Let Freedom Ring, Elba celebrates Independence Day
The following articles are written by Whitt Watts and Jack West. Halfway through their Living Democracy summer, Watts and West recount their experience of celebrating the Fourth of July with friends in Elba, Alabama.
My summer in Elba is almost halfway through, and I've been lucky to make some great friends and see so many different parts of the town. Now, Elba is truly becoming more like home. The Fourth of July week here highlighted that feeling of home as I got to see familiar faces, meet new ones and celebrate our country in the most most incredible way possible.
Throughout the week, I worked alongside Sandy Bynum at the Elba Chamber of Commerce to help with the annual Fourth of July festivities. She was especially enthusiastic about the event and how important it was to Elba. I was in charge of holding down the fort at the Chamber while she ran around town checking on the progress.
The week ran by rather smoothly, and we had everything lined up for the big day. All the vendors were ready and the schedule seemed ready to roll.
The morning of the Fourth of July arrived, and I went over to the square to help set up some stages, move a freezer, and find some sandbags to hold down the moonwalk. I saw some familiar faces helping out, making sure all the pieces were in place for the day.
The Masonic Lodge had their watermelons ready, Veterans Cleaners’ had the dunk booth set up, and the stage had the sound system playing the music. As the night started, Bynum was rearranging the schedule to allow for the Tribe Dancers, a local dance studio, to get a chance to dance before the parade. The dancers came out around 6:15 with two dances, one with a group of girls in elementary school and the other a high school group.
Once they wrapped up, the parade started with golf carts decked out in patriotic décor. After the parade ended, Mayor Murdock gave a speech touching on patriotic themes and our country’s founding values.
The event then went into full swing, with the Springs playing a mix of classic rock and their own songs. The square, usually filled with maybe 20 people, turned into a home for close to 700 people. Everyone was checking out the local vendors, buying food and items to celebrate the occasion.
The most incredible part for me was seeing all the faces I had met over the past five weeks all come out to enjoy the holiday. I saw the volunteers from the food pantry, the owners of the organic gardening farm, members of the Rotary Club, and more all walking around. It seemed like all of Elba had come out to celebrate, and I loved interacting with all of the members of my new community.
One of the biggest points that Bynum often made when talking about the Fourth of July was that it was meant to follow the original intentions of the Founding Fathers when celebrating. This meant ringing church bells, fireworks, patriotic music, and most of all, celebrating with the entire community. Over the years, I have attended Fourth of July celebrations all over, most of them meeting those intentions, but there is nothing quite like a small-town celebration.
There is truly something special when a whole town comes together to celebrate, especially when it involves celebrating the founding of our country. Elba seems to understand the principles that truly make our country great. All of Elba was united under the flag, the fireworks and the fellowship.
The festivities kept going until the countdown for the fireworks to begin. The show was incredible, accompanied by a patriotic score. We sat back and watched the fireworks, enjoying the holiday to the fullest extent.
I will never forget this Fourth of July for years to come. Everything you could imagine about a small-town Alabama celebration, you saw on that night. There were moments I felt I was in a book or television show, but it turns out that, sometimes, reality can be more perfect than fiction. I thank Elba for showing me how to celebrate the Fourth of July properly, how to bring an entire community together and how, in a small town, friends can feel like family.
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Elba's annual Let Freedom Ring celebration. Months of planning, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of volunteer labor culminated in a Fourth of July celebration that is a highlight of the town's summer.
Much of the attention given to the event is often centered on either the planning of the event, its impact on the town, or on pure spectacle. Consequently, some of the smaller or more nuanced stories get lost. Here's a couple of them.
Adela Duncan stayed up all night on July 3. She has a braid that falls past her shoulders and a box full of cinnamon-covered fried tortillas. Duncan has been selling tortillas at the Let Freedom Ring celebration for three years now, and all of the money she makes goes to the Elba High School Band program.
Her son, Enrique Duncan, plays in that band. He plays multiple instruments, but his favorite is guitar. Duncan said one of the rooms in her house is filled with guitars and workout equipment.
This summer, Enrique joined the U.S. Army National Guard—hence the workout equipment. Duncan said her son watched lots of videos online about people who had joined the military before deciding that this was the right path for him.
"I think he thought he knew what he was getting into," Duncan said. "He didn't have a clue." Enrique is spending the summer before his senior year at basic training in Fort Benning, and his enlistment picture dominates Adela's tortilla-laden table.
"This year, Fourth of July means more," Duncan said. "It's personal now."
Duncan doesn't help plan the celebration. She isn't a large corporate donor with her name on the stage. She sets up her table underneath the oak tree on the courthouse square and stays up all night to make cinnamon tortillas. Then, she gives the money to her son's high school band.
Another important player in the celebration this year is Stewart Halcomb, one-half of The Springs country duo who performed at the 2019 celebration. He's from Enterprise, a town about 15 miles away from Elba and over five times its size. For the past two years, Halcomb has brought his wife Holly, the other half of The Springs duo, and their band to the Let Freedom Ring celebration.
Sandy Bynum, the director of the Elba Chamber of Commerce, said the band has come the past two years because they want to give something back to the community. The Halcombs said they come back to perform for family.
"Coming here, Stewart sees a lot of people that he knows—a lot of family, a lot of friends," Holly said. Throughout the show, Stewart talked about how proud he was to be able to come back and sing for his family
"We have certain songs that we play when we know certain family members are going to be there," Stewart said. "My grandfather just turned 85, and he loves Bob Seger's 'Old Time Rock & Roll.' Whenever we play for him, we dust that one off."
The Halcombs agreed that playing for family can be more stressful than for playing in front of 80,000 people. "In a place that may be bigger, but where we don't know a lot of people, it's a little less nerve racking," Holly said.
Stewart was blunter. "Family will tell me if I'm bad," he said. "Family will tell you, 'Hey man, I don't really like that song'."
Both agreed that if Elba continued to invite The Springs, they'd keep coming back.
Let Freedom Ring seems to mean different things to everyone involved. It's an opportunity to come home, an opportunity to be charitable, somewhere to find pride and somewhere to find family.
Photos by Jack West
By Whitt Watts and Jack West
Last Updated: July 09, 2019