Stand up, diggers all
During the break, everyone chats to each other, grabs coffee, checks email. It’s a cacophony of activity and people moving around, with two hundred people talking, connecting, refuelling, and drifting in two hundred different ways.
Then it’s time to reconvene. I could shout “Oi!” or “Excuse me!”. I could knock on a table or tap the microphone. I could ask everyone to please sit down and pay attention like a tired schoolteacher. But I don’t do any of that because that’s not me.
I sing as the people sang who first wrote this song, hundreds of years ago: from the gut, with the resonance to be heard across one field to the other.
With spades and hoes and ploughs, stand up now, stand up now,
With spades and hoes and ploughs, stand up now.
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold
To kill you if they could and rights from you withhold.
Stand up now, Diggers all.
Their self-will is their law, stand up now, stand up now,
Their self-will is their law, stand up now.
Since tyranny came in they count it now no sin
To make a gaol a gin and to serve poor men therein.
Stand up now, Diggers all.
Excerpt from The Diggers’ Song, a 17th-century protest tune
Someone who had been in the room when I did this once asked, “Tim, when did you start bringing song and slam poetry into your facilitation?”
I’ve been thinking about that, and realize my answer flips the question.
When did we stop singing? When did we give up on music, art, or poetry to direct the attention of a community? When did the insanity of meeting without it begin? Why did we start building convention centres underground because we believed not having windows would help people concentrate?
For the past two or three thousand years, the bards of Northern Europe have used oratory to galvanize and awaken. It cuts through all the surface stuff and jolts the creative part of our brains.
But during the age of industrialization, humanity decided that in order to be authoritative, we must banish humour, storytelling, poetry, and music as frivolity. Convening people became a performance of rigid, structured seriousness, and all that used to be central to community—to coming together across differences—was kicked out.
Fast-forward a few generations, and we’re finally conceding that we’ve had almost no luck solving our problems mechanistically. Being rigid and structured and serious disinvites creativity and makes us susceptible to oppression and control.
Since our work at The Outside is a counter to oppression and control, Both Tuesday and I have always felt instinctually that the art, poetry, and song has to come back in. So we bring it.
Human beings have always sung, painted, and written about the most difficult moments in our growth as individuals and nations. We rally in song and we protest with canvas. There’s good reason why the pen is mightier than the sword!
Even when we’re not entirely comfortable with the uncertainty that surrounds us, creative expression diffuses the tension of that uncertainty. It helps everyone share in the experience, for better or for worse; remember what matters; and keep forging ahead.
While I was in Hawaii working with Chris Corrigan, we went to see an elder who spoke about indigenous traditions. “Don’t come here and take our traditions,” he said. “Don’t you dare. Go find your own.”
Someone from England piped up and said, “What if your traditions had been wiped out 1500 years ago by the Roman empire?”
The elder burst out laughing and replied, “They’re so much closer than you think! Go light a fire. Go whistle a tune.”
During the same trip, I had performed a couple of spontaneous poems. One evening the son of a Samoan elder approached me and said, “My father would like to speak to you.”
The elder flapped his hand at me, motioning for me to join him. He handed me a beer and said, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I think so…?” I replied.
“How you’re capturing these conversations here is the way that my people have been capturing their history for thousands of years,” he explained. “Don’t ever think of it as a gimmick. You’re doing something important and sacred.”
Stand up now, fellow bards. And keep standing.