This past weekend I had the treat to see a live performance/broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor at the historic Fox Theater in midtown Atlanta. Garrison had announced his retirement plans earlier this year, and last Saturday’s show was part of his “farewell tour” across the country. While the show was outstanding and will be a lasting memory for me and many others from years to come, it’s actually something that occurred BEFORE the radio broadcast that I want to focus on in this essay.
It was 15 minutes before “air time,’ around 7:45pm last Saturday night that Garrison came out on stage accompanied by thunderous applause. Very quickly, he started to sing, accompanied by his stage band and encouraged the audience to join in, a sort of big group “sing-along.” It was a sold out show at the Fox Theater last Saturday, so the audience would have been almost 5000 strong! He lead us in singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” America the Beautiful,” The Doxology,” along with a number of other songs/hymns and the singing was fantastic! Being part of a huge crowd, all singing together memorable songs/hymns from our communal past was stirring to say the least. It was when we started singing “My Country tis of Thee” that I was overcome with emotion.
That simple patriotic song, that I hadn’t “sung” since elementary school 40 + years ago, hit a deep nerve. As the crowd all sang together the familiar opening lyric, “My Country tis of Thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” I was filled with emotions and when we hit the closing lines of “from every mountain side, let freedom ring.” I literally burst into tears. Here I was still 10 minutes before the show had actually “started”, and I was totally blown away. I was literally overwhelmed with so many images and feelings, all triggered by this simple song!
I was struck by the unity/community of the audience and how I was part of a bigger whole, all singing the familiar lines together. In this time of an election season filled with vitriol, hate and divisiveness, we were all singing/hoping/believing in the possibility of our county being a “sweet land of liberty.” I felt so deeply that I/we needed to look to the future not consumed by what IS wrong/unjust in our country (and there is a lot for sure,) but focused on the possibilities that lie ahead for our country, our community, our America.
When we sang those last lines “from every mountain side, let freedom ring," all I could think of was Dr. Martin Luther King jr. and his famous “I have a dream speech” where he references those same words. It was not lost on me that I was literally sitting in the theater, which had segregated seating at the time, where the movie “Gone with the Wind” had its debut many decades ago. While we have come so far as a country, we have a long way yet to go on the path of justice and fairness for all and our work as a community/country is far from done!
Dr. King pushed all of us in his Noble Prize acceptance speech when he said that,
“ I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.”
We are clearly surrounded by a very tough “isness” in our country today. Economic inequality on the rise, racial injustice in every community, fear and discrimination of immigrants on the increase, bitter and divisive political dialogue, and the list certainly goes on. Sitting in my seat last Saturday night, eyes filled with tears, I was inspired to remember the “oughtness” of our country and the unfinished work ahead. We are actually “in it together.” We are all part of this unfinished “project” called the United States of America. We all have the ability to be stirred/reminded by wide range of influences, maybe even an old patriotic hymn, about our potential as a country. And finally we ALL need to work together in our communities/country, focused on the “oughtness” of a day when freedom can and will "ring" from every mountainside!