Putting the party back in politics

The Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour’s upcoming Asheville visit had its genesis in Cecil Bothwell’s e-mail box, back in June of 2002. “Two people told me about it on the same day last June,” he recalls. “One sent me a Web link, and the other passed on a news story.”

At the time, Bothwell was working as a free-lance writer and volunteering as WNC campaign manager for Cynthia Brown‘s U.S. Senate run. And though he wasn’t directly affiliated with any nonprofit organization, he managed to pull together some 40 community groups as planning partners for the Down Home Democracy proposal.

“First it was just me,” remembers Bothwell, “but [the current planning group] gradually coalesced. We held a meeting with a facilitator last fall, to which all local nonprofits were invited, to help decide what the event would look like. Then we sent a formal proposal to Rolling Thunder.”

Bothwell adds, “We weren’t actually approved until the first part of January.” He continues, with relish, “A group in Durham was trying to get [the tour] to come there, too. We beat them out. Ha!”

“The festival,” explains Rolling Thunder ringleader Jim Hightower, “focuses on coalition-building; taking the [political, economic and social] power back to the grassroots level. We decided that instead of just meeting [to bring people together], we’d make it fun and maybe more people would show up.”

Hightower, an author, radio commentator, public speaker and general hell-raiser, has spent the last three decades doing what he calls “battling the bastards” on every front, working with environmentalists, small businesses, workers and others who feel their interests aren’t represented by mainstream politics as practiced in Washington, D.C., in the corporate-owned mass media, and on Wall Street. Twice elected Texas commissioner of agriculture, Hightower is no stranger to the world of politics, and his lively media presence (his latest book is If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000) has made him a leading national voice for a flamboyant brand of populist politics.

The inspiration for Rolling Thunder (named for the prelude to the rain that nourishes grass roots) grew out of Hightower’s travels around the country. “I found, much to my delight, all this progressive activity taking place in just about every place that’s got a ZIP code.” he explains. “But people aren’t much connected. People fighting for a living wage don’t know the people across town fighting against a toxic-waste dump.”

Enter the Down-Home Democracy Tour — a place where all these groups can connect. But it’s not just a meet-and-greet for activist groups; there are also workshops, movies, music and food. “Beer and wine to lubricate democracy,” chides Hightower. “Our official slogan is, ‘Let’s put the party back in politics,’ so instead of a few dozen people showing up, we have thousands.”

That strategy seems to be working. At press time, Bill Moyers had just decided to cover Rolling Thunder/Asheville for his PBS show, Bill Moyers Now.

Party hardy

Rolling Thunder, says Hightower, “succeeds because it’s fun.” People, he continues, “want to get together. They want to be with other people, especially with a war on and this eternal war mindset.” Accordingly, spurred by the success of the first festival (held in Austin, Texas, about a year ago), Hightower and company scheduled five more such events around the country.

The Asheville show, which hits the Civic Center on Saturday, May 3, is this year’s first Down-Home Democracy Tour. (From here, Rolling Thunder heads on to Santa Barbara, Calif.; Kansas City, MO.; Pittsburgh and beyond.)

Nationally known songstress Laura Love will headline the show. Love draws on a wide range of musical influences, including folk and funk as well as jazz and gospel. The daughter of a jazz saxophonist and a singer, Love didn’t know her father until she was 16. But from a troubled childhood, she grew into a smart, funny, down-to-earth artist. She released her debut album, Z Therapy, on her own label in 1990 before signing with Mercury some seven years and three records later. Her most recent effort, Welcome to Pagan Place (2003), “combines all of my favorite genres: funk, bluegrass and despising the Bush administration,” Love quipped to the press.

The Raleigh-based quintet Fruit of Labor will inject a note of a-capella inspiration, and Durham-born/Oakland-based rap artist Drew Dellinger will raise his voice against globalization and injustice.

The Civic Center event will also feature a broad range of local acts, including the Hill Crest High Steppers, activist Peggy Seeger, all-woman group Sidhe and world-eclectic improv band Dazuluzad. Singer/songwriter David Lamotte will put in an appearance, and fellow folkie Michael Farr will perform songs from his new CD, Thankful.

Other scheduled musical acts include Aaron and Chris Would Be Fine, Braidstream, The Carlos Salvo Band, Cecil Bothwell, County Farm, Current Invention, Aaron Gunn, the Hillcrest High Steppers, the John Hayes Gospel Group, Lance Kurland, Mosby, Richard Shulman, Jeffery Hyde Thompson, Womansong and the World Beat Band.

Poets Greg Brown, Carrie Gerstman, Kam Parker and Annabeth Watts will also perform.

All told, the local edition of Rolling Thunder will stand out for the depth of its local focus. Far from being just another stop on the schedule, Asheville is a place whose residents banded together to make it happen.

“Asheville chose us,” notes Hightower with a laugh. “They came across the concept and wanted to do it. They put together a plan and said, ‘Y’all come.'”

Born of frustration

It was Bothwell’s dissatisfaction with the current political climate that prompted him to try to jump-start the local event. “I had been extremely troubled about the state of American democracy for many years, but particularly since the 2000 election,” he explains. “It seems that I know too many people who don’t vote anymore. If we abdicate, as citizens, democracy in the U.S. will end.

“This looked like a way I could do something,” he adds.

But after being hired as managing editor of Mountain Xpress, Bothwell handed off primary responsibility for the event to others. And what began as a one-man effort has evolved into a broad-based group undertaking.

