I’m in the middle of writing a series of songs for the junior high school confirmation class where I am currently interning. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m quite grateful I have our Bible year (as opposed to our Luther’s catechism year, though that will be my next challenge) to draw from. Basically, I am writing one song a week on each of the Bible lessons, beginning with Genesis (the one song no one in the class has heard) through Revelation, according to the ELCA’s “Here We Stand” confirmation curriculum. It’s turned out to be a fantastic challenge, and not only have I managed to write the one song a week, two weeks I wrote two songs!
(We did David and the kings of Israel and Judah in one week, so David got a song and then I wrote a nifty little bit of blues naming all the kings of Israel and Judah in order, as well as good Deuteronomist reasons why both kingdoms fell and the hope that remains for Judah in the line of Jesse; and then I felt the need to separate prophetic condemnation from prophetic hope.)
In the process, I have had to teach myself to write simple story songs. Not what I have tended to write in the past. Most of what I wrote, from the age of 16 onward, were songs that communicated — obliquely and obscurely, and mostly only to myself — what I felt about things. My goal, I suppose, was not so much communication but self-expression. Scott Miller, of Game Theory and The Loud Family, once described many of his songs as “in-jokes for one person.” Which is true of much of my stuff too.
Tough to build an audience that way, though. I’ve come to the conclusion that a song is, or should be, a story that a listener can emotionally connect to. We do that with songs either by understanding the story or apprehending some kind of shared emotion present in the song. I think the former is a great deal easier than the later.
When I wrote and recorded The Lamentations Of in late 2009, the songs worked for some people I know because they understood and appreciated the experience I had gone through (and one person even shared a very similar experience). I’m still guilty of some obscurity in the words, and I’m not apologizing for that. I like language and I write primarily for myself. And sometimes, for me, the words don’t tell a story but attempt solely to convey an emotion, what I have long called “word pictures” (“Learning Contract,” for example). But some of those words were much more obvious than other things I had previously written. I love Scott Miller’s music, and have since I discovered his stuff in late 1985 in Monterey, California. It spoke to me in some deep pain I was feeling at the time and I could feel the emotional connection — this was an angst or suffering that I understood and that understood me. But, to be blunt, I’m not sure I can tell you three-quarters of the time what Scott is actually singing about. Miller’s songs may be stories, but his language is too personal for them to make all that much sense (even as it is sometimes very, very clever) as stories.
In these Bible story songs, I can’t do that. I’m having to tell very clear and very simple stories. I’m also having to keep the theology concise, and do nuance in ways that have nothing to do with clever language or lots of words. Many of the lyrics I’m cribbing from scripture itself, and in the process discovering just how poetic scripture really is. (I use the English Standard Version, which is a much more poetic text than the NRSV, which has a flat and passionless feel to it.) Especially the prophets, and in both my prophetic condemnation and hope songs, I was shocked at just how little work I had to do get rhymes out of the text. It’s funny, but I’ve found significantly more artistic freedom in the limits the Biblical text (and the ELCA’s understanding of what that text means for us as God’s people) impose upon me than I might with a blank sheet of paper and utterly no guidance. For example, my Joseph song is a libertarian warning against the excesses of power sung from the standpoint of Pharaoh (a legitimate reading given Exodus 1). And my Moses song is also sung from Pharaoh’s view as well. (Which begs a question I cannot answer: why did I find Pharaoh’s view so interesting?)
I think the exercise has already yielded a result in “Joyless (Because You Left Me),” a song I wrote for a friend and certainly the most accessible words I’ve ever written. By that, you can grasp the story the song tells without knowing any of the details of the real story. (The song will show up on a collection of pop songs from the teens, 20s and 30s that Angel Holland and I are ever-so-slowly working on. It’s the first song I wrote on the ukulele, and it kinda sounds like a 20s pop song.)
So, right now, I’ve got 13 songs, all of which I think are very usable. Some are better than others, but that’s always the case. I’ll probably have another 10 or 12 by the time we’re done. And the Bible collection already has a title: Red Letter Songs. And I’ve given myself some additional challenges. For example, when we get to Paul’s letters, I am going to make at least one Paul song a cute little ukulele tune. Right now, I have two partial recordings, and I hope to record fairly good demos of all the songs by August. And then who knows.