Category Archives: Songwriting

On New Hymns and Perfect Rhymes

A while back, I ran across some new hymns by progressive southern gospel songwriting regular Lee Black. He commented that it was hard to get them cut, but he saw no harm in performing them himself and putting them out there on Youtube. The first two were co-written with Gina Boe, another sought-after contributor to your favorite artists’ catalogues:

The Light and the Glory

That Death May Die:

All Glory To You, Jesus

Any of these new songs would be a classy and welcome addition to a church service. It goes without saying that they’re infinitely more intricate and contentful than the incoherent, monotonic dreck Jesus Culture is churning out (or whoever the kids are listening to, I don’t keep track to be honest). In fact, melodically I would say they’re even more interesting than “In Christ Alone.” So for well-written, yet accessible new church music, this is any worship pastor’s ideal. However, the songwriting purist in me can’t help wondering whether they could be improved in one respect: rhyme scheme.

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An Interview With Rebecca Peck

 

Apologies for not posting anything yesterday. First I thought it was April 1st, then I thought it was March 30th, then I remembered that March has 31 days in it. So, needless to say, WordPress didn’t do what I thought it was going to do. :-) BUT, to make up for my absent-mindedness, and instead of coming up with anything clever for April Fool’s Day, I have a special treat for all you readers—an interview with one of my favorite songwriters, Rebecca Peck! Rebecca has a huge catalogue of songs with cuts from nearly all of your favorite artists, including, but not limited to, the Booth Brothers, the Collingsworth Family, Brian Free & Assurance, Legacy Five, Triumphant Quartet, the Hoppers, Signature Sound, etc., etc., etc. In my opinion, she is gospel music’s answer to Twila Paris. My personal favorite song of hers is the Collingsworth Family’s “Blessed Be the Lamb.” I got the chance to ask her some questions about her background and her career, including her recent song “Christ Is Still the King” on Legacy Five’s latest. My thanks to Rebecca for being so insightful, down-to-earth and gracious. You can read more about her and browse her work at her website. Without further ado, here are my questions and her answers to them!

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Featuring… A Reader’s Music

A gentleman named Judson Hair left a nice comment on one of my songwriting posts recently, inviting me to check out his own site and songwriting work. I was very glad that I did. Mr. Hair calls himself a “late bloomer,” trying his hand at songwriting later than most folks first pick up the pen, but seeing that as no excuse not to create. Here is one of his most recent compositions, “Learning to See.” As you know, I’m a pretty merciless song critic, but this one arrested me from verse one. Aspiring writers should study the lyrics carefully (although I believe there are a couple grammatical slips in the final stanza).

I pleased Judson greatly by instantly naming three artists I suspected (rightly) had influenced him: Gordon Lightfoot, Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg. Check out his site Footprints in the Sand here.

When he left her standin’ there he could see it all so clear
A year away would do ‘em both some good
She couldn’t understand when he let go of her hand
And probably she never really would

If you go and leave, are you ever comin’ back?
Will I ever see you anymore?
He slowly walked away and she saw him disappear
Then she turned and very gently closed the door

Read on for full lyrics.

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Songwriting Tip: Using Colors In Your Lyrics

There are many marks of a clever songwriter. One is the quiet insertion of little details that you might not pick up on in a first casual listen. Take colors, for example. Colors are powerful symbols. They can trigger recognition, evoke memories, and stir emotions. Flags, holidays, religious rituals, even abstract virtues and vices are linked with certain colors. This is fertile ground for the songwriter. You can convey something specific or set a general tone with a little dash of color in your lyrics. Sometimes there is no particular symbolism to it—it just serves an end in itself as good poetry. Here are three examples:

Ilene

Writer: Benjy Gaither

She’s a firecracker on the fourth of July

With her red hair, white dress and big blue eyes

Her kisses are as sweet as apple pie

I hope I never have to hear her say goodbye

***

All I Really Want

Writer: Steven Curtis Chapman

Well I don’t know if you remember me or not

I’m one of the kids they brought in from the home

I was the red-haired boy in an old green flannel shirt

You may not have seen me, I was standing off alone

I didn’t come and talk to you, ‘cuz that’s never worked before

And you’ll prob’ly never see this letter anyway

But just in case there’s something you could do to help me out

I’ll ask you one more time

Chorus

All I really want for Christmas…

***

Storm

Writer: Fernando Ortega

Sometimes it takes a storm to really know the light,

The scent of rain, the weight of clouds pulling down the sky.

Sometimes it takes a storm to know how you feel

To understand indigo and the varnished sun lighting up the fields.

It takes the rain between the lines to know what sorrow finds

The way a cloud divides sometimes, the clearing and the blue

I love you.

I was just passing through and taken by surprise.

Between the black sky and the blue,

Between the black sky and the blue, I love you.

I love you.

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The Hardest Part of a Song to Write

What’s the hardest part of a song to write, assuming you’re not a genius who can make up an entire song in three minutes (which is most of us)?

For my money, it’s the second verse. The chorus usually comes to you in your first blast of inspiration, so that’s the easiest part. After that the first verse, because you’re all full of things to say that build off of the chorus. Then a bridge is no big deal (if you need one), because you basically don’t need to do any more than come up with a short lyrical idea and put a key change on the end.

But the second verse can be surprisingly hard. Unless you’re writing one of those super-formulaic story-songs (highschool prom, married life, nursing home, done—love ya Mark Schultz), it can sometimes feel like you used up all your good ideas in the first verse and now you’re stuck. “Wait, you mean I have to come up with more than one new thought because unlike the bridge this is still verse-length?”

I’ve lost count of the number of partially finished songs I have floating around just because I haven’t found the time or the discipline to write that second verse. Even though it doesn’t even have to be as long as the first verse (most second verses aren’t).

Is there anyone who’d like to share his thoughts on this? I know I have songwriter friends who read, mostly lurkers (one I didn’t even know I had until she left a solitary negative comment—ain’t that how it is). You guys know you’re welcome to chime in at any time.

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Oh, Just Sing About Your Girlfriend Already

They’re a soft target, most worship songs. Partly because they tend to be lousy musical compositions, but also partly because they tend to be mushy and indistinguishable from love ballads bar the occasional “God” and “Jesus” thrown in. In short, they’re all-around lousy songs.

One day I was in a cruel mood. So I thought I would try taking a couple of these fluff-fests and seeing how they fared when set next to the genuine article: real, bona fide love songs.

It’s not pretty.

Take, for example, Big Daddy Weave’s “Every Time I Breathe”:

Now compare it with Brad Paisley’s “She’s Everything”:


Fact: I’d rather hear Brad Paisley sing this song about his wife than hear Big Daddy Weave sing that song about God. Not only is the romantic language far more comfortable and appropriate, but the writing actually holds my interest. A novel concept.

Let’s try again with something a little different, a song that’s not technically worship but has a “vertical” orientation and got played a lot on Christian radio:

This one gives a laundry list of things the singer “questions” before concluding with, “The one thing I don’t question is You. You really love me like you say you do.” God is the fixed point in the singer’s life.

Okay as far as it goes, but when one of your main hooks runs, “Hold me, come on, hold me. I need your love. Hold me. Come on now…,” and when, moreover, the song is addressed to God, this is an epic fail. It’s an epic fail anyway, but the God part makes the fail even more epic. Plus, if you seriously “question” your “ability to judge wrong from right,” you’ve got some issues. And if you’re not sure what race you are, you’ve got even bigger issues. (Yes, yes, I know that’s not what he meant, but I couldn’t resist.) The whole thing just comes off very trite. It fails to make me take it seriously or provoke any thought, even though presumably it’s supposed to.