“Rolling Thunder is a truly grassroots effort,” confirms Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network. Bowen himself has been involved since the first organizational meeting last fall, serving on several committees.

Former Mayor Leni Sitnick will serve as master of ceremonies for part of the event and will moderate a panel discussion with the four main speakers: Hightower, 93-year-old activist Granny D., The Nation columnist Eric Alterman and Patch Adams. John Hayes of Asheville’s Empowerment Resource Center will also speak.

“There are all kinds of really active people involved,” notes Bothwell. “We’ve involved major independent media in western N.C. (including Spirit in the Smokies, Mountain Area Information Network, Mountain Xpress and Smoky Mountain News), and then there are the [community] groups. I think it’s linked groups across issues in a really important way.” That kind of coalition-building is central to the vision of Rolling Thunder.

“So many really important, critical issues depend on political involvement,” muses Bothwell.

Bowen agrees. “We’ve reached an historic low in citizen participation in our democracy,” he asserts. “We essentially have a spectator democracy, or a plutocracy. We know, looking back in American history, there have been times when the abuse of power, corruption and the concentration of wealth led people back into political involvement. That happened at the turn of the last century and again in the 1920s, and both times it led to a swell in grassroots efforts and reform.”

Even in the organizational phase, notes Bowen, Rolling Thunder has brought together a diverse assemblage of community-based groups.

A look at the workshop offerings drives home the point. A wide array of grassroots groups will share their areas of expertise. Democracy North Carolina, for example, is presenting “Voter-Owned Elections: Public Financing of Campaigns,” which will focus on strategies to make public financing of campaigns a reality at the local, state and national levels. The Conservation Council of North Carolina, meanwhile, will offer “Lobbying 101,” providing tips for citizens and environmental groups on how to advocate for critical issues in the N.C. General Assembly. And the Southern Energy & Environment Expo will present “Energy, Environment & Economics,” exploring how these intertwining issues can be integrated to build a sustainable society.

And if you’re looking for a cause to embrace, more than 40 local social-action groups and progressive businesses will have information booths where festivalgoers can get up to speed on a wide variety of issues facing this community.

When the music’s over

So what happens after the festivities are over?

“I think a lot of us will stay involved,” Bowen predicts. “That’s one of the fascinating and exciting things about this event. It will be a catalyst for a grassroots movement in the mountain region.”

And MAIN’s new low-power FM radio station, 103.5 WPVM (“The progressive voice of the mountains”), notes Bowen, will do its part by broadcasting much of the Rolling Thunder proceedings. “I think the radio station will help to keep things going,” he says.

“We’re hoping to create an ongoing movement encouraging participation in voting,” stresses Bothwell. “This isn’t just a one-time happening; we want this to go forward.”

That’s precisely Hightower’s idea. “It’s important that you have a good breadth of groups involved, not just a fringe,” he insists. “And it has to be folks who can pull something together for the long haul.”

In other words, once these grassroots groups come together, they’ll stick together, helping one another realize their shared vision. “Some places [where the Down-Home Democracy Tour has stopped] are continuing on their own now,” Hightower continues. “Groups in places like Austin and St. Paul have continued to work together in a variety of ways. Once people get this going, there’s a motion to it; they’ll keep it going.”

Rolling Thunder, he emphasizes, provides the energy and spark. “We’re the catalyst for the coalition-building — we’re not the coalition,” he explains. “We have no interest in creating a new organization in any community.”

The feisty Doris Haddock (a.k.a. Granny D.) offers a stirring example of the power of individuals to foment political change. Her first foray into activism came back in 1960, when she and her husband played key roles in halting the planned atmospheric testing of hydrogen bombs in Alaska. Decades later, in 1995, the defeat of Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold’s first attempt to remove “soft money” from political campaigns inspired the 15-time grandma to launch a petition drive urging campaign-finance reform. Shortly before her 89th birthday, Granny D. began a 3,200-mile walk across the United States to raise public awareness of campaign-finance issues, arriving in Washington, D.C., 14 months later.

In a March 2003 speech at the International Women’s Day Peace Rally in D.C., Granny D. declared: “The man in the White House is the best political organizer we have ever had. He generated the largest protest demonstrations the earth has ever seen last month. He has us organizing on the peace front, the civil-liberties front, the environmental front, the domestic-budget front — everywhere, people are waking up after a long sleep.”

And even as the Down-Home Democracy Tour revs into high gear, Hightower is also getting ready for the Labor Day launch of his next book, Thieves in High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and it’s Time to Take it Back (Viking, 2003). “It’s the stories of my travels and folks who are taking the country back,” he reveals. “It’s about what Americans actually believe, despite what we’re led to believe,” Hightower explains. “People are quite progressive. People are making fights and often winning.”

“Politics wants us to think no one out there thinks like us. And then, even if there were like-minded people and we all got together, we wouldn’t amount to much. But that’s not true. Actually, the majority thinks like us, and when we come together, it’s really powerful.”

The Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour happens Saturday, May 3 at the Asheville Civic Center, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. All-day, come-and-go admission is $12, and several downtown restaurants will be offering discounts to ticket holders. Tickets can be purchased at the Civic Center box office, the Grove Corner Market, Malaprop’s and the Mountain Area Information Network, or by calling 251-5505. For more information, check out www.main.nc.us/rollingthunder.

Former Mayor Leni Sitnick will serve as master of ceremonies for part of the event.


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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