This article is the second of a series in which Red and Blue members of Braver Angels discuss selected submissions from our Songwriting Contest together (the first is here.) Submissions will be accepted through July 4th.
For this conversation, the Blue is Cameron Swallow—a Braver Angels moderator and bluegrass musician in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who spent 18 years teaching secondary school. The Red is Jennifer Stepp—a pianist, musical theater dabbler, and community arts advocate who also serves as a city council member in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Cameron and Jennifer are both deeply connected to North Carolina, and each now plans to visit the special diner the other discusses in this conversation. They focus this conversation on songs about “Places and Spaces,” because it is impossible to teach and practice civil engagement if there are not places set aside for people of different opinions to cross paths.
Jennifer: Since we’re talking about places, let’s start with “City Limits Diner” by Bruce Fogelsong.
Cameron: I love the echo of ‘Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina.’
J: Of course—since we are both connected to North Carolina!
C: His diner is in Michigan, has nothing to do with Carolina, but I hear it. “In the mo-o-orning!” It makes me nostalgic for Richard’s Coffee Shop in Mooresville, NC, the one I wrote my Bluegrass Bridge article about recently. We need places where people with different views can naturally cross each other’s paths. What lines stand out to you?
J: Not so much line by line, but as a whole this song really spoke to me. We have a place here, where people go early in the morning for breakfast—I’ve been a couple times but I’m not so much a morning person… It’s an old diner on the site of the old Firestone Mill, and it’s now called the Firestone Grill. All the politicians and elected officials go there for their coffee. Just like those waitresses in the song refilling everybody’s coffee—even when I’ve got mine just the way I like it, they come and refill it!
C: It struck me that all the staff was female and all the clients, the ones that come to talk, are male. Is your diner like that?
J: Yeah, predominantly that’s how it is. There are some females, like I said I’ve been a couple of times, but it’s still predominantly male.
C: Does the song feel nostalgic, like it’s longing for the good old days that can never come again? And does your diner feel like it’s out of time, like it’s old-fashioned, like places like it will be dying out?
J: Oh yes! Like I said, it’s an older clientele. You might see some little children there with grandparents, but on the other hand, my 31-year-old and 27-year-old wouldn’t go there. It does feel nostalgic, and I do think places like that are dying out.
C: Is the diner exclusively Red? Or is it a place like this song that is opens room for discussion on both sides?
J: No, it is not exclusively Red. But I will say a lot of the Blues are the older-style Democrats, so more socially conservative. More of the Dixiecrats. It is a mix at the diner, but because they’re older, it is still very different from the new bar/coffeehouse where the millennials gather.
C: So more of a generational gap than a political one.
J: Yes. A lot of nostalgia, too. I remember going to diners like this with my father—he was very involved in politics. These places are probably dying out, but we need them—places to go and talk and not be attacked, to not feel out of place the way I do when I go to the millennials’ coffeehouse. What strikes you?
C: I like how he put a contrast in a single line, about “sometimes a prayer might be invoked, and followed often by a dirty joke”—like how there’s room for both of those things just like there’s room for both red and blue.
J: That was a good contrast. We can appreciate the prayer and also allow a dirty joke. I also like how he keeps coming back to “kindness” and “laughter.” Even in distressing times we have to come back to the joy and laughter, and feel welcome. You have to feel welcome before you can let your guard down enough to laugh and joke around with somebody. Most of the time we are so guarded, we don’t know how somebody’s going to take what we said—will they be offended? Should we be offended? It’s important to have a place where you can relax, laugh, be yourself, where people don’t take everything so seriously. What’s it he says about the pundits?
C: “Speaking their truth somewhere between the Gospel and Fake News.”
J: I like that line too.
C: And I like how “civility reminder” rhymes with “City Limits Diner.”
J: Even if the world is falling apart, we have a place to go and enjoy company, find peace and brotherhood.
C: Where we can believe, like Bill Doherty says, “We’re not as far apart as we were told we were.”