Compare this with the very similarly themed but vastly superior “Kathy’s Song,” by Paul Simon (lyrically anyway, though admittedly the melody isn’t particularly inventive). Note in particular how Simon self-consciously takes some of the language commonly used in reference to the divine and works it into this very horizontal piece (and how much more elegantly this succeeds than the reverse operation):

So you see I have come to doubt

All that I once held as true.

I stand alone without beliefs.

The only truth I know is you.

Or even more explicit: “There but for the grace of you go I.” And yet this lyric is far more believable, profound, and thought-provoking than the Coleman song, which actually is referring to God.

Here’s the brutal truth: If you’re going to talk to or about God, you need to expand your vocabulary. Because if all you’re doing is writing a love song with “God” and “Jesus” thrown in, I’ve got news for you: The rest of the world writes way better love songs. Like so much better it’s not even funny. Your job is to prove that a relationship with God is deeper and more holy than any human love relationship could ever be. Will you still write about love? Absolutely. The love of a father for his child. The love of a shepherd for his sheep. The love of a creator for his crowning creation. But what you write for your girlfriend? Keep that separate from what you write for God. If that’s something you need to work on, do us a favor and just sing about your girlfriend until you figure out how to write better songs about your God.

That is all.

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David Phelps on the Spiritual & the Secular

Some people are wondering whether or not to classify David Phelps’ upcoming Classic project as “southern gospel,” because it contains some songs that are more inspo or classical, even though Phelps has sung in gospel music all his life. I think that’s really just a matter of what criteria you’re going by—depending on whether you’re categorizing by singer or songs chosen, either approach could make sense. But, on the topic of secular vs. sacred, I came across this interesting little exchange between Phelps and Bill Gaither in the promo video for the DVD:

Bill: Some people might say, well why aren’t you singing gospel songs? Of course I’ve always said the gospel leaks out in a lot of different kind of ways, right?

David: That’s right. I grew up singing gospel music, and that’s so much a part of me. And then I would think, you know a painter can paint a picture of a cross and then paint a beautiful field. And it doesn’t say anything about who he is spiritually, or is one more spiritual than the other…? When it comes down to it, secular is really our choice. Because everything that comes our way, we can learn something spiritual from it.

I’m not going to say much about this because I want it to spark discussion amongst yourselves (perhaps a few song-writers who might be reading can offer some positive, constructive commentary—that would be cool!) However, I’ll say this much: I think that in the end I know what Phelps is getting at, and I agree with him… to a point. Around the last sentence is where our opinions start to diverge, unless he was saying something much looser/sloppier than he actually meant. What about you?

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Songwriting: The Old, the New and the Ugly

I recently subscribed to Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsay’s new You Write Songs site [Edit, August 13: The site is now defunct and the link has been removed.] I’m excited about this and glad to see that two experienced vets of the biz are investing some time and effort in encouraging the next crop of young songwriters. As someone who’s just ventured into this field myself very recently, I figured I need all the tips I can get.

After subscribing, I watched a video that was made available to subscribers only. It was Joel Lindsay’s top five common songwriting mistakes.

I don’t want to give away all five, but I did want to discuss one point on which I definitely disagreed with Lindsay. (Hey, I didn’t have a problem criticizing John Piper’s preaching, so this is small potatoes. Anyway it’s been way too long since I wrote a post on songwriting, and I have at least one faithful reader who says they’re his favorite! So Rick, this is for you…) Continue reading

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Ballad Buffet!

“It’s a ballad!”

“Oh, that’s helpful.”

There’s been some recent discussion around the southern gospel blogosphere over the vagueness of the generic term “ballad” by itself. I personally believe David Bruce Murray nailed it with his categorizations, even though they were tongue-in-cheek. There’s nothing wrong with the term, but without appropriate descriptive adjectives, it really doesn’t tell the reader much. But if you couple it with its proper modifier(s), you’re on your way.

So instead of describing the different categories of ballad in depth, I’m going to share some of my favorite ballads from all genres, just for fun and just to show how much variety they can have. And just to make it a little more fun, I won’t say what songs I pick, to try to tantalize my readers into clicking on them out of curiosity. (Though I will give you a hint that the artists range from Josh Ritter to Celine Dion to Journey to Sandi Patti.)

