Songwriting Style and Denominations

Naturally, a songwriter’s denominational background influences their lyrics’ doctrinal content. But does it also show through in their songwriting style?

But would a songwriter from a Calvinist background emphasize a precisely constructed lyric in a systematic-theology-sort of way?

Would a songwriter from a Charismatic background tend to gravitate towards subjective “me-and-Jesus” songs?

Would a songwriter from an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist background, by contrast, tend toward definitive, objective doctrinal proclamations that leave no room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation?

Would a songwriter from a Pentecostal background dash down a song as it occurred to them, sticking with spur-of-the-moment inspiration, much like Pentecostal sermons?

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34 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. I would say ‘yes.’

  2. I would say yes, surely the writer’s denomination influences their style. But I am happy that it is undetectable to me. As a matter of fact, I think the only time I have thought about the denomination of a song is on Greater Vision’s 20 Years Live in Texas when Gerald introduces some song as a Pentecostal song.

    • I suspect he was talking about the musical feel more than the lyric style!

      • I went back and listened to this and it actually applies to this thread more than I realized.

        First Gerald introduces “So Much God” as a song written by a Baptist preacher (funny cause it has the feel of a Rodney song I think). Then when it ends, he comments that he loves it so much because it has a “Pentecostal gallop” to it.

        He then discusses the songbook he carries which his Baptist church used as he was growing up. It is a Church of God hymnal which he desribes as a Pentecostal songbook. He then introduces a song from the book, “I Know He Heard My Prayer” written by a Pentecostal preacher.

        The funny thing is “I Know He Heard My Prayer” doesn’t really have a Pentecostal musical feel to it, though the lyrics may have a bit.

      • The “Baptist preacher” is Dr. Craig Edwards out of Mayberry Baptist in Mount Airy.

        The “Pentecostal preacher” was Vep Ellis, master convention songwriter and one of the primary forces behind the redback Church Hymnal.

  3. You should study the theology of gospel material by Bill Monroe (The Father of Blugrass and great contributor to southern gospel). It may not always seem consistant. Philosophy may flow as rhyme dictates.

    • I think, though, that even there, you will see people from certain denominations let that happen, and people from other denominations place such a high premium in theologically sound lyrics that they would virtually never let something like that slip by.

  4. Have you ever heard local church groups change the lyrics of a popular Southern Gospel song to make it fit their doctrine? I have heard it many, many times. I personally find this to be well meaning arrogance.

    • I have mixed feelings.

      On the one hand, some make enough sense that everyone ends up adopting them, e.g. “on a cloud to call God’s Children” in Midnight Cry.

      But if it is not something of which the author would approve, I think it may actually be illegal. Other than in the case of parody, I think you might actually have to have clearance from the author to make changes of this nature.

      • I’ve got to vote for the “changers” in this instance, picking for my examples the Statesmen (“just a little while … in this meek and lowly state”) and the Happy Goodmans (“sets my happy soul on fire.”) Spoken as a die-hard Arminian who doesn’t expect to be agreed with. 🙂 😀

      • BTW what was the original in the line from “Midnight Cry” that you quoted?

      • “on a cloud to call HIS children”…just a little Trinity mixup. We’re not Jesus’ children…we’re God’s children. Our relationship with Christ is that of bride, and joint-heir.

      • Precisely. Thanks, Brian!

      • Ah, OK. Thanks!

  5. I would say yes! I think a songwriter’s denomination, their life experience’s, and Divine inspiration all play a role in what a songwriter puts down on paper. You may consider this a tad off-topic, but I think as artists we have to be extremely picky when it comes to what songs we record. I have completely overlooked a great song because of one line that was not Biblical.

    • I absolutely agree, Ross. Biblically sound lyrics should be the first thing any gospel artist looks for. And because I assume artists for the most part, look for and record those songs that personally speak to them, I would assume that MOST artists are singing songs that are in line with their own doctrinal views, or else it probably wouldn’t speak to them.

  6. I’m with Daniel on this one. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, if a word or two (insignificant to the meat of the song) is changed and the meaning is not altered, I don’t think it’s necessarily a crime. For example, I’ve been guilty myself to use a different word here or there to make the song work for me or to use what I felt was a better rhyme than what the writer used. What I don’t like is to change entire phrases or lines to say something completely different, like some of our choral arrangers do, for example, to make the song more seeker friendly or more universally appealing to the masses. This would be particularly disturbing if it was done without the writer’s permission.

