Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Ecclesiastes 3) transports me to July 23, 1962, when I had not yet turned one year old, and John Hammond from Columbia records was at the Bitter End coffeehouse in Greenwich Village to record a live performance of a folk singer named Pete Seeger. The set began with an old labor song that many of the civil rights activists had learned at Highlander Folk School, and was to become the anthem of the civil rights movement, We Shall Overcome. Midway through the set, Seeger introduced the world to a song he wrote after his publisher asked him to send something other than a protest song. He had been reading the Bible, and took his lyrics virtually verbatim from the King James rendering of the poem in Ecclesiastes 3, only adding the repetitive chant, turn, turn, turn. The publisher loved it, not realizing it would later be adopted as a protest anthem for the anti-war movement.
While Pete Seeger was singing songs from the labor movement and the Bible, my dad was reading the Bible and doing his own bit for workers’ rights. Downtown Asheville was indeed beginning to turn, turn, turn. I’m sure the passage from Ecclesiastes would have been familiar to Daddy long before he heard Seeger or Judy Collins or the Byrds make it famous. He understood the proverbial insights of Solomon, and later in his life would often be described as a man of deep Solomonic wisdom. In that particular season of change, the time for me to be born, soon to be the time for his father to die, he was working as an electronics technician for Dunham’s Music House, which sold Rogers organs and Baldwin pianos and Magnavox stereos from a store on Patton Avenue. When I got older, he told me stories of what life was like back then. Every morning, when there were deliveries to be made, he drove the Dunham’s truck down to Pack Square, which was filled with black men, desperate day laborers waiting for an opportunity to earn their daily bread. These men were jockeying for position to get picked up for the most difficult and dangerous grunt work the businesses had to offer, whether factory of farm. For Daddy, someone from the bunch would provide a strong back to help install a church organ or piano. At some point, he sensed that there was something wrong with the system, and he began advocating on their behalf to his boss, Mr. C.W. McLain, owner of Dunhams. After many efforts, Daddy finally succeeded in convincing Mr. Mac to permanently hire whatever help he needed and put the workers on a regular payroll, so they would have the same job security that he enjoyed and could provide for their family without the indignity of waiting and peddling themselves on the square every day. Leonard Flack was one of those hired, and he stayed with the company until it went out of business in the 80s.
I don’t know that anyone would recognize Asheville today from what it was back in 1962. From the indignity of black day laborers crowded onto the square hustling for whatever work might come their way, to a black woman mayor leading the city’s economic development efforts. Turn, turn, turn. My own journey has seen a community culture turn from extreme homophobia, where taunting and bullying and violence against anyone remotely appearing homosexual was the accepted and unquestioned norm, to a day when the majority of our county voted against a statewide constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and woman. Turn, turn, turn. It is a season of Solomonic change, from hate to love, from killing to healing. It doesn’t come without struggle, for it is also a season to break down and cast away – old prejudices, old jokes, old theologies – so that Jesus’ ethic of love can be embraced and built up. Turn, turn, turn. It is a season to change from war to peace, and as Pete Seeger concluded in the only other lyric he added to his scripture song, I swear it’s not too late.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.