Jerry Miller, former Brethren minister, always has a harmonica in his pocket and a song in his heart. Jaquematepress chatted with him recently, following a concert in Lancaster.
Well, the Brethren, the Mennonites and the Friends share their belief in conscientious objection. The roots of the Brethren go back to 1708, some 200 years after the Mennonites; the Friends--also known as the Quakers--do not have the Anabaptist roots of the Brethren and Mennonites.
With very close ties to the land…
That’s right. When they came to the United States in the 1720’s and 30’s the Brethren as well as the Mennonites landed in German Town, near Philadelphia and then began migrating south and west following the development of agricultural areas. Now the Brethren are also integrated into urban areas.
I understand that you have combined that background with singing and activism in ecological issues. What came first?
Well, when I was around 20 I started carrying a harmonic in my pocket and I was inspired by some Blues players and also by Bob Dylan who was really cool when he was playing the harmonica, the guitar with the piano. At about that time I got into the ministry, originally with the Jesus Movement.
What was that?
It was actually a bunch of hippies across the United States who started their own approach to religion.
Were they also involved in the anti-war movement?
Yea, there were some overlaps certainly during the 1970’s.
Let’s go from that to your music. How does a song appear?
That’s a wonderful question. I love that question. You know what? I’ve been a song writer most of my life without knowing it. I used to just start singing, whatever came to mind. I didn’t realize until recently that that’s how you do it! I didn’t take myself seriously until I was in my 50’s. There were two guys in the church where I was pastor at the time, a drummer and a guitar player. They had been playing together since ten years of age or so. When they heard me play the harmonica they asked me to join them. So we formed a trio and I started to bring songs to the group and they liked them and wanted to perform them. So I thought, ‘I must be a song writer.’ But your question was how a song appears. I’d say that most of the time it starts with a phrase. I could pick up a newspaper and start singing it.
Not easy to sing what’s in a newspaper!
Maybe it wasn’t great but I could usually find a rhythm and a combination of words.
What about the music? One thing is the lyrics, but where does the music come from?
It comes pretty much by itself. I don’t have formal training in musical composition. Most song writers play the guitar or the piano but I don’t. What I do is when a guitar player comes to our rehearsal I’ll say here’s a new song and start singing it and we work out the music. But the melody come pretty quickly.
In your concerts you also use a number of unusual instruments. Do you make them?
No. What I was playing the other night in the concert were Native American instruments.
Do your songs also go back to indigenous themes?
Not that much but the Native view of Creation has very strongly influenced my thinking and that moves into some of my compositions. But it isn’t so much because of having listened to Native music, it is more the thoughts that are involved.
But your songs do very strongly reflect your involvement in ecology.
My interest in 'ecology' is long-standing. It began decades ago. When I was a pastor I was not involved in issues such as that simply because I couldn't have gotten away with being an 'activist," doing things like lobbying Congress, writing letters to the editor expressing opinions on political issues or doing civil disobedience resulting in arrest. So it was after I retired in 2010, when I was 62, that I began to participate actively in the struggle.
I have heard that the Susquehanna River, near Lancaster, is one of the most contaminated rivers in the U.S. Is that true?
Yes indeed. What triggered my song “Susquehanna Lament” was information indicating that the Susquehanna was the country’s most endangered river.
What is the cause of that contamination?
What triggers the contamination especially is hydraulic fracking. And the Marcellus Shale as you probably know runs through much of northern and western Pennsylvania and many of the upper regions of the Susquehanna River run through the shale area. So some of the fracking fluids find their way into the water. Not only that. An enormous amount of water is taken from the river for the fracking operations. They need millions of gallons of water every day. And of course they use secret formulas which include many poisonous chemicals.
Is there much awareness in this area concerning conservation and the potential danger of contamination?
In the minds of most people I would say that it is pretty far down the priority list. But there is a strong core of persons strongly concerned about the consequences of ecological destruction. Some of our younger activists have established strong ties with people who live out in the shale areas. It is troublesome to hear an unusual amount of pipe line explosions and things of that nature related to the shale business.
It would appear to be an economic as well as political issue.
Yes, we won’t solve this until we make the transition from a high carbon to a low carbon economy. That’s why I am working with Citizen’s Climate Lobby. We need everyone to fight against the new pipelines and the extraction endeavors as much as possible but it is clear that there is so much political power behind the powerful oil industries that there is strong resistance to change. But if we can shift to a low carbon economy and make it expensive to continue with the high carbon economy we might begin to see some change.
The idea would be to use taxes to make it more expensive to continue with traditional oil operations?
Yes, we need too bring about a massive shift in the use of capital and money. The proposal is to establish a fee level for oil, gas or the import of carbon based products. Charges levied would be in accordance with the amount of potential carbon dioxide that would be emitted.
The problem would appear to be how to get such a law passed in Congress.
Yes and that won’t be easy but we are hearing from some corporations involved that say they would like to put a price on carbon just because they know that there are going to be battles fought on the issue. I have been told that one thing that the corporations like is predictability because they want to be able to predict their costs. We want it to be a revenue neutral tax so as not to get involved in the political issues of tax between Republicans and Democrats. We want the money accessed to be given to American households, to cushion the inevitable rise in costs. Investors will see the advantage of investing in alternative sources of energy. It is a market oriented approach. We will get nowhere if we use the language of regulation. If there are enough people asking for change it will happen.
Could we end this conversation with the words of your song “The Susquehanna River?”
“When I reached the Susquehanna River,
I knelt down to take a drink,
Cupped my hands filling them with water,
That’s when my heart began to sink,
This is not the way it was before
When the Native Peoples first found this shore,
I can’t stand what has been done, oh Susquehanna,
Lovely Susquehanna, who can drink your water…”