Many artists have had to put their shows on hold due to COVID-19. A Lincoln presenter found himself in the same boat until he had a conversation with a musician friend.
George Buss has presented himself as Lincoln for the past 30 years. He became a full-time Lincoln presenter after he retired from teaching. He said his interest in Lincoln was piqued as he read a history book in seventh grade. It mentioned the City of Freeport.
“I remember looking and noting in my mind that that was a nationally published textbook, it wasn't something local,” he shared. “And I thought, 'Huh, Freeport made this textbook,' that really had an effect on me. And then of course, it was like, ‘Well, what did happen here?’”
Buss said young people today are really interested in learning more about Lincoln’s story and that looks promising for change.
“I'm following that earnestly on social media, especially with those students that I taught, and then their children who are now of the age,” he said. “So, I believe there is a sunburst coming. It's going to be through the elective process.”
Buss had performances lined up for 2020. Then Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order.
“To say you're going to be at home, you've got to wear a mask when you're out. You know, you need six-foot distance. That's difficult for me personally,” he explained. “But then to say the audiences are not going to assemble. So, I equate it to a level of grief and loss.”
One of the programs that Buss does is called "Lincoln, The Great Communicator." Together with his friend and the help of others, the show went virtual.
The first virtual show, hosted by the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition and the City of Freeport, took place on July 15th.
“George and I worked together many times and I felt a very natural rapport with him. And we had kind of loosely tossed the idea, 'Hey, we should do something together' and then eventually sat down and literally created the show,” said folk musician Chris Vallillo.
Vallillo has done musical projects that include music from the Lincoln era. He said it was hard to hear that they weren’t going to perform a show that they had worked so hard preparing for.
“There were conversations pretty early on about what can we do about that and at one point, Looking for Lincoln asked about the possibility of simply running a video of the show,” he said. “And George and I both felt pretty strongly that we wanted to do a live performance somehow, rather than just tape it and put it up one time and repeat it.”
Vallillo said there is something special about a live performance. He said he and Buss got together and presented this idea to the Looking for Lincoln Coalition.
Vallillo said having a virtual show has its challenges.
“There's always that element of energy that goes back and forth between a performer and an audience. And we don't have that,” he explained. “When you know, doing a livestream, it's a different medium.”
But Buss said he figured out a way to compensate for this.
“And I was following on the social media I had on my podium on the right-hand side, so I could see comments being made during the presentation. And they were all very heartfelt,” Buss shared. “So that let me know that, you know, people were engaged.”
Another thing the two did was to act as an audience for each other.
Buss would applaud after Vallillo's songs and, to keep the conversation going, Vallillo would interview Buss.
Vallillo said there were some favorite moments during his performances.
“I love 'Run to Jesus.' I think that is such an amazing story of the power of music,” he said. “That this is the impetus that Frederick Douglass sparks in his mind the idea to escape slavery.”
Vallillo said the message of "Lincoln, The Great Communicator,” is something that needs to be heard in today’s environment.
“I think we look at a leader like Abraham Lincoln, who dealt with so many difficult things and so much vicious politics. And I think there's valuable lessons to learn from that,” he shared.
He gave a couple of examples.
“I think we can use that as a yardstick to what a great leader looks like,” he suggested. “I think we can look at how a man can adapt his point of view and change with time to broaden his perspective on what freedom means and how to get it.”
Buss said he can see these virtual shows taking place even after COVID-19.
“And I certainly think that Looking for Lincoln and the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area will take advantage of that technology, especially now that we've been through it,” he said.
He said there are people who aren’t able to come to live shows.
“And if they can't attend live, then why wouldn't we make arrangements for them to attend virtually and have that experience?” Buss questioned.
Buss said doing things virtually will do for now but the loss of human contact -- not just for him, but for humanity -- is causing people to pause and reflect.
To see the dates for future shows, visit the Looking For Lincoln Facebook page.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.