June 2012 Church & State | Perspective


When I was in high school in Bethlehem, Pa., I had some ideas about the Vietnam War and race relations in America that didn’t seem to be appreciated by too many of my peers or teachers. I wasn’t sure if anybody else was offended by the treatment of African-Americans or found governmental justification for military activity in Southeast Asia so sorely lacking.

There were, of course, news stories about dissent (we only had 15 minutes of network news then; the 24-hour news cycle was not yet even a glint in Ted Turner’s eye) around these issues but they usually featured people in places like Philadelphia or even Washington, D.C.

And then one Sunday night I tuned into an FM station from Philadelphia that was hesitatingly audible on the giant Magnavox radio in our living room. The host was playing something called “folk music,” and there was a guy singing a song about all the ways you could try to get out of the military draft, like telling the draft board: “I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen, and I always carry a purse…. [W]hen the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits, and I’m addicted to a thousand drugs.” You get the picture – and a few of you may recognize these lyrics from Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag.” 

It took me months to track down this album, but I did eventually find it at Speedy’s Record Shop in Allentown. One spin and I was hooked: Somebody else out there was saying very publicly the kind of things I was thinking.

I’ve come to believe that art, music and films are sometimes a very powerful vehicle for communicating important ideas. These media can appeal to something in us that effectively bypasses intellectual analysis. You can feel it first and figure it out later. 

That’s why on Sept. 28-30 Americans United will be sponsoring a series of concerts nationwide called “Voices United for Separation of Church and State.” The idea is to stand up for the importance of church-state separation at a time when that constitutional concept is under withering attack. We also want to raise awareness about AU’s work – all while having a great time.

Americans United isn’t new to this. We used music as part of a project a few years back that was called “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid To Ask.” (Maybe you’ve seen the DVD.) It occurred to me that AU could partner with singers who care about church-state separation and provide a weekend of music.

Then, to make it something nobody to my knowledge had ever done before, we’d make sure that one of the events occurred in every state in the union (and the non-state District of Columbia).

During a three-day visit to the  International Folk Alliance’s conference in Memphis, which just happened to be scheduled in February after several events for AU in Nash­ville, I thought I might get a sense of whether asking musicians to give free shows was viable or just a pipe dream.

The feedback was quite remarkable. All kinds of musicians, managers and producers absolutely loved the idea and volunteered to try to be a part of it. Dave Marsh, well-known music critic for Rolling Stone, recognized me in the audience at one workshop on “music and politics” and asked me to present some thoughts to those gathered.

After that event, other artists came up to me and gave me their latest CD or commented on something in their lives that connected them to the separation cause. After three days there (staying out as late as 3 a.m. – not my usual bedtime), I was sure we should give it a try. 

I spent time with John Jennings, a marvelous guitarist who often plays with Mary Chapin Carpenter and produces records for some great up-and-coming young singers, who signed on to help produce the weekend. 

Then, during a phone conversation with Catie Curtis (who sang for the “Everything…” event), she noted that with two adopted kids, she was thinking of taking some time off from her near constant touring to stay home and asked if I thought she could put together the state-based shows for this event.

“Voices United” is a go for Sept. 28-30. Please visit voicesunitedconcerts.com to get an ever-expanding list of participating artists and event locales.

We’ve even extended the “weekend” to Monday to get the involvement of a few extra artists like Mary Gauthier, a brilliant Southern gothic songwriter and singer who has joked that she once won an award for “best LGBT country music artist” since the category contained so few people.

I can’t promise a concert in your community, but I hope there will be something close by. (Some states will have more than one event.) There has already been some positive publicity online, in newspapers and on Bill Press’ radio show, which is now simulcast on Current TV. This is going to continue.

Every singer is not going to use his or her venue to pump out constant “pro-separation” songs (nobody writes only about one topic), but the basic flavors of respect for diversity of opinion, keeping governments out of our most intimate moral choices and preserving the First Amendment will be tasted throughout.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.