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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."

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