And a Big Grin

Photo by Bill Finley

It’s almost 11:00 a.m. on Friday, September 17, 2016.  Bill and I are seated at a table in the far end of an elongated, almost empty, hotel restaurant near the Pittsburgh airport. We’ve reserved in the quietest place possible because for the next couple hours, I’ll be interviewing Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary before his concert with Peter Yarrow. Though this isn’t the meeting room we asked for, at least there’s a kind of indoor fence between us and the main dining area.  I’ve asked my gregarious husband to eat his lunch before Noel arrives, to stay and chat while Noel and I order our meals, but to please disappear when the interview begins. 

In late January I’d sent a proposal to Noel, which began something like this:

I am a United Methodist clergywoman / writer who has recently researched a curriculum piece on respecting other religions when I discovered One Light, Many Candles. That discovery led me to your recent CD/DVD, and last week I heard from the review editor at Sojourners that my review of At Home: The Maine Tour will be published.  My research, listening, and writing the review have sparked an idea for a book about your music, spiritual journey, and social justice work. 

Two and a half months, two more emails and a published review later, I heard from him.  Since then Noel and I have been emailing, but I’ve never talked with him on the phone.  His last email asked me to call him around 11:00 am after he’s had time to rest from his flight.  I’m just a bit nervous. I want to present myself as a professional writer, not a giddy fan. After all, I haven’t followed his solo music or PP&M music since the ‘60s. I’m going to keep a straight face. I dial and he answers.

“Hi, Noel, Bill and I are here in the restaurant when you’re ready to come down.  We’re way in the back, and I’m wearing a turquoise shirt.”

He adds,  “And a big grin.” 

Remember Clement Moore’s lines the moment after St. Nick comes down the chimney.  

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread

I’ve just received the verbal equivalent.

Now, four years later, our collaboration on this book goes on.  I recall the FaithLink curriculum piece that led me into this journey.  In November 2013, 130 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and its northern suburb of Saint Denis.  Most prominent in the news of the day was a mass shooting in the Bataclan (theatre) that left 90 dead.   The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility. Almost immediately anti-Muslim sentiment and violence increased globally among people who didn’t understand the difference between the Islamic religion and a militant, fundamentalist Islamist group.

Since 2007 I’ve been a part of the writing team that produces FaithLink, a digital United Methodist curriculum for study groups on current affairs and faith. After the Paris attacks, I was in line for the next issue to be written. The editors and I wasted no time deciding that the topic had to be interfaith understanding. In doing the research I ran across One Light, Many Candles, a multi-faith program in word and song presented by Noel Stookey and the Reverend Betty Stookey.  Betty had begun developing in program in her role as chaplain at Northfield Mount Hermon School, which had a religiously and culturally diverse student body. She continued that development later when she became minister-in-residence at Wesley Theological Seminary. 

That Noel Stookey is married to a clergywoman who has developed such a program got my attention.  I started reading more about them and was impressed with their depth of understanding, their spirituality, and their efforts to help us human beings “overcome our differences and see our commonality without fear of losing our spiritual integrity.”

Long story short, I ordered some of Noel’s latest CDs and started listening. I found in his solo music deeply reflective lyrics, occasional comic relief, profound but humble reverence, and beautiful melodies played by an accomplished guitarist. Two years earlier Bill and I had lost our only child to cancer.  At age 33, she left behind her husband and their six-month-old baby.  The grief was still fresh.  One Noel’s songs, “Every Flower” includes this couplet, which inexplicably brought hope and healing to me:

Some [flowers] are bent by fears they cannot see
And some are touched by love and set free

On the surface, “Every Flower” has a simple lyric, but the power of poetry, of metaphorical language, is that it works beneath the surface, reaching inner places like nothing else can, especially when it is woven into beautiful, engaging melodies and rhythms.

