Episode 2 of Man and His Music

themusicalimperativefront-1Last week I returned to the blogosphere by linking to the first of 10 half-hour episodes of my father’s TV show, Man and His Music, which debuted 50 years ago on Cincinnati’s PBS affiliate, WCET, TV-48. This week, in the second espisode, Dad dives into a lecture on the six common components of music, material that eventually wound up in his first book, The Musical Imperative.  His ability to break down concepts into language understandable by the average Joe and Jane is on display here, as he, for example, compares music to science when discussing the elements of tone and when he likens ovearching structure in music to the building blocks of language (a note = a syllable; a motive = a word; a theme = a clause; etc.).

We also see Dad absolutely in his element, utilizing all genres of music to illustrate particular aspects of melody, harmony, and rhythm.  So while we do hear listening examples from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Dvorak, and Beethoven, we also here from Buck Owens, Joni Mitchell, John Philip Sousa, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, Dave Brubeck, a Gregorian chant choir, a Dixieland jazz band, and the cast of Jesus Christ, Superstar.  Other highlights include a brief lesson in the French pronunciation of the word timbre and a lip-synched rendition of a Rudy Vallée song, both done with the characteristic twinkle in his eye.

If you have the time to watch, I hope you enjoy Man and His Music, episode two, “Common Components of Music.”

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Back to Blogging and the 50th Anniversary of My Father’s TV Show

The time stamp indicates it’s been two years since I last conveyed thoughts via this blog, and life circumstances seem to suggest it would be OK to try to resume the activity. Thanks in advance for your consideration.

I’m motivated by a number of things (e.g., I’ve missed writing on topics about which I feel passionately), not the least of which is the 50th anniversary this year of my father’s TV show, Man and His Music, which aired on Cincinnati’s PBS affiliate, WCET. Dad taught a host of music classes for over 40 years at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, but his Music Appreciation and History of Jazz and Popular Music were his bread-and-butter classes, often featuring as many as 600 students enrolled each trimester. Those classes became popular quickly, earning the top “5 Cakes” rating from the campus paper one year (an easy class that was well worth taking), and athletes in particular gravitated to them; Dad taught a number of future NBA players over the years, including Pat Cummings, Nick Van Exel, and Kenyon Martin, among several others. At the time of Dad’s retirement, the University honored him by endowing an award to be given each year to the faculty member who most demonstrated support for the academic endeavors of student athletes. (I’m glad to see the Dr. Simon Anderson Faculty Award is still being offered at UC. Congrats to Prof. Evan Griffin, this year’s recipient.)

To broaden his classes’ appeal, Dad connected with the producers at WCET and came up with what amounted to an initial foray into distance learning, a concept just getting off the ground at the time, one which now manifests itself as online education. Back then, the students had to watch the half-hour TV show, listen to music examples provided by the campus radio station, and attend a final exam in Wilson Auditorium, pictured early in the show, where I took the class when I was a student at UC. (Wilson has since been demolished.)

Over the course of the summer and into the fall, I plan to feature each of the 10 episodes of Man and His Music and the 10 from the follow-up program, Pop Music, U.S.A. In these shows, you get a glimpse of what made Dad such a hit with students, his unbridled enthusiasm for his subject as played out in numerous academically sound but thoroughly entertaining ways. Fifty years is a long time, so the production values are often a hoot, with Pong-like graphics and other MST3K-type lo-fi examples of what was cutting edge at the time. Cultural values have certainly changed, too, in 50 years; were he alive today and embarking on such an endeavor, Dad would no doubt phrase some things a bit differently in his presentations. Be that as it may, these shows are snap shots of an era in time that set my father’s academic career on a new trajectory and, by extension as I reflected back on that time, shaped wide swaths of my approach to higher education in the process.

Episode one of Man and His Music, “Magnificant Varieties of Music,” encapsulates so much of Dad’s approach to music appreciation. We hear him discuss three new perspectives that help open up new worlds for folks beginning to think about the role music plays in our lives. If you take the time to watch, note the following gems:

  • The new anthropolgical perspective: Dad’s look at the uniqueness of Western harmony and how rhythm in American popular music is rooted in our particular understanding of time
  • The new sociological perspective: His deeming the NBA America’s true ballet and likening TV ads to hieroglyphics (by the way, I’m the eight-year-old son he mentions in this section)
  • The new aesthetic perspective: His description of the typical American dream scenario, whereby the eager wannabe business tycoon moves up the ladder from success to success to success to . . . “coronary thrombosis . . . death.”

Just watching this first episode again (I’ve seen each of the shows a few times before, of course) brought back so many wonderful memories.  About two-thirds of the way through this episode, when he sits down to play “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to illustrate climax-and-release elements at work in pop songs derived from Broadway, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit.  His discussing of what’s going on in the piece and then, especially, his popping off the high E-flat (“ho-o-o-o-o-me to you”) at the song’s moment of truth, head back and arms outstretched, are sweet reminders of so much of his instruction to me (and thousands of UC students) over the years.

