NOW visited a Rolling Thunder show in late 2003. Inspired by the 19th century Chautauquas the traveling education, lecture, and arts movement the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour is a series of one-day festivals aimed at bringing together people to ignite their participation in democracy by putting the party back into politics. And, many prominent political-minded folks joined their tour, including filmmaker Michael Moore, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and columnist Molly Ivins.
"Politics ought to be a part of your life. It's not something that is just in the last 30 days of an election," says tour organizer Jim Hightower, "The whole idea of a Rolling Thunder is to be festive... and to think 'Hey, this isn't bad. I could do this. If this is what politics is, I might participate."
Get more information on the Rolling Thunder Tour
What was Chautauqua?
What began as a summer retreat for Sunday school teachers became one of the most powerful cultural conduits in pre-mass media America. Theodore Roosevelt called it "the most American thing in America," and William Jennings Bryan deemed it a "potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation."
In 1874 Methodists Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent decided to broaden the summer programs at their New York camp to include arts, letters and other educational topics.
The idea of Chautauqua as a public educational forum soon took off around the country. Localities like Boulder, Colorado, formed their own summer programs and built campuses like that in New York. The program soon also spawned the first book club, The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, a program that spread nationwide and published newsletters and books under its own imprint.
But most Americans encountered Chautauqua on the "Circuit" through traveling lectures, musical programs and plays. The Chautauqua Circuit's business was to bring culture and inspiration to small-town America. Key to the movement was the American notion of self-education and of participation.
The Great Depression and the growth of radio brought the great Chautauqua era to a close. But there are movements like Rolling Thunder and local Chautauquas throughout the nation attempting to revive its spirit.
Today both the original Chautauqua Institution in New York and the campus in Boulder, Colorado are still going strong. There are over 7,500 participants at Chautauqua in New York each summer season and over 140,000 people come for the scheduled programs. This year's Boulder program includes music and dance, a silent film series, lectures on topics from astronomy to media and field tours from noted archaeologists and naturalists.
Learn more about Chautauqua past and present from the links below: