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Earlier this year, 32-year-old singer-songwriter Doug Levitt experienced what he calls a “Howard Beale moment.” The D.C. native and former journalist had tired of watching election-year high jinks from the sidelines and decided to hit the streets and rock the vote for Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards.
“I initially thought about putting together a USO-like tour,” Levitt says. “I wasn’t able to get it funded in the end. But I still thought, I gotta do a little more than nothing.”
With his Bob Hope dreams thwarted, Levitt took a quick personal inventory to determine how he could affect the election as an individual: “I thought, One white guy, one song—go with what you got.”
So he put work on his upcoming rock/pop album on hold and, on Sept. 21, began the Blue Bus project—a six-week tour of the country, via bus. Armed with a Greyhound Ameripass (“like a Eurail pass, but nobody knows about it”) and his guitar (“a Gibson J-100—the poor man’s J-200”), Levitt set out to present the nation with “McLean, Virginia,” which he describes as a “modern protest song.”
“I was thinking about [Edwards’ idea of] two Americas….If anybody has been [representing that] better in the last four years, it’s the folks in McLean.”
Levitt performed in bus stations, at rallies, and on college campuses in such swing states as Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Minnesota, and Wisconsin before wrapping things up on Oct. 29 in Ohio, where he hosted and performed at the Music for America rally at Ohio State University.
Whether audiences were familiar with the city of upscale shopping and USA Today or not, Levitt says the message of the song came across.
“It works either way. It has a specificity that piques interest,” he says. “I’ve gotten really great responses from the song—from Republicans even.”
But one important Republican may not have been swayed by the musical number—Levitt’s mother, D.C. At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. “It’s funny—I think she has some level of enjoyment and pride in the activism, but I don’t know if she agrees with my politics completely. From my perspective, I still can’t figure out what makes her a Republican. I’ve been crunching the numbers my entire life, and the Excel spreadsheet still comes out ‘Democrat.’”
Levitt, a product of the D.C. public-school system, says that neither growing up in an urban center nor covering conflict in foreign lands prepared him for the bus tour. “I’ve been to war-torn countries, I’ve been a Jewish-American journalist in Iran…but I was most scared to travel by bus in my own country,” he says. “It’s been really edifying. Greyhound, in my mind, is the last sort of egalitarian institution.”
Although Levitt hopes that his music will continue to inspire dialogue, he’s through leaving the driving to Greyhound for the time being. On Oct. 31, he headed back home to Los Angeles to complete his album, which is being produced by David Henry, who has worked with the Cowboy Junkies.
And despite describing his trek across America as “amazing” and “incredibly valuable,” Levitt has tucked away his Ameripass and relied on the friendly skies to deliver him home.
“I’m flying back,” he says. “[The bus tour was] great and all, but…”—Sarah Godfrey