I hope you enjoy these blasts from the past. Thanks to so many who have kept Dad’s voice alive over the years, but especially to Dr. Gerard Aloisio, at Minnesota State University-Mankato, and Drs. Josh Jones and Robert Kania, at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), for using his material for so many years. Thanks also to my my sister and brother-in-law, Dr. Karin Anderson Abrell and Dan Abrell, for running Dad’s publishing company, Clifton Hills Press, for the past several years, and publishing his two books, The Musical Imperative and Pop Music, U.S.A. Additional thanks to Prof. Tim May, Judson University, for his assistance in making these TV shows blog-ready.  

Without further ado, “The Magnificent Varieties of Music.”

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When You Can’t Sing in Corporate Worship

I don’t know about you, but the more we return to normal in the American Church, the more I realize how much I’ve missed congregational singing.  God bless technology–it helped us immensely during the pandemic, keeping us at least somewhat in touch with our local fellowships during quarantines–but singing at home to a TV screen’s audio accompaniment doesn’t compare to being in a sanctuary with others and lifting our praises together as one body in Christ.  Hence, there’s no time like the present for worship leaders to put even more thought into the important ministry of putting songs on the lips of God’s people.

IWSLogoNameLeft-144Because congregational song is a passion of mine–it was the focus of my doctoral thesis at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies–many of my periodic blog posts focus on the subject.  (Anyone who reads this blog frequently will be familiar with the theme of inclusivity that runs through the posts.)  I was reminded of the importance of song selection a few weeks ago when the worship team at the church my wife and I attended began the service with two newer tunes but finished the set with “Holy, Holy, Holy”–sung like a straight-ahead hymn of my youth (no superfluous bridge, no simplified chord structure), only with praise-band accompaniment instead of organ.  The quality of the people’s response was overwhelming; where their collective vocal efforts had been pretty tentative on the first two, lesser-known songs (I looked around me and saw most folks simply standing in place looking bored), the place erupted when the band launched into  the more familiar and older song. 

(I’m not anti-new songs, quite the contrary.  The specific focus of my thesis had to do with the incorporation of new songs in the Church, for which I dove into, among other Scripture passages, four of the Psalms’ invitations to “sing a new song to the Lord.”  Any beef I have with this aspect of contemporary worship stems not from using new songs but rather using them without regard for numerous filters with which worship leaders should be operating when choosing material for congregational singing.)

Rather than stew in my frustration during those first two songs that were unfamiliar to me, I used the time to jot down some strategies I’ve heard others recount, and that I’ve used myself in the past, to help redeem times in the midst of congregational singing when you don’t know the songs and can’t sing along meaningfully.  If you find yourself in a similar situation in the weeks and months ahead, I commend these responses to you:

Close your eyes and let the music wash over you.  Scripture clearly attests to the sheer power of music, and, like Saul in the presence of David’s harp, I found myself soothed by the music, unfamiliar though it was, which helped put me in a better frame of mind.

Pray for the worship leader and the praise band members.  In so many areas of life, when I channel angst in the direction of prayer, I come out ahead, emotionally speaking.  It’s hard to nurse frustration with others when you’re praying for them.  Pray knowing the enemy hates corporate worship, above any other thing Christians do, and that those who plan the worship are on the font lines of spiritual warfare.  And pray knowing the worship team members have sacrificed much in order to serve.  

Focus on the living, breathing praise band members, not their lifeless screen images.  There’s way too much to explore on this topic, and I’m looking forward to reading interesting theologies of images to be written by Screeners in the years ahead, but your prayers will feel more real if you’re praying for humans you can see in the flesh, not their pixilated representations on a big screen.

Latch onto Scriptural truths when you hear them.  Sure, the occasional worship song these days has some suspect theology, but even those that get dissected the most (“Reckless Love,” anyone?) have plenty of opportunities to affirm Truth.  Give those sections of any given song your best energy as you contemplate the lyrics.

And when you finally CAN participate, make up for lost time and really dig in.  My fellow believers a few weeks back raised the roof with “Holy, Holy, Holy” after enduring two songs for which the majority in attendance couldn’t fully participate.  When you are able, always try to follow John Wesley’s advice to sing “lustily and with good cheer.”

There are other times when it’s OK not to sing in corporate worship, and I detailed them in a previous post.  But I hope with a return to normal (Lord willing and Virus Creek don’t rise), worship leaders take the time to rethink some strategies for congregational singing.  I hope to reflect on a recent service that did this well next week.

The Lord be with you!

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Let the Pandemic-Concessions-for-Corporate-Worship Redemption Begin!

Most of the United States are, by God’s grace, opening up and loosening restrictions on large gatherings, both of which have significant ramifications for corporate worship.  Though church leaders will want to discard and remember no more many of the COVID concessions they’ve had to make over the past months, what aspects of our pandemic-worship modus operandi should worship leaders seek to maintain moving forward?  Or is it really in everyone’s best interest to return as quickly as possible to what we considered normal for years prior to March of 2020 without expending any energy assessing what good has come from the Church’s response to the coronavirus?

I’ll put my cards on the table; I think an uncritical return to business-as-usual would be a shame.  If we subscribe to the notion that God never wastes our time, there are, without question, lessons we should have learned (or be in the process of learning) from the past 15 months of corporate worship, ways of “doing church” we should strongly consider retaining–in some capacity, at least–as we continue to retool for mitigated-pandemic and post-pandemic worship.  

