What a hen house can mean.
John Henry Bosworth, late in sixty-eight, decided that the time had come to settle his estate.” Bosworth, better known as Noel Stookey, who is even better known as the Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, did just that. He shaved off his famous beard, unpacked his suitcase, and hung up his clothes—in his own closet. First-class jets, hotels, strawberries-and-champagne breakfasts, and the isolation of stardom became things of the past. He’d been on the road too long. He no longer knew who Noel Stookey was. And who were his young daughter Elizabeth and his wife Betty? he asked himself. In 1968 he settled his estate and started the greatest adventure of his life, an adventure that instead of taking him forward would in a sense take him back to a little boy he’d left behind in the Midwest.
That someone as well known as Noel Paul Stookey would undertake such an adventure—become a Christian—was unthinkable in the midsixties. Christians were odd men out; Peter, Paul and Mary were definitely in—the best in folk music. They had a soft, close blend that was easy to listen to; their style symbolized the brotherhood that they sang about in “Because All Men Are Brothers.” Their lyrics, many of them written by the poet and folk singer Bob Dylan, had to be listened to. It was the beginning of the protest years of Viet Nam and civil rights. Students were moving from a lackadaisical attitude toward life to an aggressive shoulder-shaking position. PP&M music affected that generation; the group became a highly visible symbol of young, earnest politics of the left. (And not just in secular universities. They sowed some of the seeds for a strong though small movement on Christian campuses for Eugene McCarthy first and later for George McGovern.) That was in the midsixties.
And then the next wave hit. But this time, instead of dying in Viet Nam or slugging it out on the streets of Chicago, young people were gathering at the beach, arms outstretched, to tell the world that their sins had been washed away and that “born again” was more than a cliché used by Baptist ministers and television evangelists. It meant something new and fresh. The wave had hit the shore for the last time, and as the tide receded, scum and seaweed were washed away, leaving salt-cleansed souls.
Standing on shore at high tide in 1968 was Noel Paul Stookey. Before the news media picked up the fact that there was a new movement for Jesus Stookey was part of it. His fans wondered why the group disbanded, why Stookey shaved his beard. One of the strongest influences on young people—after concerts Stookey and his partners always attracted a crowd of kids who wanted advice—dropped out of sight almost overnight. And then Warner Brothers released his first solo album, Paul And. What kind of music was that? He talked about Jesus in a personal way and about his family and what he wanted out of life. What had happened?
In 1967 Noel had visited his old friend from Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan. For some reason Dylan had stopped writing protest songs and had begun writing what Stookey calls subjective music, or songs of introspection. Such songs as “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowland” made Stookey wonder if Dylan knew more about life than he did. Even though Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident, Stookey went to visit him in Woodstock, New York, looking for help.
Dylan used the typical psychologist’s approach: He got Stookey to talk about his problems. Two things stood out for the troubled singer. Dylan told him that the next time Stookey gave a concert in the Midwest—where he was raised—he should go for a long walk in the country. Although it seems an obvious suggestion, at the time Stookey thought it was irrelevant. However, since Dylan had suggested it, he decided he would try it. When he did, he understood what Dylan had in mind. The walk enabled Stookey to think about his priorities.
Looking back on the conversation, Stookey wonders how he for years had overlooked Dylan’s second piece of advice: Read the Bible. He was looking for truth; he’d been disturbed for several years by the hypocrisy in his life. He’d read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Edgar Cayce—signs that he was searching for God, though he wouldn’t have said it at the time. Spirituals and old gospel tunes were a part of the PP&M repertoire. But Stookey had never opened a Bible, never read “the guidebook.” Dylan changed that.
Stookey started reading the Bible when he had time on tour—which, he admits, wasn’t all that often. But he managed to read sections of the Old Testament and all of the New. As an outsider looking in, he found the window at times a little foggy. He didn’t understand the book of Revelation, but after Cayce and the Book of the Dead he was fascinated by the apparent mysticism and obscure symbols. Some of Dylan’s more difficult lyrics seemed to have come from Revelation. And its imagery fits in with songs like “Well, Well, Well” and “When the Ship Comes In,” both of which talk about the last days.
Some other parts of the New Testament, though equally unclear to Stookey, held less interest for him. Like the parable of the ten virgins. Only a Christian, he thinks, can understand that story. “What did that mean to me?” Stookey asks. “I thought that God was all-loving. You don’t understand the urgency or even how you’re skirting disaster for so long. So a parable about virgins who don’t have enough oil, can’t borrow it, and are too late to get in when they find the oil means nothing on the face of what you hope to be an all-loving God.”
