You Can't Bury Canterbury: The future of Ann Arbor's musical gem (Pt. 2)
This is part two of a series published by the Statement examining the Canterbury House, its influences and history. Part one was published last week, titled “You Can’t Bury Canterbury: Ann Arbor’s Hidden Musical Gem.”
A simple bass line plucked on an upright bass lays beneath the voice of a strong soprano. The voice sings:
“Maybe we could use this as communion.
Stand and hold hands.”
[Chairs shuffling and sliding]
“We shall overcome
We shall overcome
[Audience members join in]
Deep in my heart …”
The recording sample, just as the whole audience starts to sing, fades out. If the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movement can be exemplified in one song, “We Shall Overcome” is it. Originally a gospel song and covered countless times by artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and everyone under the sun, this rendition comes from the powerful and captivating voice of Odetta, recorded in 1967 at Canterbury House and found among the other recordings digitized by the Michigan History Project and Project President Alan Glenn.
In addition to the concerts staged at the coffee shop location in the ‘60s, Canterbury House became a hub for political activism and people who wanted to express their disdain for the United States’s involvement in Vietnam. According to Canterbury House records, former Chaplain Dan Burke perceived Canterbury House as an instrumental institution in Ann Arbor’s history of activism.
“I think it was unanimous that we were opposed to the war,” Burke said. “We were involved in anti-war protests and in some –– but not all –– of the counterculture. Lots of organizing events occurred in the building just because it was a place everybody knew and trusted.”
However, as “We Shall Overcome” should make obvious, former Canterbury House doorkeeper and performer Bob Franke said the music and the politics weren’t mutually exclusive, but rather intertwined in a very purposeful way. According to Franke, folk music is inherently political, as its storytelling nature and ability to be sung in congregation makes it a powerful force against injustice and the evils of the world.
“The idea of music being good for a number of political purposes and being a powerful way of basically expressing … political solidarity, that was all up front and that was a part of what was happening,” Franke said. “The Civil Rights era definitely fed into it and was a part of it. There was a real sense that we were writing about politics as well as music.”
In terms of political participation, a lot of the regular patrons, like Canterbury photographer Al Blixt and Franke, were involved with the cause simply by hanging around and discussing how to further “the Movement,” as Gayle Rubin, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, explained.
“It was obviously a highly charged political era, so there was this counterculture vibe like Woodstock all day,” Blixt said. “What we felt was we had an unpopular war going on and a lot of us were suffused with the idea of putting an end to that.”
“I was not a political organizer per se but, like many young people, it was clear to me what was right, and so I hung out and I supported what I could,” Franke said. “As much as I look back on those days with compassion for everyone involved, I learned from my father’s experience that war was essentially a crock and went at it from that angle.”
The coffee shop location dabbled in all elements of counterculture amid the political turbulence of the ’60s, according to Glenn’s research of Canterbury.
“Canterbury was deeply involved with all aspects of the ’60s movement,” Glenn wrote in an email interview. “Social justice, racial equality, political revolution, anti-war protest, draft resistance, you name it. Plus the explosion of creativity that took place in the arts and sciences. It was a truly happening place made possible through the hard work and sincere commitment of a lot of groovy people, the likes of which we unfortunately won’t see again for a long time.”
Glenn’s sentiments echoed the political climate of the University community as well. On campus, only a few blocks from Canterbury House, students were organizing protests and teach-ins against the Vietnam War and other political causes.
After the ’60s had come and gone and Burke and Martin Bell had moved ministries, Canterbury House decided to take a step back from the concerts and counterculture. In 1971, it moved back to the house on North Division Street that it occupied first in 1935 and concentrated on the ministry, a return to its roots. However, its involvement in social equality didn’t come to a complete stop. How could it, with such a rich history of activism under its belt?
On Sept. 28, 1975, the Canterbury House Gayness and Spirituality Group, an organization “for people of any spiritual path who relate positively to their own gayness,” met for the first time. The group was instrumental in making gay students at the University feel accepted by a religious institution in a time when homosexuality was persecuted by society and the law.
By providing a safe haven for people of all creeds to discuss their sexual orientation and spirituality, as well as an opportunity to meet other gay students on campus at events like the “Gay Dance Party” and other weekly meetings, Canterbury House led the charge in combatting stigmas against homosexuality in the ’70s.
After moving to a new space on South State Street in 1978 in hopes of reinvigorating the buzz around the ministry from the ’60s, Canterbury House rebranded as Canterbury Loft. Poetry readings, musical theater performances and concerts followed suit. However, the public profile of the venue had diminished from its heyday in the ’60s. Canterbury moved back to its home on Division in 1984 and then relocated to its current home at 721 E. Huron in 1995.
