‘Jesus Comin’ Back to Town’

Click on picture for a recorded version of “Comin’ Back to Town.”

This week we are going to get to know Mark Spoelstra. Mark is listed in Wikipedia as “an American singer-songwriter and folk and blues guitarist.” From his early days in Greenwich Village, New York, he periodically brushed with fame, but stayed mostly on the edges, endearing himself to those loyal folk music fans who were fortunate enough to find his music.

After a brief biography, you will read his words taken from a two-hour interview, the first of a number of interviews we will be taking with a number of the original Jesus Music artists who were writing songs and playing their music during the Jesus movement of 1970-1972. These artists will be telling their stories on Music that Matters Radio and taking part in our programming. Our purpose is not nostalgia, but to provide a platform for their prophetic voices, and to bring them forward to instruct and inspire the Millennials as they seek to take Jesus into the next frontier. You will find that Mark is not talking primarily about the Jesus movement or even his music. He is talking about something much deeper. He is talking about life.

So take in his words today and the rest of the week I will break down the things he said and show why they are important for us today.

Mark Spoelstra

He is known as an American singer/songwriter and folk and blues guitarist. At eighteen, Mark Spoelstra left his home in California and hitchhiked to New York City where he played for tips at Greenwich Village coffeehouses with another young itinerant folksinger named Bob Dylan. He played an important role in those early days of the folk revival, recording albums for Folkways and Electra Records.  Raised a Quaker, he sought conscientious objector status when drafted in 1963 and spent two years performing alternative community service in a rural black community in central California. He later married and recorded more albums that kept him on the margin of the folk movement but struggling to support his young family.

A late arrival to the Jesus movement, he showed up at Peninsula Bible Church, Palo Alto, California in 1973 with his wife, two children, and a heart to use his musical gifts to the glory of God. He joined John Fischer’s newly formed Discovery Art Guild, became an avid student of the Bible, and wrote and recorded two albums of Christian songs. Though he had some success in the Christian market in the mid to late seventies, he still remains best known for his folk music days in the ’60s and his unique 6 and 12-string picking styles. Ron Olesko writes in his Folk Music Notebook, “Mark was a brilliant musician and a talented songwriter. His music deserved a wider audience, and those who were fans keep his music for life.”

His Christian music is equally deserving and well worth the hunt if you can find “Somehow I Always Knew.”

From “Gospel Trucker” on that album:

     I got me a roof over my head

     A darlin’ wife and four little kids

     The Word lives here and we love the Lord

     And what else more could a man ask for?

His commitment to Christ and love for his family is apparent in these lyrics and explains why he set his music aside and moved to Stockton, CA in the early 1980s to selflessly support his family doing any and all jobs he could find. Twenty years later, with his children out of the house, his music enjoyed a renaissance, as did his performing skills, playing in folk venues throughout California.

Mark succumbed to a swift moving pancreatic cancer in the winter of 2007. His son, Joshua wrote the following tribute to his last memory of his dad. “On February 25th, 2007, my father, Mark Spoesltra, passed away here in his lovely but modest home in the Sierra Foothills of California. There was snow on the ground and we could see the trees that surround the house like sentinels swaying with the force of another approaching storm. We held him as he left us and I know he had no fear and felt no pain, and even though his life was cut short he found the strength to tell each of us he loved us. I will miss him greatly.”

Mark’s comments here are not directly about the Jesus movement since this interview was taken in 2004, prior to when the focus of this book project was established, but his thoughts on life and the church ring with the prophetic voice of one who participated in the free expression of those days and who was still seeking to find an adequate vehicle for capturing his faith and love of life when he left this world.

     Well I feel like a truck filled up to the brim

     With every good thing at my command

     When I pull the last grade and I stall in the dust

     I’m gonna drive around heaven in my golden truck

                  – from the song “Gospel Trucker”

I’ve had sixteen jobs since I got married. I always wanted to make a living in music.  I thought that’s what God had planned for me all along. But instead I’ve had to do those sixteen different day jobs.  It has taken a lot of humiliation. I am a bus driver for a casino and for the longest time I didn’t want anybody to know. But you know what? All my kids have degrees. My wife and I… we never got to do that.