Another feature of Noel’s lyrics that I appreciated from the start was his reticence to using religious language to communicate about the Divine.  That appeals to me because I’m highly skeptical of the misuse and abuse of God talk, which seems more prevalent in public life than it was even four years ago.  His songs are the epitome of Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” 

For those of you who may have wondered why I post so many announcements about Noel’s projects and concerts on my FB page, now you know.  Speaking of which, this weekend he has been one of many artists who are giving their time and talents to Share the Journey: A Concert for Compassion to raise money for organizations that work extensively to serve and assist migrants, immigrants, and refugee families. 

On Sunday, October 18, Noel will appear in concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.  Tickets to this virtual event will allow you to see it anytime between tomorrow night and November 18. The orchestra will be playing some Joplin and Copeland, and Noel will be singing some of my favorites, including  “Facets of the Jewel,” which is central to One Light, Many Candles, and “In These Times,” written in 2007 but curiously applicable to right now.  

The book is also the reason I write so few blog posts, but we’re entering a phase of writing in which my research is focused on contemporary topics that may evoke more frequent posts.   I hope so.  Regardless, I’m still wearing a big grin. 

Can I Get a Get a Witness?: Cesar Chavez and Peter, Paul, and Mary

Cesar Chavez

Can I Get a Witness?-Chavez

During Lent I’m participating in a study of  Can I Get  a Witness?:  Thirteen Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice, created through the Project on Lived Theology  at the University of Virginia and edited by Shea Tuttle, Charles Marsh, and Daniel Rhodes.   Released last week, the book presents the stories of thirteen pioneers for social justice who engaged in peaceful protest and gave voice to the marginalized, working courageously out of their religious convictions to transform American culture.

These stories of social activists, such as Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow, shed light on the spiritual motivation for their work for justice.  The first chapter is about Cesar Chavez, the organizer of “the first farm-worker union in a struggle for justice that took on the industry of agribusiness.”  Daniel Rhodes writes,  “Chavez always understood the movement to be about more than wages or contracts; it was a spiritual campaign.  For him, the work of the union was woven inextricably in a fabric of religious significance.  Jesus was with them, and in their struggle and sacrifices they were a part of his kingdom, his people.  It was nearly sacramental–eucharistic.”

Chavez’s story, as well as the others in Can I Get a Witness?, in of particular interest to me because I’m collaborating on a book with and about Noel Paul Stookey–the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a singer-songwriter and activist whose faith and social justice commitment have be integrated both in his work with the trio and in his career as a solo artist.   I share stories of Chavez’s connection with the trio.

In the 1960s Chavez and his co-leader in the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized a national boycott of grapes to draw attention to the exploitation of farm workers by mega-farm corporations.  Sympathetic to the cause, the trio was invited to perform in a Carnegie Hall concert to  support the UFW.   Noel and Peter write,  “Milton Glaser, the internationally acclaimed graphic designer who  . . . created all of the graphics for our record albums, stationery, and many other projects, asked his colleague, Paul Davis,  . . . to create the now famous image of a young Hispanic boy that was featured in the poster for the concert”  [1].  You can view the poster “Viva Chavez, viva la causa, viva la huelga” on the website of the Library of Congress.

Later, Chavez was among the people who invited Peter, Paul, and Mary to join in Survival Sunday, a 1978 concert in the Hollywood Bowl to protest the start up of a power plant in Northern California, built next to the San Andreas earthquake fault.

In 1997 the trio’s manager Martha Hertzberg called on them to  join in efforts  in Watsonville, CA, to organize strawberry workers, whose health was being affected by pesticides, who were having to work in fields that lacked potable water and toilet facilities, and who were greatly underpaid.  She partnered with Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez’s son-in-law, to organize a benefit concert and a trip to the strawberry fields of Watsonville to increase public awareness of the situation [2]. They sang Woody Guthrie’s song Deportee” about migrant workers [3].

