Monthly Archives: December 2008

The story behind “The Mary Ellen Carter”

I’ve always liked the song “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers, but I didn’t realize until today that Rogers wrote this song as a sort of gospel hymn for atheists. According to a posting by Charlie Baum on the Mudcat folk music Web site, this is why Rogers wrote the song:

I saw Stan Rogers give a concert at the Sounding Board in West Hartford, Connecticut, [writes Baum], and I still remember his introduction to “Mary Ellen Carter.” When he was young, he saw the Grand Ole Opry (or some such show) and remembers at the end of the show, Tennessee Ernie Ford looking up and staring into the blinding spotlights and singing with earnestness and large voice, a gospel hymn of great inspiration, of triumphing over all odds with the help of the Almighty. He decided then and there that he wanted to write a hymn of great inspiration, except without god in it.

Now I know there are plenty of you out there who still have a traditional God to lean on, but please don’t criticize this song because it doesn’t have God in it. You folks already have lots of good songs, but those of us who don’t lean on your God can have our own good songs. Anyway, you might like this song too, because it’s a song that literally saved someone’s life. When the ship “Marine Electric” went down in the Atlantic on the stormy night of February 13, 1983, her chief mate, Robert Cusick, kept himself alive by singing “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Here’s how he tells the story on a documentary film:

I was on a ship that,– we were carrying coal from Norfolk Virginia to a place near Fall River, Massachusetts [Somerset], and we got caught in a very bad storm. It was an old ship, and we didn’t have very much warning — about two o’clock in the morning we saw the ship was starting to get into trouble and go down by the head. And we called the Coast Guard and they were on their way out as quick as they could. And the ship cracked up and rolled over at four fifteen a.m.

The water was very cold, it was thirty-nine degrees. I had heard enough stories about a vortex and whirlpools sucking people down when a ship sunk, so I started trying to swim away as fast as I could. So it was prob’ly the best part of an hour that I’d been doing this, that I ran across a swamped life boat, and I managed to get into it. As the night wore on, and the seas kept smashing down on top of me, and I fin’lly got the feeling that I just couldn’t make it any more. And I was just about ready to give up, when all of a sudden the words came into my mind, “Rise again, rise again. No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend, like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.”

And I just kept saying that over, and the water cleared away, and I’d shout it out, and sing it out. Then another sea would come down on top of me. And I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for that happening to me, I just was in a position where I couldn’t have come through. And that song made the difference, and me living through that night. There isn’t any question in my mind whatsoever about it.

You can watch Cusick tell the story on YouTube, in his comforting southeastern New England accent. After Cusick tells his story, there’s concert footage of Rogers singing the song.

So what’s the song you’d sing if you were in Cusick’s position? What song would carry you through such adversity?

Bible cheat sheet

I’ve been using the “Bible Study Cheat Sheet” below in my Unitarian Universalist Bible study groups. I’m about to put it through another revision, and thought I’d post it here and see what kind of reaction it gets from you, dear readers….

Bible Study for Religious Liberals ~ Cheat Sheet

Ask: Where are the women? Often, those who wrote the Bible tend to diminish the role of women. Yet often the women are there, if you just look for them. (And sometimes the Bible gives us the actual words women wrote or spoke or sang.) Our assumption: the Bible was not originally intended to keep women down, but later editors and commentators and churchmen have interpreted it that way.

Ask: Where are the poor and the dispossessed? Some of the stories in the bible are about kings, and queens, and rich and powerful people. But frequently Bible stories tell about ordinary people like shepherds, carpenters, and laborers. Our assumption: originally the Bible was written to be meaningful to all people, no matter what their socio-economic status, but later editors and commentators and churchmen have interpreted it differently.

Ask: How are the experts biassed? Various self-proclaimed experts have interpreted the Bible as supporting slavery in the United States, subjugation of women, ongoing racism, homophobia, etc. Such experts include: scholars who translate the Bible out of the original languages; preachers; pundits. Our assumption: any time you come across a person who claims to know something about the Bible (including Unitarian Universalist ministers; including yourself!), that person is going to have some kind of bias.

