Writing Quaker history & theology is not exactly the road to fame and fortune.
But a few still take it, and among those of the passing generation, one that I most admire is Douglas Gwyn, who is always Doug to me.
One reason for admiration is that Doug has produced some outstanding work. My favorite is his book, Personality and Place, which I consider his masterpiece (and reviewed at length here).
He calls the book a “theological history” of Pendle Hill, the Quaker center near Philadelphia which has been a main crossroads and watering hole for Friends for nearly a century.
In a style that is always gentle but nonetheless relentless, he charts Pendle Hill’s evolution/devolution from being (as the first sign at its entrance declared) “A Center for Religious and Social Study”, to serving as what a recent board member sadly decried as “a navel observatory.” Gwyn convincingly shows how Pendle Hill’s trajectory mirrors and illuminates a “modern” and “liberal” Quakerism sliding largely into decadent, self-absorbed conformity and irrelevance.
But important as his written work is, book reviews are not our subject here. I want instead to pay tribute to Doug’s other “career,” that of a singer/songwriter, which he has pursued for almost as long as his scholarship. Maybe longer, since he retired from theology in 2017, and is still busy with music five years later.
Doug hasn’t pursued music-making for money, except for an early stint managing a blues-oriented coffee house called “The Morgue” on the Indiana University campus, and selling the odd cassette. He began writing songs in the late 1970s, and has often performed, but mostly for coffee house-sized groups at Pendle Hill or other such venues. As he explains, he’s done most of his recording himself:
My first attempt at multi-track recording was during the summer of 1999 at Pendle Hill. My friends, Peter and Annie Blood-Patterson, well known folk singers and producers of the Rise up Singing songbook, lent me their four-track recorder and effects box. I spent hot summer nights with the windows closed (to keep out the roar of crickets and katydids) and the loud air conditioner turned off, sweating profusely as I learned how to overdub harmonies and vocal sound effects along with my faltering guitar and singing. The recording persona “The Brothers Doug” came out of that experience.
And several albums later, he’s made his music available to the world, on a dedicated website: https://brothersdoug.me/free to listen to and download. On the site he’s included (by my count) 103 songs, and he’s ditched their copyrights for what he calls “commonrights,” making them part of the general wealth of untrammeled creativity.
Many of his early songs had Quaker references, often satirical and sometimes trenchant, such as “A Process In the Wind,” “That of Odd in Everyone,” and “Making Quakers from Scratch.” He’s also unafraid to aim at his own vanity, as in “Hair Envy,” which laments the erosion of his own coiffure (“Why Do I Love Your Hair? Because . . . It’s There.”
One of his sharpest Quaker satires was “Pendle Hill Revisited.” In a way it prefigures in compressed rhymes his book “Personality & Place”. (BTW, the tune here is that of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:
Bill woke up and said to his wife,
honey, I’ve got to change my life!
Where can I find that higher path,
with courses that don’t require math?”
His wife said, “Let me think for a minute, Bill–
one thing will help (if anything will),
try spending a term at Pendle Hill!
Bill enrolled and had the time of his life,
He finally got round to calling his wife:
He said, “My dear, I’ve found myself,
It’s drying now on the pottery shelf.”
His wife said, “I’m so glad for you, Bill,
Come home for Christmas and review your will,
Then spend another term at Pendle Hill!
Next thing he knew, the year was up,
Joy overflowed sweet William’s cup.
He said, “I’ve got to stay somehow,
I’m on a roll, I can’t stop now . . . .”
[So yes, you guessed it, our old Friend Bill
Spent the rest of his career at Pendle Hill . . .]
Bill’s last years were in managed care,
Still trying to learn that centering prayer,
Till death took Bill out on a date,
And he met St. Peter at the pearly gates.
St. Peter said, “Should I let you in, Bill?”
Bill said, “Hell, do what you will,
I’d rather be at Pendle Hill!”
And on moonless nights you’ll find him still,
Along the path at Pendle Hill.”
