Quakers Get Naked!

On a bright Spring day, Jon traveled down to Guilford to work with filmmaker Tom Clement and a handful of students on this music video:

How do you think we did?

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“Naked!” Interview, Part One

A few weeks ago, Jon talked with Mark Helpsmeet of Northern Spirit Radio about the Clothe Yourself in Righteousness project.

Click Here to open up the interview.

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Mark: Quite a treat today for Song of the Soul. I’ve got a visit with Jon Watts, a songwriter and spoken word artist that I interviewed back about 5 years ago. His current release is called Clothe Yourself in Righteousness, which might sound rather like language common to many church folks today but then you get to his song “Let’s Get Naked”, which should clue you into the fact that there’s something special and off the beaten path going on here. Jon Watts is the real thing: a musician and wordsmith who uses his words for probing spiritual depths.

So get yourself ready for an experience you won’t soon forget: Jon Watts and the Clothe Yourself in Righteousness project. Jon, welcome back to Song of the Soul!

Jon Watts: Yeah, thanks for having me, Mark.

Mark: You’re in the midst of birthing/finishing up this years long project. How long was the gestation period for this?

Jon Watts: Since my last full-length album (The Art of Fully Being, which was recorded at Pendle Hill) I’ve been sort of gestating, thinking about what’s next and what direction my songwriting was going to take. I spent a lot of time waiting; I think a lot of the artistic process is just waiting and not knowing. So it’s been several years since my last project and, as I was writing the songs for this project, Clothe Yourself in Righteousness, I didn’t necessarily know how they were going to fit into a cohesive vision. I just write little pieces of songs and start developing them.

It’s been a couple of years, and about a year and a half ago I really made the decision to write under the umbrella of this “clothe yourself in righteousness” concept but I found that even songs that I had been writing in the year before that ended up fitting well into the project. So I had this leading and it was a while before I really recognized it but a lot of times my songwriting knows better than I do what I’m trying to say.

Mark: Well flesh out this concept. The Clothe Yourself in Righteousness and nakedness seem to go hand in hand.

Jon Watts: So I actually heard about specifically Quakers going naked. Quaker in the 17th century, when the Quaker movement was just started, when it wasn’t a grouping of institutions yet or a solidified branch of Christianity and it was just this movement that was springing up, there were these radical Quakers who would sometimes go naked through the streets of England.

I first heard about this during a project that I did my senior year at Guilford College that I was writing about the Early Friends, and I did an interview with a professor there whose name is Max Carter. Just from that one interview I got an entire album worth of material. Max told me about James Nayler, the early Quaker who rode on a horse into Bristol in a re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and was tried in front of Parliament for high blasphemy and whipped through the streets of London and all this, and so that was a big story for me. What was going on there? What was going on with the Early Friends and what was the statement that James Nayler was making?

The other Friend that I really latched onto to that Max told me about was Solomon Eccles. Solomon Eccles was a musician in the 17th century when being a musician was a very upper class activity. It was the baroque age, so the frilly wigs and carriages and symphonies. And Quakers were levellers, so they were intending to “level” the social class system, so they were against music, the practice of this upper class activity. So Solomon Eccles, when he became a Quaker, burned his violins in a public square in London. So this is a really intense Early Quaker.

Another story about Solomon Eccles: Quakerism was coming in and out of legality in the 1650’s and there was a point where Quakerism was made illegal – over the course of a weekend it was suddenly illegal for Quakers to meet. When they did meet on Sunday morning in the Bull and Mouth Meetinghouse in London, the police came in and broke up the meeting and beat people and even killed one Quaker. The next day, Solomon Eccles went to a public market called the Smithfield Market in London naked, with a basket of burning coals on his head, which obviously wasn’t OK. As shocking as it would be nowadays for someone to run through a public square naked, it would be a youtube moment for us and for them you would get arrested and beaten and have your property taken away, so it was a more conservative time, I mean, even to show your ankles was considered scandalous, so for him to run through a public square naked was quite challenging, courageous, scary, I don’t know.

