Get Off the Grid Festival’s Bill FlemingAug 04, 2021 06:00AM ● By Noah Chen
This month, on the sunny fields of Camp Jordan in Chattanooga, Tennessee, thousands of people will gather to laugh, lounge and luxuriate in the atmosphere of Get Off the Grid Fest. While on the surface it might appear to be just another music festival, Get Off the Grid Fest is one of the Southeast’s premier demonstrations of the efficacy of solar power and the power of music and activism. It is the result of the efforts of Bill Fleming, an accomplished musician, activist and community-builder, his partner and festival co-founder Ed Witkin, and the passionate team that surrounds them.
The festival’s three stages run entirely on solar power as do its other activities, including dance parties, educational seminars, equipment demonstrations and interactive displays. Witkin, who also manages the solar generators that power the festival, estimates they’ll use the same amount of electricity it would take to power three or four houses to supply the festival’s three days.
In addition to being a demonstration of what is possible with solar power, Fleming, 69, sees his music festival as proof positive of other “powers”—namely, those of community and activism.
The Get Off the Grid Fest is the culmination of one of Fleming’s lifelong interests. “It started back in 1971 with one of the very first Earth Days,” he says. “I organized it with a bunch of other people back in Jacksonville. Back then, environmental activism was very subversive. We had the Jacksonville police come out and take pictures of our license plates.”
It was the sense of community that fueled Fleming’s interest in environmental issues and sustains his passion. “We felt like we were moving together as a group,” says Fleming. “A lot of it had to do with the Vietnam War. You know, we were cannon fodder for that war,” he says, referring to the draft.
Both the deterioration of the environment and the threat of being drafted affected many people in Fleming’s circle, and both inspired his activism.
Fleming also had an interest and talent in music. That got him thinking.
“The best way to build a community or sustain a movement is through song,” says Fleming. “We’ve seen it time and time again. The anti-war movement was full of songs. The Bread and Roses movement [of 1912] was led by women seeking better pay, and they sang and wrote songs.” He wanted to follow in their footsteps by creating a community and engineering social change through the power of song. But he wasn’t going to do it alone.
In 1985, spurred on by their joint interest in politics and music, Fleming met Witkin. They began playing music together and formed the PAND Band—short for “Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament.”
Witkin had other interests besides music, including solar power. “Ed is my solar guru,” says Fleming. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a man who knows more about solar power than Ed.” Witkin founded Carrboro Solar Works, LLC, and has been involved in solar projects with many others, including activist/singer Pete Seeger.
In the late 80s, Witkin had been tinkering with solar technologies and modified a Volkswagen bus so it could run on solar power. The vehicle impressed Fleming and inspired the pair to produce the Alternative Energy Festival in Little Five Points, Georgia, in 1989.
“We got people from all over the state to come and bring things [to the AEF] that had to do with taking care of the environment. So, we just had a festival out there on the field, powered by a solar generator I put together,” says Witkin.
“That was the early origins of Get Off the Grid,” Fleming recalls.
Fleming, whose ties to Atlanta include teaching at Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College, moved to Little Five Points in 1980 and found the nearby fields to be the perfect place to host a music festival. Though he has since left, Fleming remembers being inspired by the people there.
“Atlanta was a fabulous place to raise a family,” says Fleming. “We used to do potlucks and festivals, and we did street dances and things like that.”
The BoogieFleming has also hosted “The Boogie,” a pre-Fourth-of-July music and dance party, for over 30 years. He describes it as “a party in the woods with 500 of your best friends who you might not have ever met.” No tickets are sold and there’s no advertising; Fleming says that anyone who shows up is meant to be there, as long as they cause no harm and help pick up afterwards.
Though Fleming recalls his time in Atlanta fondly, he couldn’t resist moving to the mountains north of the city when a parcel of land came up for sale for cheap. He built his off-the-grid house there, a move that took him one step closer to the Get Off the Grid Fest.
If the AEF was the start of the Get Off the Grid Fest, Fleming’s home and community inspired its current iteration. Tucked away in the mountains of North Georgia, six houses, including his own, sit on a land trust he owns. There, Fleming and his investment partner, Ken Banwart, founded Heartwood, a community where like-minded people can apply to build a house. “Our membership protocol requires that people bring a project to the community, and it has to be something they can’t finish on their own,” says Fleming. The requirement allows community members to get to know the newcomers and ensures everyone brings something to the table.
It Takes A Village
“We learned that no one can get off the grid by themselves. It takes a community to be off the grid, and we had hundreds of people help us figure out how to do it.” The creation of the festival was “an outgrowth of putting [our] experience out there,” he explains. “It was so empowering for us. We feel that everyone needs to have access to this.”
With the help of dedicated organizers and his solar guru, Fleming produces the Get Off the Grid Fest every two years.
“He definitely trusts other people, depends on their vision and brings them in that way. It’s very rewarding,” says Glenn Carroll, a partner of the festival and the Coordinator of Nuclear Watch South.
“Another part of it is rock and roll,” Carroll says, referring to Fleming’s success. “Everybody loves music, and everybody loves to dance. It’s like magic.”
“Get Off the Grid is my connection to the world at large,” says Fleming. “That’s how I see my dharma. My calling is to make this available to as many people as I can.” ❧
Disclosure: Bill Fleming is a friend of the publisher of this magazine.
sidebar: Get Off the Grid Festival 2021
The third biennial Get Off the Grid Fest (GOTGF) is in Chattanooga this year from August 20 through 22. The festival’s purpose is “to explore and present practical methods of protecting and preserving our natural resources,” says its website.
The weekend is packed with presentations and workshops, activities, vending, food and three stages of music, including Saturday night’s headliner, Randall Bramblett. Jim lauderdale headlines Friday night and Brown Eyed Women closes the festival late Sunday afternoon.
GOTGF will feature more than 70 speakers in the areas of energy and environment, health and wellness, food and agriculture and arts and community. The keynote address will be given by Mark Jacobson, Director of the Atmo- sphere/energy Program and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Jacobson’s work is the scientific basis of the Green New Deal, states the GOTGF website.
Another feature of the festival is the Electric Vehicle Expo, which provides attendees the opportunity to test drive cars. The Health and Wellness Tent focuses on alternative healing methods such as chiropractic, sound healing, Thai bodywork, CBD, herbs and more. Yoga is offered daily and there are tai chi and qi gong sessions as well.
The Gnome Zone promises fun for the little ones with interactive play spaces, puppeteers and solar-powered toys. The curated art exhibit depicts “the wondrous relationship between human beings and the earth,” according to the website.
A three-day pass for the festival is $60 plus tax, and single- day tickets are $20 for Friday and Sunday and $30 for Saturday. Children 16 and under get in free.
For more information, visit GetOfftheGridFest.net. ❧