Identity & Difference in Common: Playlist

This collection of songs focuses on our identities and our differences, viewed within the perspective of our common life. I have listened and learned much from theorists and activists on issues of gendered, racial, sexual and other identities. I have little to add to their important insights. But I believe that as we come to terms with our different identities on a more equal and respectful basis, we shall come to see our common life in new ways. That is true horizon of our many present struggles, I believe. So the songs collected here follow a sequence toward that horizon.

“The Blues of Heaven” (2016, from Man of Irony) needs a little unpacking. I came to love the blues when I was in college, running a coffeehouse we called The Morgue. I was fortunate to get to know one of the early bluesmen, James “Yank” Rachel. I also met the great blues poet, “Sleepy” John Estes a couple times. I felt a transcendence in the blues unlike anything else, and it offered a certain kind of entree to the African American experience. Yank shared with me some of his early experiences playing for house parties and fish fries in rural Tennessee in the 1920s. Twenty years later, an acute illness landed me in the ER for three days and nights. The first night, as I skirted rather close to the other side, I heard the most sublime blues. (Isaiah and Elijah add their witness to this song.)

The Blues of Heaven

“Let the Captives Go Free” (2014, from Political Unconscious, rerecorded 2022) is an old-time protest song, in a country-blues vein, inspired by reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The song’s bridge was inspired by black liberation theologian James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He suggests how those two spectral images interpret one another: Jesus was lynched, and African Americans have been crucified by American society. And there’s some of Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory of culture in the mix. The last verse is informed by George Fox, who wrote in 1658 that so many innocent Quakers were being imprisoned for their faith at that time because God’s witness was still imprisoned within England’s rulers. Years after writing the song, I read Bob Dylan’s comment that a protest song shouldn’t be preachy or one-dimension. “You have to show people a side of themselves that they don’t know is there.” That’s what this song tries to do.

Let the Captives Go Free

“Crossroad Blues” (2016, from Man of Irony) reworks a song from the 1930s by the great early bluesman Robert Johnson. The African American theologian Thandeka, in Learning to be White, suggests that even European Americans have to learn how to “pass for white,” according to a WASP-dominated culture. Even as a white Midwesterner with Welsh roots, I experienced something of this when I lived a couple years in New England, still the most WASP region in the fifty US states, even today, in more secularized versions. There was racism there, of course, but I discovered even the anti-racism carried a certain white normativity. I wrote this song while living at a crossroads, with a flashing light that shone through my window at night.

Crossroad Blues (Johnson-Gwyn)

“Grandma Was a Klingon” (1999, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon) sprang from waking up one morning, feeling the supra-orbital ridge on my forehead, and wondering, “Could I part Klingon?” I like the way science-fiction uses other worlds as an “alienation effect” to look at social questions on this planet. This is a little foray into that realm, to explain why I “feel so alienated.” The tune owes something to the Beatles’ “Don’t Pass Me By.”

Grandma Was a Klingon

“Frigidaire” (1997, from Chronicles of Babylon) came toward the end of a hot, dank Philadelphia summer, when I felt captive to air conditioning. It made me wonder what goes on inside a refrigerator while the door is closed. It somehow relates to the conversation about multiculturalism in those days. It seemed to me that the conversation unfolded mostly in the air-conditioned comfort of the academically educated middle-classes. That subliminal cultural captivity can make such conversations edgy at times. We’re “afraid to go out there.” (“Frigidaire” was an American appliance brand-name of another era.)


Or is it a parlor instead of a refrigerator? “The Parlor of No Return” (2013, from A Musical Personality Disorder) came to me as I reflected on my itinerent life as a Quaker minister. Whether I was among evangelical Christians or liberal humanists, it seemed I was part of a polite parlor conversation, shaded a bit differently in each case, but always with “more good manners to learn.” This is not just a Quaker phenomenon but broadly true of middle-class America, while “in the street Lazarus tells a different tale.” You may recognize a brief echo from John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” (1970) near the end.

The Parlor of No Return

As I suggested in the introduction to this collection, I hope that as we come to terms better with our different identities, we will begin to see our common life and common good more clearly. This commonality is surely rooted in the earth itself and in renewing our connection with the earth and its species. Reading literature about the commons has inspired some of my more recent songs. “Common as Dirt” (2018, from Moments of Truth) came to me that Indiana summer, when instead of turning on the air conditioner, I just walked around my apartment naked. The song draws upon the story of Eden to uncover the naked truth about all of us.

Common as Dirt

“All Life Is Human Life” (2019, also from Moments of Truth) is a further meditation on our earthly commonality. Like “Adam,” “human” means from the earth. That definition implies not just our own species. Some other species join in on this song. The song’s down-home style just seemed right, somehow.

All Life Is Human Life

Finally, I live in hope that all of us will live into our common reality, before we damage ourselves and our planet any further. “The Common Is Coming On” (2020, from A Musical Personality Disorder) concludes this set on a cheerful note. It was written in February that year, just before the pandemic descended upon us — more evidence of our common life-and-death.

The Common Is Coming On

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: