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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughts about lyrics—1

I was remembering a wide-ranging conversation from a few years ago with a colleague from another diocese who asked me what song I used for the foot-washing on Holy Thursday. I replied that it was one he probably would not know, a song called “Faithful Family” that was originally recorded on the album Do Not Fear to Hope in 1985, and anthologized on Change Our Hearts in the early 1990s. “Faithful Family” is based on the Latin hymn Ubi Caritas in the verses, with a refrain that echoes the end of Ephesians 4 and the beginning of Ephesians 5:
Be like our God, who chose to live and learn our ways,

And die in deep, unbounded love.

Forgive each other tenderly,

The faithful family of our God.

I did not “stump the band” with this song at all; this fellow is a great supporter of my music and was very familiar with the song, in fact, he had a question to pose about the lyric that I was glad to hear someone articulate. The reason I was glad is that I had had second thoughts about the phrase for years, and wondered if anyone else had thought about it, or more likely, even noticed. The phrase happens at the end of the first verse, where I use the phrase “island ways” to describe individualistic living, an allusion to John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII. It is there that Donne, reflecting on the tolling of funeral bells in the distance, reflects on the mortality of people but their intimate connection to one another in life:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” 
At the time, I was learning much about the ministry of reconciliation from James Lopresti, S.J., in workshops we were doing called Remembering Church, attempting to recover aspects of the Order of Penitents to revitalize the Rite of Penance and form new bonds between penitents and the community of the Eucharist. Merton’s surprise urban experience of human solidarity in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, the ur-text of Matthew 25 (“whatever you do for one of these least ones, you do for me”) and this text of Donne’s were really working on me at the time, and found their way into a number of songs I was writing, I think best-integrated in “One Is (the Body)” from Vision.

The text in “Faithful Family” is this:
Wherever there is charity, 

Selfless, giving care,

Surely our God is there.

There love of Christ has gathered us

To one from island ways.

Let us sing for joy all our days.

My friend was asking me something that bothered me about my own text probably as soon as I wrote it down. I wanted so much to use the word “island” because to me it conjured the mystical Donne’s negation of the human condition as so, well, insular. But the use of the phrase “island ways” might be understood as a criticism, say, of the ways of the Hawaiian Islands, or the British ones, for that matter. I can see how this would create a cognitive dissonance that might jar a singer out from the very kind of unitive thinking the song is trying to foster. It is, probably, a mistake in writing. My friend was kind enough not to put it that way, but the fact that he brought it up was enough to make me think it would be worth revisiting if I thought anyone were paying attention to it.

This made me reflect on other texts that I’ve had second thoughts about over the years. Virtually every one, at one time or another, I’ve wished I could edit again, or had taken more time with. You always see the flaws better from a distance, and I’m not even someone who rushes from the paper to the recording studio or publisher, either. I use pretty much everything I write for months, sometimes years, in worship and workshop until I think I have it right, but even that doesn’t mean that, as I change and see things differently, or experience language differently, I wouldn’t do it better. One example I’ve used before is the use of “imperative” language, or putting the song in the second person imperative, creating mild commands rather than invitations in the language of prayer. Looking, for instance, at the titles of the songs in my second album, beginning with the title song itself, we would find the following:
Add to this the refrain of “Faithful Family,” which begins, “Be like our God...” and you see that there was a good deal of enthusiasm here for the gospel, but maybe a little bit of a power issue? At least, a power issue about God! I didn’t even notice that in 1985 when I was writing the songs. Not all the texts were mine, I guess, and they were influenced by  the language of scripture, but one should never confuse one’s interpretation of Scripture with the urgency of the gospel message itself. Now, it’s very clear to me that imperative language should be used carefully and occasionally, well-surrounded by the language of invitation and welcome. More importantly, second-person imperatives distance the singer from the message - “Do this,” we are singing to one another, with no apparent accountability to the text ourselves. I’ve begun to feel more nuance is required. I prefer indicatives and subjunctives, though I am not at all averse to using imperative language in address to God, who seems perfectly capable of taking it with a chuckle .

In general, I have to say that it is alarming how little attention is paid to the lyrics of songs we sing at mass, and that in fact is the subject of this blog entry, if I ever get around to it! I think I’ll continue the thought tomorrow. What I really want to say about this is much bigger than about my own music and lyrics. No one really wants to talk about it, we don’t want to hurt each others feelings. And that's for the best, really, because people who are writing songs write them out of a sense of faith and urgency. My ability to absorb their musical message is mediated by my own experience. The very least I can do is try to be tolerant and articulate some principles, rather than fire indiscriminate critical salvos in every direction. Still, some lyrics harmonize with the gospel, some are dissonant; some stumble on more obvious stones, like grammar and rhetoric. Sometimes we say too much in our songs; more often we don't say enough. 

I've said too much today already. We all have work to do. Tomorrow's another day.

Download "Faithful Family"