An Interview with Jon Watts
FRIENDS JOURNAL: Let’s start with your claim to fame—the YouTube sensation “Dance Party Erupts During Quaker Meeting for Worship.”
JON: Sure. I first recorded the song, called “Friend Speaks My Mind,” while I was a resident student at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.
In the song, I tried to capture the energy of the Young Friends programs in which I grew up. I went through Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s camping program and Young Friends program, and I also regularly attended the Friends General Conference summer gatherings. The attitude that I picked up in these programs taught me to mostly reject popular Christian theology (Jesus as Savior; the afterlife; anything resembling mainstream Christianity, really).
After graduating from the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program at Guilford College, I had more of an understanding of the fundamental role of Christianity in shaping Quaker practice and so less of a knee-jerk rejection of anything Christian. I came to feel a bit under-tooled or misled by the Quaker institutions that had brought me up. I still share and respect a certain level of skepticism but generally feel that by rejecting Christianity altogether, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
When I asked God what to do with the angst and rebelliousness I was feeling against the Liberal Quakerism that had raised me, I was given the song “Friend Speaks My Mind.” It is an anthem for Liberal FGC Quakerism—a love song, really.
But I included some of the ways that I’ve grown and changed since my upbringing as a “cultural Quaker,” so the song is kind of all over the map. A few years later we put together a music video for it, uploaded it to YouTube, and it blew up. Now generally everyone knows the song; whether they love it or hate it, they’ve heard it.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: At last count, the video had over 75,000 views on YouTube. How did it become the viral sensation?
JON: It was a huge surprise to me when “Dance Party Erupts” went viral in Quaker communities. I was accustomed to staying in my little Liberal Quaker bubble, and suddenly I was in the middle of a very public, inter-branch conversation. It included a lot of non-FGC Quakers taking issue with the theology as though I’d invented it out of thin air—as though it weren’t the result of hundreds of years of bitter schisms in the Quaker movement.
But I see value in the conversation so I’m willing to be a lightning rod. And I feel that I’ve been faithful to my leading; strife after faithfulness usually means we’re being set up for something. Growth?
FRIENDS JOURNAL: How did that conversation go? Were there any techniques you found to transform a conversation?
JON: I think this is a great question for modern Friends: how are we dialoguing on the Internet about our faith? When you read the comments on YouTube, you’ll often find that they dissolve into bitter bickering. Quakers aren’t really the exception online.
But I’m trying to be patient with it, because I think that we should be dialoguing between branches. We have something to learn from one another. Generally speaking, FGC Quakers have less difficulty listening to the living Spirit in unorthodox ways but have little grounding or mutual understanding of what they are doing; Friends from more Christian backgrounds have a much deeper understanding of their practice but can get stuck in their traditions and intellectual understandings and lose the ability to hear the living Spirit in all of its unpredictability.
And Quakerism has always been a microcosm of the wider culture, which is currently bitterly divided between religious folks and secular humanists. So imagine how powerful Quakerism could be for modeling a loving conversation between those who deeply believe in Christianity and those who have been deeply hurt by it or feel dismissive of it! This is God’s invitation to us: to be witnesses to abundant love by letting it flow in the most difficult circumstances— when our house is divided.
This is especially poignant now that the Internet has become this single, massive place where we all lay claim to the name “Quaker.” I think it’s a good thing; we’re forced to deal with our sectarianism. But yeah, it’s painful.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: Should we be avoiding the Internet?
I think many Quakers hesitate to use the Internet, and I understand that. The Internet age has brought on this major lifestyle shift that we haven’t had much choice about. Actually, I would be very excited if Quakers as a body decided not to be on the Internet at all, if the Religious Society of Friends came together collectively to have a public testimony that this thing is not good for us. As it is, we’re not close even to having that conversation. It’s as if the Internet snuck up on us. YouTube is eight years old now, and there are still very few quality Quaker videos. Those of us with ministries on the Internet aren’t acknowledged by our meetings. We’re left to our own devices as individuals: no support, no accountability.
This is dire indeed, as I believe that the Internet is the next printing press. We need to get our voices into the conversation. In the 1650s, the printing press was a new technology that was suddenly available to everyone, and early Friends embraced the opportunity it gave them to challenge the culture and gather a people. That we haven’t all rushed onto the blogosphere is a clear sign of where Quakerism is today.
