Symphony of Souls :: On the Hippie Christian Folk of The Trees Community

As the 1960s morphed into the weird ‘70s, the counterculture and Christianity had become strange and unexpected bedfellows. Beginning on the West Coast, the Jesus Movement saw hippies—self-identified “Jesus People” or “Jesus Freaks”—integrating Christianity into the fashions, mores, and music of the counterculture. Across the country, among the lofts of Manhattan where proto-punk, jazz, early electronic music, and minimalism were all thriving, an alternate strain of countercultural Christianity was emerging. 

They called themselves the Trees Community, an intentional and modern monastic order of 21 artists, actors, thinkers, and misfits, plus assorted dogs, cats, and the occasional chicken, who traveled the U.S. and Canada on a “pilgrimage without a destination.” They sometimes went by other names, first as the Symphony of Souls, later the Trees Group, and sometimes as simply the Trees, and the number of people involved at any given time varied from a group of usually 10 or 12 to sometimes as few as four. Inspired by Timothy Leary, they lived in a 1965 GMC school bus. Originally covered in quotes from scripture, it was soon painted with a mural of interconnected trees, a visual representation of their lives together: tangled at the roots, growing toward a deeper and evermore radical understanding of Christ’s teachings.  

It started at the “center of the universe.” That’s how Katheryn “Shishonee” Krupa describes the Manhattan brownstone loft where the future Trees began their communal experiments in her book Seven Story Bus, a personal history of the Trees Community. Krupa is the de facto biographer of the group—though she uses the term “chronicle writer.” Alongside fellow Tree David Evan Karasek, Krupa has authored new liner notes for Old Bear Records’ recent reissue of the group’s 1975 lp, The Christ Tree

Before they were the Trees, they were simply assorted New Yorkers hanging around the loft kept by “Shipen” William Lebzelter and his lover Ariel. They were seekers and mystics, artists, and students, on individual trips, generally doing their own thing, only together. Though the group would eventually forgo drugs, acid and other hallucinogens were rampant in the group’s earliest days, as they individually and sometimes collectively explored Christianity, Kabbalah, yoga, and Buddhism.

Daring and curious, Shipen became the intellectual center of the group, delivering enthusiastic raps about the mysteries of the cosmos. He was good at this kind of expression, having released an album of vocal abstractions called Rock and Other Four Letter Words with his collaborator J. Marks in 1968. In 1970, he experienced a Paulian conversion to Christianity when he tumbled out of a black willow tree he’d climbed. Hitting the ground with great force, he opened his eyes and saw a vision of Christ sitting in resplendent glory at the right hand of God shining in the sky. He came back to the loft a changed person, and by the fall, communal Christianity had become the core of the group’s life. 

Shipen was “this very strong, intelligent, highly creative leader who could have easily been a guru, or an L. Ron Hubbard-type person, but he wasn’t,” Krupa says. “He was not on a power trip and was pretty humble,” Krupa says.

All had taken a vow of chastity, but there were openly gay men—like Shipen—in the party. Disagreement about theological differences was allowed and personal interpretation was encouraged. When the loft was condemned, the Trees decided their order should be a rolling one, purchasing a bus and taking to the road, where they lived united, sharing with each other and strangers the money they earned from odd jobs—selling curtains, cleaning houses and restaurants, packing pecans—while playing music any place that would have them. 

While the Jesus Movement certainly had its radical adherents, the ‘70s saw it broadly align with establishment culture, which eventually absorbed it. The Trees Community, in contrast, was crisscrossing the margins, playing in strange churches, lingering at monasteries, and studying with holy people. They dug Thomas Merton, a theologian, Trappist monk, and poet, and were inspired by his work, which suggested harmonious overlap between Christianity and Eastern spiritual traditions. Along with other teachers they would meet along the way, Merton deeply inspired the Trees to infuse views and practices picked up from their earlier, less centralized days as religious explorers and spiritual psychonauts into a particularly open Episcopalian framework.  

As their spiritual practice was a hodgepodge of approaches and practices, so too is The Christ Tree. The Trees’ liturgical compositions embraced non-Western modalities. They recorded chants, percussive soundscapes, drones, and ecstatic ragas, but also evoked the sounds of the American heartland, drawing from eclectic record collections, folding in elements of Debussy, the minimalism of Terry Riley, and the far out folk of the Incredible String Band. 