The Classic Ballad

Okay, so “classic” may be a kind of generic term in itself, but when I use it, I mean a long, lyrical piece of poetry that tells a story, in a folksy musical setting. The reason I call it “classic” is that it probably represents the earliest and purest manifestation of the term. Here is a perfect example of the classic ballad.

The Folk Ballad

A folk ballad can be the classic kind that tells a story, but it can also include political rants, musings on the meaning of life, or just about anything that occurs to a dude or dudette with a guitar. As DBM said, they tend to run long. Very long. Here is a classic example of such a ballad.

The Country Ballad

The country ballad typically tells a story as well, but it revolves around a limited set of themes. Familial or romantic love, heaven, and patriotism would probably claim the vast majority of country ballads. Here is a perfect example of a country ballad.

The Piano Pop Ballad

I sort of made up this category. It’s a pop song that begins with the focus squarely on the piano and then stays there instead of drowning it out in guitars and drums (see the power pop ballad). Here’s one of my favorite examples.

The Power Pop Ballad

Otherwise known as inspirational or torch songs, these are generally sung by female divas, with an adoring crowd of fans waving lighters in the audience. One or more ear-piercing high notes are regularly involved. Here is a perfect example.

The Rock Ballad

A ballad that rocks. You don’t HAVE to have long hair,  a dirty ‘stache/scruffy beard, or a sleeveless shirt to perform it… but it does help. Observe, a perfect example. There might be lighters involved here too, except they would be real cigarette lighters, not glowsticks, candles, or whatever the cute little girls are waving in the power pop ballad.

The Orchestrated Ballad

This is the category into which many southern gospel ballads fall. It starts quietly but dramatically and builds to a huge finish with all the instruments pulling out all the stops. It also covers inspirational anthems from the Steve Green/Sandi Patti era. Here is a classic example.

There might also be room, in between country and folk, for the Western ballad as its own category. Lyrically it tends to take a classic form, but instrumentation can be sparse, orchestral or anything in between. “I Hung My Head” is an example of a Western ballad that’s been interpreted both ways.

Discuss… Do you agree with my categories? Are there some categories I left out? What’s your favorite kind? (Oh, and it’s just possible that I put the wrong Youtube links in the wrong places, so if you were expecting Sandi Patti and got Journey instead… let me know and I’ll fix it. :D)

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Folk Rhyme Meets Southern Gospel: He Saw it All

The Booth Brothers’ “He Saw It All” was probably embraced largely by virtue of its uniqueness. Everyone knows the picture the lyrics paint—a mute man talking, a deaf girl listening, a crippled man running, and a blind man who saw it all. It’s clever and fresh-sounding.

What some people might not know (and what I didn’t know until very recently), is that this concept isn’t new at all. In fact, it’s very old. If you don’t believe me, here is a folk poem, variations of which have been passed around among children  since the 19th century. (Hat tip to this website, which contains even more information.)

  1. One fine day in the middle of the night,
  2. Two dead boys* got up to fight, [*or men]
  3. Back to back they faced each other,
  4. Drew their swords and shot each other.
  5. One was blind and the other couldn’t see
  6. So they chose a dummy for a referee,
  7. A blind man went to see fair play,
  8. A dumb man went to shout “hooray!”
  9. A paralyzed donkey passing by,
  10. Kicked the blind man in the eye,
  11. Knocked him through a nine inch wall,
  12. Into a dry ditch and drowned them all,
  13. A deaf policeman heard the noise,
  14. And came to arrest the two dead boys,
  15. If you don’t believe this story’s true,
  16. Ask the blind man he saw it too!

What’s interesting is that whoever originally conceived it, it was for a completely nonsensical purpose, as a joke. With “He Saw It All,” of course, it’s not nonsensical at all. The blind man really did see it all.

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