Of course, there were things in the Bible that Stookey understood, such as the Beatitudes and other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. He had come to recognize that there was such a thing as absolute truth. He knew that the Bible had it, but he didn’t know what to do with it. What did telling the truth mean? Now Stookey believes that truth is not the end of the rainbow but a means whereby you perceive clearly. In terms of relationships, truth means that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. At the time he knew that he didn’t tell the truth. He’d long been living a lie. His image mattered most. Somewhere along his career he had stopped wondering if that image were real.
That’s what got him started on his journey. A few years before he visited Dylan he began to sense that his real self was not the Paul Stookey everyone saw, that he was in a sense a divided personality. He felt removed from reality. “I had built this apparatus that had the face of Noel, whose arms and legs moved and went through all the right motions, but somewhere inside of me there was a little boy who wanted to be closer to what it was that made him happy. And he wasn’t finding it with this image.”
The Stookey image was self-assured. Famous. Prestigious. He comforted himself with the words, “You’ve made it.” Millions of people knew his voice, his skill as a guitarist, his wit. But his image could have no flaws, never commit a faux pas. Stookey had lots of taste, and people with taste dressed a certain way (three-piece suits, for example), ate certain things (shirred eggs and chicken livers, champagne and strawberries), and smoked expensive cigars (which Stookey smoked even though he could barely tolerate their taste). The image counted most; the little boy inside suffered stoically. Stookey was not yet ready to admit that his life had turned down the wrong road. He, the image, was traveling deeper into the city. The small child longed to head for the country.
As the dichotomy between how he lived and how he wanted to live became uppermost in his mind, he stopped singing and started mouthing his music. “I had begun to see that there was a difference between what I was singing and what I was living. And I liked what I was singing. I felt closer to that in my heart than I did to what I was doing. Yet there was this whole opportunity to be this other way.”
PP&M had reached a crossover point. From 1960 to 1965 the trio had sung straightforward folk music and social commentary like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A’ Changing,” battle-cry music of the young left. Then their music began to move into more complex instrumental arrangements with less and less simple guitar. The mood seemed more anxious. For Stookey the change in sound went along with the changes in his thinking.
Noel didn’t discuss these things with Peter and Mary, as close as they were. The pull of the rich and privileged way of life was too strong. “I felt as if my life were straight out of the amusement park scene in Pinocchio. The island that Pinocchio found. So alluring. I traveled first class. I had limos waiting for me at the airport. I was protected. Those things break down the human contact that you have under normal circumstances. It’s very strange to be in the marketplace with yourself, rather than with a product. The product becomes you. And if someone says, ‘You’re so genuine,’ it becomes: Step right up and get your genuineness.” In the long run that course is detrimental; you lose touch with reality and you only play at being genuine. Stookey sees the task of taking out the garbage as a symbol of the reality he has found. “When I lived in Westchester I hired someone to do that for me. Now I go to the dump myself.”
At the distance of ten or twelve years Stookey sees a papier-mâché person, very tastefully and expensively decked out on the surface but hollow and held together by thin glue. He also sees Max Factor Number Two pancake makeup, dripping-wet shirts, a body that was too thin—underfed physically and spiritually. He remembers a growing desire to avoid adulation: Why should he take credit for something he had had nothing to do with? Yet if his talents weren’t his, whose were they?
As his uneasiness about the life he was leading increased, he learned to rationalize with greater sophistication. “I assumed that dissatisfaction was part and parcel of the human dilemma. I wasn’t looking for an answer to it. But it was the bur under the saddle that got me going.” The three years 1965–68 were quietly frantic for Stookey. He knew he was older; he also knew he was no wiser, and he didn’t like that. He was hiding another person beneath the outer crust. The only time that person came out was in the lyrics Stookey wrote. “Most everything I’ve gone through is reflected in what I’ve written. In the creation of music I could express innermost secrets. The small boy could talk all the time and it would be acceptable. Or if it wasn’t, it didn’t matter since it was just a song.”
Before Stookey went to talk to Dylan he had made a few theological decisions, none of which comforted him at all. He believed in an abstract God, one who was inactive. The idea of knowing God personally had never occurred to him. Yet so much of his happiness, or what he thought of as happiness, had been given to him, seemingly by chance or by a benevolence of creation. That was hard to reconcile with an inactive God. It made him feel lonelier than ever.