Artists like Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens have lauded the Trees, and the group’s avant-garde approach puts them equally in line with other mystic misfits, such as David Tibet’s Current 93, whose explicit Christianity manages to get mistaken for Satanism, the songs of Bill Fay with Ray Russell on apocalyptic guitar, and the anarchist gospel punk of the Psalters. “Their stylistic inclusiveness unequivocally implies a diplomacy of faith rather than cultural robbery,” wrote Liz Colville of Pitchfork, reviewing an earlier expanded edition of the album in 2007. “On top of that,” she continued, “their work is indispensable as a premonitory vision of the current freak-folk scene.” And this is folk at its freakiest—it can sound like a Sacred Harp hymn or feel like a Folkways artifact. Frequently lovely, it’s nonetheless arcane music—a sense of musical otherness, some unidentified uncanniness, is always present.  

Music shaped everything about the Trees’ lives together, says Krupa.“Wherever we went, we played.”

Schools, churches, nursing homes, and prisons, the Trees did not discriminate. When they weren’t playing music or working, they were attending concerts together, taking in Ravi Shankar, Steve Reich, Joan Baez, and the occasional Vegas show. The centrality of music to their communal experiment is aptly illustrated by one notable hack to their spartan lifestyle on the bus: a quadraphonic tape system, so the Trees could cruise around listening to Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Moody Blues, and Don MacLean in glorious surround sound. 

“The most fun was Fireside Theatre,” Krupa says with a soft laugh. “Each time you listened, you’d hear something different in there—all the double entendre and stuff, that almost takes you back to doing LSD.” 

The Trees were an intentional community, not a cult, Krupa stresses. Members were free to come and go, and many did. While they were there, they could join Shipen’s forums, debates, and occasional “knock-down, drag-out discussions” about dogma and faith. Or, they could go do their own thing, as Krupa often would, taking long quiet walks in the woods, baking bread, or reading in a quiet place. 

“I think part of the uniqueness of the Trees was the ability for us to live together and allow each person to have this kind of space,” Krupa says. 

But the group’s practices could be taxing, Krupa admits, and individual dedication varied. As she writes about in her book, Krupa developed an attraction for fellow Tree David Lynch (not that one) and the two struggled to reconcile their romantic feelings with their religious ideals. Monasticism on the road could be difficult and occasionally the asceticism wore on some members. 

“We went on a fast when we initially left NYC,” Krupa says. A few members decided they’d had enough and snuck off for burgers, which still annoys Krupa when she reflects back on it, remembering how those members seemed so much more content than their famished brothers and sisters. Fights over messiness and other normal cohabitation concerns were as common as debates about faith, but in those days, the support and love of the community was palpable. 

With its focus on meditation and improvisation—earlier seemingly telepathic jams at the original loft continued to inform the group’s performances long after the acid had been excised from the scene—the group’s communal, feet-in-the-soil lifestyle looked strikingly different from the baby boomers who’d begun returning to churches. Sure, groovy clothes, flowing hair, and the occasional ripper were permitted in those spaces, but the theology remained largely conservative. What was happening in the odd, liturgical world of the Trees was something entirely different. 

“The Trees Community emphasized a Christian teaching which most evangelical churches assiduously avoid: the doctrine of creation,” says Greg Thornbury, whose book Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock documents the artistic legacy and complicated life of the arguable father of Christian rock, Larry Norman. 

At this time, the bestselling Christian book was The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay,” Thornbury says. “Lindsay taught that after Jesus’ ‘secret rapture’ of all of the Christians in the world, there would be a seven-year time of planetary and environmental destruction. A third of the globe would be incinerated. Since Christ’s return was seen as imminent, why care about the planet?” 

While some of their evangelical cousins might have focused on getting out while the getting was good, the Trees were exploring the earthy poetry of the Hebrew Psalms. As the drifting sitar and harp-bolstered “Psalm 42” suggests, The Christ Tree focuses on an embodied spirituality, one in which physical forces—waves, waterfalls, roots, branches—serve as illustration of a faith rooted in experience, a creative practice religious historian Brent Sirota says connects them directly to the Anglican tradition and “the idea of creation as sacramental, the visible world as a sign of invisible grace.” 