20210613_093736Yesterday, my wife and I attended First Baptist Church in Elgin, IL, where one of my former students, Joshua Hoegh, serves as the Worship & Creative Arts Pastor.  Of the numerous excellent worship leaders Judson University has trained over the past 20+ years, Joshua is one of the most aesthetically minded, season in and season out creating beautiful, meaningful sacred spaces to enhance his congregation’s worship.  As is my wont, I took some notes on the ways Joshua facilitated the worship, items I shared with him after the service (#ProudProf).  As I did, I realized that much of what transpired yesterday serves as a good model for the future in light of eased restrictions.  Specifically, the leadership at FBC made several intentional decisions during COVID that might be worth retaining, in some capacity, after COVID.  I list a few of them for your consideration.

Bring the worship to the people.  Physical distancing, a proper response to gathering prior to the arrival of vaccines, militates against worship.  We simply are not made to worship, congregationally, while spaced out so drastically.  Hence, FBC made the decision several months ago to bring the worship space off the stage and onto the sanctuary floor (see picture) and to add a third service–in order to conform to state regulations for capacity limits, since they lost some seating in the process.  Communication theory asserts the best communication takes place when the distance between the sender and the receiver is reduced, so this move enhances the fundamental dialogue (revelation and response) of worship.  It also militates against idolatry.  Countless folks have written about the dangers associated with celebrity pastors (my contributions, via Mark Galli, are found here), but it’s hard to put your pastor on a pedestal when s/he purposely steps off the raised platform and delivers the sermon right smack dab in the midst of the congregation.

Provide a substantive call to worship.  If there ever were a time when we need to call people to worship, this is it.  The emotional rollercoaster we have been on the past year and a half has often left us whiplashed between hope and despair, so we do well to be reminded why we gather.  Joshua’s call to worship yesterday came from Psalm 100, and he gave a brief exegesis as he read, providing helpful context by highlighting all the strong action verbs in the psalm and contrasting them with the passivity to which we are all prone in our worship.  Joshua’s taking a few minutes to provide some structure for what followed–to invite us to enter into the worship dialogue with something more than “Hi, Church! Let’s stand and sing”–filled my soul.

Scale back the band now and again.  FBC’s moving the focus to the sanctuary floor necessitated scaling back the band; today’s praise team featured keys, bass, drums, and three vocalists.  Though the oldest of songs we sang this morning debuted in 2013 (i.e., well within the timeframe of cwm and electric guitars), the lack of instrumental firepower didn’t hurt the worship at all, especially in that setting, where more would definitely have been less.  Indeed, the quality of the congregational singing (Aaron Niequist: “The purpose of congregational singing is . . . congregational singing!”) was superior to that which I hear routinely in churches where much more is happening, musically speaking, on stage.  To wit, hearing the last chorus of “10,000 Reasons” sung a cappella was breathtakingly beautiful, the voices of the people, not just of the praise band vocalists, ringing throughout the sanctuary.  (For more on this dynamic, consider these thoughts here.)

FBC is returning to the stage next week, but Joshua told me the FBC leadership is thinking long and hard about how to retain the spirit of the worship they’ve experienced the past several months as they transition back.  I hope many other churches will ponder the same, even if the way forward isn’t yet completely crystal clear.  Though we need not be thankful for the coronavirus, of course, seeking how we might adjust our worship practices in the months ahead in light of what we’ve learned during the pandemic might be a way of being thankful in all circumstances (1 Thes. 5:18), which would be very redemptive, indeed.

The Lord be with you! 

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The Best Contemporary Worship Music Songwriter of All Time, cont.

downloadLast week in this space I declared Andraé Crouch to be the best contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriter of all time.  Today I look at five of his best songs for evidence to support my claim, songs that are found in most recent Protestant hymnals, a staggering accomplishment for an African-American composer given the surfeit of songs from writers of European and Caucasian-American descent in most hymnals.  (If you didn’t have a chance to read that post, you can do so here while also taking a look at a couple of links to great resources for broadening your church’s congregational-singing experience utilizing contributions from African-American writers.)

“The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” was Crouch’s first major contribution to the Protestant Christian canon of congregational song, written when he was in his teens and debuted with his group The Disciples in the mid-60’s.  Even casual readers of this blog will recognize my number-one pet peeve re: current cwm songwriting is its stultifying reliance on four-chord (and the same four chords in the same progressions) power ballads at the expense of just about everything else.  The current CCLI Top 10 contains nine such I-IV-vi-V (or any number of variations on the theme) power ballads and only one song that gets up and moves a bit, “This Is Amazing Grace” . . . and after you’ve been inundated with a tsunami of power ballads, any up-tempo tune feels like amazing grace, indeed.  Though “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” is also a ballad, its grooves are more slow-jam rhythm & blues than close-dance rock and roll, and it uses a whopping 8-10 chords (depending on how you harmonize passing tones), including two separate instances of rarely-heard-in-cwm diminished chords. 