And now people are finding out that I’m a songwriter. Some people have sought me out and found me after all these years, and told me I was the most unique songwriter to come out of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s because I was willing to take a chance, not only in my talent, but in what I chose to write about.  So when people say those things to me I say, “Well, perhaps then God is telling me, you’re doing right son with what I gave you.”  That is a very deep spiritual reward.

The Lord seems to be justifying me in this process.  He didn’t allow me to be a big star.  He didn’t allow me to think for very long in that box. I don’t like particularly being famous.  It makes me uncomfortable.  So the justification I think, if that’s the right word, would be that the Lord is showing me that these songs are functional and these songs are important, not just a waste of my time.  They are not just a self-centered indulgence that has no value.

I think about the freedom to be creative, and the talent… I certainly didn’t create the talent.  It was something that was given to me like a piece of clay that I had to discover and mold.

I used to admire the street singers who sang gospel songs. They used the music of the people, like Reverend Ray Davis for example, on the streets of Harlem. He used a guitar style that is unmatched in its intricacy and its conception by any guitar player in the world. It’s indescribable how elegant his guitar playing was.  And yet he would sing gospel songs.  That’s all he would sing. Of course people would have the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ.  But I don’t think he was seeing himself as someone who was bringing people to Christ.  He was just there as a trumpet, as a herald.   

I didn’t always have the courage to put references to the Lord in my songs. I did it in the church for so many years and it became really stale for me.  It became formula music, formula messages, formula worship and formula truth.  I really have a sneaking suspicion that the Holy Spirit is pulling out of American churches right as we speak.  They will remain social gatherings.  People will still have their meetings.  People will still have their Wednesday night together and they still will have this wonderful comfortable feeling of peace and joy but the Lord really isn’t going to be there. We tend to live in our own neighborhoods for a sense of safety, and we tend to go to our own churches for a sense of self-righteousness.

You go to Christian bookstores and a lot of that is formula stuff too. I think a lot of it is worthless. Still the Gospel is being taught and preached in one form or another, but I think the Lord is disciplining the church in America for making a living off the Gospel.  I feel that very strongly.  That’s one of the reasons I stopped in the 1970’s.  The Lord was very clear that I was not going to make a living singing in churches, and it was okay with me because I was uncomfortable with it.

I think it’s wonderful we have the free will and the ability to have a relationship with God. When I read the Gospel I hear the Lord talking to me and teaching me, and it’s not all that difficult to understand what He’s saying.  Why does it have to be formalized?  Why am I following along with this verse and that verse to make twelve ministers a good living so they can pay their mortgages?  I can read it myself.  I can go home and read it. A job is one thing, but it seems to me that there is something about what happens when you’re motivated to make a living with something. It begins to take on different rules than what it should be about.

The façade of church is in the buildings – the multi-million dollar investments – the organization and control of a group, supposedly to enrich and encourage and teach souls of Christians. It doesn’t give room to the individual.  We’re all created so wonderfully different, it’s just a marvelous thing, and so mysterious.

I have a song called “Anything But Love.” It says, “Show me how to believe and to hold onto love again, the kind of love that never ends.”  Doesn’t everybody want that? People look to drugs or promiscuous sex to find it and here I am telling them to ask the Lord to give them what they really want.  That’s kind of a mindbender for some people, and I love it, because it stills the room.  It just stills the room.  The song goes on to say that after all is said and done there will only be one thing left.  I will forget everything but love.  All the failures.  All the drugs.  All the sex.   All the mistakes that I’ve made with my children.  All the mistakes I’ve had with my neighbors.  Everything will be wiped clean except love.  Everything that I did in love will remain and will live.  That gives people hope.  People say, “Do you hear what that poet is saying? He’s saying that it is possible that when we all go to the bridge the only thing that is going to endure are the loving things that we did.”