I would love to see Quakers just bum-rush the Internet! We could be spreading the word, not just about Quakerism but about the kingdom of God—a vision for the society, a toolkit for tearing down the empire around us and replacing it with the beloved community.
Again, I understand our hesitancy. I’m just as guilty as anyone of looking up from my computer to find that I’ve been in the weird part of YouTube for like four hours. But that is only when we treat the Internet as we treat entertainment—as passive consumers. Let us not be passive consumers; let’s be content creators. Turn on your webcam, and tell us how the Spirit is leading you to tell us! Learn how videos get passed around; listen to how God is calling you into relationship with the world through the Internet. Yes, it has erupted all around us, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless to shape our relationship with it. Let’s treat the Internet as the powerful tool that it is.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: The album Clothe Yourself in Righteousness opens with the story of a largely forgotten Quaker named Solomon Eccles stripping naked in a London marketplace in the 1660s. How did you decide to delve so deeply into such an obscure chapter of what’s already an obscure religious movement?
JON: I’m writing music about obscure stories mainly because of Sufjan Stevens, a Midwestern songwriter who writes what I would call story-music. I discovered Sufjan when I was in college, and I asked, “Why hasn’t someone done this for Quakerism?”
I wanted to have an emotional, authentic connection with early Friends by writing songs about them. There’s a lot of drama in early Quakerism. I actually never imagined myself being a niche Quaker artist, a “Quaker” rapper or a “Quaker” musician. I just dig into Quaker history, looking for incredibly, ridiculously, dramatically exciting stories, and then write songs about them. It just so happens that there are a lot of stories like that in Quakerism.
Actually, I’m still kind of waiting for the mainstream culture to catch on. Isn’t hipsterism really all about liking really obscure things?
FRIENDS JOURNAL: People occasionally ask us why we need another article on people like John Woolman or Lucretia Mott. We answer that we need to keep the myth going, to keep those Friends as touchstones for us today. Are you doing that? Should Solomon Eccles be the next Quaker that Friends Journal overexposes?
JON: Quakerism didn’t make sense to me until I wrote songs about the early movement. Early Friends did amazing and inspiring things, and they took risks that we don’t see Quakers taking today.
Solomon Eccles rejected his upper-class, baroque music profession, and took all of his instruments and manuscripts and burned them in a public demonstration of leveling. The early Friends were rejecting the social class system, which they deemed unjust and ungodly. How could I possibly hear about that and not write a song about it?
FRIENDS JOURNAL: But what does Eccles’s story have to say to us today?
My whole generation right now is asking: “Why Quakerism? What does Quakerism have to offer me?” I think it’s the wrong question. You’re going to the get the most out of something that recognizes your gifts as vital. That’s when you’re going to feel the most full of Spirit.
So I say: “Prophets! Activists! Visionaries! Come back! Warriors and assholes and rabble-rousers! Abrasive, contrarian punks! Come back! Quakerism needs you!” And this society needs Quakers in the truest sense—Quakers who are going out and shaking up people and institutions, saying, “Lay this down! Lay that down! Open your heart and feel things! Look, I’m burning my violins!”
FRIENDS JOURNAL: Early Friends preached against the arts. When contemporary Quaker artists are asked about this, they usually mumble something about continuing revelation. But that answer would be a cop-out for you: Solomon Eccles burned his violin, and you wrote a song about it! What does it mean to be an artist and Friend, and can one be that and still be part of the tradition of Solomon Eccles?
JON: Early Friends threw out anything that was formulaic. The idea was experiential—to have your own experience of the Spirit, to have the Living Spirit speak through you. If you’re going to be baptized, let the Spirit baptize you. If you’re going to take communion, take it because the Spirit is leading you to, not because it’s just a thing you do every Sunday. If you’re going to sing, don’t let someone else write it for you. Sing it! So Quakers were the first jazz musicians, always improvising. The Spirit was their muse.
