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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

"Simplify" - not as easy as I thought (revisiting We Will Serve the Lord, 1986)

 I started writing music in high school, but really practiced more and did better work when I was in college, of course. As a young man, even before high school, I had learned guitar next door at my grandfather's house. Grandpa Russ was a trumpet player in his youth, but as far as I know, hadn't taken his horn out of the closet since the time of the czars. But he was always a musical wannabe, and had an electronic chord organ in one corner of his living room, probably purchased from my grandmother's employer, Montgomery Ward & Company, and an inexpensive guitar that he tried to play as well. Probably the Beatles and the Beachboys got me interested, so I used to ask him to borrow his guitar and sat there trying to learn chords from charts. I had singing down well enough that I got the idea about what was supposed to happen with the guitar, but it took me some time, and the first song I learned to play was "Red River Valley," and I never looked back. I had all the chords I would need to play Kumbaya, Sons of God, and all the other church songs that got popular.

I would also play the old piano that my parents had bought so that my sister Cathy could take piano lessons. When Cathy wasn't practicing, which was most of the time, the books were still there, all those books that everyone learned to play from in the 60s (was it Schirmer?) and since I was beginning to understand the relationship between the dots on the paper and the scale notes and piano keys (I had already absorbed the basics of this on guitar as well), I started trying to play piano too. As you can guess from my playing today, I never practiced as much as I should have, but I didn't have a teacher or parent threatening me with extinction (or worse) if I didn't practice. So I kept loving music as a mystery instead of as a pile of rocks I had to carry up a mountain.

As I got into high school and then college (between 1965 and 1973) I was blessed, really blessed, to live in a time where music was everywhere, in the folk movement, the birth of rock and roll, the British invasion, the singer-songwriter era, and certainly in the renewed interest in liturgical music that the Second Vatican Council precipitated. Most of the time through those years I played guitar, but kept going back to the piano because I felt more at home trying to figure out songs I was hearing by using piano notes. I even remember the feeling one morning when I woke up in college—not the day, or time of year, but the feeling upon awakening—that I understood music in a way I had never understood before, that music moved horizontally rather than vertically. I guess I mean that I understood about how chords change and music is made by the forward movement of melodies rather than the vertical imposition of chords. It came to me in sleep, as the psalm says God's gifts often come. I'll never forget that "awakening."

Anyway, as I started writing more and more, especially the end of college and then into my new "real" life back home, I was trying to write like my colleagues and mentors and music heroes, Robert I. Blanchard, David Windsor C.M., Richard Proulx, and friends at school. To me, it seemed like "more complicated is better," so I worked hard on writing some not-very-good organ and keyboard pieces like "Kenosis Hymn" and other songs, and even my more "pop" style writing was more musically complex than many church musicians wanted to bother with. By the time my first album, You Alone, had been produced, I felt that maybe I was getting too far away from my guitar roots, where songs like "Psalm 40: Here I Am" and other pieces I'd written in school had touched hearts and become part of my friends' prayer life. So I decided to write something just for guitar, not needing anything more than a handful of chords, that was more like the folk style I'd grown up with, singing Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary songs in school.

What happened was "We Will Serve the Lord." (Link is to original SongStories post) I know it's not the first song ever to pick up on Joshua 24:15, but I am surprised it hasn't been done more. And the Joshua passage is read as the first reading on the fifth of the Bread of Life Sundays in Year B (August 26 in 2018). Having a Sunday with an anchor text like that doesn't hurt the shelf-life of a song, of course. Musically, my need to write a song in my older, folkier, "simpler" style was probably also influenced by the 1979 Dylan song "Serve Somebody" from Slow Train Coming. Either that, or Gary's imitation of Dylan singing it at every concert we've done for the last thirty years has made me paranoid. The song begins with a three-chord riff that, on the original album Do Not Fear to Hope, was played on a keyboard using an electric guitar patch. The same instrument played the solo in the middle of the song, played by producer Tom Kendzia's college friend Stacy Widelitz, who, as you may remember from my post on "Song of the Chosen," co-wrote the song "She's Like the Wind" from the multi-platinum Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

I remember, when writing the text, thinking about something I'd read in our Corpus Christi Center classes in Phoenix from a book called Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of a Disciplined Life, a 1985 publication by theologian Richard J. Foster. The one thing I can recall about the book now is that the title places the names of the challenges to a disciplined life that are meant to be tamed by the ascetic virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Somehow in my reflection on all that, I wrote the song as an anthem about the values conflict between American life and Christian life, phrased in language that suggests a sharp and clear black-and-white bipolarity rather than the rather more nuanced moral choices people are called to make, often without the compassionate evangelical guidance they ought to be able to expect.

The language of the lyric is more polemic and divisive than I would write today, and I wish I had the phrase "pagan horde" back. But two things about it: I was a lot younger then, more than half my lifetime ago, and knew even less than I know now. But also, I'm not so sure that with better evangelical guidance the song might not help people of a certain age and spiritual maturity voice some confidence and mutual affirmation in faith without necessarily setting group against group or feeling that one particular path of faith puts us "above the pagan horde" or any other horde. I'm for telling the truth these days, I guess, which is what I was for back then too. I just am not for defining ourselves in faith over and against others, because that kind of rivalry just makes everything worse, and breaks faith at the very place that faith tries to unite and reconcile.

