This story is a little delayed as this happened almost a month ago, but it hasn’t been written down yet so here it goes.
You see a tornado on the news that’s a mile-wide that’s tearing up a town. At first you feel shock and sympathy. You then realize that it could quite possibly head your way. Fear sets in quick. It did and it took some GA folks down with it, too.
After it was over and the news started to pour in about what the actual scope of the devastation and loss of life was, it really put it into perspective.
Now, I’m working hard to make my career a solid source of income for me and my people but we ain’t there yet. I am, however, all about some philanthropy and if someone feels as tho my playing music at an event will enhance it somehow, I’m happy to do it. I look forward to the day where I can write a check AND show up to play, but that’s beside the point. I cold-called the big shelter in Tuscaloosa to see if anyone had thought to have live music for the folks living in the shelter. The gal I talked to was Betty Davis. Not the actress, but I won’t forget that name either way. She was skeptical at first that I was trying to sell her something as some people had tried to take advantage of the desperate situation there with fraudulent schemes. What the fuck is wrong with some people!?!? I assured her that I didn’t want anything and that I was going to come play for them if they were interested. They were.
It was a Wednesday morning (one week after the tornado) and a dear friend named Ashley, who was a Bama Alumn and huge Tuscaloosa advocate, came with me. The ride down was filled with trivia about Tuscaloosa and about her wonderful experiences there, etc… The drive was pleasant, as she is a pleasant person. Then we got closer.
Large rows of trees looked like they were chopped in half by a crude device. These trees were not small. Highway signs were either gone or bent in half to where they were flush with the ground. Armies of trucks from GA Power were coming the other way and relief trucks were passing us on their way in. This was starting to get pretty real.
We pull into Tuscaloosa and pull into the shelter. Chaos.
I walk in past the racing red cross people, old women in wheelchairs, kids sticking to themselves and hand-written signage designating where food and medical aid was. It was more real but I still didn’t “get it”. Other people showed up in a bus from Texas to help as well as another crew from Louisiana. This wasn’t just a local emergency and it filled my heart with joy to see it.
It was clear that we were more in the way than anything so I said I’d come back to play for dinner once I found a lady who had heard of my coming to play. Ashley and I decided to check out the town until dinner which was 5 hrs away.
It got pretty “real” pretty fast.
We drove not 1/2 a mile from the shelter and then we saw the destruction. Ashley, who knows that town like the back of her hand, had no idea where she was. She remarked “I’m confused. From this intersection, you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see those buildings (in the distance) but the buildings blocking the view are gone now.”
Entire city blocks were reduced to noting. Huge trees were pushed down with their roots exposed, which acted as a guillotine to the house it landed on. Signs were completely removed. Debris was everywhere. Cars were upside-down inside houses.
We drove to the next block over and it seemed as though nothing had happened. We then drove to the next block and there was total devastation. Unusual and spooky things to see. Nature does have a lottery it seems.
We drove to the University of Alabama campus to find there was not a bit of destruction there. Good thing too, there was a lot of history and beauty about the place. I see what Ashley liked about it. It was charming, old and full of tradition and pride. All things I like too.
We walked around and saw pieces of normalcy in that people were getting coffee, eating outside (it was a beautiful day) and hanging out. These were the remnants of the University which shut down the semester early in light of the disaster.
Any students who were left were scurrying around their fraternity houses collecting water and other essentials, loading them into their trucks and sending them in an assembly line to the shelter. Glad to see it.
It was time to head back to the shelter.
I arrived back, parked and loaded up my gear. A small space in the corner of the dining facility was cleared out for me to set up. People were happy to see me, but mostly unsure. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know what kind of music I do. They’re clearly a little uneasy about “outsiders” showing up but it’s only because some people are vultures. I knew what I was doing was going to be a good thing and I understand their apprehension.
I’m set up. The people start coming in. Time to play.
I can’t remember the first song I played but you could see half of the room light up and the rest of the room hovering over their food, collecting their families and trying to figure out what this dude in the corner was doing and who was he.
A lot of the crowd was older and you could see that they were all poor to begin with. There was no cousin in Memphis they could stay with. They had no parents who were well off enough for them to go live with for a while. These people were poor and had little to begin with and even less now. This was going to be their home indefinitely. I’m not a melancholy character to begin with and I felt the importance of what I was doing and they started to as well.
I played some classic songs that most of the knew. The whole room lit up. Everyone turned around as they were chewing, mumbling the words or melodies even if they didn’t know it. You could see that they had been to the point where they had inventory of what the tornado took. One week from when it hit was perfect timing. They aren’t looking for anything to salvage anymore. They aren’t looking for the missing people in their lives anymore. They know what they’re up against and now they’re dealing with the enormous challenges they will have to face.
You could see in their faces how badly they wanted to escape their situation, even if only for a little bit. One older lady toward the front cradling a tiny tiny baby was mouthing some of the words to a song. I invited her up to sing it with me. She accepted and didn’t leave my side but to feed the child a couple of times in the 2+ hour set.
Others joined me too. I told them what I was going to play and if you knew the words on not “get up here and sing with me now!”
Many accepted. Even little kids accepted. Of course, 4 year olds can’t sing “Down On The Corner” but they CAN sing their ABC’s. So that’s what we did. I cued them and they sang their ABC’s and “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. What great kids and they were so happy to have fun and be in the spotlight, so to speak, for possibly their first time. Same goes for everyone else who joined me.
I finished up my set twice but they insisted I go on. I stopped eventually and stayed and talked with some of the folks. The woman with the baby said “you have no idea how badly we needed that, thank you”. I felt myself tear up a little bit as I’ve never felt like that before as a result of music. I mean, of course I feel satisfaction in my art and in helping others or whatever. But it’s never quite felt like someone hasn’t eaten for days and then I show up with water and bread.
Ashley was there too and we all felt how magical the experience was. Difficult but amazing.
I will never forget that experience for lots of reasons. It was powerful, painful, touching, rewarding and reassuring in humanity. Everyone came to pitch in and I’m glad I could help however that might have been.