Island Packet by Mary Dimitrov
In frayed jeans, sneakers and a fish-patterned sports band around his neck, John Mellencamp looked different than most churchgoers at Savannah’s First African Baptist Church. It’s not his casual outfit or the fact that he’s a well-known artist that stick out like a sore thumb. There’s another reason.
At this historic church, he’s one of the only white attendees. But it isn’t about race at all.
That’s not why he was there.
“America should try to work together to be on the same side, and I see that down here in this community,” he said. “I don’t see it with the white people.”
Mellencamp, 72, took a boat from his home on Daufuskie Island on Sunday morning and made the trip to Savannah to play two songs at the church because “I want to,” he said.
Officially organized in 1788, from members who founded a congregation in 1773, the church is also where Mellencamp wrote three songs off his 21st album “No Better Than This.”
“John knew the acoustics of this place were out of this world,” said the congregation member, who introduced Mellencamp as an old friend before he performed.
She said that for five days Mellencamp ate, laughed and wrote in the church. At one point, one of Mellencamp’s friends joked about how he had never been baptized. “Next thing I knew John was standing up here on the platform dressed in a white cotton robe,” she said.
Since being baptized at the church, he has been part of its community.
Mellencamp recently completed his 77-date tour across North America, which was frequently sold out. But this was the first time he’d done something like this, according to manager Randy Hoffman.
Sunday morning was also the first time church-goer Eyla Davis realized there was going to be a special musical guest. She is new to Savannah and was attending church with her two friends.
“I was very surprised to see John Mellencamp,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one, Sister Valerie, who has been a member of the congregation since 2009, said she first heard about the performance when she walked through the door that morning.
As yellow tulle, red flourishes and pink jackets crossed through the wooden door, Valerie greeted each and every person wearing them. “No one is a stranger,” she said.
Throughout the service people hollered, smiled, laughed, hugged and “um-hum-ed” in agreement. In fact, a Grammy-award-winning musician performing seemed to be a minor aspect of the morning.
Instead, it focused on God, togetherness and love — subjects that can be heard in Mellencamp’s 25th album called “Orpheus Descending,” which considers American issues including social inequality and gun violence.
Mellencamp has long identified as a liberal and when asked to give advice to youngermusicians like Tyler Childers, who are showing their progressive roots, he said he didn’t have much.
“We’re all on the same side,” he said. “Its time for America to knock this (BS) off about left and right, blue and red, forget all of that (stuff).”