So when I’m playing a song I try to listen to the Spirit the same way one does in a meeting for worship when preparing to give vocal ministry. I wait until I’m quaking to write a song down. I wait until a song is streaming out of me, until it’s not me anymore. It’s as if I’m watching the song get written. I’m saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening; this is incredible!” And I think we all have access to that, with enough listening and waiting.
I’m always surprised when I hear the work of a Quaker artist or musician, and it seems stilted or forced. What are you doing? We’re Quakers. If the Spirit is filling you with a song, awesome. But if not, just sit there, John Cage style. I think if we really were really practicing Quakerism, we would all be these incredible artists, with the Spirit as our muse.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: What are the similarities between being an unpaid Quaker minister and being a DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, musician? Both struggle to pay the rent and do something out in the world.
JON: Am I a traveling Quaker minister, or am I a DIY musician? This has been one of the central questions in my vocational struggle. Which one am I? Well, I’m kind of both.
I think the greatest difference is one of popularity. If you’re a successful DIY musician, you’ve written a piece of art that people like and want to pay you for. Being a successful Quaker minister, however, is all about being faithful to God, which may not make you popular at all.
So it’s been a strange dance to be both. I do some of what I call intuitive market research into who is going to be listening to my music, what they might want, and what they would want to replay and share with their friends. But then I give that all to God and instead ask, “What do You want me to do; where would I be most useful; what would be most faithful; and what would be a step toward bringing about the kingdom of heaven on Earth?” I find that I’m a little more successful in the ministry aspect of it.
I feel that I’ve been faithful in my projects—that my projects have been radical, vital, inspiring, and transformative. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being marketed well or picked up by the media. That would require my putting much more time, energy, and focus into being a successful DIY musician who’s writing a song that’s going to be popular, who is marketing a song to be popular. I spend more of my energy trying to listen and make sure the Spirit is in it. And to be truthful, I’ve come into the promotional element kicking and screaming: a lot of it isn’t fun. And I can say that I’m a little scared of success, too. My love for attention is rivaled by my fear of it.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: You recently held what you billed as “the largest clearness committee in the history of Quakerism.” What was that like?
JON: I posed some questions to my fan base and the wider Quaker Internet-o-sphere: “What should I do next? How can I finagle this? And is it worth trying?” I got email responses from all over the world. Wherever there are Quakers, people have heard of me and connected to my blog or Facebook page. I’ve been sitting with what people have written to me, and asking God, “What is my next vocational direction?”
FRIENDS JOURNAL: What have you figured out?
JON: Many people in my generation feel that we’ve inherited a Quakerism that we’re not satisfied with. We have all this analysis about what’s wrong with it. I think it’s good for us to analyze and even sometimes to complain about it, but at some point we need to take ownership and move Quakerism into territory that feels more vital for us.
I’ve been very blessed as a Quaker on my faith journey. I’ve had many amazing elders and mentors who have brought me up, taught, and challenged me. There are many Quakers who have vital things to say about Quakerism and who risk confronting the empire that surrounds and permeates us. I want everyone to have access to these incredible resources, and I’m tired of waiting for someone else to do it.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: So what’s the project?
JON: I’m starting a new YouTube channel where we’ll release a video every week. The project is called “QuakerSpeak.” We’ll start with the basics: What is Quakerism? Are Quakers Amish? Do all Quakers look like the Quaker Oats man? They’ll be concise, interesting videos that will bring us all up to speed on our Quaker history and then ignite us with the story of people who are letting their lives speak.
The mission of “QuakerSpeak” is to lift up and make available Friends whose ministries are informative and challenging, and that give hope and unite us.
We can post a video like “Dance Party Erupts During Quaker Meeting for Worship” and get 70,000 views. Quakers in Australia can be talking about it, Quakers in England, Quakers in Africa, Quakers in the South of the United States and in New England—all talking about this same video. They might have different conversations, but it’s a game changer that can put us back on the same page with each other. It is the new traveling ministry.
I see no reason to try to attract people to a Quakerism that isn’t vital. We should engaging ourselves in brutal, courageous conversation about what we’re doing in this life and what we’re doing in this culture. Real life transformation. Really life changes in behavior. New outward testimonies. And then people will start coming to Quaker meeting. This kind of listening will ignite meetings so that people will want to come into them, will be drawn into them, so they’ll have a reason to exist.