“You won’t believe it!” ran the letter, “We have a new visitor at Woodcrest, and she’s setting your husband’s poems to music!” The year was 1959, the writer, Lois Ann Domer, an enthusiastic young American at the Bruderhof’s then five-year-old community in New York. The recipient was Emmy Arnold, who with her husband Eberhard, had started the Bruderhof in 1920 in Germany.
After Eberhard’s death in 1935, Emmy had saved copies of her husband’s exuberant poetry. The early poems were declarations of lifelong faithfulness from her young suitor, whose love for her was only surpassed by his love for Jesus. Later poems told, too, of the joys and disappointments of the communal life they had begun. Several had been set to music over the years, but perhaps none with the sensitivity now expressed by a young minister’s wife from the Midwest.
Marlys Blough was born on an Illinois farm in 1926. She grew up gardening, canning, driving a tractor, and playing music: she begged for piano lessons at age six, and picked up violin at twelve. In high school she added snare drum in order to join the band. Later she enrolled at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music, to study “piano, theory, analysis, counterpoint, harmony – all the great things you can do with music.”
Meanwhile, her future husband, Glenn Swinger, attended Bethany Theological Seminary. They crossed paths at the local Church of the Brethren youth group. He was the tallest man in the room; when not studying the Bible he played basketball. He also possessed “the most beautiful natural tenor voice I ever heard,” she still declares. He, too, had been raised on a farm during the Great Depression. In the evenings he would follow the sound of gospel spirituals from the black church across the road. His mother’s disapproval didn’t stop him from slipping in the back door to soak up the sound of God’s glory. No one ever kicked him out.
Through high school, college, and seminary, Glenn sang in glee clubs and choral groups. But now there was Marlys, and the hope of a future grounded in shared faith and love of music. They were engaged on Valentine’s Day, 1947, and married at the end of that summer.
A five-year pastorate in the Ozarks followed; then another for three years at the Roanoke Church of the Brethren in Louisiana. By now, they were parents of two girls and two boys.
But, Marlys remembers, “Glenn always felt a tug to a more radical way, a way to live out the Sermon on the Mount. In our third year in the Roanoke Church he said he couldn’t take it anymore, because he felt we were not really serving Jesus.” Big questions about poverty, inequality, and unjust war were crying out to be addressed, but bringing them up in church tended to create a loud silence. A coterie of their friends was increasingly dissatisfied and, by ones or twos, they were traveling cross-country to Woodcrest, the first Bruderhof community in North America.
In the 1950s, Woodcrest welcomed waves of people from all across America, all looking for a way to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Glenn and Marlys were astounded by the simple but joyous life they found. They and their children were drawn immediately into the whirl of communal life.
In the midst of all this, Marlys’s musical talent became a calling. Here was a two-hundred-voice community choir raring to learn some of the big oratorios. An orchestra emerged from the motley ranks, but who could guide such a range of singers and players through Mendelsohn’s Elijah? From the piano in the middle of the room, Marlys thumped out the vocal parts and covered instrumental gaps.
But it wasn’t long before she composed her own music. As the community anticipated the baptism of some of the Swingers’ close friends, Marlys recalls, “I was very moved and wanted to take part somehow.” She took part by writing a powerful interpretation of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths, we cry to Thee.”
Her setting opens with the strings and chorus dragging and earthbound, mourning for all of burdened humanity: “If Thou shouldst mark iniquity, who then shall stand?” Then voice and violin harmonize in the psalm’s echo of “Comfort ye my people,” offering a hope that had seemed beyond reach: “But there is forgiveness with Thee.” And like a prayer flinging upward comes the joyous assurance, “Our hearts wait for the Lord, more than the watchman waits for the morning.”
The Swingers made their formal commitment as members of the Bruderhof in August, 1968. Their decision estranged them from family for years (a rift that did heal) but by then they knew with certainty that this was the life for them.
Among the many families the Swingers soon got to know at Woodcrest were the Clements: Jane, a poet, and Bob, a lawyer. The first Jane Tyson Clement and Marlys Swinger collaboration was ad-hoc. Jane dropped in one evening with three verses jotted down on notepaper.
Small blue swallows skim the grass,
the south wind breathes upon the hill,
The pine stands tall and dark and still,
Come, my beloved …
A young couple was getting married in a few weeks. Would Marlys consider turning the poem into a song for them? She would – and from that moment, no wedding could slip by without an original Clement-and-Swinger song. Each new baby occasioned a lullaby. The high school choir got rollicking autumn tunes, and the elementary grades had their own Easter cantata, with songs reflecting Jane’s naturalist bent: crocuses pushing through frozen earth, moths breaking free of cocoons, and birds returning north.
One Christmas the Swingers were given a chapbook by Georg Johannes Gick. Written in Germany in 1935, The Shepherd’s Pipe is a cycle of poems giving voice to surroundings of the nativity: the shabby stable, the path leading to it, the linden tree overhanging the window, the stars shining through the roof, the candle illuminating the Child to all who come to kneel beside him. By the next Christmas Marlys had threaded the poems into a cantata for the children’s choir. With its lovely two-part harmonies, The Shepherd’s Pipe shone in the darkened gathering hall like the candle by the manger.
Marlys also composed music for poems by Philip Britts, a young farmer whose spare, powerful poetry has just been published in Water at the Roots (Plough, 2018). She completed several cantatas – 1 Corinthians 13, Isaiah’s messianic prophecies, the Nativity story – as well as settings of early Christian hymns. But perhaps most meaningful for the Bruderhof in the 1960s, finding its collective feet again after years of turbulence, were the rediscovered words of Eberhard Arnold. To the dozens of new American members this was a conduit to the beginnings of the radical life they had chosen. Here were songs of a fiery faith that had burned unwaveringly through hardship, songs of renewal and repentance, of the unity granted to believers of “one heart and mind.”
The Love of Jesus – performed by Harmonic Brass
What chance or grace brought these poets and musicians to a community where singing plays such a vital role? Since its beginning, hundreds of songs of nature, seasons, laughter, love, and faith have been woven into the fabric of Bruderhof life. The activist Jesuit Daniel Berrigan recounted in a letter: “Dear Lord!! They sing at the slightest provocation. And sing like angels.”
While any child in the Bruderhof today sings songs by Marlys Swinger, I didn’t know her personally before her grandson Jason asked me to marry him. I moved to the community where she lived a few months before the wedding. Her delight in our upcoming marriage made her glow like a bride. My most treasured memory of those days is an evening spent with Grandma, singing many Eberhard Arnold songs and listening as she recalled the days when she first encountered his poems and heard the harmonies in her mind.
When we brought little Marlys – our first daughter – home, we found a lilting, whimsical little lullaby, dashed off in a day, waiting in the crib to welcome her. That baby is now ten, and her great-grandma is still going strong, looking forward to her ninety-second birthday. The piano in her living room cannot be accused of gathering dust. This year she is composing an oratorio based on the Gospel of John.
Marlys would rather write new music than talk about what she’s written in the past. To her there is life to be sung, and if there isn’t a song to express it, well, then there ought to be.
I try to imagine other trajectories her life might have taken. A direct launch out of the Conservatory onto the concert stage? New Brethren hymns? Children’s choir in the Ozark Mountains? Good things all, especially if dedicated to God, as they surely would have been. But try as I might, I just can’t hear it. She was meant to come to this place of many voices.
Photographs used by permission of the Swinger family.