And now, cue the jazz.
When Matthew Lawrence took the job of Canterbury House chaplain in 1996, he had big plans for how to reinvigorate the church’s role in Ann Arbor’s music scene while also maintaining a spiritual mindset.
“Every generation must reinterpret the Gospel according to its own categories, but our current shift in paradigms reflects more than a generational transition,” Lawrence said, according to Canterbury House documents. “We are entering a new epoch of faith, and we are the shapers of the future. It is a time of experimentation and playfulness, imagination and openness; it is also a time of painful conflict and confusion as the current divisions in the Episcopal Church and our society testify.”
For this mission, Lawrence called on Stephen Rush, a current professor of performing arts technology in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the former music director at the Canterbury House, to bring his music expertise to Canterbury House. At this moment, Jazz Mass was born.
“(Lawrence) asked me if I wanted to do music there, like jazz, and I probably used some expletives and I said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a band that plays Albert Ayler and John Coltrane and if that’s what you want, we can do that,’” Rush said. “I said, ‘I’m not willing to do it once a month. It needs to be every week because otherwise, you’re just messing around.’”
Every Sunday at 5:00 p.m., Canterbury House would fill with students and jazz fans alike to hear Rush and his band Quartex play newly arranged hymns and experimental jazz pieces. This blending of worship and music was both a callback to the folk services attended by Rubin and the like in the ’60s, but also a step further.
I don’t normally enjoy phone interviews. You can’t engage with your source the same way you can in person. Also, you always step on each other’s comments when trying to make it a conversation because you can’t see the other person slightly open their mouth when they want to say something.
Chatting with Rush feels like shooting the breeze with an old friend, even over the phone.
“What I always did was whatever reading that was going to be used by the priest for that sermon that Sunday, I would find music from avant-garde jazz tradition that would fit that really, really well,” Rush said.
As someone who was not raised in a religious household and could count the number of times I’ve set foot in any church on my hands and toes, the music of the church was always the only thing that could get me inside the door. I can say I would have been at Jazz Mass every weekend.
In Rush’s eyes, Canterbury’s role on campus is an incubator for students to not only to examine faith and beliefs, but also explore their range as musicians –– just as Franke did in the ’60s –– and engage in social justice.
“Lots of groovy music that students are doing on their own, there’s just not really a place for them to do it, so they do it at Canterbury,” Rush said. “It’s a scene and scenes are really, really important historically and scenes are important socially, and out of scenes come activism.”
Lining the walls of the Canterbury House foyer above the large bay windows facing North Quad Residence Hall are CD cases — Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and the like — interspersed with images of what appear to be saints like Mary Magdalene and Hildegard of Bingen. But not all of them are religious figures. Martin Luther King Jr., Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein make appearances. No one else could have constructed this symbolic exhibition of the bonds between Episcopal sainthood and jazz iconography other than Rush.
Chaplain Matthew Lukens, in a green flannel with the typical black shirt and white collar underneath, confirms my suspicions. When I asked about his casual attire mixed with the collar, Lukens said he will probably wear the collar less as he gets older. For now, he wears it because, to him, it means the Episcopalian Church is “willing to invest in leadership with someone who’s young and queer.”
Lukens celebrates his one-year anniversary as chaplain at Canterbury in October. Prior to his accepting of the position, Lukens was hiking the Appalachian Trail and, before that, was working as Vicar of Emmanuel Church in the Diocese of Hawaii.
At Lukens’s feet rests Bear, the House’s pet dog, who is skittish at first but just wants you to chase him and play. Naturally, I have to oblige.
Next to Lukens is Music, Theatre & Dance senior Kenji Lee, the coordinator for Canterbury’s Concert Series. He also goes by “Music Guy” or “Dude of All Concerts.”
When Lukens first arrived in Ann Arbor, Lee gave him the rundown on what this space was and what it had the potential to be. Lukens said he had always wanted to work at a student ministry and when Lee outlined Canterbury’s four main pillars of operations — faith community events, food ministries, the concert space and social activism — Lukens quickly discovered Canterbury’s goals aligned with his own.
“The first time we met, you talked about Canterbury House as a ‘compassionate space for all people,’” Lukens said to Lee.
In Lukens’s eyes, Lee’s description lives up to its history. But Lukens quickly discovered, after learning more about the institution’s legacy in Ann Arbor, that he could not have bigger shoes to fill.
During his first month at Michigan, Lukens attended a lecture on the Lavender Scare, the moniker given to the persecution of LGBTQ individuals in the federal government during the Cold War. Upon talking to the lecturer and other faculty members who had attended the University in the ’60s, he got to know how important the building was and the duty he inherited.
