Hittin’ Home – For whom the bell tolls

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2023

I heard a recent news story that certainly hit home.  Recently in Scotland at the historical Beith Parish Church, a church bell was silenced after 200 years of ringing, solely due to one resident’s persistent complaints.

The 24-hour, on-the-hour chime had become a beloved backdrop for most of the community, yet the Church of Scotland has now stopped the bell between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.  The decision was based on the resident’s discomfort and pleading to the council of environmental health that their sleep was perpetually disturbed.

Evidently members of the church’s court were empathetic because they felt that the complainer’s voice might represent other softer-spoken folks in the community who were also disturbed by the bell.

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A spokesperson for the court said the goal of their decision was “embracing the bible teaching of love thy neighbor as thyself,” regardless of it being based on one person’s complaint.

The decision had become so unpopular that a petition to restore the 24-hour chime has gained nearly a thousand signatures, representing a large portion of the small town’s population.

Ironically, Bryan McWilliams, the individual who started the petition to reverse the decision, has lived directly next to the church for 23 years.

“The chiming clock is more than just a timekeeper,” said McWilliams. “It serves as an audible connection to our history and heritage.”  He also expressed that silencing the bell for a third of the day has so far had a negative impact on the pride and identity of the community.

As a longtime resident of North Mississippi, I drew a connection between its rich musical heritage and the 200-year-old bell in rural Scotland.

Among football, cuisine, and literature, our regional music is a valuable export.  One can take some delight in traveling overseas and relating to foreigners about the myriad of famous musicians that hail from such a relatively small area.

There’s no arguing that football reigns in Oxford, so it’s no surprise that some great local live music can be overshadowed and taken for granted, and world class-quality performers can easily blend into the backdrop or become part of the landscape.

Live local music is relatable to the story of the old bell in that it only takes one single curmudgeon to bring a strong majority’s joy to a halt.

In recent days, The Green at Harrison’s – the only outdoor music venue near Courthouse Square – was plagued by noise complaints from a resident in one of the adjacent condominiums.

This man’s distaste for the music playing below, which purportedly permeated his living area, was almost enough to shut down the festival-quality stage and regular music schedule altogether.

This individual’s poor decision to reside in the center of a college town literally affected the livelihood of dozens of local working musicians, who represent some of the city’s most valuable cultural output – since most places in the world only know football as the sport that we call soccer.

Of course, you can’t hold it against Oxford, that one man’s need to be centrally located – yet live quietly – dampened everybody else’s time.  The phenomenon occurs in almost every lively city center throughout the country, where lonely souls or empty nesters seek the comforts and conveniences of downtown, yet feels everyone around them should comply with their acute sensibilities.

The same situation also takes place on the fringes of college campuses, which was the case with Thacker 564, a quaint and enjoyable neighborhood bar/restaurant which was located on Old Taylor Road until closing its doors several years ago. The lovely and talented owner Chef Michelle Rounsaville built a modest outdoor patio stage beside a bustling two-lane road that separated her establishment from The Mark condominiums, a sprawling complex that houses mainly college students.

Among the residents of The Mark – in one of the rear buildings, located roughly an eighth of a mile from the restaurant – was a retired shut-in who would systematically call Oxford Police at the strike of the first musical chord, even though Rounsaville booked only tasteful local acoustic blues, bluegrass and country acts in the daytime hours. One afternoon, Rounsaville and a companion took a noise meter (which measures the decibel level of live music) back near the complainer’s domicile and reported that it barely registered on the device.

The police were sympathetic to Rounsaville, yet the silver-haired nagger was so persistent that eventually the live music at Thacker 564 was terminated.  Again, the disposition of one out-of-place resident in an area dominated by much younger, more active people forced the whole community to suffer.

Although the city of Oxford is still teeming with musical talent, many will reflect on its glory days when live music was abundant around town, and not scantly prioritized, as it is now – outside of Double Decker Festival, which no longer even books local musicians.

The city’s support for live music exists, yet is decidedly lacking, as evident in the regular closing of venues and recording studios around town.  Nothing short of financial assistance or modifying legislation and noise ordinances will ever reverse this trend.

A fine example is the Oxford Blues Fest, a wonderful annual festival that just celebrated its 12th season, yet receives little support and is persistently moving further away from the Square, in part because of the city’s ordinances, and empathy for a small handful of squawkers.

Perhaps silencing a bell, or holding back the music, can bring temporary peace to this ubiquitous breed of bellyachers found in most every community, but maybe these grumblers should – instead of trying to silence the bell or the music – heed its ominous call.