Preachin' the blues

Author: Jim Ryan '06


By day, Rev. Maxwell Johnson ‘89M.A., ’92Ph.D. is a professor of liturgy at Notre Dame.

At night, he’s a soul man.

Johnson sings and plays guitar for the Oblates of Blues, a band he formed at Notre Dame in 1999 with theology graduate students he first met while teaching at Saint John’s University in Minnesota. The band did not feel it was worthy of the title “Blues Brothers,” so it chose Oblates of Blues instead. Oblates are associates of Benedictine monasteries, laypeople who commit themselves to Benedictine values insofar as their lives permit. The band similarly is committed to Chicago-style blues.

Johnson is the only original band member remaining, but the Oblates still are composed entirely of Notre Dame theology professors, graduates and graduate students. Rev. Hugh Page Jr. is the dean of the First Year of Studies and a professor of Africana studies and theology, but he finds time to sing and play harmonica for the Oblates. Page, an Episcopal priest, believes blues singers and preachers serve similar roles.

“The blues singer functions in much the same way that a preacher does, but using a different language of theological expression and using a different set of symbols to talk about life’s difficulties,” he says. Page likens a blues performance to a church service. “Emotions are expressed, pain is somehow assuaged and healing takes place,” he says.

That does not mean the Oblates are belting out hymns on the harmonica. “We’re playing the same kind of stuff any other blues band would be playing,” Johnson says. That includes songs by Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Albert Collins and B.B. King. The Oblates also have about a dozen original songs, none of which could be confused with “Faith of Our Fathers.” Oblates titles include “I’ve Got a Big Dog,” “I Ain’t Gonna Mow My Yard ’Til My Baby Back Comes Home” and “Everybody Loves the Biscuits,” which was inspired, Johnson says, by a late-night visit to KFC by two former band members.

In addition to Johnson and Page, the band’s current membership includes graduate student Mark Cichra on guitar and Nick Russo, a Ph.D. candidate, on bass. Lawrence Sullivan, professor of theology, plays the keyboard, and Tom Guinan ‘91, ’92, ’93M.A., University associate controller, plays drums.

The Oblates would like to record a CD of their original work at some point, but for now they are focused on live performances. The band tries to perform about once a month in bars near South Bend. Johnson says the shows are generally well-attended.

“We usually get a pretty good crowd from the University, both from the [theology] department and from other areas,” he says. At a January performance at the Midway Tavern in Mishawaka, the Oblates were accompanied by the Bad Habit Horns, a three-man horn section featuring faculty from the engineering department. "We’re looking forward to further collaboration with them," Johnson says.

Despite the funny band names and song titles, the blues are a serious subject for Page. “There’s nothing not heavy about the blues,” he says. “The more that I sing them . . . the more appreciative I am of the power that the music has and of the legacy that we as members of the band are stewards of.” For that reason the Oblates are committed to, as Johnson puts it, “spreading the message of Chicago Blues to all who will receive it.”