Even reading the Bible helped very little. He saw what his life should be like but was powerless to change it. The music he sang and listened to, as well as the Bible passages he read, told him that “before we attempt to take the splinter out of our brother’s eye we had best take care of the two-by-four in our own.” That was easier to say than to do. He felt as if he were trying to change all the colors on the outside of his life when what he needed was a new picture tube. Finally he decided that all you could do in life was to make the best of it, to take what you’d been given and try to make it better.
Reading Scripture, though, is never a fruitless pursuit. It prepared Stookey for God’s messengers. The first was disc jockey Scott Ross, who in 1967 served as Stookey’s personal John the Baptist. Although he couldn’t understand what Ross was saying, Stookey recognized that Ross knew God in a way he didn’t.
A year later at a concert, a young man about ten years younger than Stookey, who was then thirty, asked if he could talk with him. Stookey, who thought he looked a little depressed, said sure, after the show. When the concert ended he looked for the boy and asked what he wanted to talk to him about. The boy replied, “I want to talk to you about the Lord.” As Stookey describes it, “An adrenalin change took place and my heart just started beating fast and I felt like this was it—whatever it was. I didn’t know where it was going to lead. But I don’t think I would have felt that way unless what he was saying was true. He told me how he had been converted. And he said that God had put a burden on his heart to talk with me. That put God in an active sense. I had never thought of that before.”
The two of them went off to Stookey’s hotel room. Although they rode over in a pick-up truck driven by a third person, Stookey doesn’t remember seeing or talking to anyone else. He asked the boy if he believed in reincarnation. The boy replied that there were more important things to talk about. “That was the heaviest thing I had metaphysicked into, but something inside me said ‘he knows more than you do and what he knows you should know’.” When they reached the hotel, Stookey tried to be a good host, but the boy wanted to pray. As the young Christian prayed, Stookey learned that not only had he somehow avoided the guards to get backstage but he had had no ticket to the concert. After thanking God for his help, the boy said, “Now I think Paul wants to talk to you.” All Noel could say was, “I’m sorry.” “I started crying,” he says. “Later I realized what I was saying I was sorry for, which was for not thinking that God was alive, and for all those ways in which I had used things to get between me and people.”
Stookey believes that God loves a contrite spirit, and that night he had finally reached a state of contrition. He was sorry that he had abused other people and himself. He confessed things that he had done wrong, though he didn’t itemize them. “I was washed, cleansed—I couldn’t believe it. It was like I had this incredibly cantilevered balance. Or that I was two interwoven mobiles. Suddenly when I had admitted that I was sorry for the life I had led without God, everything collapsed and I was perfectly balanced. I had been given day one again.”
Slowly Stookey’s life began to change. Prayer became vital for him. While he was on tour he prayed continually. Right away the Bible was different for him. And he met lots of Christians. As he traveled from town to town he would always run into groups of believers. He didn’t know how it happened, and he didn’t ask. He just accepted it as part of God’s providence. People who were dismayed by the conversion offered obstacles, like the Crusades, to his faith. Quickly he discovered that the only thing he could defend was his own experience with God.
As Stookey viewed his life with new eyes he saw his family as if for the first time. He’d been on the road feeding his ego in the name of social justice, away from his family four days out of seven. “It’s not possible to have any kind of relationship under those circumstances,” he says. “If you’re building a building, you don’t leave large gaps between the supports.” His new commitment to Christ meant he had a new commitment to his family also. He thought that the reality of his conversion would best be evidenced by the strength of his family life.
He told Peter and Mary that he wouldn’t tour anymore. Invitations to give his Christian testimony at crusades and churches began pouring in, and his wife expected him to exchange one kind of touring for another. But he turned down those invitations, too. Today he does about twenty concerts a year, and his wife helps him decide which invitations to accept. He works across the street from his home and spends his weekends solely with his family.
Stookey wanted to give his children the kind of childhood he had had in Maryland, where he lived before he moved to the Midwest, and for himself he wanted the solitude he didn’t have in the suburbs of New York. He needed silence to study the Word and space to grow up. So he looked for a place to land and found South Blue Hill, Maine. In winter the area has about 1,500 residents, in summer twice that many.
The coast of Maine is a stand-offish country, particularly in the winter as it shrugs its rugged mountains, dropping snow and rain on the ground below. There is little to do there if you aren’t a fisherman or lumberjack or don’t bring work with you. The country’s forbidding manners and brusque exterior could discourage the fainthearted. But Maine also holds its people close, protecting them by ocean and mountain. It offers solitude—the silence of a foggy morning is crisp and crystalline, certainly the right atmosphere for thinking. And its beauty is a constant reminder of the nature of God, creator and sustainer of the universe. The struggle to survive makes depending on the providence of God a way of life.