So my friend Maggie… I moved to West Philly about a year ago and my friend Maggie Harrison had been writing a pamphlet for the Earlham School of Religion about these Early Friends and Quakerism and nakedness and also comparing it to the modern Quaker practice, or at least the practice that I experienced at Guilford of streaking in a big group. So immediately that caught my attention and it kind of went from there as we started exploring it, I at least first started approaching the project in a playful way, so this idea of running naked through the streets is fun, or at least it was in college! But the idea was to be funny and quirky and freeing. But it wasn’t necessarily the same for the Early Quakers. They were experiencing it as a leading from God and a burden, a call that you really want to say no to. It’s not a comfortable thought, to strip off all your clothes and run through the streets naked or walk through the streets naked. Being that bared is not safe. It’s dangerous.

So as Maggie and I started exploring these stories and our own inward feelings about the stories and about nakedness, we realized that there was something much deeper there than just the playfulness, although that playfulness certainly did come into the project. I just released a music video that’s about streaking at Guilford College, but the underlying message is much scarier than the playfulness of a group streak in College. It’s much more of a call to something that is not safe, that’s not fun, that can really shake things up.

Mark: I understand that you and Maggie actually did bit your streaking together. This is back when you were at Guilford. When you did it then, you were just doing it for fun, but somehow this planted a seed for both of you? Kind of independently, or on parallel tracks?

Jon Watts: The story about me and Maggie is that we didn’t know each other very well at Guilford. We were acquaintances and we were getting to know each other. Towards the end of our – we just had one year together there, I was a Senior and she was a Freshman and I was doing my big project on Quakerism there and the nakedness piece was just one thing that Max Carter had mentioned in an interview, it wasn’t the focus of that project, so it really was just this little seed that we weren’t even really paying attention to and the funny thing is that Maggie and I, one Spring afternoon during the final exams suddenly just streaked around campus, just the two of us, around the Quad with no preparation, without planning it, just like, I don’t even know who initiated it or how it started, but that was sort of the energy with which nakedness was a part of our lives. It was this totally playful activity.

But as Maggie and I have each grown into our ministries and into our calls in the world, I think we’ve both experimented with this kind of public nakedness, this kind of radical thing of being very authentic, being very bare, and also trying to wake up peoples’ souls, and trying to do that through our personal ministries of nakedness. Obviously you’re not going to wake up somebody’s soul if you’re just doing the grind, day in and day out, you have to find someplace in yourself where you’re radically exposing yourself, you’re doing something that’s very personal and even kind of dangerous.

So, over the course of the years – I graduated in 2006, so it’s been 5 years – I’ve been touring and releasing albums that are very personal and exploring the impact of this very personal style of songwriting on the world. It’s been called “confessional”. So that practice of “confessing” to an audience when it’s just me onstage and the audience, is a very powerful and often uncomfortable experience, and not necessarily one that I would choose for myself. It’s not safe. It’s something that I have to really prepare a great deal for in order to release it, because it’s my story. It’s my narrative that’s very tender for me. So for me to feel called in the world to go up onstage – I have a shy side; I would rather have a personal life – but I’ve felt called in the world to make this art that’s very personal and very bare. And I know that Maggie’s writing is also very personal – the pamphlet tells stories about her personal life and she writes from the 1st person a lot – and I know that putting something like this out into the world has been a very baring experience for her.

So it’s developed from this playful activity, this one thing that Maggie and I did spontaneously when we were at Guilford College, into this conversation that we’re having about nakedness, about stripping off the layers that are hiding us from the world and then clothing yourself in righteousness from there. So the order goes: let’s get naked, and then let’s clothe ourselves in righteousness. And Maggie’s pamphlet goes into a great deal of detail about what that looks like, and I consider this project a call for me to be in conversation about what that looks like and Maggie has a lot of really great things to say about the feeling of being clothed in righteousness. There is a feeling of being held when you get there. When I’m about to go onto a stage, I do a lot of prayer and meditation and waiting and trying to rid myself of my clothing, of the things that I’m attached to, of my ego, and my need for positive feedback, just to get to a place where I can hand this out as a gift, and I feel like when I am in that place, when I’m handing it out as a gift and I have no expectations of how it’s going to be received, I’m just present and loving, I’m clothed again. I’m re-clothed in something that’s even more powerful than the walls that we put up and the things that we hide behind.