If you only know one Andraé Crouch song, you probably know “My Tribute” (often known by its subtitle, “To God Be the Glory”).  Another vintage Crouch harmonization, utilizing several interesting chords, “My Tribute” employs an ascending melody on the chorus, propelling the thrice-repeated main-point (à la “Feed My sheep” and other biblical exhortations found in threes) before providing, Psalm-like, and in triumphal fashion, the reason God is worthy of the glory.  Also in the spirit of the Psalms, the verse and bridge use devotional language that celebrates intimacy with the Almighty while avoiding “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentimentality.  Last week, I mentioned Crouch’s ground-breaking efforts promoting diversity (The Disciples, shown in the video, featured both white musicians and several women), and you can see and hear the results of those efforts here, including a feisty trumpet solo from Fletch Wiley.

In addition to “My Tribute,” the song of Crouch’s that has crossed over into universal appeal most significantly is “Through It All”–as can be seen in this Gaither Homecoming Video celebrating the ministry of Billy Graham.  (That’s Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea Gaither acknowledges early on.)  Again I want to point out the evidence of diversity, how readily the racially mixed group on hand joins in with Cece Winans’ vocals and Crouch’s piano on the chorus.  There aren’t too many, unfortunately enough, African-American composers whose songs can be sung so familiarly by the stalwarts of southern gospel music Gaither assembled, including Hovie Lister, Howard and Vestal Goodman, and George Younce.  As an added bonus, you get an encore performance of one of Crouch’s shake-a-leg classics, “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.”  (Unlike “Through It All,” this one is rarely sung in white churches, as evidenced by the stoic response of southern gospel legend James Blackwood, although his son Billy and nephew Terry are doing fine to his immediate right.)

Blackwood fares better (see him over soloist Jessy Dixon’s left shoulder) with another Gaither video featuring Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon.”  In the spirit of self-referential, home-in-heaven gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “When We All Get to Heaven,” “Soon and Very Soon” celebrates the eventual sweet bye and bye (“No more cryin’ there,” “No more dyin’ there”) while simultaneously providing hope for God’s sustenance during the “nasty now and now” (to quote, believe it or not, an atheist bible-as-literature professor I had at the University of Cincinnati): “Should there be any rivers we must cross, should there be any mountains we must climb, God will supply all the strength that we need [and] give us grace to reach the other side.”

We close with the most famous African-American version of the kind of Scripture song that catapulted the Jesus People onto the American congregational-song landscape in the early 70’s.  Whereas Karen Lafferty gave us “Seek Ye First” (Matthew 6), Leonard Smith wrote “Our God Reigns” (Isaiah 52 and 53), and an unknown writer penned “Create in Me a Clean Heart” (Psalm 51, made popular by Keith Green), Crouch provided the beautiful setting of Psalm 103, “Bless His Holy Name.”  Once again, like in “My Tribute,” Crouch uses an ascending melody of a thrice-repeated phrase (“He has done great things”) to prompt the proper response: “Bless His holy name!”

Crouch’s songs are eminently singable, with firm attention to structure tools like voice leading and the use of conjunct melodic lines.  They are marvelously diverse harmonically, featuring chords almost never heard in cwm these days.  And their lyrics are Davidic in their balancing of first-person devotion (personal-story) with universal-Church exhortation (cosmic-story; thanks, Lester Ruth, for the terms).  Might more cwm songwriters aspire to Andraé Crouch’s creativity and industry!

The Lord be with you!      


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The Best Contemporary Worship Music Songwriter of All Time

A few definitions are in order here: 

Best: Over the last few months I’ve offered excerpts from several interviews conducted by Paul Zollo in his Songwriters on Songwriting, and I’ll use aspects of those to discuss the following writer’s excellence.

Contemporary Worship Music: I’m talking about music that would not be out of place on secular radio stations of some ilk regardless of whether or not the adjective contemporary means “absolutely up-to-this-very-minute current”–since music meant for corporate worship derives from that which has come before to establish a foundational reference (which is why you can decry contemporary Christian music [ccm] not meant for congregational singing for being behind the times, if you want, while not getting your underwear in a bunch that contemporary worship music [cwm] also lags behind the cutting edge).

Songwriter: Though known as a great performer/worship leader, I celebrate my choice for his songcraft.

All time: Many consider the dawn of cwm to be the Jesus People Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, while others put it a few decades earlier.  Either way, “all time” for our purposes here encompasses the last 60-80 years of congregational song in America. 

andrae-crouch-billboard-650-compressedWithout further ado, the best contemporary worship music songwriter of all time is Andraé Crouch.  Beginning in the mid-60’s, Crouch, the son of a pastor, began combining the joyous sounds of traditional gospel (even then much closer to the mainstream thanks to the work of Thomas A. Dorsey and others a few decades prior) with the sophisticated Sound of Young America coming out of Detroit and the hard-driving soul coming from the south, the two primary African-American contributions to pop-rock of that era. 

