When all the world was young

This June marked the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Troy University, and after spending this week with 140 college students at a conference in Alabama, I can’t help but reflect on how students are different in the New South.

Discussions in small groups at the SELAHvie conference in Alabama.
That’s me, the old guy on the left, leading a small group discussion at the SELAHvie conference for college students at Shocco Springs Conference Center in Alabama this week. Photo by Meggie Dant.

As a small group leader who did double duty as an interviewer and reporter covering the event, I spent the four-day conference studying these young adults, hearing their stories and processing my own journey along with them. Here are five characteristics of today’s students I observed from the week:

First, New South collegians are well travelled. I never left the confines of the United States until I was 29. Today’s college students most likely have several stamps in their passports before they reach graduation. They have shrunk the world as they experience new cultures and visit what would have been considered exotic and remote locales back in my day.

They are not only experienced travelers, they have a global worldview. They see how we are connected and how the actions of one country impact others. They understand intuitively that we are connected and cannot live in isolation. They have relationships with people in other countries and can personalize another cultural perspective.

Second, students today don’t expect much from the economy. Yes, they have career aspirations and a strong sense of calling, but because they have been matriculating during a global economic downturn, they don’t take good jobs for granted.

They also don’t base their identity on their careers. Of course, many of them are still sorting all that out, but in general, they don’t think of themselves as accountants, engineers, ministers, lawyers or physicians. They think of themselves as individuals first and people who have or need jobs second. They don’t define themselves by or invest too much ego in their future careers.

Third, their closets are much less crowded with shoes. In fact, a single pair of flip flops can accessorize any outfit in their wardrobes. There is no occasion that is not appropriate for flip flops. I understand that this conference was in August, but I think they would acknowledge that their flip flop habit extends well beyond summer.

When I was in college, the only flip flops I owned I wore in the community showers in the dorm. Now, students in the New South wear them everywhere.

Students at the SELAHvie conference
Students built community while at the SELAHvie conference. Photo by Meggie Dant.

Fourth, today’s students appreciate the small gesture. Twenty years ago when we talked of changing the world, we seemed invested in the idea of the big change – world peace, ending hunger, curing cancer. This generation of collegians keeps those larger goals in perspective and understands that big change happens incrementally.

They celebrate small victories and understand that something as minute and basic as a smile is a step toward world peace. This week they shared stories from their summers of how those little moments became powerful examples of larger changes in their lives and in the world around them.

Finally, I observed that today’s college students seek out and build community wherever they go. I don’t even think community was a word 20 years ago. Or at least it wasn’t applied conceptually the way it is today among young people. This sense of community goes beyond fraternities and sororities, athletic teams, music and theater performers, dorm neighbors, social cliques, religious groups or other formal configurations of relationships.

Community is a shared core value. They want to be able to share their lives with each other beyond one-on-one dating relationships, and they embrace shared experiences over rugged individualism. They appear to be less selfish, more giving and more open to living in a way that includes a larger network than we ever imagined 20 years ago.

Why these sociological trends are so is a topic for another day, and I understand that I’m being overly general in this analysis. But as colleges welcome back students all across the South, they are welcoming back a different kind of student than the one who stepped foot on campus 20 years ago.

But what do I know? I’m old school.

New South Essays leaves open the possibility that these observations could be completely wrong! Feel free to share your thoughts by commenting below.

Piano music

New South Essays readers know I’m a fan of Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell, so when her 13th album “1000 Pound Machine” was released April 3, it wasn’t a stretch to predict a review was coming.

Kate Campbell at the piano
Kate Campbell at her "1000 pound machine"

I was intrigued by several twists on this album. First, Campbell trades her customary acoustic guitar for a piano, the instrument of her training and youth. Second, she is joined by an all-star cast of musicians including Will Kimbrough, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, John Deaderick, Dave Jacques, David Henry, Paul Griffith, Sloan Wainwright and Emmylou Harris.

And third, no matter what instrument Campbell plays, her melodic storytelling always delivers.

Even with high expectations, I was not disappointed. From the first track to the redux, Kate delivers soulful ballads, playful imaginary scenarios and spiritual depth that will unfold over many hours of listening.

In case there’s any doubt that the album’s title refers to a piano, the title track “1000 Pound Machine” begins with a lesson of sorts on exactly how a piano makes music. Line by line, Campbell explains the technical details of making music on a piano, but song by song, the album restores the mystery by placing the emphasis on storytelling.

The sound might be a little different, but the lyrics are classic Campbell. Each song tells a uniquely Southern story with beauty, grace and cleverness. She connects the South’s agricultural roots with a very modern quandary in “Wait for Another Day.” A farmer’s decision turns out to be a universal challenge faced by procrastinators everywhere.

Campbell then takes us on a bus ride across Alabama in “Montgomery to Mobile,” imagining George C. Wallace and Rosa Parks seated next to each other. The excited-to-travel child in all of us is transported down the flat stretches of road flanked by cotton fields and pine trees, and the idealist in all of us is given some reason to hope that human beings can overcome their differences and connect on deeper levels.

“Red Clay After Rain” is a longing for the South by an ex patriot Southern who moves up north for economic opportunity. The song’s protagonist declares “I miss cotton, camellias, curtains of cane and red clay after the rain.”

“Spoonerville” is a tribute to legendary musician Spooner Oldham, who returns to play with Campbell again on this album. The lyric “Don’t you know, you gotta have soul if you want to rock and roll” speaks to Oldham’s approach and what he has brought to Campbell’s previous work.

Haunting and beautiful, “The Occasional Wailer” is an instrumental that sounds as if it has blown in from the Celtic isles.

Album cover of 1000 Pound Machine
"1000 Pound Machine" was released April 3

In the bluesy ballad “Alabama Department of Corrections Meditation Blues,” Campbell’s adopted persona laments the circumstances and character traits that led to his incarceration. But ultimately the song is about redemption and being born again. Campbell seems to be asserting that freedom is a function of the spirit and not physical space, and Emmylou Harris’ vocals add a richness that drives home the point with emotional power.

“I Will Be Your Rest” has a message we can all afford to soak in from time to time, with a warm and full sound. The song envelops you like a hug from God. Next time you are feeling down and out, a good dose of this song will bring comfort and maybe a few tears.

“God Bless You, Arthur Blessitt” tells the true story of the fellow who carried a cross around the world. Rather than focus on those elements of Blessitt’s journey that would strike people as fanatical, Campbell poetically congratulates him for his commitment, perseverance and sense of direction.

“Walk With Me” has a Hammond organ to complement the thousand-pound machine in this song that updates a hymn with compelling emotion and earnest pleading. None of us want to walk this “tedious journey” alone.

The album ends with a reprise of “1000 Pound Machine” that, absent the lyrics, reiterates the piano theme and injects some of the Hammond and an undertone of another piano that intertwines with the dominant melody like two playful swans floating on a still lake.

The final song is “1000 Pound Machine Redux.” Each version plays with sound in different ways, but what all of the versions capture is a sense that life carries on amid playful and sometimes fearful distractions. You can read your own emotional state into the stanzas, and I think I could hear something different in it if I listened to it a thousand times.

For Campbell’s fans, this album is a delight. If it’s your introduction to her brilliant songwriting, you need to invest in some of her other music to hear the contrast. I highly recommend you spend some time with Kate and her 1000 Pound Machine. Don’t “Wait Another Day.”