Mark: Well I think with that as intro, it’s time to put some of your music out there. But before we do that, I want to make the point: you’re a musician and you’re a spoken word artist. What’s your identity as far as you’re concerned, what do you think of yourself as? Are you a poet? Are you a musician? Are you a singer? On one of your recordings, you actually are singing instead of the spoken, sometimes chanting-like presentation that you do. Do you have an identity that maybe compares you to other people or helps you to speak who you really are?

Jon Watts: Of course, yeah. I’m a human and an individual living in this world where we really identify with our individuality and identify by what we do, so I would say that I’m a musician exploring music as ministry and the main way that that’s come to me is through this spoken word style. So in exploring music as ministry, what I’ve done is taken the Quaker model of ministry, which is that we all have access to God, that God is amongst us and within us and if we listen deeply to that then we can become a channel for this message, so our meetings for worship are held in silence and quiet expectation, expectant waiting. So the meeting for worship is an invitation for God to show up and to use us.

So my deepest answer to your question is that I am a vessel for God or for the Spirit or for the Universe or whatever word really rings true for you, and that comes through in different forms. So I’ve done this singing – people like to ask me what I play – so yeah, I play the guitar and I play the piano but sometimes I pick up instruments that I’ve never played before and just listen and invite the instrument to use the voice that the instrument wants to use. I know that sounds really hippie and new age-y but it’s true! I’m in a relationship with the instrument that I’m playing, and I feel like it’s my job to bring a statement out of the instrument and to really listen deeply for what the instrument is trying to say.

I do have a thread running in my life of this spoken word poetry. In the past it’s been more sort of hip hop, you know, beats and drums, and on this particular project I cut out all the drums. Appropriately enough, I stripped the sound bare, so it’s just me and a guitar and then I added in a violinist.

Mark: So get us started on our first song for your Song of the Soul. Which one, out of your recent recording, should we listen to first?

Jon Watts: Well I think it all starts with Let’s Get Naked. As Maggie’s pamphlet says, clothe yourself in righteousness, but first let’s get naked. So first we have to strip down and see what’s underneath that clothing and what it looks like for us to go bare.

Mark: You said it. “Let’s Get Naked”, Jon Watts.

Mark: And that’s from Jon Watts’ recording, it’s “Let’s Get Naked”. You’ll find it out on his website and a number of other places. That’s www.JonWatts.com. Go there and find links to a lot of videos that you’ve also released, Jon. You want to talk about those, & what’s been going on?

Jon: Sure, yeah, thanks for asking. I had a music video a couple of years ago that I recorded at Pendle Hill, which is a retreat center outside of Philadelphia. The music video is a Quaker Meeting that spontaneously erupts into a dance party and I filmed it as a music video for my song “Friend Speaks My Mind”, which is a song about growing up Quaker. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia in Baltimore Yearly Meeting. They have a really strong camping program there, so I worked at all the summer camps and also was a really active Young Friend so that song “Friend Speaks My Mind” is about the experience and the theology of growing up as a Liberal FGC Quaker and this video, “Dance Party Erupts During Quaker Meeting for Worship”… I posted it on Youtube and then went camping for a couple of days and when I got back it had thousands and thousands of views and I had all of these emails in my inbox and as I travel around amongst Friend – I’ve traveled up and down the East Coast – this is the thing that people have really seen is this dance party video, so I feel like there is a real thirst amongst Quakers to see art that is exploring our faith, and for me that’s part of exploring music as ministry, is that I’m a servant.

Most musical careers are about the self and the talent and ego of the artist, so the artist writes love songs or just really writes good songs and everyone says “oh my God you’re such a great artist”. At some point in college I realized that that wasn’t doing it for me. That didn’t feel like a justification for devoting myself to an artistic career, and when I found this style of exploring my faith and specifically exploring the Quaker community, I felt like I’m a servant. I’m telling a story and I’m starting a conversation.