Above all, ask: What does this have to do with my life? Lots of people claim they have the exclusive right to interpret the Bible. These people will claim their interpretation is the only correct one and then try to shove it down our throats. But there’s no reason to pay any attention to those people. Great literature like the Bible does not have one simple-minded interpretation, because great literature interacts with the specifics of our individual lives. Our assumption: the Bible, like any great work of literature, is supposed to make our lives better — richer, more humane, more grounded in compassion.

Notes for Bible geeks: The first item is basic feminist theology, making the case for a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. The second item is basic liberation theology, introducing the hermeneutical privilege of the poor to a First World audience. The third item uses tools from critical theory for a critique of domination and power in Biblical studies. The fourth item is standard Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics. The whole cheat sheet comes out of a functionalist view of religion, and a critical theory perspective.


“This is unbelievable,” said the woman coming down the hill.

I was headed up the hill. Whoever owns the property on the southwest corner of William Street and Acushnet Avenue never bothers to shovel the sidewalks. This weekend’s storm left those sidewalks covered in about an inch and a half of solid slippery ice. The woman and I were both walking very carefully; the footing was bad that I did not look up at her when she spoke; but then she wasn’t talking to me, she was complaining to the absentee landlord.

“Look at this shit,” she muttered. “This is unbelievable.”

Down the street, I could hear the whir of automobile tires spinning on ice, as a driver tried to get traction pulling out of a parking space. A man came walking down the middle of the road, because at least there was sand and salt on the road. Winter is here, with a vengeance.

Progress of a winter storm in New England


All of a sudden, it’s snowing heavily, and blowing like sixty. 11:21 a.m.

On State Pier, heavy snow. 1:05 p.m.

Snowing heavily. 4-6 inches already. It looks very Christmas-y. 4:15 p.m.

It stopped snowing half an hour ago. Carol went skiing on the city sidewalks. I put a carrot nose on someone else’s snowman. 8:30 p.m.


Now we’re getting ocean-effect snow: big, fat, fluffy flakes lazily falling, covering the sidewalks with crystalline white. 6:35 p.m.


Snow mixed with sleet, making ankle-deep slush on the sidewalks and streets. 1:36 p.m.

The snow has turned to rain. Yuck. What a mess. 1:44 p.m.

Out for a walk. Slop, slush, half-frozen puddles, cars splashing us. It’s good to be outdoors. 4:12 p.m.

The rain stopped, cold wind
blew in; now wet snow and slush
get frozen solid.
11:16 p.m. Dec. 21st

Problem with RSS feed corrected

This morning at about 1:00 a.m. EST, one of the plug-ins I use on this blog created about 50 iterations of the same post. Problem has been solved: I have deactivated this plug-in, and deleted the extraneous posts. If you use RSS to subscribe to this blog, I apologize for clogging up your RSS reader.

That was a surprise…

I officiated at a wedding this afternoon, and during the service one of the wedding party fell over in a dead faint. Yes, it was just a faint — the groom’s father had had EMT training, and checked to be sure — and yes, a visit to a medical professional has been promised. I have to say that it was a very well-done faint — it happened just before the vows so it was at a convenient break in the service; and far more importantly, no permanent damage resulted.

Now that I think about it, a wedding has all the ingredients for fainting — uncomfortable, restrictive clothing that keeps you from breathing properly; not getting enough sleep the night before; forgetting to eat before the service; standing for long periods of time; and plenty of emotional tension — so it seems to me that people should faint at weddings, and on a fairly regular basis. Yet somehow this is the first time I happen to have seen someone faint at a wedding.

Later note: Still don’t really know what happened, but I’ll bet this faint was actually the first signs of the stomach bug that’s been going around….


