stand where we stood last night on a beautiful spring festival evening. All over our country, spouses and parents of soldiers in harm's way are wondering when their loved ones will be able to come home. Nature isn't through with us, either, as we read that the Mississippi River is rising, threatening homes and livelihoods in the center of our country.
So festival? Can we be festive in these times? Should we? Not if we are oblivious the pain and loss of our neighbors. Not if we separate ourselves from the reality of the world we live in and pop another top without giving a second thought to the blood, sweat and tears under our feet and all around us. On the other hand, if we are willing to take on board some of the suffering of our brothers and sisters, reach out, lend a hand, write a check, just be aware of what's going on, festival starts to sound more like a respite, a way of recharging to face a world which is always dangerous and challenging.
Sorry for the buzz kill.
[You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter, @mando_lines. He'll try to be a little more upbeat as a general rule.]