So the forum of Youtube – and the internet in general – offers this opportunity for us to make art that is exploring our faith and is starting a conversation. I think we’re still in this really passive, consumer mode about art in which, you know – part of the dynamic of the Youtube video was that people treated it like I was on TV or something, representing Quakerism in the world, but it’s just a Youtube video that one individual made and Youtube is a forum. I really want to encourage other folks to make responses and make parodies of the Youtube video that I made. That’s really how Youtube works, right? And how the internet works in general… things kind of blow up and we’re able to interact with them in a way that we aren’t with television. So I’ve been exploring – the “Dance Party Erupts During Quaker Meeting” was kind of a one time shot – I hadn’t had much experience with videos or music videos, and when that had a large impact I realized that this was something that I wanted to engage with more, so I got some video cameras and did an experiment with CYiR… I videotaped everything. Every aspect of every song is on film somewhere, on an external hard drive that I have.

As I’ve been releasing the project, I’ve been going back and sorting through that footage and organizing them into these – what are now called “videosongs”, so it’s a video in which you, at some point during the video, see all of the elements that you hear. So when I released the music video for “Let’s Get Naked” – that’s the video of us streaking after a Meeting for Worship at Guilford College – I also simultaneously released a video of me playing the song in the studio. So it’s a totally different experience where I just set up a camera and just focus on the sound. I have headphones on and Marina, the violinist that worked with me on the record… you can see all of the different parts that she played on it. And so I’m going to continue editing this footage into different videos and releasing a video each week of a different song from the album.

Mark: One thing that I find interesting about your lyrics and your whole approach: I’m sure that some older generations, and I’m probably one of them, could think that you’re kind of irreverant. You’re not talking about Quaker history in the reverant, dry historical way. You’re interacting with it in a real live manner, and at the same time, in many ways you’re doing the deepest entry into the subjects. I know that you want to share one of your songs, “Don’t Doff Your Hat.” I think that in that song in many ways you explain some of the original Quaker traditions from back in the mid-1600’s… I say traditions, I mean the practices that they undertook that were really radical at the time, but you put them into the language that makes sense today. I think most people just think “Quakers… Oatmeal” and that we look like Amish and that’s about as far as they go. Can you say a little bit about where this came from, “Don’t Doff Your Hat”?

Jon: Yeah, it all goes back to that first interview that I did with Max Carter for my senior project at Guilford College called A Few Songs Occasioned. You know, he was telling stories to me that made Quakerism become real to me. It became not just words on a page, not just stories about old dead people that don’t really matter, I mean these people were doing really radical stuff. They were shaking things up and they were on fire for it. They were on fire for it. So realizing that sort of ignited a fire withing myself. The 21st century is the present in the way that they 17th century was the present for George Fox and James Naylor and Solomon Eccles and Margaret Fell.

So this activity that I describe in the beginning of “Don’t Doff Your Hat” is that sometimes Early Friends would practice interruption. They would make a scene in a church… in these big Anglican churches in England in the 1650’s, which everyone had to go to, the government and the church were the same. You pay your taxes as tithes to the church. You were required to do that. The King of England is the head of the church, so it’s all intermingled. In a lot of ways it’s killed the spiritual life of the citizenry. So you’re forced to go to this church every Sunday. You don’t have a particularly life giving relationship with the Spirit or Christ or the Bible, you just have this priest or this preacher who sort of hands you down what you’re supposed to think and for a lot of people that’s the status quo, that’s what you’re doing. That’s what everyone’s doing.

And so what occasionally is that Quakers would go into these Anglican churches during the service and interrupt the service, interrupt the priest as they’re preaching and start quoting biblical text to essentially make the point that we can think for ourselves. We can read the bible ourselves and we can have our own relationship with Christ, which is a totally radical idea at the time. I mean, it was turning the tables on the powers that be. This was a disruptive behavior. If a Friend did this they would often be arrested. But I’ve read stories about a Quaker going in and interrupting the service and then people standing up and walking out with them. Having that change the whole service and peoples’ lives. Peoples’ lives were being changes by this totally disruptive, not socially-OK behavior.

So “Don’t Doff Your Hat” is an attempt to sort of capture the feeling or the emotion of that kind of an event, so it starts of kind of slow, you’re in church, you’re thinking about other stuff and then this Quaker comes in and stirs things in your heart and scares you – I say “makes you turn away” – and so I tried to capture that energy in the song, this like sort of frantic, disruptive behavior.

