Award-winning musicians Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly present traditional American folk music with beautiful vocals, instrumentation, and narration that adeptly address the human experience. Longtime members of First Unitarian Church, Aubrey and Elwood have also been part of several long-running theological, action, and contemplation groups and have spent many years performing in churches throughout the United States and beyond. Married since 1989, Aubrey and Elwood appear widely and their thirteen recordings receive international airplay.
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As touring musicians and dancers since the 1980’s, Elwood and I have a fascinating and unusual job. Folk music is a friendly and personal genre. Over the years, we have performed in 38 states and three other countries, stayed in many people’s homes, eaten at their tables, sang and played for concert series, festivals, weddings, funerals, workshops, parties, clubs, churches, jam sessions, dances, you name it. You COULD say we’re flies on the wall of human society. Our job is also very irregular and at times physically challenging and exhausting. Some perfectly qualified musicians simply won’t do it. They can’t stand the uncertain, hard-to-regulate aspects of travel, weather, cancellations, the economy, and trusting people’s organizational skills. Also, much of our work is concentrated into 24-48 hours on the weekend which can make certain days very intense.
In June of 2016, we drove from Hindman, KY, to Indianapolis on a Saturday after a six-day festival gig. We were tired and under pressure to travel over 300 miles to arrive in time for a mid-afternoon workshop. I was thinking, who books us? (That would be me.) When we arrived, we spilled out of the van into a park by a lake, tired, hungry, thirsty. It was 97 degrees, and the festival was outside. Our kind hosts helped unload our gear and gave us food and water.
As we got ready for a banjo workshop under a small tent, I suddenly heard squealing out in the field in the audience and when I went to look, I saw a big black snake slithering calmly through the crowd. How odd, I thought. Having been a lay herpetologist when I was a kid, I went to investigate. I love snakes. I knew right away it was not poisonous and also noticed that its eyes were cloudy which meant it was shedding its skin and therefore a bit blind, explaining the odd behavior and seeming lack of fear. I didn’t think much more of it, except that I was rather thrilled by the whole thing, and I went back to setting up. Then, as we began to present our program, the snake started to crawl right towards our little stage. At that point, I was like, “It’s you or me, pal.” So, some nice folks helped usher it into the woods, with some more delightful screeching, and that was that. Definitely a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment.
So, let’s fast forward a moment. I’ve been seeing people wearing this great t-shirt at folk festivals for the last couple of years. On the front there are odd time signatures like 5/4ths, 9/8ths, 19/16ths. And then below, it says, “These are difficult times.” Isn’t that wonderful? Such a great way to state the obvious.
So, after the snake’s little cameo, the most marvelous thing happened in the banjo workshop. About halfway through, a participant volunteered to play a song his grandmother sang to him in the 1950s. Suddenly on this hot, tiring, snake-filled day, he played the most lovely lullaby. So simple, so short. It was as if the weather changed right there under the tent. What a windfall! “Hush be still, as a mouse, there’s a baby in the house. Not a dolly, not a toy, but a sleeping baby boy.”
I was suddenly quite struck by the idea that, in these difficult times, we ALL need a lullaby. All the time. We need comfort, we need to be soothed. Sometimes we need a loved one to pat us and say, “There, there.” I was transfixed by this simple moment and knew right away that I would learn the song myself.
As time went on and we started performing it, I kept wondering: In our efforts to take action in this world, to do good, to contribute positively, where is our rest? Where is our sanctuary? Where is our psychological nap? Where is our place in the world or who is the person with whom, even if just for a moment, we can exhale?
Almost three years ago, my extended family was struggling with the chaos and devastation of a particularly terrible loss. I hadn’t slept well in a long time. My late sister’s best friend said to me during that time, “You will find rest, but it may not be in the form of sleep.” And I thought, WOW! I had never thought of rest in that way. It gave me such comfort as well as a hint of joy as I searched for that rest. Sometimes it came unannounced; sometimes it was planned—laughing with a child, hearing a beautiful song, watching a favorite show, lying on my mother’s twin bed in her assisted living apartment, basking in the shared experience of new bereavement friends, quiet work at my desk, sharing food, enough time to finish a project, a joke about a snail, a kind gesture from a stranger, the innocent face of a sleeping baby.