I guess maybe you could say that I tried to simplify my style a bit thirty years ago, which was good, and then over the last thirty years I got more complicated, which might also be good. I know this: in the music department, since my soul-searching that led up to writing on guitar again with "We Will Serve the Lord," I've tried not to write "over my head," in the sense that I would be imitating some musical style that a thousand other songwriters can do better. I write what I write, and hope that it connects with both pastoral musicians and the people they serve. There are a lot of songs out there: maybe too many. People who don't like what I write have a lot of other options!

We've recorded the song twice, first in 1986 on Do Not Fear to Hope, and then in 2000 on our Change Our Hearts collection with OCP, that re-recorded the songs from our NALR albums that had been anthologized. My friend Tom Booth, an amazing performer, speaker, and songwriter himself, also recorded the song on his self-titled 1996 recording, his second record. You can hear a clip of his version here at OCP, by clicking on "view songs" and then the arrow next to "(We Will) Serve the Lord."

Somebody, I think it was Fr. Virgil Funk, probably distilled in the vocabulary of John Gallen, SJ, said that liturgical music needed to be artistically and expertly crafted so that sublime music about the deepest truths of the universe could be performed and sung by non-professional church musicians and parishioners. There is no particular matrix or sound or instrument that have a monopoly on that craft. It is ultimately driven by the word of God, but it is not an end in itself so much as a means to the end of changing the world. It's simplicity is to let the word shine through, and make it possible for everyone, and everyone's children, and everyone's grandparents, to participate as thoroughly as possible. Liturgical song does not aspire to be great art in the aesthetic sense. It aspires to make expression of the mysteries of grace, community, forgiveness, and sacrifice part of the emotional and spiritual vocabulary of the whole Church. So I think "simplifying," avoiding or cutting away everything that doesn't contribute to the success of any local congregation find its voice, is a good instinct for us songwriters. As Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz taught us in their performance piece, Mass, "Sing God a simple song, for God is the simplest of all."

Thursday, August 2, 2018

SongStories 58: One Is the Body (GIA, Vision, 1992)

"One is the breath of the star and the rose."

It is from this line of the lyric that the cover art was imagined by my brother-in-law, Gary Palmatier. Having worked in "Re-membering Church" institutes for so many years with lights like Jim LoPresti and Joe Favazza and others, the confluence of scriptural and ecclesial images of reconciliation took shape in this communion song. Yes, it has a long refrain (this has been its most persistent criticism), but I think that the short lines and rhyme scheme mitigate that issue, and make the refrain memorable. It's scriptural, trinitarian, and takes a fresh look (I think) at all of that in the light of the eucharist. And it should still be in Gather.

Of course, every songwriter thinks this about every song. But I just got my royalty report for 2017-18 from GIA and OneLicense. And you know what? Among my Catholic song reprints, "One Is the Body" is the third-highest in reporting, and it hasn't been in a hymnal since the 1989 edition of Gather Comprehensive. Speaking of comprehensive, it's beyond comprehension to me why it hasn't appeared in any subsequent edition.

The so-called priestly prayer of Jesus ("priestly" because it parallels the high priest's prayer of second-Temple Judaism at the Feast of Atonement, and "so-called" because it appears in the gospel of John as the words of Jesus, but not a record of his exact words that night) leads up to one great prayer to Abba: "that they may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they also may be one in us." It is a prayer for unity and intimacy. The text of "One Is" starts with the eucharistic language about body, blood, bread, and cup, but it soon expands to "the living and dead," stars and flowers as symbols of all creation, with the unity of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. The song's three verses suggest that in gathering and forgiveness, in stewardship of the earth, in reflection on our place in world charged with God's presence, and in our care for the afflicted and needy, we are sure to encounter God among us, and, as the psalmist describes, actually "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord in our experience of life. Having sung about some of the many aspects of unity invoked by the celebration of the Eucharist, the refrain ends with the words, "To this I will say, 'Amen,'" referring to the word being spoken throughout the assembly at that very moment, ratifying again the new covenant in Christ's merciful love.

Things we love often develop a veneer of familiarity that obstructs our devotion from time to time. "One Is" tries, as we always do, I guess, to find a small way into a great mystery, a cluster of images and metaphors that might help us see old things newly again, maybe to transform the familiar into something fresher for the imagination. Here, scriptural images side-by-side with fragments from the Gospel of Thomas, Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the kind of language employed by mystics like Fr. Anthony diMello SJ, try to crack open that veneer for us so that we can see into the mystery a little more clearly for a few minutes. 

As a listening experience for the heart and soul, Vision remains for me our best album from top to bottom until To You Who Bow, released 25 years later. I think it has aged really well, and it is really ingratiating to discover that, after that much time, so many parish music directors feel something of the same, and continue to program it in spite of its absence from hymnals for so long. Thanks to all of you.
One Is (the Body)  by Rory Cooney 
One is the body, one is the bread,
One are the living, the unborn, the dead.
One is the cup, one blood in us flows,
One is the breath of the star and the rose.
One are the Spirit, Creator, and Son,
Just as the source and the river are one.
One are the stranger, my foe and my friend.
To this I will say: “Amen.” 
Gather, disciples, your Master to meet;
Learn to forgive from the bread that you eat.
Treasure the earth in the wine that is poured:
Taste and see the goodness, the love of the Lord. 
Now split the timber, now turn the stone,
Look where you will: you are never alone.
High in the heavens, deep in the flood,
All things are charged with the presence of God. 
I am the hungry, you are the poor,
God is the stranger who waits at the door.
Where any suffers, no one is free;
Whatever you do, then, you do it to me. 
Copyright © 1993 GIA Publications, Inc.