Walt: Troubadour for Justice
I wanted this to be something between a roast and a toast. But since I’m not very good at either and would not know what to put in between, I will, in the name of artists everywhere and in the name of music and justice in particular, very happily boast about Walt Michael—what he has taught all of us and the gifts he has shared with us and why it is we are here tonight celebrating this justly deserved Human Relations Award.
I was tempted to start with a text (something Walt is all too familiar with) and it was II Kings 3:15-16 “(Elisha) said, now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the power of the Lord came upon Elisha and said ‘I will make this dry stream bed full of pools.’” I’ve tried not to succumb to the temptation of expounding a text; as they say, it is often hard to get the pulpit out of the preacher. In any case, in a world that is barren, sterile, and arid, art has been an oasis for me and for many of you.
But I do know a bit about the gene pool which produced Walt Michael, this troubadour for justice, this artist with a social vision. When I was 12 in 1942 I met a Methodist minister by the name of Marion Michael and his wife, Juanita; they were serving a small church near Bel Air in Harford County, MD where my family worshiped.
The year or so I knew them was so memorable for me that when Mary and I became engaged in 1950 I took her to Silver Spring to meet Mike and Juanita where they were serving Marvin Memorial Church; I sensed both of them were in touch with their humanity, a rarity among clergy couples and I respected that, and I wanted to show Mary off anyway. Mike gave me a thumbs up and his imprimatur was just what I needed. Incidentally, David Carrasco, a close friend of Walt’s and Common Ground, attended Sunday School at that church with Walt. Their subsequent reunion at McDaniel was a providential blessing for them and for the school.
I first met Walt when he was 12 and I was in grad school (1958) when I spoke at his father’s church in Bethesda during the Christmas holidays. By now in the 8th grade, Walt was playing the saxophone and was, perhaps unwittingly, boogie-woogying and rocking and rolling himself into folk music which he providentially discovered a few years later wandering around the Library of Congress when he was a page for the U.S. Supreme Court. He soon learned to play the guitar and, as they say, the rest is history. In the meantime, I read a wonderful piece in an early sixties’ Baltimore Sunday Sun which featured Walt’s work as a Supreme Court page. It was a way of keeping up with the journey of a young man I would come to know more and more.
When I next met Walt as a freshman at McDaniel in 1964 he had hit the college ground running with that guitar and his pen. I never knew whether Walt was an English major with a self-designed informal minor in music or a de facto music major with English as his avenue to a college degree. As many of you know, Walt is a lucid and compelling writer. At any rate, for the next four years it was my great good fortune to work with Walt in several capacities, but none more significant than with him and many other wonderful, energetic, idealistic, courageous, innocent, bright, lovable, rebellious, beautiful, inspiring students who composed the SOS/Hinge service groups, our campus Peace Corps and Vista.
Part of Walt’s career as a SOS volunteer was to work in southern West Virginia where I’m convinced in those hollers and coal mines he and his guitar had surely spent several previous lives. For he took to the whole experience like Pam Zappardino takes to chocolate. By way of a superb traditional fiddle player named Christian Bailey, Walt was introduced to the roots of Appalachian music .This was a defining moment for him and the world would never be the same.Walt was now hooked.
This was the fetal heart beat of his future-- uniting music and justice. Soon after graduating from McDaniel, he attended Drew University as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and in no time had formed his own band—Bottle Hill—playing folk and blue grass. This band became one of the best know progressive blue grass bands in New England. He soon began to master the hammered dulcimer and along with his guitar went through several incarnations with different instrumental groups. After Bottle Hill, there was Michael, McCreesh and Campbell (which took him to Ireland, the closing ceremony of the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid and also that same year to the Tonight Show); then Michael, McCreesh and Campbell morphed into Walt Michael and Company, several talented musicians from whom we still hear from time to time, and then finally, his creation of Common Ground on the Hill, his latest and finest reincarnation—his personal and vocational destiny.
Let him describe CG’s mission as it appears in the CG catalogue: “Our world is one of immense diversity. As we explore and celebrate this diversity, we find that what we have in common with one another far outweighs our differences. Our common ground is our humanity, often best expressed in our music, our art, our dance, and even our language. Peaceful solutions to our cultural and inner conflicts can be found in our shared artistic traditions.” Nothing explains more clearly the genesis of Walt’s latest group, Sangmele and nothing describes Walt’s dream any better and this is why CG is so unique among folk music festivals. The alliance of art with justice and peace is a winner and very few programs can pull it off the way Walt does. The appeal of CG is so magnetic that it now has branches in Scotland, Ireland and New England and I’m sure more are on the horizon. But it was always justice and music, music and justice.
