To Understand Ohio: David Giffels Looks at What a Music Festival Can Tell Us About Ohio Politics

Sep 20, 2019

There’s a relatively new music festival near Dayton that bears the nickname many political watchers have given Ohio: Bellwether. For author David Giffels, who’s working on a new book about what's on the minds of voters ahead of next year’s presidential election, that was enough for him to include it in his travels around the state. In this month's check-in with Giffels, we talk with him about his recent trip to the Bellwether Music Festival.

The festival is in its second year and features rock-n-roll music set against the backdrop of the Ohio Renaissance Festival Grounds outside of Dayton. David Giffels went to Bellwether, which was held this year August 9-10--less than a week after a mass shooting claimed nine lives in Dayton's Oregon entertainment district.   

"I had planned for months to attend this festival," Giffels said. He was intrigued by the name as it relates to Ohio's political history. He found attendees reflective about the violence that had rocked Dayton days before. He found most people did not want to live in fear. They wanted to enjoy the music at the festival.  

Robert Pollard, lead singer of Guided by Voices, performs at the 2019 Bellwether Music Festival.
Credit DAVID GIFFELS

A band with Dayton roots
Among the 24 bands in this year's lineup were well-known acts like Cake and Cold War Kids. But the one with the deepest roots in the region was Dayton's own Guided by Voices.

Giffels interviewed the band's lead singer Robert Pollard. The group started as a struggling independent rock band, but Guided by Voices broke through to achieve broad success. 

"They were the very definition of lo-fi," Giffels said, "but not in a fashionable sense, because they didn't have access to any real working music equipment. They were this 'Little Rascals,' let's make somthing out of whatever we can find in the garage, and whoever we have around us they'll be the musicians in the band." Giffels calls it a very "Ohio, do-it-yourself, do it the hard way because it's the only way to do it" beginning.

A different path
Giffels also talked to Robert Pollard's brother Jim Pollard, who played with the band off-and-on and wrote a couple songs. But Jim took a different career path than his brother. He went to college, came back to Dayton, got married and landed a job at the General Motors plant in Moraine. However, that job disappeared about ten years ago when GM drastically cut thousands of people from their workforce. "I don't know that I would give my children the advice that seemed to play out in that family to choose the course of the rock star, but by the same token, I think it's the kind of warning sign in Ohio that we can never rely on outside forces for our own personal security."

Takeaways from the Bellwether Festival
By the time Giffels got to Bellwether, he had travelled most of the state. Giffels found the more people he talked to, the more he realizes how divided Ohioans are. "We have less reason to understand things we don't understand and less access to understand it because we're sort of pigeon-holed into our own information centers and they don't reach across the divide," Giffels said.