When the Trees sing of Christ, as they do on the magnificent “Jesus He Knows,” they accentuate his physical understanding of human experience: “Jesus he knows, the textures of Mexico/The qualities of sunlight in Spain/He knows how an oak tree feels in the evening.” 

“The Trees Community’s perspective wasn’t anxious about the apocalypse. It was horizontally focused about how to relate to the Divine in the here and now,” Thornbury says. 

Consequently, many churches viewed the Trees and their journey with suspicion. Sideburns and long hair were one thing, but here were actual flower children, wearing “beads and the bangles, and the madras and bare feet, long beards, the whole thing,” Krupa says. 

Though straight society generally viewed hippies with some mix of humor, curiosity, skepticism, and occasionally outright contempt, that latter take dominated in many churches. “There was a fear that they were communists, drug addicts, and a criminal element, especially after the Manson murders,” Thornbury says. 

Thornbury points to Francis Schaeffer, a popular writer at the time whose work would go on to shape the dominionist views of the Christian right, who was speaking out against the Beatles’ pop collage Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as “a clear sign that the Western tradition of reason and logic were being abandoned.” 

Like the Beatles, the Trees “looked and sounded dangerous,” Thornbury says. “They didn’t sing much about how to get ‘saved.’” And what they did sing about—“monastic reflections about joy in the real world of lived Christian experience”—was just as threatening to the establishment of order between the counterculture and the churches its adherents were becoming members of nationwide. 

The Trees instead relished in their outsider status, occasionally joining up with diverse congregations for extended stays, including “Catholic Pentecostal” monks in New Mexico, Hutterites at a farm in Ontario, and the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. But Krupa says that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where they studied under Canon Edward Nason West, Dean James Mark Morton, and A Wrinkle In Time author Madeleine L’engle, was essentially the group’s spiritual home.

West was wary of the hippies, fresh from the loft, when he first met them. But he took them under his wing, instructing Shipen and Krupa and the others in Episcopalian tradition and maintaining a relationship with them via long, thoughtful letters as they traveled. Canon West’s care for the group was unique and personal; his expertise in liturgical art drew him to the Trees, whose practice and lifestyle aligned with his view of Christlike “Agape love,” which he defined as “a profound concern for the welfare of another without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.” 

“He helped people if they were feeling pulled away from the community,” Krupa says. “He was our confessor.” 

The guidance of West had a steadying effect on the Trees, but by the late ‘70s, tensions had mounted. Most members had gone off to start families or work normal jobs and settle down. Personality struggles had sprouted up, as well as various couplings and breakups. Shipen departed in 1976, which signaled “a crucial turning point.” Without its founder, the Trees Community began to lack direction.

“Things kind of went downhill from there,” Krupa says. 

By the end of the ‘70s, membership was down to Krupa and Mary McCutcheon. After prayers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the two decided to disband the Trees Community officially. A final newsletter was sent to the 400 or so addresses on the group’s mailing list, and the sale of the bus was arranged. Krupa went on to join up with her brother’s progressive rock band Art in America, a career in childcare, and work as a socialist activist, but the end of the Trees disconnected her not only from people she loved like family, but also a vivid creative practice, one that defined her daily life for most of a decade. It took her years of therapy to reckon with the loss.  

“I felt there was still a mission there, that we had a gift,” Krupa says. 

Though Shipen passed away in 1986 from complications related to AIDS, the Trees Community continues to interact, at least when they can. Though 50th anniversary plans were waylaid by COVID-19 concerns, 10 core members recently met up on Zoom to discuss their adventures. When she considers the wild, revelatory music they made together, Krupa says she feels a connection to the spirit that drove their constant traveling and informed their profoundly experiential music.  

In contrast to Christian music that seeks to evangelize or convince, the Trees Community’s The Christ Tree exists as “an act of worship…of meditation…of embarking on a journey into experiencing God’s beauty in many different forms of musical expression,” Krupa says. “Music was our gift to give to people.” words/j woodbury

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