The hook is “It’s like this, Mr Quaker, in your broad brim hat, you don’t doff that hat for nobody”. The practice of not doffing your hat was another socially disruptive behavior of social leveling… so you were supposed to always doff your hat in the street to someone who was a higher social rank than you, and Quakers decided that they weren’t going to do that because everyone had an equal access to God, so this was another practice that they were getting arrested for and getting their property taken away for, is not doffing their hat.

Mark: “Don’t Doff Your Hat”, Jon Watts

Mark: From Jon Watts’ latest recording, that was “Don’t Doff Your Hat”, and Jon, one of the things that I really liked in that one – it brought back to me my own religious/spiritual development – is, when you have, it’s kind of the chorus in there: “yo mister Quaker in your broad brim hat”, and that kind of “yo”, which is obviously a current thing, made me feel like “ok, these are real people, this isn’t just the caricatures that we get from historical notes, you know, when they’re speaking in “thee’s” and “thou’s” and all that kind of stuff. For me it did the same thing as when I first listened to the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar, when all of the sudden the idiom became live, like real people were doing it instead of this freeze-frame thing from the past. And I thought you brought it to real life and the “thee” and the “thou” and the “you”, why you don’t say “you” to a… because “you” is for plural, “and I’m talking one person, not two”… you put that so succinctly and so currently, it felt like it came alive for me.

Of course, I’ve got the historical background about it already because I’m Quaker also, but “yo”, you did good.

Jon: Thanks Mark. Yeah, I think it’s a natural result of my having a background in this art form – this is just the way I communicate artistically – and also a personal relationship with these Early Friends. I mean, it’s a natural relationship that, like I said, feels like… it’s great to hear that feedback. Of course if I was sort of going for that, or if that was my intention originally, then it wouldn’t be as authentic as it is. It kind of just comes out that way.

Mark: Let’s keep moving on some more of your recordings. What’s up next?

Jon: So next is Together We Compose This Bloody, Bleeding, Beating Drum, and I wanted to play this because it’s artistically maybe the most ambitious song on the record, and you ask me what my artistic identity is, and that’s something that we’re always… as an artist, I feel like I am always exploring. You know, I’ve tried going to poetry slams, and I’ve tried doing the poetry slam/spoken word poet thing, and I’ve tried rapping over turntables and I’ve tried singing Indie Rock.

You know, I think that we should always be experimenting and messing with our identity and so… this song in particular – I wrote this piece as a spoken word poem that can be performed at a poetry slam. So that’s sort of the energy that I was going for. And when I started adding instrumentation to it, it took on a life of it’s own. And i just love… I love performing this piece. It’s very wordy. You might want to just take a moment and breathe a little bit.

The advice I would give to listeners, especially the listeners you were describing who are in an older generation and may not be familiar with the genre, is to try not to hold onto any one moment too hard. It’s not prose. It’s sort of free verse. It’s kind of stream-of-consciousness. So I think you have to sort of let go of your need to attach meaning to every single moment and also, you know, it requires a great number of listens to really get all of the meaning out of it, and I’m still listening to it, and every once in a while I’ll hear something and be like, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about the double meaning of that”. So I – as the artist, who have it memorized and who wrote it and was there for every moment of it’s birth – am still getting more and more out of it. So I suggest that we post the lyrics. Can we post the lyrics on your website or shall we send people to mine?

Mark: I will post the lyrics on my site but people can also find them by going to www.ClotheYourselfinRighteousness.com, that’s where you’ve got links to all kinds of stuff, right?

Jon: Yeah, music videos and video songs, and segments of the pamphlet that Maggie wrote and an interview with Max Carter that we filmed for the music video and lyrics and t-shirts and all that stuff.

Mark: So, like Jon said, let’s compose yourself and get ready to listen to this. You don’t have to listen to every word. Listen to the energy and experience “Together We Compose This Bloody, Bleeding, Beating Drum”, by Jon Watts.

Mark: That song is a mouthful. Together We Compose this Bloody, Bleeding, Beating Drum. How long did you have to practice, Jon, before you could say that without any hesitation? Or maybe it just flows off of your tongue; it’s natural for you.