“I said ‘My name’s Matthew, I’m the new chaplain at Canterbury House’ and with that, their entire expression changed on their faces and they lit up and said, ‘Canterbury House? When I was an undergrad here back in the ’60s, that was where all the activists hung out. I’m a secular Jew but I was at Canterbury House. It was great.’” Lukens said some recounted to him. “The history here is really well established … and I really take that as a mandate in my time here to figure out how can we best live up to that.”
However, Lukens knows reveling in the past and trying to restore the glory days of Canterbury won’t serve the community as well as allowing Canterbury to evolve with the present times. Lukens still encourages any student groups, be they political in nature or not, to use the space and plan events. He specifically mentioned some organizing of the movement to stop a proposed visit last semester by white supremacist Richard Spencer — referred to online as #StopSpencer — was done on the same couches on which we were sitting during our conversation.
“How can we best have this be a space where people who care about changing the world for the better know that they have a home here?” Lukens asked. “On the one hand, there are these big expectations that come from (the history) but, on the other hand, there’s also this allowance for whatever you come up with which might be completely wild and out of left field and that’s totally fine, let’s do it.”
Lee faced similar challenges when he became the concert coordinator for Canterbury. Nowadays, Lee is constantly commuting between his final year of classes at the Music School, facilitating concerts at Canterbury and playing with various jazz combos in Detroit. According to Lee, the position is typically passed through the Jazz Department.
Before accepting the job, Lee was told by the previous coordinator he would make “X amount of money for six concerts a semester,” but was quickly informed “every concert coordinator ever has put on at least 30 concerts a semester.” Knowing he wasn’t going to get paid for the amount of work he put into the job, Lee still accepted the responsibility of cultivating the music scene at Canterbury.
When he stepped into his role, he hit the ground running, acknowledging the musical legacy of the coffee shop and, perhaps more fitting for Lee’s musical palette, Rush’s Jazz Mass. However, he said the pressure to live up to the past pushed him too far his first year out.
“My first year as concert coordinator, I booked way too many things, it was like four nights a week of music which is just crazy and I was freaking out because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t study, I couldn’t do anything and I was just here,” Lee said. “I slept on that couch so many nights … My second year … I wasn’t going to make those efforts anymore because I don’t need to do that but that resulted in (me seeing) the musical community shrink a bit … This year is my final year as concert coordinator and the year is just beginning but I feel like I’ve got it down.”
Like many who have come through Canterbury’s doors, Lee was not raised in an Episcopal household. With “an atheist Berkeley hippy father and … a Shinto Buddhist (mother) from Japan,” Lee understands the skepticism from touring bands who don’t know how, as Lukens described it, “fluid” a space like Canterbury can be.
“I’ll get emails and calls from people like, ‘OK we don’t know if we want to play a church’ or whatever,” Lee said. “Canterbury House is the first religious space that I’ve ever felt comfortable in … I think getting that question like, ‘What is Canterbury House,’” I still use (former Chaplain Reid Hamilton’s) answer all the time: It’s the home of left-wingy causes.”
Lukens acknowledged this disconnect between social activism and religion that’s commonly expected to exist today. While Lukens said, “Christianity has such a reputation … for not creating welcoming spaces,” Lee said Lukens’s being in the position of Chaplain as a gay man and the activism and music that has always inhabited the walls of Canterbury no matter where in Ann Arbor they resided should speak to the one-of-a-kind magic of Canterbury House.
“It’s common knowledge that this place is on the right side of history,” Lee said.
After taking out my earbuds and reveling in the recording samples of Mitchell, Odetta and the others found by the Michigan History Project, I couldn’t help but think about those annoying YouTube comments made by middle schoolers on Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix lyric videos.
“I was born in the wrong generation lol XD,” the children would whine.
I am not proud to say I was one of those middle schoolers. Now, it’s endearing to say you listened to classic rock and folk with your parents growing up. You already have the musical palate of an indie movie. Back then, you were obnoxious and pompous if you wanted to kick Ke$ha to the curb instead of Mick Jagger. One time, I almost blew a gasket because my friend said Bastille was better than The Doors. I refused to embrace any music from the past decade.
Much to Middle School Matt’s delight, these tapes give us a gateway into the musical incubator Ann Arbor was during this influential time in music history. But if I could tell Middle School Matt anything, it would be to get your head out of your ass and look around at the local creatives taking what was being made at Canterbury in the ’60s and building upon it. The same goes for political organizing. Innovation is the key to discovery. How would singers like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Dave Van Ronk have come to be if they hadn’t taken the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, learned what they could and move forward?
Canterbury House has been an institution in Ann Arbor for more than a century now. As long as people like Middle School Matt embrace what it has to offer, it should be around for another century and maybe more.