How can we, in each of our precious lives and in our call to action, cultivate rest? Is it in moments of quiet contemplation and discernment? Is there rest knowing what action to take? Are we working hard in ways best suited for who we are, or are we kowtowing to inner demons, voices of “shoulds” and, perhaps, guilt? Where, when, and how are we at our best? Does it help to understand what breaks our hearts the most and to act there? Is there rest in the knowledge of how to care for ourselves as well as the actual practice of that care? To what people and activities do we say no? To what do we say yes? Where do we set limits? How do we practice our sabbath?
Krista Tippett, in one of our favorite podcasts, On Being, said once in so many words that it is our birthright to experience joy and refuge, rest and comfort, no matter the times in which we are living. And to take that idea further, it is our right to honor and protect the gift that we each are and the gifts we give the world. And part of this protection lies in rest.
So, since that hot day in Indianapolis, we have sung that dear song to babies at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, to a 105-year-old woman in a retirement community, to our grandchildren, our audiences, ourselves at the sink, and anyone else who cares to listen and sing along.
So, having said all this, I have one last thing to say: go get ‘em, and get some rest. Here is the song. Please sing along!
- Hush be still, as a mouse/There’s a baby in the house
Not a dolly, not a toy/But a sleeping baby boy
- Hush be still, as a mouse/There’s a baby in the house
She’s a treasure, she’s a pearl/She’s a sleeping baby girl
Words and Reflections
by Elwood Donnelly
Opening Words: I’d like my home to be as a river flowing smoothly, winding gently through the dwelling — a living path from the kitchen to the parlor, rounding past the office, through the dining room and back into the kitchen, onward and up the stairs into the bedroom where life is streaming freely from windows, through mirrors, under beds, down the stairs, branching off into rooms waiting to accept the wonderful energy that encourages peacefulness.
Angels: There’s a song I’ve been singing for many years – the chorus mostly – until recently, when I decided to learn the verses. Just thinking about them makes me almost cry with joy.
Angel Band is one of the most popular hymns and was written by J. Hascall and William Bradbury. Bradbury is credited with being one of the prime movers in the transition of American hymody from the more stately style of the British composers to the more popular, sentimental style of the Gospel hymn. That latter style is what attracts me, but the words, combined with the tune, is what keeps me.
When I consider the metaphors: “My sun sinking, my triumph beginning, approaching the ranks of friends and kindred, the crossing must be near,” then I feel myself approaching that wonderful place which can only be imagined, where peace and harmony reign, and all those warm and friendly folks I’ve ever known gather round to greet me.
“The holy ones, behold, they come; I hear the noise of wings.” Can you feel the presence of angels in that line? Well, maybe I’m lucky, but I feel that way often. When I think of all the wonderful people in my life, I can become overwhelmed by the love I sense; and I can’t help believing that you may all be angels. At those times my heart sings the chorus: “Oh, come, angel band, Come and around me stand. Oh, bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home; Oh, bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home.”
Meditation: We each share in grief and good fortune, often simultaneously. Author Kimberly Newton Fusco captured this thought with brevity and clarity, “In the midst of loss, we are forever changed. Not so much in the losing, but in the gaining of our community–a much larger, deeper love than we could have imagined.” She finishes with, “Lots of pain in life. Lots more joy. You got to find a way to stand through both.”
Closing Words: You are the church…and so am I; we carry church around with us and in us. It’s your faith, the one you’ve been working on since childhood; perhaps even, before you were born. Every one of us has a right to the kingdom without needing to jump through fire created by others. Each of us has the right to feel comfortable with our faiths and each of us deserves to be happy. Providence Unitarian minister and friend, our own late Tom Ahlburn, ended his services for many years with this Buddhist proverb and other thoughts: “May God walk between you and harm in all the empty places you must go; in the evening of life you will be judged by love; may all beings be happy.”