Poetry in Song 101: “Burn Away”

If you hang around here, you’ll occasionally see me grouse about the loss of poetic ear in songwriting. I can get kind of cranky on this particular topic. Well, with this series, I’ll showcase some contemporary songs that are particularly well-crafted from a poetic standpoint. They won’t necessarily be southern gospel songs, just songs that are poetically good.

I’ll start with a song I encountered just yesterday: “Burn Away.” The artist is Bill Cantos, one of the most underrated and gifted musicians out there. He’s a versatile talent, having done extensive work in both Christian and secular music (he’s an accomplished pop/jazz artist). He’s written, arranged and played keys for many names I’m sure most of you would recognize if I started to list them. In the realm of Christian music, Bill has worked with artists like the Imperials, Andrae Crouch, and the Haven of Rest Quartet (with whom he toured and sang through the 90s and 2000s).

Although he writes great pop music (I double dog dare you to listen to “Cool Drink of Water” and not be hooked—a more sublimely perfect summer song, there is not), he’s definitely at his best when writing songs about his faith. This particular song is off an above-par worship album he did with his wife, Maria Falcone (who is herself a highly regarded musician with a dizzying resume) called Embrace the Cross. Bill sings, Maria plays, and I believe they wrote the songs together. The first verse of this song does contain some “fudging” with the rhymes, but the rest of the lyrics are remarkably consistent and show very good poetic imagination.  I’ve never encountered an abccbab pattern in a contemporary song before that I can remember. And of course, it doesn’t hurt anything that the music is gorgeous too. Lyrics:

Burn away my sin, I’m pleading
Fill me with a brand new fire
In this human frame I’m flailing,
Seized with fear and bent on fainting
Lift me from the mire
Flood my body, blood and breathing
You are my desire

Burn away my foolish striving,
Thirsting after mounds of sand
In this desert plain I’ve wandered
While my days and years were squandered
Take me from this land
I want more than just surviving
Vict’ry is at hand


Oh burn, burn away the sin that hinders me
Come melt me down and wash me clean
So I will know that I have seen
The fullness of you

Burn away my pride, Lord Jesus
Rain your glory on my soul
Come unearth your Spirit’s treasure,
Grace and peace beyond all measure
I will yield control
Let me live a life that pleases
Please, come make me whole


By the way, is it just me, or does Bill’s voice bear an eerie resemblance to Christian singer Scott Krippayne? Not that I’m complaining—always liked Scott’s voice.


The Problem With Modern Songwriters, or Ears of Tin and Clunky Cliches

This is an experience that’s all too familiar for me: I’m listening along to a song, maybe I like it, maybe I don’t, but all of a sudden, there’s a word or phrase that just falls with a gigantic *THUD*. Instinctively, my ears cringe, and my face contorts, because it’s just too painful. In general, it makes me lose my appetite for the rest of the song, but occasionally I can overlook it and still enjoy the piece as a whole.

We’ve got a problem here, and the problem is that many contemporary songwriters don’t seem to understand something very basic: There are certain words and phrases that just shouldn’t be used in a song. Period. No, in case you were wondering, I don’t demand that every song be a Shakespearean sonnet. But every song is a form of poetry. Yet it seems like some people view a song lyric as more of a blog post or chatty e-mail than a form of poetry. If you’re deliberately writing something light/tongue-in-cheek/goofy, that’s one thing. But writers can be known to litter a song with howlers and take every word of it absolutely seriously.

Here are some examples of words that I have actually heard used in a song, in many cases multiple times. I won’t share names of the writers involved or names of any specific songs. These are just some cliches that I have “collected” so far (and I fear that I may collect more in the future):

cliche (Yes, using the word “cliche” is a cliche!)
point of view
comfort zone (Words cannot express my loathing for this particular neologism.)

Maybe my readers can furnish a few more such specimens of the English language that have found their way where they have no business being. To be quite honest, I’d rather go back to the days when writers used (oh horror of horrors) words like thee and thou in their songs, but they actually knew how to write poetry. What a concept!

Look, in all seriousness, I’m not saying you have to write like Isaac Watts to write a great song. There are lots of modern songs that I love. I’m just saying that writers need to get an instinctive sense of when something just sounds modern and artificial. A lot of them simply have a tin ear. These sorts of expressions don’t strike them as wrong because they just can’t hear what the problem is. Of course, this may not necessarily be their personal fault. It’s a problem that can be traced back to the breakdown of our educational system and the resultant cheapening of the English language that has left people impoverished.

However, this does not mean all hope is lost for the songwriter who wishes to improve. The first thing I would unhesitatingly recommend is that every songwriter who aspires to beautiful, precise language in his work should obtain a King James Bible. Other translations can be useful to help untangle unclear sections in the King James, but for sheer beauty of language, it is unrivaled. Read the Psalms out loud. Memorize them. Let the rhythm of the language get into your bones and your blood.

Second, he should steep himself in great poetry and literature in general. Pore over the work of the great hymn-writers. Soak in the mastery of Shakespeare and John Donne. Take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and read entire passages out loud, letting the language roll around and off your tongue.

Finally, he should ask himself, “WWRMD?” Or, “What would Rich Mullins do?” Every good songwriter understands greatness in other writers when he sees it. Mullins was arguably the most gifted poet Christian music has ever seen, although Andrew Peterson is carrying the torch with considerable grace today.

