Doug Gwyn: Theologian and — Quaker Theological Folksinger ? Yes! (UPDATED)

Doug Gwyn has been a frequent contributor to Quaker Theology. Our readers have known him as a theological historian, who has written in depth about early Friends, as well as recent American Quakers.

Of the books, I’d pick as his masterwork, Personality and Place (our review is here), which he calls a theological history of Pendle hill, the Pennsylvania study center and Quaker cultural crossroads. It’s that and much more: a probing reexamination of the liberal Quakerism for which Pendle Hill was for so long the unofficial headwater and seedbed. You can find it here.

But behind this diligently productive scholar-thinker persona, Doug has long been leading another life, as “The Brothers Doug,” a singer/songwriter, producing and performing, as way opened, dozens of original songs. Many (but not all) have Quaker topics, and many of those have an amusing, satirical, and occasionally trenchant edge. Most, either explicitly or implicitly, reflect Doug’s lifelong theological concerns.

This expansive musical oeuvre has been largely shared with very small audiences; Doug has never excelled at self-promotion. He’s retired now (and of course has a jaunty tune, “Baby, I’m Retired” to show for it).
[UPDATE:  Big Hat Tip to Hank Fay, who passed along the news that Doug’s 2008 double album Chronicles of Babylon, a compilation of 31 songs, including those from his early cassette, Songs of Faith & Frenzy, with its memorably clever cover (below), is in fact available on Google Play. In Chronicles are some of his sharpest Quaker satires, such as “Pendle  Hill Revisited,”  “A Process In the Wind,” and “Making Quakers from Scratch.” He’s also unafraid to aim at his own vanity, in “Hair Envy,” which laments the erosion of his own coiffure (“Why Do I Love Your Hair? Because . . . It’s There.”) Alongside these,  are others which carry serious, if unconventionally expressed Christian religious messages.]

In this new state of leisure, we were able to coax him from his lair long enough to ask some questions about this parallel life for our new Issue #34 of Quaker Theology. He was good enough to share not only some answers, but also a generous selection of the songs (the lyrics, anyway).

Or at least their lyrics; to hear him sing them and get their full effect, we will need to either pay him what he is worth to perform, or badger him into taking the plunge and putting the songs online for listening and download. I found a single song on YouTube, “Yonder Stands the Quaker,” but Doug wasn’t sure how it got there. Here’s the concluding verse:

Yonder stand those Quakers
on the far side of the back of beyond
misfit mystics, a boil on the bum of Babylon
they’re too few to make much difference
too peaceful to break many laws
an endangered species of spiritual life
practiced in the art of lost cause
yonder stand those Quakers
singing “We Shall Overcome”
yonder stand those Quakers

God help those poor fools carry on
God help those poor fools carry on

“The irony here,” Doug says, “is that the song adopts the perspective of someone in the cultural mainstream, pondering Friends from the outside.  We Quakers sometimes forget how odd we can seem to others . . . In spite of the song’s cynical tone, the bemused observer still affirms, “God help those poor fools carry on.”

I’m badgering as much as I can, from a safe distance.

From “Baby, I’m Retired”:

“Oh I’ve been hired, and I’ve been fired,
I’ve jumped through all the hoops required,
Til my sell-by date expired,
And now my very soul is tired—

So I’m putting on that cardigan sweater,
And I’m already feeling better,
Baby, I’m retired!

Refrain: (He’s retired, Baby . . .)

This is part of a new CD, “Moments of Truth, which features fourteen new songs, minus the Quaker topicality, but full of life and theology. Perhaps my favorite is “Frequently Asked Questions,” an example of Doug’s play with paradox and sly profundity.

In part a sendup of liberal attachment to ambiguities, the lyrics, true to the title, are all questions:

How did we get here, how soon can I go?
Are you for real, how would I know?
Where did that come from, what’s your excuse?
Is it just me, what is there to lose?

(Refrain): FAQ: Frequently asked Questions,
FAQ: Frequently asked Questions . . .”

Another one that sticks in my ear is “Blue is the Color of Hope”:

I’ve seen optimists come and go
I’m taking none of their dope
those suckers can suck on that rosy glow
but blue is the color of hope.

I’ve seen the gray fill day after day
in depressingly long succession
and I’ve seen rage fill page after page
with the senseless red ink of expression
but blue is the color of hope,
say what you will,
I say blue is the color of hope . . .

Questioned about this, Doug admitted that he’s referring not least to the blues, a musical tradition he’s been much influenced by, both musically and personally.

“I guess I connected with the blues at some deep level,” he said. “In 1989, I had a ruptured appendix.  After emergency surgery (Halloween Night, no less), while I was recovering in ICU, heard the most amazing slow blues for a good part of the night.  It felt like I had moved close enough to “the other side” to hear the music there. . . . In my experience, the blues have a paradoxical effect of making me feel better.  Something about the “state of blue” keeps energizing me to go on.

Doug’s music, like much of his writing, also energizes me. And theological Quaker folksongs? Why not? And exclusively here (until the latest recordings are released), in Quaker Theology #34, online free (https://quakertheology.org/category/issues/issue-34-spring-2020/ ), and as an ebook (https://tinyurl.com/ybajmvww)  or paperback (https://tinyurl.com/ycmz4wbq )

3 thoughts on “Doug Gwyn: Theologian and — Quaker Theological Folksinger ? Yes! (UPDATED)”

    1. Hi Evelyn, “Personality & Place” is available on Amazon.enter the title & Gwyn in the search box and it will come up.

  1. The Chronicles of Babylon, V1 and V2, album is available on Google Play. So it’s likely available on Spotify, etc.

    “Your Grandma Was a Klingon” is special.

    Hank

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