“Wow,” said the young man. “I've been to other academic conferences. But I’ve never seen anything like this.” New to Friendly Green Conference, he seemed startled by the party going on in the lounge of the college dormitory where many of us Friendly Green Folks were staying.
A bunch of college professors, wearing jeans and holding guitars and some still wearing their name badges, had pulled chairs into a semi-circle and were playing a Bob Dylan song. Other folks crowded around, singing loudly, their arms around each other. The little lounge table held a conference program, several bottles of beer, and a set of harmonicas. Ponytail Ecocritic, his hair streaming down his back, bent towards the folks with the guitars and joined in on the harmonica.
Five people crammed onto a little couch that was designed for maybe three people. Yoga Woman was on the floor, stretching her muscles out in the midst of the party. Two women were hugging each other ecstatically and laughing over a joke that no one could hear amidst the music. Lilting Voice sang with the guitars, her voice rising as her long hair swayed back and forth. Dark-haired Woman and I did some interpretive dance: well, that’s what we called it anyhow.
Friendly Green Conference is not just an academic conference: we’re a community. And music is one of the ways that we build community.
Loves Dogs had joined the party with a bag of chips that she passed around. “See that room?” she said, pointing to a door about ten feet from the musicians. “That’s where I’m sleeping.” Thankfully, she’s tolerant. We’re lucky, in fact, that the whole building was filled with Friendly Green Folks: the musicians played every night, and no one ever complained.
During the week, musicians would excuse themselves from the party at about 2 a.m. by saying things like, “Hey, I’ve got to present a paper at 8:30.” But on the last night of the conference, the music went late. No one wanted this conference to end.
The musicians played requests, like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Brown-eyed Girl.” Philadelphia Guy borrowed a guitar to play some Rolling Stones. Chicago Friend entertained us with the “Duct tape Blues.” Everyone sang and swayed to “Hey Jude.”
As the night moved toward dawn, Maine Writer stepped out of the elevator. She was pulling her suitcase, on her way to the airport for an early morning flight. “You’re all still at it?” she asked. “Damn. I should have just stayed up.”
Eventually, people did leave, reluctantly, to pack their suitcases and maybe get a short nap. Six of us still remained, and we debated what song would close out the conference. Philadelphia Guy, who has definite opinions about music, made sarcastic comments all through “Dust in the Wind.” Finally, Chicago Friend picked up his guitar and played “Blackbird.” The singing was lovely, but then Artist Friend had the idea he and Chicago Friend should whistle a verse. They’d manage about a line, then Philadelphia Guy would say something like, “Whistling? That’s ridiculous,” and they’d burst into laughter. Then they’d try again.
Trying to whistle when you’re laughing is harder, but it’s even harder to leave close friends you don’t get to see very often. It was a sleep-deprived crowd that gathered at breakfast the next morning, pulling suitcases or carrying backpacks, hugging each other goodbye one last time before we all began our journeys home.