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Making music with Religion and Cash

From left, Benjamin Wright, Lloyd Steffen, and William Stanford play on Main Street in Bethlehem during Musikfest.

Performing in front of an audience is nothing new to Lloyd Steffen. In addition to his duties as University Chaplain and chair of the religious studies department, he teaches almost a dozen classes and serves as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

However, Steffen’s “performances” on the Lehigh campus don’t involve standing on a busy street corner, strumming an acoustic guitar while lightheartedly singing songs both old and new, familiar and original. That was the scene at this year’s Musikfest in Bethlehem, where Steffen and two of his colleagues—Benjamin Wright, professor of religion studies, and William Stanford, former financial aid director—played 10 shows over the course of the nine-day event.

The trio performs under the name Religion and Cash—a direct reference to their Lehigh-based alter-egos.

The group’s set list consisted primarily of well-known songs from artists of the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, including The Beatles, Elvis, Merle Haggard, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bruce Springsteen. In addition to these well-weathered crowd pleasers, Steffen presented a couple of compositions of his own. Despite the diversity of the music and the varied tastes of the musicians, Religion and Cash adhere to fairly simple criteria.

“If we like a song and we can play it, we’ll perform it,” Wright says.

Such a casual approach to song selection and performance, though an integral part of the group’s charm, is one nearly 15 years in the making. In 1990, Steffen, a former guitar teacher, and Wright, who had played in numerous bands throughout his college career, began working at Lehigh in the religious studies department. Though aware of each other’s musical aptitude, it was not until meeting Stanford at the President’s Christmas Party that year that an early incarnation of Religion and Cash would form.

“Bill [Stanford] had us scheduled to play at ‘A Night at the Apollo,’ a fundraiser for the Black Student Union—the Dean’s office had wanted faculty participation,” Steffen recalls.

The trio soon began playing out on a more frequent basis, including stints at the Banana Factory’s “First Friday” monthly celebrations, in addition to Christmas and church-based events. Their shows around the Lehigh Valley and Bethlehem soon earned them a spot on Main Street at Musikfest.

“Someone heard us at ‘First Friday,’” Stanford says. “They liked our music, and [the Musikfest performances] just kind of happened.”

That opportunity has paid off well for the band.

“We had a great crowd on Saturday night (Aug. 6),” Wright says. “We’re playing a walk-through venue [on Main Street], which can be kind of difficult. But we had young kids and adults singing along.”

“We’re physiologically constructed to have good times,” Stanford muses.

While the band is pleased to please their audience, their music also appears to fulfill more personal desires.

“Music is part of what I do,” Wright says. “It’s part of what I am. If I didn’t have the opportunity to play music, I wouldn’t be the same person.”

For Stanford, a retiree, Religion and Cash helps to bridge what may be an otherwise wide generation gap.

“This is how I connect with a younger generation. I bring Social Security to the group,” he quips.

Steffen has even found that his ventures as a musician and songwriter have highlighted certain aspects of his job at Lehigh.

“I like that music and poetry complement my Chaplain role,” Steffen says. “It helps me pick up on things like cadence, rhyme and word choice. I’ve been writing again, but that’s mainly a poetic and creative outlet. I find it to be a very different enterprise.”

Steffen, Wright and Stanford plan to continue this enterprise—Religion and Cash—and have shows planned for the near future, including a reception in Philadelphia. And though they’ll play Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Bob Dylan, the trio’s biggest influence remains a bit closer to home.

“What really keeps us going are our friends and family,” Wright says.

--Gordon Faylor

Posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2005

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