Like the best of Motown, Crouch’s most popular songs had immediate crossover appeal and were soon being sung by young Christians of all races and church affiliations.  Like Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., Crouch appreciated the value of songs sophisticatedly crafted, hard-swinging up-tempo tunes and luxurious ballads, the best of which could be digested after one or two hearings and sung effectively by millions soon thereafter.   In between 1966-1976, Crouch recorded scads of original songs with his group The Disciples and became the major figure in contemporary gospel music, winning seven Grammys, six GMA Dove Awards, and numerous other accolades.

Who knows what hymnals will look like post-COVID?  It will be very interesting to see how the pandemic affects various aspects of church life moving forward.  That said, one of the reasons I celebrate Crouch in this post comes from his prominent place in most recently published hymnals, still a good indicator of universal appeal even in the age of projected lyrics on screens.  For years, if Protestant hymnals featured any African-American composers, they might have had Dorsey, whose “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” shows up frequently; a few hymnals also have his “Peace in the Valley” (perhaps because it was the title track and a popular hit for Elvis Presley on one of his several religious albums). 

Prior to Crouch, though, that typically was it.  On the other hand, the wildly popular The Celebration Hymnal–a 1997 joint effort by two behemoths of ccm, Word Music and Integrity Music–features five Crouch songs, a staggering number for all kinds of reasons, including race.  I have about 25 hymnals in my personal collection, and many of those have at least four Crouch-penned songs.  (As you would expect, the excellent African American Heritage Hymnal, published by GIA in 2001, features seven.  If you are looking for an excellent resource to help your congregation expand its horizons for the purposes of racial reconciliation, you can’t go wrong with this collection, nor with its sister publication Total Praise [GIA, 2011], which features even more fabulous congregational songs from the African-American church.)

Imps7It would not be an exaggeration to use MLK-like adjectives to modify any nouns related to Crouch’s efforts in segregated Protestant America, another reason his contribution to cwm is so significant.  In the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the American Church was still feeling the aftershocks of civil unrest in the streets a few years before, Crouch’s Disciples were the first major ccm/contemporary gospel band to integrate racially–and sexually, with women playing equal-footing roles, not relegated to eye candy or background vocals alone–a Christian version of Sly & the Family Stone.  A  few years later, Disciple Sherman Andrus left Crouch’s band to join The Imperials, more popular in white churches than Crouch’s, who carried a similar mantle, a real rainbow of a group with the African-American Andrus and Hispanic bass singer Armond Morales, as well.   

Others who might deserve the title mantle here?  Bill Gaither, of course (17 entries in The Celebration Hymnal), but I consider what he was doing to be more on the traditional end of the (horribly reductive) traditional-contemporary continuum, his efforts more Middle of the Road (MOR) than contemporary, by the very limited connotations of those categories that were en vogue a few years ago. If Keith Green had not tragically died so young, he’d have likely amassed enough material to qualify, the same for Rich Mullins.  Michael W. Smith was heading in this direction for a while, and if the Gettys keep on their current pace, they might be considered down the road.     

But I’ll take Andraé Crouch for now, with specific-to-the-songs rationale next week, along with reasons the current crop of hit-makers won’t qualify any time soon.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 14

I confess to a certain Ricky Nelson ethos with these blog posts in general and this series in particular. Nelson, a child star who appeared with his parents in the 50’s sitcom Ozzie and Harriet, wrote a smash hit in the early 70’s, “Garden Party,” about the less-than-enthusiastic reception he received playing a gig at NYC’s Madison Square Garden when he tried out his new, countrified fare to a crowd who clamored for his frothy-by-comparison, teen-idol tunes of the late 50’s and early 60’s.  (You can read the interesting story behind the song, with its “American Pie”-like references to rock music history, here.)  The takeaway line from the chorus says, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”  This series has been fun for me; I hope a few others have benefited from it along the way.

Our final interview from Paul Zollo’s massive Songwriters on Songwriting features John Fogerty, the4cbba38f-2e52-41a9-95c2-5fd780c1711f-XXX_PO_031919Woodstock50Lineup11 driving force behind the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), purveyors of what is sometimes known as Swamp Rock, for its “Born on the Bayou” overtones.  You’ll also hear the progressive verb “choogling” used in reference to the band’s energetic boogie grooves, heard here in such Fogerty-penned classics as “Proud Mary”; “Down on the Corner” (given an interesting symphonic treatment here); and one of my first-ever-purchased 45’s as a pre-teen in the early 70’s, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” sung here as part of a hang-in-there-during-COVID video Fogerty recorded last year. 

(As an added treat, I’ll include what I’d consider one of the two best covers in the history of rock, Ike & Tina Turner’s incendiary rendition of “Proud Mary,” shown here, along with other music and some Q & A, from an episode of the iconic 70’s-era soul-music weekly TV show Soul Train.  [Ike was an abusive husband, unfortunately, and Tina eventually left him following years of mistreatment, just a hint of which you can sense here.]    The other best cover?  Jimi Hendrix’s transformation of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  You’re welcome.)

Here are a few lines from the back-and-forth in Zollo’s interview:

Zollo: When you write a song, where do you start?

