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Monday, December 22, 2014

SongStories 38: Forever I Will Sing (Psalm 89, from Cries of the Spirit, NALR, 1991)

There are some songs that you know aren't great, but you hold onto them anyway because they're good enough, and they come from a place of joy and meaning in your life. "Foreve I Will Sing" is one of those. It was the responsorial psalm this past Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of advent in year B, which made me think I could write one of these little SongStories posts, since I hadn't done one in a while.

It struck me as I was teaching it to the high school age cantor last night that I was not much older than he is when I wrote it. I remember quite well that I wrote it in summer school while I was in the seminary, probably for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year A, which would mean it was 1972, here in Chicago, at DePaul University. I was 20. The verses for Advent 4 year B were added later. We had mass that summer many times in a common room of the dormitory where we were living, and used the instruments we had available, mostly guitars and small percussion.

"Forever I Will Sing" has a simple chord structure. I wrote it in the key of E, but we generally played it in the key of C, capoing the guitar at the 4th fret. It has the dreaded boy-key tessitura for the cantor, and was published that way, probably not a smart marketing move. In real life these days, we've been singing it in the key of D, even with male cantors. You can hear that my recording of it, made with Tom Kendzia in his Rhode Island studio, sounds anything but relaxed at the beginning of those phrases that start on the high E. What I did for love.

And I really did do it for love: this psalm, with it's barely restrained jubilance, was my theme song for many years, at least in my heart. When my friends and I recorded on an old reel-to-reel tape in the early 70s the songs I'd written (and a few others), we called the recording "Forever I Will Sing," because the words of the refrain really articulate what we all felt about our lives, but especially about the privilege of making music together, especially music for our prayer and the liturgy. We didn't know any better, and it was good that way at the time, expressing ourselves, what we were discovering about prayer, church, and God in new music that suited us and helped us pray, we thought, authentically.

Written for guitar, it still sounds best with that simple accompaniment. The song never had a descant, any harmony parts, or instrumental parts other than the keyboard accompaniment that is de rigueur for publishing. It's just that simple melody over that simple E / F#m7/E / Emaj7 / F#m7/E progression, broken up by the accented 2/4 measure before the transition into the refrain. Maybe it's the "hook"-y hold of "forever" across the bar and chord change before the expanding intervals as we sing "I will sing of the goodness of the Lord" that enamored me of the tune, or maybe I'm just nostalgic for the simplicity and chutzpah of my younger self, just beginning my "Cat Stevens - Neil Young" period. I think, as someone old enough now to be the grandfather of the boy who wrote it, that the music fits the text. It certainly fits the songwriter and his vision of the text, which I hope makes it acceptable to the One from whom all music flows, and to whom its hungry, joyful longing is directed.

Playing it makes me smile; your smileage may vary. ☺

Forever I Will Sing, publisher's page at

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