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Friday, February 8, 2013

Songstories 1: Safety Harbor (1989)

Yes, there is a Safety Harbor.

 Safety Harbor is a song I wrote sometime between 1987 and 1989 that became the title song for our sixth collection of liturgical songs, and our first one published with GIA Publications of Chicago.

"Safety Harbor" didn't start out as a spiritual song. I was in one of my lengthy fallow periods (AKA whiny writer's block) when I didn't seem to have any ideas for new songs. I was telling this to Terry on the telephone, and she suggested trying to break out of the funk by breaking out of my own expectations. Why not try writing a song for concerts, not for liturgy? She also suggested that maybe it could sound like an Irish ballad. I took all that into consideration, and started thinking about it.


Martyrdom of Luis de Cancer window at Espiritu
Santo Church in Safety Harbor
A few months (a year or two?) prior, the three of us had been invited to a little town on the west coast  of Florida north of St. Petersburg, to a parish called Espiritu Santo Catholic Community. None of us had ever heard of it before, and frankly, I don't remember who invited us or why, or where they'd seen us, but it was a very warm and inviting community, and we had a good concert there. One of the things we learned about Safety Harbor was that is was the scene of the martyrdom of Dominican friar Luis de Cancer, a member of the community on Hispaniola that included Bartolomeo de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos, both ahead of their era in their defense and advocacy of indigenous people. Amazingly, he died on June 26, 1549, which happens to be my son Desmond's birthday. How very strange. Anyway, you can read more about it here, if you want.


Cover art for the album Safety Harbor,
original artwork by Gary Palmatier
I filed the name "Safety Harbor" away, I guess, because it is such an evocative phrase, and when Terry asked me about writing the song, that's what came to me. So I started writing about how one person can be a safe harbor for another; I think I was thinking less about Irish ballads than something like "Bridge over Troubled Water." After a couple of revisions, I think at Gary's suggestion I changed the lyric to more clearly reflect an underlying metaphor of "safety harbor" being a symbol of the Christian cluster of images embracing God and the community in which God makes self present and visible to the world.

That's where the song came from. There is a Safety Harbor. It's a little town in Florida where the first American martyrs fell. And it's a community that calls the pilgrim through the tempest's roar. And it's a God who is a beacon in the midst of that community, gathering the storm-battered pilgrims with a light that cloud, rain, and darkness cannot extinguish.


1. Sweet vision, Bless my eyes! 
Land upon the western skies! 
Constant stars, I bid you rise Over Safety Harbor.

2. Home, home! At last, becalmed! 
Far behind us screams the storm. 
Tattered canvas waves like arms greeting Safety Harbor.

From the windows of the tower, where the beacon burns, 
Faithful friends at ev'ry hour watch for my return. 

3. Yours the calm and peace I claim 
When I face the waves and rain, 
When the searoad calls my name 
Out from Safety Harbor.
.
4. Thru the fearsome, foaming gale, 
When no spirit fills my sail, 
I shall see, tho' sight may fail, 
Lights of Safety Harbor.

Where from windows of the tower, 
bright the beacon burns. 
Faithful friends at ev'ry hour watch for my return. 

Heart's haven, mem'ry's shore, 
Call me thru the tempest's roar, 
Where the pilgrim sails no more, 
home to Safety Harbor, 
Where the pilgrim sails no more, 
Home to Safety Harbor.

© 1989 GIA Publications. All rights reserved.