Let me pause briefly to suggest that CG is the expression of the long, revered and inevitable association of art with politics, of music with protest. Walt knew instinctively that authentic artists necessarily go against the grain, buck the tide, call society into question—from Antigone and Lysistrata to The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird, from Picasso’s Guernica to Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, from El Teatro Camposino to Diego Rivera, from Wade in the Water to Blowin’ in the Wind to Walt’s own signature piece, Legacy, there has been this indissoluble link between art and politics and CG is our most local, recent and vivid expression of that.
This is also why Walt, like all true artists, travels on a plane higher than the rest of us, not to look down on us, not needing an enemy, to guarantee his own identity, as with so many religious and political extremists. He is there peeking through the fog, seeing what we cannot see, beckoning us, inviting us to remember how precious we are, how inclusive art can make us feel, to realize the power of music and art to reconcile and to heal, to remind us that art can make us color blind and at the same time help us appreciate the contribution of art by people of color.
Which brings us to Walt’s vision, grounded in Israel’s prophetic vision of shalom, justice and social harmony, something he heard in words from his father’s pulpit and saw in his father’s courageous life as he implemented racial integration in southern MD churches in the early 60’s. There was a corollary vision in his mother’s own prophetic streak found in her impatience and hard to please conscience; she was never satisfied with what was and extremely eager to realize what ought to be. Add to all this the white and black church music which already had deeply coded Walt’s DNA and you have an insight into his vision:
--Walt looks into America’s soul and says “you can be better than this and I will hold you accountable to the ideals of freedom and equality I read in your founding documents. Your dry stream beds of racial injustice can be full of pools of racial understanding and mutual respect.”
--he looks into each of our souls and says with G.B. Shaw in Pygmalion “you see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask why not.”
--he looks into the soul of a liberal arts college and says “I applaud your arts and humanities which include not only traditional classical music that hands down the past, but also the traditional roots music that hands up the future, up from the bottom, up from the gut and heart, up from pain and wounds, up from oppression and despair, up from violation and exploitation, up from blues and spirituals to a richer, more hopeful and joyful humanitas.
--he looks into the soul of Carroll County and sees beyond the stereotypes to the amazing, if often invisible, amount of artistic and justice work being down here, e.g., Richard Dixon, John Lewis, our own Virginia Harrison, Phyllis and Bob Scott, Gary Honeman, the Brethren Service Center, the Shalom Zone on Union St., Sandy Oxx and the exploding new Arts Center; all this good will and energy Walt affirms and he calls us to join him in dancing and dreaming a new Carroll County into existence because we are overcoming.
So, what do you say about this internationally known folk musician who plays just about every stringed instrument and has a burdened conscience about our social ills. I’m reminded of what Joe Hill, an itinerant laborer of 100 years ago who was also a well-known organizer and songwriter, said: “When it comes to social change, I put aside the flyers and pamphlets because a good tune burrows inside the brain and won’t let go.” We are grateful Walt has been burrowing inside our brains all this time.
What do you say about a man who sees songs and art as weapons to dissolve class struggle, civilize uncivil rights, and love away the war movement; who makes university out of diversity, community out of disunity, common ground out of divided minds and souls; who says if you want to know what music and justice are all about, “play a Native American flute with Sakim, sing with the Gospel Choir, drum and dance with Sankofa, play the harp with Jo Morrison, take a course on nonviolence with Pam and Charlie, study the underground railroad with Sparky and Rhonda Rucker and Peter Michael, compose songs with Magpie, write poetry with Christina Collins-Smith and Keith McHenry, visit children in the World Village, play the sax with Dr. Loco, ad infinitum, all of this at CG—to do what the Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam—to mend the world, to repair the world, to heal the world.
What do you say about a man who sees his work in CG as a bridge—not over troubled waters but a bridge which helps us travel through troubled waters to the Other, to cultures, races, classes, generations, ethnicities not our own and, wonder of wonders, find in each of them something of ourselves—a bridge on which we do not build, but on which we safely journey from difference to similarity, from despair to dignity, because as with all good, strong bridges, CG moves us from one shore to the other with such mediating grace that we never meet strangers..
I know what you do say about this man: he has not done this alone. Walt is the first to admit that his daughter Wesley has done her share, from driving guests around in the golf cart to being an all-round handy person to saying “Everything will be all right, Dad,” as well as being pretty nifty herself with the mountain dulcimer.
I know what you don’t say to Walt Michael: it is not the conditional “if I had a hammer,” but the declarative “Walt, you have a hammer; you and that dulcimer have hammered out justice, peace, and love for us all over this land, making pools out of dry places.
What do we say then? One whale of a thank you and be willing to run the risk of saying yes to his always open invitation to join him in the quest for more common ground.
Walt, there are about 850 references in the Bible to music and hell is mentioned only 70 times. Music is mentioned 12 times more than hell which means God must think a heaven of a lot more of music than hell. So, dear Walt, keep playing and singing the hell out of us.
March 22, 2004