Fogerty: I’ll sit with a guitar and I’ll be noodling: doing riffs, chord changes, whatever, to get a good rhythm or a good something.  Since I’m such a rock and roll guy, I try to connect a song with a riff, and therefore an arrangement. . . . [T]hat’s what gets me started.  And then I think about the title.  Because when you hear a song on the radio, it must have a good title.  Like “Bad Moon Rising [one of  CCR’s big hits].”  That’s a good title.  And I’ve got a book of titles I’ve been keeping for a long time.

Contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriters, how about keeping a book of Holy-Spirit-inspired titles and then working from that vantage point?

Zollo: What busted you through [writer’s block] for [your most recent] album?

Fogerty: . . . I have to have a valid melodic structure that can hold up over a whole song.  And writing words is the last thing I do in a song.  Because they’re so doggone hard.  I agonize over words.  If I’m going to put all that heartache into it, it better be a decent song.

Songwriting is hard for me.  It’s not like they just come rolling out of my ears or anything.  And the only difference between me and the other guy who is a songwriter is that I cull.  I throw away a lot of stuff.  I throw it away until what is left is good.  I’m willing to do that work.  I don’t keep something until I think it’s great.

This series has touched upon my perception that cwm songwriters would benefit from what Fogerty refers to as “culling,” a process that certainly paid off for him; CCR had 16 songs in Billboard‘s Hot 100, nine of which hit Top 10.  Not that chart success always indicates greatness where songwriting is concerned, but Fogerty’s efforts have stood the test of time.  Will people be singing Chris Tomlin’s songs in 50 years?  (To his credit, I think our grandchildren will sing the best of his oeuvre.)

Zollo: [Your songs have] a timeless quality.  It’s surprising to me how few people know you wrote “Proud Mary.”  I think the reason is because it seems that it has been around forever.  And so many of [your] songs . . . have that quality as well, . . . perfect and timeless.

Fogerty: That is what I go for in writing a new song.  I feel when you write a song, it should all work.  There shouldn’t be a part of it that is awkward, that makes you wonder why [the songwriter] went there.  It should all go logically.  I try to make something that stands up by itself.  And I don’t rest until it’s done.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I received Zollo’s second, equally massive, collection of songwriting interviews for Christmas, and maybe I’ll launch a Part II of this series after I read it.  In the meantime, I hope to show how the essence of the 14 sets of songwriting tips from the past several months manifest themselves in the greatest cwm songwriter ever since we started talking about cwm in the 60’s (and even further back than that, as Lester Ruth argues in his forthcoming history).  Any guesses?

The Lord be with you!



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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 13

5d10e581b206f.imageAs America continues to find its way forward, in fits and starts, following the summer of 2020’s racial unrest, it’s perhaps timely to lead off this week’s look at songwriting expertise with Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” with its powerful rejoinder, after hearing, repeatedly, “That’s just the way it is . . . some things will never change”: “Ah, but don’t you believe them!”  Other gems in the Hornsby canon include “Mandolin Rain” and “Jacob’s Ladder” (written around the time of the televangelist scandals of the 80’s), which show the breadth of Hornsby’s stylistic capabilities.  If you like bluegrass, check out the latter and dig the bass solo at the 3:35 mark.  

Hornsby got a degree in jazz studies, which informs his musicianship in sometimes startling ways:

I’m really glad I went to music school, because I think it really broadened my horizons.  I’m just a guy from a small town in Virginia.  [I w]asn’t turned on to a whole lot of interesting music there.  But at school there were a lot of like-minded, kindred, searching people, looking to do [new] things.  So consequently I got turned on to everything from Stockhausen to George Jones.  So if I want to move my music to another level, take a left turn, I don’t have a problem doing it, at least on the knowledge level, because I’ve studied a lot of different kinds of music.

Would that more songwriters for the church could go to music school or, absent that, would expose themselves to influences outside of the close-knit, potentially inbred current soundtrack of contemporary worship music (cwm).  I think it would make a difference. 

If there’s one wish I had for cwm songwriters, it would be for a little more willingness not to settle for the obvious chord progression, the predictable melody, the Christianese-drenched lyric.  I might be wrong, but it seems as if that happens a lot, when the same type of four-chord power ballad dominates the current lists of today’s “hottest worship songs.”  I’d love to hear popular cwm songwriters say something like Hornsby says here:

The process of writing, for me, is not very cut and [dried].  One thing for sure, it’s one long process of self-editing and self-critique.  I think a lot of [songwriters are not] . . . tough self-critics or self-editors.  

To combat his own penchant for laziness, Hornsby takes scrupulous notes and jots down ideas whenever he feels the inspiration:

Now comes the work; the inspiration only takes me so far.  I carry a notebook with me at all times.  I read your Tom Petty interview, and I was interested to see that he has all his old notebooks.  Well, I do, too.  Somewhere. . . .

Sometimes–like I saw Petty does–I go through [them] if I’m kind of barren, kind of dry.  Because there are a lot of things in there that never became songs.  I go through there, and generally I don’t find much.  But every now and then I [find] something that . . . emotionally gets me in some way.  So I accumulate a bunch of different bits. 

Practicing a lot can’t help but give you song ideas. . . . Something that feels great to you and feels like something you can really develop.  When I get a germ of a melody, I press “record” on my little box and accumulate a cassette of maybe twenty thirty-second bits.  It could be a chord progression; it could be a groove. . . .