Many of Doug’s newer songs are more philosophical than theological, though the distinction is often fuzzy. Not a few have an apocalyptic cast, “The Other Shoe”:
Well we all know that the climate is changing,
If we care to admit it or not,
We take positions on the same condition,
But we all know what we’ve got.
We all know something’s got to give,
Oh, yes we do,
But Who? And Why? And What?
While we wait, for the Other Shoe–
To drop . . . .
This near-term gloomy outlook fits his scholarly background (Doug’s dissertation, which became his first book, Apocalypse of the Word, published in 1986). They also have increasing echoes in the social, environmental & political currents of our era.
One I like that straddles the line is “FAQ,” which consists entirely of 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’s there to lose?
Refrain: FAQ, frequently asked questions,
FAQ, frequently asked questions . . . .
Where is the restroom? How much is enough?
How will the end come? Which end is up?
Does he still love me? How much does it cost?
Why did she do that? Could we be lost?
FAQ, frequently asked questions,
FAQ, frequently asked questions . . . .”
But one question that he has answered with glee involves letting go of a lot of what he grappled with for so long, and his song about it brings a smile to the faces of many who are, or are nearing, a certain age:
Well, I’ve been hired, and I’ve been fired,
I’ve jumped through every hoop required,
Til my sell-by date expired,
My very soul is tired.
So I’m putting on that cardigan sweater,
And I’m already feeling better —
Baby, I’m retired!”
(He’s retired, baby.)
On the website, there are 103 songs, including twelve written just last year.
Now, giving away your music resembles doing Quaker theology in one respect, namely that it’s not a road to riches either.
But Doug is already a wealthy man in a lot of other ways, if you ask me: several good books, a quiet life in Social Security simplicity, in his home state, and with access to low-cost technology that makes both his writing and music widely accessible, for those who seek it out, and many more should.
And this is not the first time Doug has shown that, contrary to popular wisdom, there can be a free lunch, at least intellectually/spiritually.
On Christmas 2015, with a little assistance from this blog, Doug posted an entire book, Words In Time, including many of his best essays on Quakerism and its discontents, as an absolutely free download.
NOTE: To read or download this book, you click on the link.
You do NOT sign in.
You do NOT pay. (Not now. Not ever.)
You do NOT leave your name or email address.
(And since we won’t have your name or email, we won’t sell it or trade it or send you stuff or do anything else with it. Because –did we mention? — we won’t have it.)
Here are the pieces you’ll find in this book. Most are otherwise very hard to find:
Part I: Covenant
1. The Covenant of Light
2. Renewing Our Covenant: Can Our Branches Be Olive Branches?
3. Sense and Sensibilities: Quaker Bispirituality Today
4. The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism
5. Can’t See the Covenant for the Contracts
Part II: Seed
6. The Seed: The Power of God Among Us
7. “Sink Down to the Seed”: Going Deeper in Quaker Life and Witness
8. The Seed: Captivity and Liberation
Doug said about Words In Time, when it was first published:
This book is a collection of short pieces, most of which have appeared in print elsewhere. They cover a nine-year period, 1988-97. I chose the title Words in Time because several of the pieces were written for particular occasions, and address specific dilemmas facing Friends at the time. As such, these keynotes and essays are somewhat time-bound and situation-specific. For example, “The Covenant of Light” addressed Friends United Meeting shortly before the “Realignment” controversy erupted at the end of 1990. But problems of alienation and mutual exclusion within the wider Quaker family continue; the message of reconciliation still needs to be heard.
[Thee Can Say THAT Again! Okay, he will: But problems of alienation and mutual exclusion within the wider Quaker family continue; the message of reconciliation still needs to be heard.]
All the pieces in this collection attempt to place current Quaker struggles within a larger context. The rootstock of our Quaker tradition, in its unique expression of the ancient Hebrew- Christian faith, can provide important perspective on today’s dilemmas. In particular, two themes encompass this collection: covenant and seed.
One more song i want to mention, which is in the collection: 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.”
Doug’s music, like much of his writing, also energizes me. And theological Quaker folksongs?
Why not? Better than a lot of the field’s product.