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!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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