I was teaching on a year sabbatical replacement contract at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas for the 2001-02 academic year. In my new faculty welcome pack, there was a day ticket to the Walnut Valley Festival. I was not a huge bluegrass fan, and wasn’t planning to go, but new friends at the college persuaded me I’d have a good time, and I decided to join them for the Saturday–the 15th of September. We’d see some of the performers during the day, have a potluck picnic in the parking area between the afternoon and evening sessions, and then go to the grandstand area for the headline performers in the evening.
On Tuesday, 9/11, everything changed. Two planes hit the Twin Towers in New York, another flew into the Pentagon, and a fourth went down in a field in Pennsylvania. The woman in the office next to mine had CNN on her computer, and shrieked as she watched the video of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. I brought my class (a senior seminar in applied ethics) to the nearest room with a television hookup, and we watched the news coverage in shocked horror. Later that day, I helped chaperon a group of students who wanted to go to the Red Cross in Wichita and donate blood. Psychology professors offered counseling to fearful students–young people, mostly from small towns whose exposure to violence came primarily from the Cartoon Network.
Public safety officials were warning people not to congregate in large crowds, to prevent the possibility of further attacks. But people had already started setting up their recreational vehicles and tents at the fairgrounds where the Walnut Valley Festival is held. Some performers had made their way to Winfield. Was going forward with the plan to attend on Saturday wise or safe?
The friends who had persuaded me prior to the Al-Qaida attacks stood firm in their intention to go. Nobody was leaving Winfield. Musicians who were not already on site were making ground transport arrangements to honor their commitments to perform at the planet’s largest bluegrass festival.
So I went.
And it was the right thing to do.
Because the festival at least doubles the population of Winfield for a few days–and that year, it was a way of saying “screw you” to people who intend to strike fear into those who wish to gather for peaceful purposes. Like making and hearing music. Having picnics. Watching children play.
In the evening, I sat in the grandstand of the Cowley County Fairgrounds, with my new good friends, and enjoyed music I didn’t think I’d like, but will always remember with deep affection.
That evening, John McCutcheon premiered this song, written while he was making his way from New York to Kansas, and rehearsed only once. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the audience.