October 23, 2017
Fruit, Will Campbell, and Me
Will D. Campbell, self-proclaimed redneck, singing a country song. There are many photos of Will on the internet, and during his lifetime there were photo spreads in magazines such as Rolling Stone and Life. This photo is one very few people have seen before because it’s from a slide my dad took. That would mean my siblings and I are likely the only living folks who have seen this shot (it is possible prints were made, but I have not seen them).
This was taken before Will Campbell was a noted author, and before he was an iconic figure of the Civil Rights Movement. Those things actually happened after he was active in the Civil Rights Movement. During his years in the Movement — which stretch from the beginning to the end of that era as generally defined by historians — he was one of the most active but least seen participants.
That participation has since been well-documented, but at the time, in my home, we knew him as Uncle Will, a preacher (we knew lots of preachers, but no other preachers like Will), a character (in the Southern vernacular, though later he would actually be represented in a comic strip), a kind-hearted and loving soul, and sort of a farmer. I say sort of because he had a farm and we sometimes saw him doing farmer stuff, but he was also often away doing other things or having meetings at the farm that didn’t involve getting his hands dirty.
He was a farmer in the same way that he was a country music singer. Both were strongly linked to his identity, but neither were his vocation. In a way, the same could be said for his being a “preacher,” because in the time we knew him he never had a congregation or parish of the sort to which we were accustomed. Later I would come to understand that with Will there was no line between vocation and avocation. He did what he needed to do —which, when boiled down, was to spread the message of “Love everyone, regardless”— and sometimes he got paid for being this messenger (though he never was a man of financial wealth, even after his second book crawled its way onto the NYT best sellers list).
Last week I shared a song I wrote with Steve Parham called “Laid-Back Lenny,” the lyrics of which were inspired by my father. But it’s also about Will, and Arch Conrad, and other wise sages from the generation that preceded my own. For me, they are the people who left their mark on my very being, most often at moments and in ways that I didn’t realize at the time. But as I move through life, the fruits of their wisdom have been waiting along the path long after the option of literally sitting on the porch and availing myself of their words was removed.
That’s what I aspire to be–someone who during my life nurtures seedlings that bear loving fruit after my physical voice is silenced.
“Laid Back Lenny” by Steve Parham & Phil Rice