By James Giza
A 7-foot-tall chicken stands on the roof of Buffalo Brothers Guitars, a stringed instrument store in Carlsbad. In front of the store stand the Opossums of Truth.
The Opossums have just finished rehearsing in a little room in the back for the annual concert celebrating the Feb. 12 birthday of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory. Charlie – as they affectionately call him in song on their second album – is the Opossum’s hero and, in a sense, their muse.
Playing songs that teach science, preach rational thought and lampoom organized religion, in a country-bluegrass style, the band doesn’t get invited to play many raves, church picnics or bar mitzvahs. Instead, its brand of music – so-called “scientific gospel” – attracts scientists, secular humanists and other varieties of geeks, dweebs and nerds.
“We appeal to one percent of the population,” says Ron Jackson, who plays banjo, guitar and mandolin.
That probably isn’t enough to get them on VH1. But the Opossums are proud of their niche. As they’re fond of saying, they’re the only band that will improve your grade in chemistry and biology.
The band is fronted by Dr. Stephen Baird, a professor of pathology at UCSD School of Medicine and chief of pathology at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Diego. He had already been setting medical concepts to Christmas carol tunes to teach his students when in the late 1980’s, he saw a letter in Science News written by Dr. Eugenie Scott.
Scott, who is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, wrote that in the battle for the hearts and minds of people over science and religion, the other side had all the good songs. Baird decided to do something about it.
His wife, Carol, bought him a guitar, and Jackson taught him to how to play. Jackson, who had abandoned a Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s to move back to California and be a musician, learned Baird’s songs as they were being written and thus became a natural accompanist. Baird’s son, Daniel, had played in a band in college and was soon backing up his father as well. The other Opossums are Given Harrison (standup bass), Dwight Worden (mandolin and fiddle) and Dave Allen (fiddle).
………………..The Opossums of Truth released their first album – “Hallelujah! Evolution!” – in 1998. “Ain’t Gonna Be No Judgment Day” and “Water On Mars” followed in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
The songs on the albums are heavy on science, religion and the clash between the two with titles like “We’re 99.9% The Same” ‘Gods of Other Planets,” “There’s a Big Black Hole In Heaven” and “Atheism Has No Holidays.”
Dr. Baird, who writes all the lyrics, doesn’t pull punches either. Here’s a sample from a song called “I Have Seen Evolution With My Own Two Eyes”:
Out on the planes of Kansas in their ivy-covered halls/There’s been no evolution, they’re still Neanderthals/Their schoold board has decided even at their kids’ expense/Teachers teachin’ science may ignore the evidence…
But tell us how your really feel, Doctor.
The Opossums know what they’re up against. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that only one-third of Americans believe Darwin’s theory of evolution is credible and that 45 percent believe God created humans in their present form roughly 10,000 years ago.
“Clearly,” says Dr. Baird, “we have an uphill battle.”
Raised in a Presbyterian family in Oklahoma and then Burbank, Baird 60, says he underwent a conversion to “rationalism” after attending Stanford University, where he earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees. Twenty-three years ago, he converted to Judaism, saying to his wife, “I’ll be darned if I’m going to sit in the audience while my boys have their bar mitzvah.” (He and Carol, the daughter of Jews who fled Europe and the Nazis in 1940, had already been married by a rabbi.)
“I think that there’s probably some great organizing principle to the universe, and if you want to call that God, that’s OK,” Dr. Baird says. “I don’t think that there is a diety to whom you can pray to get an ace on the last card. Reliably.”
The Bairds were once integral members of Congregation Beth Am, discovering the mortuary in a Jewish cemetery outside of Prague that eventually became the model for the Carmel Valley synagogue’s new archway. But they ended their affiliation in 1997. “We just decided that we would give our money to the J,” Dr. Baird says. “We were more interested in furthering cultural things and were not really too inspired by synagogue attendance.”
………And Stephen, insatiably curious about human beings and their ideas, meets with two friends every Friday at noon for Torah study. “We’ll look at something and say, you know, this is really dumb, or this is a really insightful,” says Baird, who gave a talk recently at Ohr Shalom Synagogue about biblical ethics as it relates to stem-cell research.”
The Opossums of Truth’s latest album, released last summer, is a deviation for them. Old tongue-in-cheek favorites like “Gefilte Fish Messiah,” “Old Time Religion” and “Makin’ Bacon Schmatte” are still there. But the album also has five ballads including “A Deep Scar In Manhattan,” a mournful song about 9/11; “Flight 103” about the 1988 Lockerbie bombing; and “Yom Ha Shoah,” about the Holocaust, which asks the question, “have we learned anything?” “Children’s Sabbath Song,” written for kids to sing as they’re lighting candles, and “Five Smooth Stones,” about David and Goliath, are performed by kids from the J*Company, the children’s musical theater company at the JCC in La Jolla. (Daniel Baird’s wife, Becky, is its founder and director.)
The album is titled, “Breakin’ The Rules.” Bands evolve too.
Now, Dr. Baird is working on a Chanukah musical for kids. Why? Because the other side has all the good songs.