Peter and Noel wrote, “Seldom had an audience touched us so deeply.  In some heart-to-heart exchanges with the United Farm Workers’ leaders, we found out what you cannot know from the printed page or from secondhand descriptions:  Theirs was a struggle for survival under  the constant shadow of illness, hunger, and possible death due to horrific working conditions, virtually no health services, and miserably low pay.”    They noted that efforts to improve conditions for the workers were “largely successful”:  “It was the legacy of Cesar Chavez, who changed the consciousness of American about some of our most forgotten and cruelly exploited workers.  Woody Guthrie spoke of these workers in the lyrics of Pastures of Plenty’:  ‘Pull beets from your ground, cut grapes from your vine, to set on your table that bright, sparkling wine.’  In Watsonville, we had come full circle from the ’60s to the ’90s.  The struggle for fairness and justice for the poor was, is, and, alas, will continue to be ongoing”  [4]

 

 

[1] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

[2] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

[2]  This version from the PBS Lifelines special includes Tom Paxton.

[4] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

 

 

Immigration Songs

bicad-media-39529-unsplash

Photo by BICAD MEDIA on Unsplash

Today I received a FaithLink assignment to write about asylum and found I needed to listen to some music before I started reading the news.  Some of these are old favorites and others I’ve turned up today.   I offer this list of songs, in the words of Finley Peter Dunne’s (no relation) Mr. Dooley (an Irish immigrant) “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He was talking about the role of the press, but songs can have the same function.

There’s no better place to begin than with  Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, which I first heard at my high school.  It gave me chills then, and it still does.  The lyrics are from the poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus to raise money to construct a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.   The poem was cast into bronze plaque, which was mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal.  Set to music by Irving Berlin, here it is performed by the Zamir Chorale of Boston.

No list of immigration songs would be complete without Woody Guthrie’s Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) after a 1948 plane crash in Fresno County, CA, that killed 32 people including 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported to Mexico.  National radio and newspaper coverage failed to give the victims’ names, referring to them as “deportees.”  Although the Fresno Bee had reported some of the names, Guthrie, who was living in New York, didn’t know about the local coverage and responded with this poem.  It was later set to music by Martin Hoffman, a school teacher.  Here it is sung by  Peter, Paul, and Mary along with Tom Paxton.

Noel Paul Stookey‘s Familia de Corazon  is, in his words, about “the promise that sits out there in New York Harbor to all people who want a fresh start, who believe in equality, who are seeking justice and equity.” I find this song particularly poignant at this time when so many children have been separated from their families at the border.  Stookey has also has replaced two verses of America the Beautiful  (2011) with newer ones, one of which recognizes that we are a “nation of the immigrant.”  Both are on the 2015 CD, “At Home:  the Maine Tour.”

Will You Harbor Me?  was written by Ysaye Barnwell, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and is on their album “Sacred Ground” (1995). One of their albums “Raise Your Voices” (2007) has the cover shown at the beginning of the video.   Here’s another immigration song by Sweet Honey in the Rock in a video featuring Yonas–We Need a Nation (2010).

These Shoes  (2008) by Andrew McKnight shows the vulnerability of an immigrant woman from Central America. In his introduction he asks,  “What would it be like to grow up in Guatemala or El Salvador and feel so desperate that the only thing you can decide you can do is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known and loved and make this journey . . . .”   The song is on his CD  “Something Worth Standing For.”  I’m delighted to learn about this singer/songwriter who lives in the northern Blue Ridge of Virginia and has a heart for the marginalized.

Nanci Griffith is joined by Emmylou Harris on Griffith’s Good Night, New York, which is recorded on her album “Winter Marque” (2002).

Bruce Springsteen‘s American Land   (2006) recalls the stories of many immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries who discovered that not everyone who worked hard could make their lives better.

P.S. on July 13, 2018

Since I made this post, several people have suggested other songs about immigration:

Neil Sedaka’s  The Immigrant

Ry Cooder’s  Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right

JTF

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