There’s a guy and he makes music at a beach bar, Flora-Bama, a one-of-a-kind, sprawling, right out of the movies, wooden roadhouse so named because it straddles the state line that separates Florida and Alabama.
But this guy, Bat Bennett, never straddles. He jumps into every song, all kinds of songs — country, rock, oldies, the Beatles, Sting, John Denver, Neil Diamond. From Van Morrison to the von Trapps, he plays it. He sings it. And he rocks it.
He stands on a stage, any stage — Flora-Bama has five — and with just his guitar makes time and place and whatever bad things that are happening in the outside world disappear. One song leads into another and then another and then another. The man never stops. And neither does the spell he casts.
Bat, his stage name, plays nonstop for more than three hours. No complaints. No long breaks. Even when a guitar string snaps, he carries on, changing the string while engaging the crowd. Now and then he cups his hand to his ear, leans into the audience and invites everyone to sing along. And everyone does. To “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Dust in the Wind,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “With a Little Help from My Friends.” And a kind of magic happens in this tourist place where young and old, northerners and southerners, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals meet. Everyone suddenly is on the same note and the same page. No politics, no anger, no divisiveness, no party allegiance. Nothing divides us. We are united. If only for a song.
And in this there is hope.
Music is Bat Bennett’s native language. He learned it sitting around a campfire with his father. He’s been fluent since he was 6. At Flora-Bama, he plays an acoustic guitar, sometimes a six-string, sometimes a 12; but he can also play the banjo, piano, bass, drum, and harmonica. As for singing, he never repeats a set. It’s different every night. And he goes, not where a lead sheet points but where the music takes him. From the 1950s right up to the present, from bluegrass to television theme songs, to one-hit wonders like Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” to his own original creations, he plays them all.
I watch him standing on a stage that straddles two states and as I listen to him sing song after song after song. I see the crowd smile and sing and clap, and I think of all the things we share in this country, all the eternals that poets and songwriters write about: love and hope and heartache and perseverance and a longing for peace and understanding and equality and justice and happiness and home.
And I feel hopeful, watching this 55-year-old man who has been performing most of his life, use his energy and his talents not to offend, not to divide and pit people against each other, but to remind us of our shared humanity, of all that we have in common. And of how beautiful life can be.
Later, though, when the music stops and I’m not at Flora-Bama, I turn on the TV and it’s there again. The great divide. Them and Us. The right and the left. Anger. And accusations. Disrespect, dissonance, and cacophony. The polarization of America. It’s on TV and on the radio and on Facebook and Twitter and in e-mail after e-mail and in our hearts, growing and growing. Everyone yelling and no one listening.
And I wonder, if instead of always trying to be heard and understood we tried a little harder to hear and understand, if we acknowledged how alike we are instead of how different, if we talked less and sang more (imagine “Sweet Caroline” across the aisle, across generations, across the country, across the world), maybe we’d find our common ground. Because it exists. Music proves this. Common ground exists in the words and the notes of even the simplest songs.
We just have to stop yelling and arguing, and start listening and hearing one another. We might find not just common ground — but in some places, harmony.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.