J: Right. It’s hopeful. That makes me think about our Braver Angels workshops, the reactions of people who come fearfully, mostly Reds—we always seem to have trouble convincing Reds to come to match up with our Blues. But when they leave, they’re exchanging contact information with those same Blues who they were afraid to meet. They have these images in their minds about what the other group is going to be like, and they come to a workshop and light bulbs start to go on—oh, we can agree about this? Even elected officials come and get their eyes opened by the candid, spontaneous conversations.
C: You don’t have horns and a tail?
J: Nope! And once people let their guard down, relationships can flourish. People leave with a new friend or a new opinion about a leader.
C: Well that’s a perfect lead-in to the song “Imaginary World” by Chris Sand. He sings about how in your head you have a preconceived notion about how things are, and then you wake up and see, “oh that’s not real!” Let’s listen to that one next:
C: My favorite is that bit of self-knowledge he’s got about how when you’re in your own head, “your sense of humor has jumped the tracks.”
J: Right. “Don’t know if it’s ever coming back.” We are just inundated with information all the time, 24 hours a day. It can really get you down and get you thinking some crazy thoughts sometimes. You can get depressed and angry and anxious. But when you wake up, you can realize it’s (like Bill said) not as bad as they told us it was. We’re not as far apart as we thought.
C: If I ever meet this man, I will ask him whether there were already angels in this song before he knew about Braver Angels. I don’t know if that last verse an adaptation or not!
J: I think, because I have a hard time turning my mind off, the times that are worst for me are when I’m going to bed. All the stuff’s been coming at me all day, and when I lie down and start thinking about it all, I can get really down.
C: As an elected official, I’m sure you have many extra stresses buzzing around your head at bedtime. But Braver Angels is here to “open up our eyes and let us know that stuff ain’t real.” This song is very hopeful about the power of good communication to get past our distorted visions of reality and each other.
J: Plus it’s a catchy tune!
C: Another hopeful song is “My Neighborhood” by Chris Taylor Frimoth.
J: Makes you want to live there, doesn’t it?
C: Yes, the video images were sweet and encouraging—a parade, and face-painting, and playing drums in a circle under a tent… It was a larger, more urban neighborhood than I thought he meant when he first started singing.
J: It surprised me too—the scene with the newborn baby seemed like a much smaller neighborhood. But the food trucks and roads surprised me.
C: That’s why I had a question about the two lines in the first chorus or bridge: “In my neighborhood there are no street signs.” What does that mean?
J: Yeah, that struck me as odd too.
C: And then there’s “You can see and still be blind.” What do you think he meant by that?
J: Maybe it’s when you can see things you don’t necessarily agree with, but choose to be blind to it in a judgment sense. What if the two men next door are “so in love” like he says in the song, and another neighbor says, “I don’t necessarily agree with LGBT marriage or whatever, but I’m going to be blind to that difference we have and I’m going to love you anyway.” Maybe?
C: Then they both bring potato salad to the picnic and compare recipes?
J: I guess. I like how he starts with the baby and the old man dying, so there’s beginnings and endings. I like how he describes the tattooed girl and the black man and he deals with race and LGBT and younger people who are often looked at funny for their piercings or tattoos. There’s a single woman…. Just a very diverse neighborhood, lots of different people with different life choices, and not all of it is choices, some of it is circumstances. But they can all live there in unity and harmony. And why do you think he said “Jesus’ name is good in my neighborhood?”
C: I don’t know. It surprised me because there was nothing specifically Christian in the song, nothing about how the neighborhood is blessed by God or how we worship together or how we are explicitly celebrating our relationship with God—none of that! It felt tacked on to me.
J: I just wondered if that was just another thing that is accepted, that people aren’t criticized for choosing religion? But you’d think he’d choose something besides Christianity to make that point, since Christianity is still more accepted than other religions…. I thought it was a weird way to end it.
C: I was puzzled, not so much by the inclusion as by the spotlighting at the end, as though it’s all been leading up to this.
