Originally written for NoDepression.com
Emily Saliers is many things – a Georgia native, a songwriter and foodie, a spiritual woman, a guitarist, a poet and an author. Right now she’s got a Martin guitar in her hands – I don’t know what model it is, but the sound is warm and full. She’s just off to the left of centerstage with a spotlight on her face and a room full of several hundred people waiting for her to play that thing. But her eyes are squinting against the light. Her is face turned up, peering toward a doorway in the back of the upper balcony…
Tonight, Emily Saliers is looking for ghosts.
I’ve only ever interviewed her twice. I have no idea what her personal relationship is with ghosts, but somehow this detail is haunting tonight.
Pardon the pun.
She wrote a song about a ghost once, but it was more of a heartbreak tune. The ghost was used for imagery, a metaphor for love that’s died but still won’t leave you to heal. It’s a beautiful song with all its earnest admissions of in-the-moment emotions (“There’s not enough room in this world for my pain” seems a little dramatic and extreme, but we’ve all been there). She won’t play that song tonight, though I’m not sure why not. She pauses several times in the middle of the set to talk about the ghosts who supposedly haunt this space.
Ghosts interest me, though I don’t really believe in them the way they’re frequently portrayed. I believe in science, so I don’t believe energy ever dies. It only gets passed from one object to another. . . one person to another. The energy each of us create in our lifetimes certainly goes somewhere, but I have a hard time imagining it ever presents as a transparent outline of the human form lurking in corners or thrusting objects across rooms.
Of course I also can appreciate forces exist in the world which are beyond explanation or the possibility of human understanding, so sure. Maybe. Ghosts. I don’t know.
I do know the Bijou Theater is a small room. Its 700 seats have, over the course of the past century, welcomed theater-goers for movies and plays. The space has housed a hotel and a porn house, as well as the commencement ceremonies for a nearby African-American high school, presumably during the Jim Crow era. These days it’s hailed as one of the most beloved music venues in this part of the country. The acoustics are incredible. The decorations aren’t so ornate they make you want to vomit gold leaf, but there’s a certain appearance to the place. No doubt it’s haunted by the intermingling of energies which have graced its walls and floors across time. Hopeful grads entering an unjustly segregated world, pornographic films, vaudevillian comedy…few things could match each other less.
Throw into that mix a couple of women with acoustic guitars, at this point veterans of their genre. Women who have had at least a small place in the history of the south – doing their part to move it forward when it comes to LGBTQ civil rights, environmental justice, the rights of indigenous people, immigration reform. Women who, simply by caring about what they care about, driving around and making music, have opened countless minds to the possibility of a better world.
Speaking of that better world, tonight the Indigo Girls aren’t playing the hits. They work in “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine” – the crowd wouldn’t let them leave without those two – but otherwise they veer. A couple of things have happened in the world recently, and it’s not far-fetched to imagine they considered these things in the crafting of their setlist. They don’t talk about the recent mass-murder in Colorado directly, but the headlines hang when they enter into “Tether” – easily one of the strongest moments of the night. Behind them, the Shadowboxers provide texture and harmony, instrumentation and dynamics. The instrumental solos beckon and Amy Ray’s vocals answer:
We’ll make it better.
Let go of the hawk, we’ll let go of the dove.
I sing to you, all you true believers
with the strength to see this and not be still.
I’m telling you now, find the hope that feeds you.
It’s one of those moments when a room swells, like a breath has been exhaled underneath everyone’s feet and they all rise together. It’s one of those songs in a set where everything connects.
At some point, Ray looks at the crowd, noticing a number of young girls standing against the stage – maybe eight years old, each of them – and comments on how nice it is to see such young people so engaged with live music. I’ve been eyeing these girls from the start. Glued to the edge of the stage together, a group of friends with their moms, excited not about the dance moves from the boy band, but about the socio-political, philosophical insights of a couple of women who are pushing 50. Ray notes it’s important to not get caught up in age ranges, since everyone has a life to live and the year in which they arrived has little to do with it. . . except, of course, for the sake of context.
“Age doesn’t matter,” Ray says.
Her collaborator chimes right in, fueled by a lifetime of personal experience as much as she no doubt is that some fast-food chain has joined the debate about marriage equality in recent days. “You know what else doesn’t matter?” She pauses. Ray looks at her with a can’t-wait-to-see-where-this-is-going face. “The fact that gay people want to marry each other.”
Indeed, both she and Saliers were born right around the time the civil rights movement was coming to a head, into a state which held onto segregation with all its might. It was a time when perhaps this room was used to graduate black high school seniors – men and women who could now run for president if they wanted. Tonight, these two women can take for granted that society on the whole has deemed the ideological struggle into which they were born worthwhile. Time has marched forward, dragging along its history from which we can learn. Its insights which can be passed on to younger people. When those little girls are pushing 50, they’re likely to be able to take for granted that people like the Indigo Girls have equal rights. Whatever they think or feel about that will be informed by everything they’ve seen and heard and felt in their lives, including what’s going down at the Bijou Theater this summer evening.
In this theater, of all places, that point isn’t lost.
We’re taught that history is made up of large events, big political moments when something graced the headlines. But really, history is made up of moments in rooms, with people making connections, having conversations, changing the color on the walls and floor, changing the color in the middle, changing the music, changing their minds. Those big events are made up of infinitely smaller moments when eight-year-old kids connected with performers on a stage.
These are the moments when energy passes. Call it ghosts if you want. I call it music.