Jon: It’s some combination of the two. It took me a long time to write it, actually. I probably wrote that over the course of a year and a half, and little segments would come to me and I would say, “is that a new song? What does that go with?” And I would look back through my notebook and say “oh, what’s coming to me is actually the next segment of that thing that I have no idea what it is or what format I’m going to present it in or what it’s supposed to be, I just know that I’ve been given the next part. So it was kind of this epic journey for me of learning it, and I learned how to say it as I went.

So I wrote the first half over the course of six months and as I write, I’m usually walking, and I always start at the beginning and I say it to myself, and then the next line will come when I get to the end and there’s just this vast emptiness. I come to the end of what I’ve got written and sometimes I’ll just fall off that cliff and I’ll be like, “OK, I’m done writing,” or sometimes it will just, “Oh!”, it will just reveal itself to me. So that’s the point at which I’m practicing saying it. And now, you know what? I hardly have to practice at all.

I had my first CD release show this past Friday and I rehearsed a lot with the violinist, Marina, who is amazing, by the way, especially live, we have a lot of solos for her and she’s just… she rips it, man. She’s really good. But I hadn’t practiced Together We Compose This Bloody, Bleeding, Beating Drum because Marina wasn’t in it, and I delivered it as a spoken word piece without any music and… you know, it’s almost like I’m hearing it again myself, you know? And I’m able to be playful with it like that. If I just relax and just let it flow, then it’s its own thing. It’s like the only way that I screw it up is if I somehow get in the way, or I start thinking about whether or not I said that right, or I get distracted by something, then my tongue trips up and I can’t do it anymore.

Things like trying to remember what the lyrics are in the middle of it, or what the lyric is right before what I just said, those are very difficult for me, because it’s like typing or something. Once I get into the rhythm of it, it just goes and it flows on its own. Or like, singing… it’s like singing the ABC’s. You know the ABC’s song, where a lot of people have to sing that to themselves to figure out where a letter is in the alphabet? It’s kind of like that. I need to do the whole thing, and then I’m like “oh yeah! This is how it’s laid out.”

Mark: I’m sorry, Jon, but it’s one of my habits. I can’t help but analyze some of the lyrics. And one of the phrases in there that struck me that I just want to say, I guess it captures/portrays something that I think is so important about my own experience of spirituality or specifically religion is, when you’re talking about the different body parts: “your finite contribution fills a hole that mine does not.” That just nailed it. That one just said, “wow.” You named an essential truth that a lot of people don’t get and one of the things – and I’m really interested in your input on this – I’m trying to say: what’s the difference between being spiritual and being religious? In essence, given the wide range of religions, what I think is the essential difference is: if you’re religious, you’re part of a community, you’re doing the work in a community. Which means all these different body parts working together. And if you’re spiritual, you can do that on your own perfectly well and it can be rich, deep, and wonderful in its own way but it does not include community as part of that spiritual fabric. That’s my take on it. What about you? And specifically in the context of this song?

Jon: That’s a really interesting question, Mark. The line that I’d like to hold up from the song in response to it is “together we collect our calories straight from the Sun”. So I’ve gotten a number of different reactions to that line in particular, and most of them are presuming that when I say “together”, I mean humans. The joke that I’ve heard is “wow, you must have some sort of magic powers that I don’t have”, but I’m talking about the life ecosystem. You know? Like: together, as a being, this planet synthesizes the suns’ rays into energy that we then trade around.

So I guess the message that’s coming through me is that we are a body. We are a body whether we like it or not. Whether we’re sick or healthy. Whether we’re functioning or we’re not functioning. Whether we’re doing the roles that we’ve been put in or whether we’re trying to fit into roles that are sick, that are unhealthy roles for us to be in. So the question about individual spirituality and religion is… maybe you could say that religion is at least an attempt to acknowledge that. That we’re all a body. That we’re all cogs in this… well, that’s mixing metaphors. That we’re a body… that we’re all cells. Or we’re all organs in this body, or we all compose organs in the body.

So maybe religion is an attempt to hold that with some more stewardship and be intentional about those relationships. But spirituality is totally necessary for that relationship. I mean, if you have religion without spirituality, then you become a really unhealthy body. And spirituality is maybe the relationship with the fact that we’re in a body. The relationship of the cell to the greater organism. If you don’t feel love and feel loved by the body that you’re in, then you’re not going to be making healthy and loving relationships, or rather, you’re not going to be making loving and healthy decisions about your own actions and the impact of those actions on the wider body.

