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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Go to Sleep! Keep Awake! How my kids have contributed to my songwriting


Like countless congregations before and after them, my kids enjoyed being sung to sleep with church songs. How many nights? A thousand? A thousand nights I sang "Canticle of the Turning" as a "lullaby" to the children, along with "Lord of the Dance," and made-up nonsense songs not repeatable here. I remember the interesting questions I'd get about misunderstood lyrics, too, like Joel asking me what it meant when we sang, "My God, my God, why have you put a band on me?" Desi, who wouldn't dream of joining any choir that Dad was directing, used to come home on the days the school has Mass and is singing choruses and sections of the songs he heard. Though those years are pretty distant now, I occasionally hear him singing "I Send You Out" or "I Am for You" from mass or retreat. That does my heart good.

My only daughter, Claire, always sang in choir, both in school at St. Jerome, and then here at St. Anne's when she got older, singing in the youth and adult choirs. When, in Phoenix, we made the recording Stony Landscapes in 1993, Claire sang the first verse of "Carol of the Stranger." She also sang a solo on one of Donna Peña's recordings when we were using the children's choir for some of the songs.

In 1997 or so, Laura Dankler, then working A&R at World Library Publications, called me to say that WLP was in the early stages of creating the song resource that would become Voices As One for teens, and asked me if I'd consider writing some songs for it. It seemed like a strange request, as I was halfway through my forties, and hardly an icon of youth music! But I told her I'd give it a try.

That summer, Claire and I worked on about eight songs together. I gave her the task of looking through the psalms and other scriptures, and putting them into her own words, to say them how she would say them. I think that this is what linguists would call "dynamic equivalence," though equivalence to what might be an issue to be decided when Claire and I are involved! So Claire came up with lyrics that were meditations on some of the psalms, the Magnificat, the Easter story of the apostles fishing on the lake, and even the Revelation of Daniel. We worked together on polishing them, and sat at an electric piano in the gym at St. Anne that was set up for Mass through the summer. Sometimes we just used the guitar. The songs we wrote, along with a few that I added myself, became the collection called "Keep Awake." I still think there is a lot to like in those songs, including two modern takes on apocalyptic writing (the title song and the song "Apocalypse"). "You" is a beautiful love song of praise to the Unknowable, "Jerusalem of Dreams" suggests the ascent to the Holy City that is the subject of Psalm 122, and "All in You" and "Is This God?" are full of the exuberance of youthful awakening and discovery.
Claire and me at Watch Hill, RI, September 2012

Claire also did a paraphrase of parts of "Song of Songs," which became a song by that name that Terry recorded on Family Resemblance with GIA.

In addition to these direct influences, I've written songs with my children in mind. In 1989, when Joel was going through the RCIA at St. Jerome in Phoenix, I wrote "Jerusalem, My Destiny," as a song for the parish to accompany him and the other catechumens, children and adults, through Lent. Claire, and later Desmond, went through an RCIA as their classmates were preparing for First Eucharist. But it was in those earlier years, when we were starting to see more and more children brought to the Easter Vigil, that I began to think that we ought to make the experience of the Vigil more engaging for everyone, so that people would look forward to it every year, and come for the joy of it. It was during these years that I wrote the various versions of the readings: first Exodus, then Genesis, then the Easter gospels, then the Litany of Saints based on "When the Saints Go Marching In." Together with things Gary has written like his "You Have Put on Christ," and some other pieces out there, we're all starting to put a dent in the Vigil repertoire, and introducing some new energy. I hope some of it survives the current retrenchment and can continue to serve and inspire communities of children and adults celebrating initiation.

Graduation songs, too, are part of the group of songs my kids have obviously inspired or influenced. For Joel, it was "Building a City," which was recorded on Stony Landscapes. For Claire, it was "Quiet Strength," which made its way onto This Very Morning. And for Aidan I wrote "Fly Together," which we recorded on Keep Awake.

Desmond is graduating this year: Maybe I'll be inspired to write something for the occasion. His predilections include Breaking Benjamin, Toby Keith, and Eminem, So i suspect this work will not make his iPhone playlist. But I'm ok with that. Let a thousand flowers bloom.