Here’s a photo taken from one of the windows of our apartment about five minutes ago. You’re looking at the lights on the trees outside the Whaling Museum. (You can also just make out the figure of Carol walking down William Street.) We have about six inches of snow so far — but now the snow seems to be tapering off, and mist and fog are mixed in with the snow.

Muppets take on TSA

The new Muppets Christmas special is up on While it’s not one of the best features the Muppets have done, the scene at airport security ranks up with some of their best sketches:– Fozzy Bear tells a stupid joke (“What brings toys to baby sharks?”), but it is against Federal law to tell bad jokes in airport security, so Fozzy gets jumped by half a dozen security guards. Meanwhile, Gonzo — ah, why spoil it for you, go watch it yourself.

Incident on Pope’s Island

Carol and I were driving along Route 6 back from the supermarket in Fairhaven. The swing bridge was closing to traffic just as we got to the Dunkin Donuts on Pope’s Island, so we stopped and sipped some decaf until the traffic started moving again.

Carol backed her car out of the parking place, and was just about to put it in gear when we heard a faint voice: “Wait! Wait!” A young woman was running towards us from a green pickup truck parked in front of Dunkin’s — I say she was running, but it looked like she had on high heels under her jeans, so she didn’t move very fast. Carol rolled down the driver’s side window.

“Hi, we were in Dunkin’s and they declined my credit card when we tried to buy coffee,” said the girl breathlessly. She had a low throaty voice, as if she smoked a lot. “And we’re out of gas, and…”

Carol stopped her, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone: “You don’t understand. We live in New Bedford and we get scammed all the time for money.”

“Oh, but I live in Fairhaven,” the girl said.

“Yeah, but that’s not the point,” said Carol. “We hear this kind of thing all the time here.”

“Oh,” said the girl. “I’m new to Fairhaven. I just moved in with my boyfriend,” she went on, “it’s my dad’s business credit card, and I don’t know why it got declined. We’re puttering along on fumes, and we have to get back to Fairhaven.”

“You’re not going to be able to buy gas here anyway,” Carol pointed out. “All the gas stations near here are closed now. The nearest gas stations are going to be back in Fairhaven.”

That stopped the girl for a moment. I bent down so I could see her face and said, “Do you have a Triple-A card? because they’ll come out with a gallon of gas for you.”

She looked at me and smiled crookedly. “No, I wanted to get one, but my boyfriend didn’t want one.”

“You’re not going to be able to buy gas here anyway,” Carol said again.

“I guess we could call my boyfriend’s mother,” the girl said.

“Good luck,” said Carol, rolling up her window.

We drove away. “It sounded like a scam, but I wonder,” she said.

We passed Fish Island Gas Station, which was closed and dark. “It sounded like a scam to me,” I said. “I’ll bet she saw us walking to the car, assumed I was driving, and thought she’d show a little cleavage and convince me to give her some money.” Which was a pretty cynical thing to say.

“She had on a lot of make-up,” said Carol, thinking out loud. “but her hair was a little stringy as if she hadn’t washed it today. Her looks were good enough that she didn’t need all the make-up.” We passed the exit to Route 18, and went up the S-curve into downtown New Bedford. “All the details she gave us made me think maybe it wasn’t a scam.”

“Maybe, but the con artists who come to the church always give lots of details,” I said. “Besides, even if she wasn’t trying to scam us, that’s not something serious enough to ask for money from strangers. They can call someone they know. They have to take some responsibility for their life.”

“But someday something could happen that’s serious enough that you do need to ask for help,” Carol said.

“That’s true,” I said. “Anyway, we treated her with respect.” There’s a good chance the girl was honest, but it sounded too much like the scams we hear day after day — Could you give me ten dollars for a bus ticket to Boston? We’re driving to ——— and ran out of gas, could you give us twenty dollars to buy gas to get out of New Bedford? — and then the same exact people come back a month later with the same exact story all over again.

The traffic light at the intersection of Route 6 and Pleasant Street was green for once, and we sailed through it and turned onto North Sixth, then left on William Street. By the time we passed City Hall, we were talking about something else.