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What’s in a Name?
Choosing a Title
Remember this line of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet is telling Romeo that his family name “Montague” doesn’t define him and won’t affect their relationship. They love each other, she reasons, and their feuding families don’t matter. A name is just a convenient label, free of any association or representation. In some cases, that may be true, but in the context of this play, it wasn’t.
In the case of choosing a book title, the name matters. A few well-chosen words should both represent the book’s content and appeal to readers’ imaginations. Accurate representation matters, but so do associations. When Noel and I started our book, we had those things in mind, but more immediately, we needed to call it something besides “the book” or “our book.” We needed a working title that was appropriate to and revealing of the content and purpose of the book and that we liked.
Before sharing with you the titles we’ve tried out over the time we’ve been writing, I need to describe our book’s focus, purpose and audience. The focus is on Noel’s life story with an emphasis on his solo music, spiritual journey, and commitment to justice.
Although our book has an obvious audience in Peter, Paul, and Mary fans and folk music lovers, its appeal extends more broadly to social activists, musicologists, music historians, religious progressives, “nones” seeking meaning outside organized religion, clergy and laity who yearn for a fresh look at faith and practice, explorers of connection between faith and justice, poets, and all kinds of artists who suspect that their creativity may have a Divine source.
Realizing that for many people religious language has lost the power to transform, we sought to share his story and songs as an invitation to the reader to search for the Love of it all; following their own spiritual paths, to live up to the ethical expectation that their souls lay on their hearts; and to be loving and compassionate toward their fellow human beings.
For a month or two after our initial meeting we considered “On the Slant” as a title. The concept comes from an untitled Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins with the line, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—.” Between 1858 and 1865 Dickinson wrote around 1800 short poems in which she explored some fairly heavy topics like love, grief, and death, but she didn’t title them perhaps because she never thought they would be published (when they were published after her death, they were given numbers because they had no titles). The poem itself deals with the power of truth and the human inability to absorb it in large doses. It advises us to “tell it slant” because “Truth must dazzle gradually” so that we are not blinded by it. Put another way, metaphorical language—be it in poetry or song lyrics, or prose—can communicate complicated or difficult-to-accept truths in circumstances where literal language simply won’t work.
Early on Noel had said, “‘On the Slant’ as a title and concept seems to explain and justify simultaneously.” At this 80% point in our writing, we still think that. It accurately describes Noel's philosophy of songwriting as well as our philosophy in writing this book: a biography can be regarded as an extended metaphor in which the story of a personal life conveys truths that are not easily communicated in any other way.
However, after living with “On the Slant” for a while, we were having second thoughts about it. The concept required too much explanation to work as the title, but perhaps we could use Emily Dickinson’s poem as an epigram. Back to the search.
The most obvious choice—borrowing a key lyric from Noel’s recording of “The Wedding Song”—was “Noel Paul Stookey: There Is Love.” This title fit our book’s purpose and audience. We liked it . . . that is, for a couple of years. Then Noel began to feel uncomfortable about the implied suggestion that in this book Noel Paul Stookey would be “defining” Love based on the success of his top-twenty recording from the early 70’s.
Our next choice for a book title was “Don’t Use My Name.” In the mid-seventies Noel and his family were in England for a series of solo concerts sponsored by a Christian organization. As one of them ended, he was putting away the guitar, about to leave the stage area, when he noticed a couple who looked as though they were hesitant to come closer. When he called out to them, they smiled and approached.
“We really enjoyed the evening and, uh…” the man trailed off and looked to his companion for some kind of support. “We think we have a word of the Lord for you.”
“I, uh...really?” Noel was taken back a bit, still new to faintly evangelical religious language. How much of it is to be taken at face value? And if it’s not literal, can it be trusted? Then he asked, “And...uh, what was that?”
“Don't Use My Name!” They looked at him blankly as if they were waiting for him to “translate.” Then the man said, “We don't know what it means . . . we just know we're supposed to tell you.” The woman standing next to him nodded in agreement.
Noel was left with a lot to think about, and his ultimate interpretation of that message shaped his approach to songwriting and his theology. And so, “Don’t Use My Name” became the phrase that symbolized such a pivotal moment that it seemed to be a perfect title for our book. And yes, it was a working title for several years, but then we decided that it wasn’t inclusive enough of the purpose and themes of our book.
That’s when we turned to “For the Love of It All,” named for a song Noel wrote in 1991. I hear in it some of his finest lyrics, a concise statement of his theology, a reason for caring for the world and the flourishing of life, and music that beautifully integrates the complex themes of the song. From my point of view, that combination is what’s in this name. After living with it for about two years,we both are still pleased after having it as our working title.
Now you’ve read about our choices, and we invite your comments about them. We also wonder if you have other suggestions for the book’s title.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263) 
BY Emily Dickinson
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
“Don’t Use My Name” Something New and Fresh
“For the Love of It All” from At Home: The Maine Tour
“For the Love of It All” lyrics