Driving along a coastal road, Stookey and his wife saw an abandoned four-story hen house. They bought it, along with twenty-seven acres of land and, eventually, a house across the street. He and his family have been there a little over three years. The hen house sits on a slight rise overlooking the bay just at the place where it opens to greet the Atlantic Ocean. Because the hen house was too large to heat or maintain, Stookey shortened it and recycled the wood to build a solar-heated addition on to his home. In that shortened coop on the almost finished third floor, Stookey put in a recording studio called Eight Track Recording studio. Right now it serves as the center for his work as a Christian musician.
When Stookey decided that his Christian commitment meant setting his family life in order, he wondered how else his faith would manifest itself. Was straightforward evangelism the only means of expressing it? Or can every act of a Christian be evangelistic, whether it’s changing a tire for someone in distress or writing a song? He concluded that evangelism was not something that came only from the pulpit and that it did not necessarily entail an overt presentation. “Love thy neighbor” was a concept that, put into practice, could show on a nonverbal level why Christ came to earth.
Those attitudes reinforced his conviction that he belonged in a community like South Blue Hill. He attends the local Congregational church, affectionately known as the Congo, and sings in the choir. He takes meals to elderly people who need help. And he records and produces albums that present a Christian witness. No matter what a song is about, Stookey mentions the anchor that he found in Christ. He thinks that his music affects non-Christian young people the way the Bible affected him before his conversion: interesting, compelling, pointing to something beyond what they now know.
His few concerts bear that out. Some of them are on secular campuses, such as the University of Maine, and others are at Christian colleges, such as Wheaton and Houghton. The song lyrics advise the listeners to “turn it over to the Father” or explain that “the building block that was rejected became the cornerstone of a whole new world.” Yet he doesn’t think of his concerts as overtly evangelistic. He rarely gives a spoken testimony. “I feel that the testimony is in song. Some of my songs are better received than others. For instance, I think ‘Miracles’ is a very heady kind of tune intellectually. It pinpoints an understanding of coincidence. You can isolate the means of a miracle, you can describe the ways in which a miracle was done, but that never detracts from the miracle. Before I was a Christian I performed to entertain and be entertained. I derived a lot of satisfaction out of performing. I still do. But now the satisfaction is similar to that you get from doing a favor or a kindness for someone. I feel that I’m of service to the people in my audience. I feel that I am of use to somebody out there, either intellectually or because I’m touching an area that they’ve thought about. Or maybe I have attacked directly a problem that they have been up against, and they need to know that somebody else has had that same problem and overcome it.”
Stookey’s work at the studio has branched out. He has done some work for Maine’s public broadcasting network. A videotape of one of his concerts was recently a part of the network’s annual fund-raising drive. He has written some music for public television. And he did a children’s radio program, “Sandman.” He has plans to work with a local high school to develop a course in radio broadcasting. He offers the resources of his recording studio at a rate that most struggling young musicians can afford.
Peter, Paul and Mary sang some children’s songs, the most famous being “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (which, contrary to rumors, is not about marijuana). Now Stookey is much more interested in children’s music and programming. After all, he says, when a person accepts Christ he becomes a child.
Although he thinks the word “vision” is far too presumptuous, he has one for the hen house, which relates to his interest in children’s programming. On the second floor he and his small staff are building an animation studio. “If it weren’t for Christianity I would not have an interest in animation.” One evening away from home with nothing to do he got the idea of expressing abstract ideas through animation. He is pursuing that now. The animation group is working on a cartoon to use as a calling card, an abstract interpretation of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Stookey thinks you can teach a lot of morality by using abstract cartoons. You could show the weight of lying, for example, or show how deadly sin is to the personality. You could demonstrate what happens when someone deviates from certain basic principles: life becomes crooked and complicated. With a return to the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line (i.e., truth), life straightens out. People could enjoy and understand such cartoons without the distractions of character, Stookey thinks. They would see sin as sin without attaching it to a person.
As with his concerts and record albums, so with his animation work. Stookey is looking to serve people. “My outlook on life is positive,” he says. “I want it to be of service as it unfolds.” He stresses that he has an unfinished life. He has been a Christian for about ten years. That commitment has taken him to Maine and to an unfinished hen house. His life as a Christian is like that hen house: one floor nearly finished, work being done on the others, purpose unfolding.
D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
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