The modern equivalent here, of course, would be the audio-recording app on your phone.  Hornsby continues, with refreshing honesty:

So I’ll accumulate this tape, and when it’s time to write the record, I go to this little wealth of information that I’ve accumulated, all these hopefuls–hopeful ideas–and I’ll listen to the tape, and a lot of the time I’ll wonder what it was I thought was good about something.  Because it’s in the moment, and sometimes something in the moment is really truly special, and sometimes it’s . . . not really that great.  I’m not good at identifying at the time something that is really [fabulous].  The real thing.  So it helps me to have a little distance and to go back.  

Throughout this series, we’ve heard songwriters discuss the differences in writing at the piano vs. writing with a guitar.  Here’s one more option for those with the means to be this creative.  Responding to Paul Zollo (whose book Songwriters on Songwriting has been the starting point for this series), when asked whether he, a jazz pianist by background, writes only at an acoustic piano, Hornsby says,

Generally.  But . . . I wrote some songs on accordion years ago and I liked that.  Because it takes you to a different place.  It’s good to get away from your typical trip.

Most of us don’t have access to an accordion and wouldn’t know how to play it if we did.  But I wonder what cwm would sound like if a few songwriters, on occasion, forced themselves to write via a $50 ukulele from Guitar Center or, in the spirit of Leonard Cohen, on a cheap Casio keyboard from Wal-Mart. 

Diversity is such a buzzword these days and appropriately so the vast majority of the time.  How about a little more diversity–melodically, harmonically, lyrically–in contemporary worship music?  Bruce Hornsby could serve as a great model for two of the three, anyway.  Consult your local Psalter for the third.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 12

The spring semester at Judson University pretty much launched, I’m going to try to finish up this series on excellent songwriting in the next month or so.  My mom purchased volume 2 of Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting for me for Christmas, and the second collection is equally massive, so I’ll probably share insights from it next fall, Lord willing, after I digest its 700 or so pages over the summer.

Since it’s been a while, let me bring us up to speed on this series.  As a Christian academic with advanced degrees in both English and worship, I sometimes despair of the quality of that which songwriters writing for the Church put forth and ask me to sing.  When I began this series last summer, I wanted to challenge worship leaders who felt God was calling them to write songs for His people to sing corporately to up their game–contemporary worship music (cwm) has enough four-chord power ballads to last until the new millennium–and to consider elements of traditional songcraft as they compose. 

Zollo’s interviews, though certainly not a definitive collection, have introduced us to some of the giants of popular song over the past 50 years, including Leonard Cohen, Lamont Dozier, Carole King, and Paul Simon.  Though none write from a specifically Christian worldview (I answer that and other objections to this exercise in the post, linked above), if we subscribe to the notion that all truth is God’s Truth, we humbly acknowledge that even athiests and agnostics, by virtue of bearing Imago Dei, have, in their better moments (like all the rest of us, part darkness, part light) something to offer this discussion.  

SuzanneVegaLebanonNHWe pick up with an artist some would consider a one-hit wonder, but, oh, what a hit it was.  Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” bounces along like any number of examples of late-80’s pop fluff until you stop and digest the lyrics and realize she’s singing about the horrors of child abuse.  Though nothing else she produced topped “Luka” for culture impact, Vega nevertheless wrote numerous excellent songs, including an elegy to loneliness, “Marlene on the Wall,” and the haunting “Men in a War.” 

As was the case with earlier writers we’ve looked at, not all of Vega’s responses to Zollo’s questions serve our purposes, but a couple of quotes related to the artistic muse–which, of course, believers would describe as the Holy Spirit–struck me as I read.  When asked about a song that came to her “like a bulletin,” Vega said the following about those pieces that come fairly easily:

[T]he best songs are just like that. . . . It’s when you are connected with something outside of yourself.  It’s when you are connected with something happening in life.  It relates back to paying attention to the situation that’s outside of yourself. . . . It’s not enough to just invent it.  It has to be connected to something real outside of yourself.

Her notion of writing “outside of yourself” strikes a chord when we sing so many songs that focus on our own, self-referential experiences in cwm.  To be fair, these kinds of devotional songs are rife in the Psalms, complete with first-person pronouns galore.  But the overall diet of the Psalter, of course, includes a wide variety of styles (especially lament) we hardly ever encounter in cwm.  A good question as a rule of thumb: As you survey your worship set on any given Sunday, ask yourself who gets the best action verbs.  If the answer isn’t the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit, there’s a problem.

In reference to a lyric that just appeared “as though I had nothing to do with it,” Vega noted the following interesting occurrence related to rhyming:

[Y]ou know you’ve really got it when everything starts to rhyme of its own accord . . . the rhythms and the rhymes just seem to be right there.  And it seems inevitable.  And you’re kind of held in the grip of this for a few hours.  For two or three hours you’re just held by this and you have to finish it.  You can’t just leave it.  You’re completely absorbed by this thing.  And it seems to be taking place in front of you as though you’re watching it.  It’s a very peculiar thing.  And it’s wonderful when you feel it.  And later you look back and think, ‘How did I do that?’  And it’s almost as though you didn’t do it.  And it’s very scary, because you’re sure it’s not going to happen again.