J: Maybe he’s saying God tells us to love everybody. I mean, I like the little line, being a Christian myself, but I didn’t understand what it was doing there. This neighborhood is not like the 1950s neighborhood, with All-American traditional families, two parents, two or three kids, white, Christian…. But this song is describing a new ideal. You’ve got a whole diversity of people, and they’re not fighting because there’s “no wars,” and they’re all happily getting along. And the pictures make you say, “That’s where I want to be!”
C: Yes, a real sense of community, illustrated by a sweet rom-com montage.
J: Something to work toward.
C: Are you ready for my very favorite? “Bigger Map” by Justin Solonynka. I like it because it’s a call to action. We’re going to DO something.
J: Enough talking about it, go and DO something!
C: You know, I enjoy a good rom-com montage as much as the next person. But this one fills me with purpose and drive. I love the line, “This old world keeps getting smaller, but the tales I tell keep getting taller.” That is the perfect line for a Depolarizing Within workshop! Being in our silos, where the atmosphere just gets more extreme by the minute.
J: Right. In my personal story, I didn’t purposely put myself in the silo, it just happened around me. I had to make a very conscious effort to get out of it. And when I did, I got attacked by my party, for reaching out to the other side.
C: For fraternizing with the enemy?
J: Right! Many in the Republican party (and I’ve been involved all my life since my daddy started the Republican party here locally in the 1960s, but I’ve never been a party-first person) gave me as much grief as I ever got from the other party. Because, how dare I socialize with those people? When they ran a Republican candidate against the sitting mayor, I didn’t openly support him because I like our mayor—we get along really well, even though he’s a Democrat. So the head of my party says he gets more calls about me than about anybody else.
C: You troublemaker!
J: I am a troublemaker. I actually had pictures taken of me and a colleague, who’s a Democrat, passed around and shared on social media, and my fellow Republicans said I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
C: Can’t trust her! I love this line: “The myth of the Other comes unraveled when we travel on the road less traveled!”
J: Yeah that’s great! Talking about pointing fingers—we are all so self-righteous and want to blame others and not look at ourselves. You’re right, it’s perfect for a Depolarizing Within workshop! We have to look at ourselves.
C: But be careful—looking at ourselves is not the same as ‘taking selfies.’
J: That’s right. “Got to get out of this chair.” We need to DO something.
C: “In the sea of selfies we’re just sinking.”
J: It scares me how passive social media has made the next generation. Stupid Snapchat! My kids take pictures all the time. All the time. So involved in themselves and in their own little groups. We’ve got to get out of our groups, out of our silos, off of our little screens.
C: But in another important way those screens allow us to make a Bigger Map. They let us see how connected the world is and to know about people in other countries, and have immediate news about worldwide events. So if you can use it right, technology can be one of the tools that helps you build a Bigger Map.
J: That’s true. And same with what we do with Braver Angels, even before the pandemic, but now we are having conversations with people who live hundreds of miles away. So we’re not only getting out of our cultural silos but also our geographic silos! While the screens can trap us, they can also help us in our mission.
C: Right, we just have to be the boss of them! Oh listen, it’s Billy Joel!
J: I like where it says if we’re only around people who “confirm I’m right,” then we just get more prideful and judgmental and walled off and siloed. We talked about healthy tension that has made things work, not only for our country, but in families and businesses too. If we’re not ever challenged we’re not going to grow. We don’t want to stagnate.
C: This is clearly the anthem for the Depolarizing Within workshop. We have as much work to do in the spaces of our own silos as we do at building bridges across the divide.
J: And it’s about you. You take responsibility for you, do your part, and get out of that chair and take some action!
C: “Take a step and mind the gap.” I love it.
Thanks to all the Braver Angels songwriters who’ve sent us our first submissions! Sharing your political and musical ideas takes courage, and we’re grateful you’ve given us the chance to hear your voices. We’re accepting submissions through July 4th.