At the end of the day, will our songwriter emerge as great as all of the above? Of course not. But, he will emerge with the ability to avoid ugly modern neologisms and clunky language without really giving it a second thought. And that’s a valuable skill all by itself.

Songs that aren’t your cup of tea, but…

Some time ago, I came across a piece by respected Christian songwriter Joel Lindsey about songwriting. He talked about the experience of teaching a seminar where people brought their ideas for honest feedback. But at the end of the day, only one had really stuck with him:

As I lie here in bed thinking back over all the songs I heard today, I can only really remember one song.  It was a trainwreck of a song that needs probably more work than all of the others combined — it needs a complete overhaul, actually.  It was an overly familiar title, didn’t have any semblance of a structure, the writer used the same rhyming words over and over and over, the lyrical hook didn’t match up with the melodic hook and, worst of all, the grammar was awful.

And yet…I’m in bed almost 12 hours later and it’s still on my mind.  Come to find out the song was written about the writer’s son who is serving in the military in Iraq and this song was written for him and his buddies.  Although the lines were non-sequitar [sic] and seemed to come at you like a machine gun there was emotion dripping in every single word.  There was obvious pain, fear, angst, and sadness woven so beautifully into the melody and into the meat of this song that I felt bad for having to say that I doubted it could get cut in its current form.  But I begged the writer — don’t lose the heart of this song…learn how to structure it in such a way that the emotion is in some kind of manageable form, but don’t lose that.

I for one know exactly what Joel means. What about you? Have you ever heard a song that maybe wasn’t quite as bad as what Joel is describing, maybe it was decently good, but there was so much about it that you just didn’t like? And yet…there was something in the pain it was describing that just tugged at you?

There are two songs I want to discuss today along these lines, and they are both CCM songs. I’ll have to ask my SG fan readers to bear with me here, because it’s part of the point I’m trying to make. The first one is by a group called Sanctus Real. Their music is pretty standard light Christian rock. The lead singer, Matt Hammitt, wrote a song called “Lead Me” about his relationship with his wife and kids and what that meant when combined with his career. He and his wife went through a period of struggle in their marriage, and they had to fight to keep it together. Many Christian singers and their wives could identify with this story: Matt’s sheer absence from home was putting a strain on the entire family. So the song “Lead Me” was birthed out of the pain his family has walked through. The verses are written in his voice as a father, trying to have his career and telling himself that his wife and children will be all right on their own. But then in the chorus, he hears them saying:

Lead me with strong hands

Stand up when I can’t

Don’t leave me hungry for love

Chasing dreams…

But what about us?

Now listen to the song with the accompanying music video. Remember, musically this is typical CCM fare. Don’t expect an inspired melody or stellar vocals. This isn’t about music. It’s about pain.

Pain: You feel it in this song, in the video, and in Matt’s voice. That’s what I’m trying to put my finger on here. Also worth watching is the interview with Matt and his wife that pops up immediately as a related video on the embed.

The next song is by a new artist named Chris August. It’s called “7 x 70.” Chris tells the story behind it here. It was a last-minute addition to his debut album. Producer Ed Cash suggested that he write a song about “what hurt you when you were little.” Reluctantly, Chris went home and wrote the first part of the song, then brought it to Ed the next morning. When he played it for him, Ed told him that it needed to be a song about forgiveness. “Forgiveness?” Chris asked. “You told me to write about something that hurt me.” “Right!” said Ed.

The song and video speak for themselves. Continue to keep in mind, as with the last song, that this is not great music. But again, it’s not about the music. Watch and listen here.

“7 x 70 times. If that’s the cost, I’ll pay the price.” Admit it—that sort of hits you in the gut.

I would be the first to say that these songs are not masterpieces. And yet, the pain that they communicate makes them stand out to me in a way that other songs don’t, even though they may be better crafted. They’re raw and honest. They address the fact that life is not always beautiful and easy. And yet in the midst of it, they find hope in crying out to God.

I’m going to be honest and say that I have trouble finding that in southern gospel music. Part of it has to do with the fact that at least half of the SG repertoire (it seems), is composed of purely upbeat, fun material. But that’s not the only factor, because SG has plenty of ballads as well. And yet even there, I see a prevalence of the big ballad—the grand, sweeping statement of faith with exciting orchestration that ends on a long, high note. There are many great songs that would fall into this category. But they’re not painful. How often do you find a southern gospel song that expresses genuine brokenness? I’m not saying that they’re not out there, I’m just saying you have to go looking to find them underneath the catchy songs about heaven and the power anthems. And I have nothing against catchy songs about heaven or power anthems. It’s just that every once in a while, I’m looking for something real. It doesn’t have to be impeccably delivered or flawlessly written, but it has that something about it that you can’t quite put your finger on, but when you hear it, you feel it.

Am I the only one who feels that way? In closing, here is Joel Lindsey’s conclusion:

Then I found myself saying something that surprised myself even:  if I had to choose between a well-crafted song and a song with this kind of emotion, I’m going to pick the emotion anyday.  Because if a song can’t make you feel something, then why bother?  But what makes a song truly great, in my opinion, is when it has both.