I was watching a special on JFK.  And I noticed that people, when they are very moved by grief, that their language became very condensed and would start to rhyme.  And they weren’t being poetic.  They were trying to express something that meant a lot to them.  And I noticed that the quality of their language changed.  Suddenly they started to speak in that way that you speak when you’re writing songs, if you’re close to something truthful.

Fascinating stuff.  So often I think we’re just scratching the surface of what’s available to us, even when considering an artform as utilitarian (in the best use of that adjective) as congregational song.  Here’s to “fuller, richer, and truer” cwm songs in 2021!

The Lord be with you!

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A Few Podcasts You Might Really Enjoy

Full disclosure: I don’t regularly listen to podcasts for the following reasons: 1) I have already mourned, for many years, that unless I live to be 120, I am going to go to my grave with numerous fabulous books left unread on my various shelves, so, given an hour to kill, I’d just as soon spend it with Dostoevsky, Lewis, or even Christie (if I need a little escapism); 2) I am the son of a music educator who preached that all music–high-brow, low-brow, and in-between-brow–had merit potentially.  “Warren, there’s good classical music and bad classical music,” he’d preach.  If he were alive today, he’d say, “There’s good screamo and bad screamo,” I have no doubt.  There’s just too much good music for me yet to explore; 3) I am also my father’s son in the sense that I function best doing something if I’ve going to be “held captive” by someone talking for any great length of time.  The ADHD strain in Anderson males takes root more noticeably in my brother, but I’ve got a touch of it, too, and because I don’t want to think too much when I’m engaged in other affairs like chores around the house, music is usually my background noise of choice.

That said, if I were to begin listening to podcasts, I’d start with these.  In the endless sea of talking heads available, I’m happy to suggest you consider the following.  I have a personal relationship with each of these entrepreneurs, and three are former students of mine.  That said, as the opening paragraph would suggest, I have only casually listened to two of these, and, for the other two, I am featuring them based solely on my experience as their hosts’ professor in recent years.  In other words, you listen at your own risk, and any opinions expressed on the podcasts, though they come from the hearts and minds of Judson University alumni, do not necessarily represent positions (political, theological, or otherwise) consistent with any similar positions espoused by Judson University.  (Once such a disclaimer would have been unnecessary–when the benefit of the doubt was offered far more universally–but that era is long gone, and, in our fractious times, it feels important to emphasize this.)  With that caveat, consider these for your podcast pleasure, offered in alphabetical order of the entrepreneur:

karinDr. Karin Anderson Abrell is a former psychology professor, a terrific author and speaker, and my sister, so I’m stupid biased when I say she offers great things to anyone in any circumstance related to relationships.  She has a complete-package social-media world encompassing numerous platforms under the general umbrella of Love & Life, including a Monday podcast.  She writes, “On Love & Life we explore research methods for happy, hopeful, positive living.  I delve into all the good stuff–how to have true intimacy in romantic relationships, more meaningful friendships, healthier family connections, and more fulfilling careers.”  You can access all of Karin’s materials at her website.

MattMatt Calio serves as the worship pastor at Crossview Church (EFCA) in DeKalb, IL.  I’ve known of Matt all his life, as his mom and I were at Judson together in the 80’s, but I really came to know and appreciate his deep thoughtfulness regarding the Christian faith when he came to JU, and he has continued his lifelong learning via his current pursuit of a master’s at Denver Seminary.  His podcast, called Bible, Books & Culture, airs every Friday.  Of the podcast, Matt says, “Our tag line is ‘seeing the grace of God in our literature and lives,’ so our hope is whether we’re reading a book, talking about our lives, or engaging in the world around us, we’ll be able to point out the grace of God in it all.”  You can access the podcast at Spotify and Apple Music

AaronI have worshiped under numerous worship leaders, and I’ve had the distinct privilege of helping to train many others who are truly excellent.  That said, if I could be led in worship by only one person, it’d be Aaron Niequist.  Raised low-Church evangelical, Aaron encountered high-Church liturgy in his late 20’s and 30’s, and it changed his life, a process eventually leading to his writing the excellent The Eternal Current, upon which his podcast is based.  He writes, “Even if your faith container seems to be failing, don’t give up.  You may give up on certain versions of religion, but let’s learn how to enter more deeply into the way of Christ.”  Aaron’s big-tent, both/and approach to worship is refreshing, and you can access the podcast and a bunch of other resources here.

SarahThe final podcast entrepreneur, Sarah Reynolds, was a student in Communication Arts, one of Judson’s most eclectic majors, so it’s no surprise that hers in the most idiosyncratic, perhaps, of all the offerings here.  Her brand-new Fresh Out of Spoons podcast features a look at how to survive and thrive, even while living with chronic illnesses.  Sarah’s goal is to “create a fun and safe space to discuss life with chronic health conditions.  We also enjoy sharing tips on finding great doctors to work with, pain management techniques, and any other advice we can share based on our experiences with various conditions.”   

I’m pretty stoked to share these with you.  I might have to become a podcast convert myself!

The Lord be with you!

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