Mark: And that all sounds good to me. That all makes sense. You’ve amplified and extended what I was saying… what I would have said if I was as wise as you, I guess.

Jon: Thank you.

Mark: One other thing I wanted to mention about that song: there are a couple of places in there that are biblical allusions. And Early Quakers, even though they didn’t – in a lot of ways they were considered to be heretical because they didn’t do things in “churchy” ways, they didn’t do them in the same ways that the high church in England was doing at that point – and yet I’ve heard it said that they “breathed scripture”. And it felt to me like when you were in there, you were breathing scripture when you’re talking, you have some words about “song of songs”. “that’s why I waited this long to release this song of songs, songs of solomon enthroned with the wood of Lebanon”, and I’m going: “that’s straight out of the Bible,” but in what – I think for many people – is an unlikely place.

Jon: So the Early Friends were my “in” to the Bible. The environment which I grew up in was not conducive to studying Christianity, and in a lot of ways I would say that Christianity has a pretty bad rap right now. The political movement of Christian Evangelicals has given the whole thing a pretty bad name. So I’ve been really hesitant in my life to even go there. There’s been a lot of barriers in between me and Christianity, and really embracing, even words like “God”. It took me a long time to be able to say a word like “God” and mean it in a way that I felt like was authentic. And it’s not even something I felt like was worth working on, because, you know, they’ve taken it. It’s gone. When you say that word, it conjures this image of some big white guy in the sky manipulative everything and that’s not real. That doesn’t exist, so why should we say the word?

But as I started to explore my own spirituality, I realized that the word is so important, or at least the concept of… what do you call that body that we’re a part of? What do you call that thing that we serve? I started with saying, “well, the Infinite”. Or, “the Universe”. Or it’s the planet. But it’s not the self, it’s not anything secular. I do think that it can be explained in science but we don’t have an explanation for it right now and it’s the mystery. It is a mystery. And it’s a mystery that we’re interacting with, or that we can be, and that we all have access to.

So I’ve been trying to sort of reclaim that word, “God”, and also, in exploring the Early Friends, I’ve felt called in my own way to start exploring the Bible and scripture and one of the ways that I’m doing that is through my art… is sort of welcoming in, especially in this moment in this poem, just welcoming that ancient wisdom that originally existed in Hebrew by people who existed in the present. You know, there was a moment when that… the Bible… the stories that we know were being told word of mouth in the present moment. And they were alive.

And so that same thing of trying to use that language but bring it into a context in which I feel like it’s expressing something for me, feels like work that I’m called to and maybe that I’m just starting to explore.

Mark: Hold that thought, folks. We’ll continue our visit with musician and spoken word artist Jon Watts next week. You can explore more about him at his site, ClotheYourselfinRighteousness.com or follow the link from NorthernSpiritRadio.org. We’ll see you next week for Song of the Soul and the conclusion of our interview with Jon Watts.

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Maggie and Jon talk Quakers, Nakedness and Clothing

Maggie and Jon talk with Madeline Schaeffer of the “Friend Speaks My Mind” podcast about Quakers and Nakedness:

(Click for the Full Interview!)

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What is Quakerism?

Max Carter of Guilford College discusses the origins of the Quaker movement.

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“Clothe Yourself in Righteousness” is Live!

Yesterday I drove out to New Jersey to pick up the physical copies of the CDs. As I was driving back in my car and checking the audio to make sure it was all working and clear, I started crying. I have been in relationship with this project for so long. I have fought for it, laughed with it, been changed by it. And now it’s time to tell the world about it. Thus, I humbly offer you:

After debating the “free/not free” models, I’ve decided to post a song a week simultaneously on Youtube (as a videosong) and bandcamp (as a paid download/free stream). So if you’re the type to only listen to music if it’s free, you’ll just have to come back.

But! You can listen to the full album RIGHT NOW by downloading it.

“Let’s Get Naked”

This first song that I’ve posted is called “Let’s Get Naked.” Lyrics are here.

I am really excited to say that I have been working with filmmaker Tom Clement on a music video for the song, and it should be posted in the next few days.

Ok, enjoy! I’m headed to Richmond for the first release show!


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