Pfeiffer graduate assists with autobiography of Peter, Paul and Mary member

Published 10:29 am Tuesday, December 12, 2023

By Ken Keuffel for Pfeiffer University

When Class of 1969 graduate Jeanne Torrence Finley was majoring in English at Pfeiffer College, Dr. J. Griffin Campbell, one of her professors, read Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant–1263” aloud during a class on American poets. The poem reinforced her trust in what she calls “the mystical knowledge of particular poets to teach me something of the Divine.”

Jeanne Finley

That trust has only deepened with time, and to underscore the point, she’s helping Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of the famed folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary, write his autobiography, which has a working title of “For the Love of It All.” She proposed the project to Stookey after learning more about his life and music, and they’ve been working on it since 2016.

Finley’s interest in Stookey began to take hold in 2015 when she was tasked with writing an article on interfaith understanding for FaithLink, an adult curriculum that connected faith and contemporary issues and events. The article in question was a response to terrorist attacks in Paris for which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility, prompting increases in anti-Muslim hate and violence across the globe.

During her research for the article, Finley learned that Stookey and his wife Betty, a United Church of Christ clergywoman, regularly presented “One Light, Many Candles,” a multi-faith program in word and song. Finley began to listen thoughtfully to Stookey’s more recent songs, finding in them what she has called “deeply reflective lyrics, occasional comic relief, profound but humble reverence, and beautiful melodies played by an accomplished guitarist.”

“I appreciated Noel’s eye for image, the rhythm of his words, his vocal interpretation, and the freshness of his metaphorical language, especially when it deals with spirituality,” she added in “Strings,” a Finley/Stookey-written newsletter for fans that features posts on everything from the project’s beginnings to stories that do not appear in the book.

“As a progressive Christian sensitive to the hackneyed use and abuse of religious language, I noticed his avoidance of religious words and phrases that may carry a lot of negative associations for people skeptical of religion and spirituality. In addition, at the time my husband and I were still in deep grief over the loss of our 33-year-old daughter to cancer, and I found healing and hope in Noel’s music.”

In time, Finley published a review of a Stooky CD called “At Home: The Maine Tour” for Sojourners magazine.

“Wow! That was fun,” Finley remembers thinking after the review ran. “Noel’s music and story need to be shared with a wider audience. Wonder what would happen if I proposed a book?”

Finley considers “For the Love of It All,” also the name of one of Stookey’s songs, to be the crowning achievement in her rather diverse body of life’s work, which has included writing curriculum books for small group use in churches, teaching collegiate English courses, and pastoring United Methodist churches in rural Virginia. The book is certainly an ambitious project, based on scores of Finley’s interviews with Stookey.

In addition to recounting key events in Stookey’s life, it sets out to explore a wide range of topics. During their first interview for the book, for example, Finley and Stookey discussed, among many other things, the need for fresh religious metaphors, the integration of Stookey’s faith and social concern, the spirituality of his parents, and his thoughts on everyone from composer Charles Ives to the political activist Thomas Paine.

“For the Love of It All” is about 80% complete, and Finley says that she and Stookey are looking for a publisher.

“I’ve really felt a strong connection to this project from the start,” Finley said from her home in southwest Virginia. “It’s as if everything I’ve done in my life up to this point has fed into it. Nothing else I’ve worked on has been this much fun.”

And nothing else has required as much determination. Finley said she emailed Stookey three times proposing an autobiography before she got a response.

Stookey expressed interest, but wanted to read her reviews of his solo fare before he would commit.

Undeterred, Finley got to work and delivered a voluminous analysis of Stookey’s work, drawing on the critical thinking skills she says Pfeiffer helped her to develop. In a Stookey CD called “Something New and Fresh,” for example, she told him she found: “. . . games and puzzles and paradox. The themes are paradoxical: God’s mercy and grace go beyond reason. New life is possible even when all evidence points in the other direction.

“Opposites can’t be held in the heart. We see Jesus in the faces of imperfect human beings. Your heart can lead you where your head won’t go and where the well-intentioned advice of other people won’t go.

“These songs, and especially ‘Don’t Use My Name,’ reminded me of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I thought of this poem when I first started studying your songs and then forgot about it until I was reading and listening to this CD.”

The poem in question was “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” It drew her closer to Stookey’s solo fare, in which she “recognized a reticence to speak about God in traditional ways and a choice to ‘tell it slant.’ ”

So, what ultimately persuaded Stookey to commit to the project? In Finley’s mind, the breakthrough happened when she recognized what a challenge it was for him to accept the fact that some people are just not going to get his work as a singer/songwriter.

“When I came along saying that not only do I get it, but I think I can help other folks get it as well by opening up the concept of metaphor in religious language, that convinced him,” she said. “Both he and I recognize that parables, which are extended metaphors, were a favorite form of communication for Jesus.”

Finley also stresses Stookey didn’t write his songs for worship.

“He wrote them to get people thinking and reflecting about their own lives and asking questions,” she said. “I really connected with that in him, in his music, and I can’t wait to complete the book.”