So when I yearn to be closer to Him, there’s a song I like to sing. “I want to go where I’ve never been, and talk to the one who’s talked with the wind.”  That’s really what I feel.  I just want to walk and talk with the Lord.  I really think that’s going to happen someday. I can’t possibly imagine what’s going to be in store for me but I like the adventure and I’ve always made decisions on the romance and the adventure of how I see the future, and then just find out what’s there when I get there. Most of my decisions in my life are based on this kind of indefensible faith that where I’m going is where I should go.  And sometimes I get stuck out there with no gas in the desert, but something always happens.  Someone always comes along.

Life is created by God.  He put me in it, and I believe even saw me in it before I was born, and I think He knew that He was going to write the truth on my heart.  I think that even in my rebellion, He has been a big part of that path I speak of.  So I see myself, on a certain level, continuing to rebel, and to understand it in others, and maybe at times to have a glass of wine over that, because I think I will never entirely grow up in this world.

It’s a big part of my journey to seek truth and equality.  Certainly I can imagine people who wouldn’t give a rip about that, but I think it’s part of my journey to seek truth and the way it manifests itself in the world.  That’s very exciting to me – thrilling, in fact. I really hope that my path will become one on which I’m traveling more and continuing to perform and sing in various situations.  And I can’t say honestly that I have an evangelical thrust about this.  I don’t see myself as an apostle.  I don’t see myself as an evangelist.  I don’t see myself on a mission.  I’m on life.

And if my life were a movie, well it’s a romance, and an adventure, and a historical novel all rolled into one, and it would have to end well, or you’d be damned sorry you ever read it.

Mark and Bob Dylan

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5 Responses to ‘Jesus Comin’ Back to Town’

  1. Jim CATLIN says:

    Newly married and doing grad school at UC Davis in 1977, we invited Mark up to sing at our “Christian Coffeehouse” in Davis. Bless his heart, he drove two hours from the Bay Area, played for 25 people for two hours and then drove back home. But in the midst of all that, we shared dinner with him in our meager student housing apartment and had the best time. What a blessing. While eating I made a song request. A few years earlier at PBC I had heard him sing “Jesus Comin’ Back To Town” and it immediately stuck in my head and I had never heard it again. That evening he graciously accommodated my request. So when I saw the title of this post, I remembered the soft-spoken man with the honest lyrics and the talented fingers. We were deeply blessed with just that brief encounter gifted to us by God.

    • jwfisch says:

      Beautiful. That’s Mark alright. He would have done that … and loved it. Thanks for the story. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTSlR7Nqcdc for a you tube version of that song. And be sure and sign up to receive the catch every day free in. your inbox.

      • Jim CATLIN says:

        Another quick story about Mark…
        Many, many years after having hosted him in Davis our family (now with 4 children!) found ourselves at Seattle’s “Experience Music Project – EMP”. We were looking at the exhibits chronicling the folk movement. Not until we saw Mark’s name on a Greenwich Village handbill from the 60’s prominently displayed in the museum did we realize who had been eating dinner with us that night! We never talked with him about his past. But we deeply appreciated his encompassing love for Jesus and I suppose that any mentions of Bob Dylan would have seemed inconsequential by comparison.

  2. Paul Sonkowsky says:

    I think it was sometime in the spring of 1976, Mark Spoelstra came and played for some fellowship group I was in. I was a freshman college kid, a new believer, thinking I knew a lot, trying to figure out life while at the same time barely paying attention to life. My foggy memory doesn’t recall the songs he sang, but I remember Mark. Soft-spoken like Jim said above. And zero pretense of any kind. Just him, a guitar, and a calm, clear voice.

  3. jwfisch says:

    Yes, and a love for Jesus and great joy over his salvation.

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