    I have always cringed to hear the Goodmans’ version of “Jesus Is Coming Very Soon,” of more recent years before their passsing. They replaced “Many Will Meet Their Doom” with “It Could Be Very Soon.” Besides using the word “soon” as a rhyming word twice in the first half of the chorus, to me it takes away the effectiveness of the song’s message of warning to “make it right with God or you will meet your doom.” So what if it’s not seeker friendly. I don’t think the writer meant it to be, and in that case, especially to alter such a classic, I think it was the wrong thing to do. Just my opinion, but I’d rather see groups pay tribute to a bonafide classic in a more respectful way. I have no idea whose call that was to change the lyric, but I wish they hadn’t.

    • I’m surprised to hear the Goodmans did that. 🙁 I’d heard it done the other way. I suppose the idea was that we shouldn’t be rejoicing over that fact (it’s a happy, upbeat song), but we can’t very well ignore it or separate the two facts.

  7. Yes, denominational teachings are a driving force in songwriting.

    I really enjoy reading this thread as the various doctrinal thoughts are seen in the comments.

    I like to see the non-denominational southern gospel music keep it message very simple because of the diversity of the genre.

    The reference to the artist changing doom to soon to make it simpler for the whole genre.
    We can add Midnight Cry to the list as well as God Leads His Children Along. I do not want to make a big list in to preserve the unity of the saints.

    Those songs would and do fit very well in my upbringings in my denomination without the changes.

    Changes involving various doctrine thoughts is not a issue for me.

    Some keywords in the plan of salvation will never be on the table for changes.

    It is a lot easier to come down from a thought process but adding a specific thought could and would confuse the masses.

    • If we could all just agree on the plan of salvation……

  8. I’d love to see how this discussion might proceed if it were limited to the extent that denominational doctrine influences musical style (as opposed to lyrical content).

    • Well, naturally, lyrics are my thing, and you’re a musician. Why don’t you ask the other half of the question – that half – on your site.

      If you would be so gracious as to mention that this discussion sparked the question, that would be spectacular. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Yes a songwriters denominational background will influence their lyrics. But strangely many songs that calvinists sing were written by charles wesley. I once heard D. James Kennedy say that Wesley was more calvinistic than he wanted to admit. But anyhow, they were beautiful biblical hymns

  10. I disagree with Glen. Sometimes groups do change the lyrics to fit their doctrinal beliefs but I don’t think its arrogant. A church group may like a song but may not be able to sing it if it conflicts with their beliefs. So instead of throwing out the whole song they change one or two lines and they still get to present that great song without confusing the church members

    • Jason,
      I think that’s fine if the songwriter is contacted and approves.

      It’s also a long-time tradition in hymns that lyrics be changed, and not just for doctrinal reasons. Language changes over the centuries, and I’d rather see a good song survive than fade into obscurity.

      I’m planning to use a song on September 11 in my church that has four verses. I wrote new lyrics for the third and fourth verse and asked the songwriter if he minded me using it in that fashion for a one-time event. Of course, I’m not going to publish the lyrics I wrote, or anything of that nature. After the choir sings the song, I’ll take up the copies of the adjusted lyric and dispose of them.

      It’s not right to profit or get credit for an idea after someone else has done all the heavy lifting, except in cases where you have their blessing to proceed.

    • Would you change a painting that you felt was not “just right” or would you simply choose another one?

  11. My church has an amillennial/preterist eschatological view, but I grew up with premillennial teaching (though it is certainly not a contention of salvation). So, whenever we come across a song that sounds rather premillennial or dealing with the rapture (like if we bring a group in to sing), I get kind of nervous because I still haven’t figured out exactly what the church believes or how they respond to such lyrics.

    The cousin of a friend of mine is Seventh Day Adventist, which in our area is a big supporter of Southern Gospel Music. He always recommended that groups coming to his church be knowledgable enough about the denomination to not sing “Everyday Will Be Sunday” at the church.

    • Excellent point about pre- or post-trib views about the Second Coming of Christ.

      The latter part of the comment is discernment at its best!

  12. Has anyone ever looked up the original lyrics to “Rock of Ages”? They’re considerably different. (I prefer the newer version.)

  13. I am not talking about changing the lyrics to make a profit. I am simply talking about changing a word or phrase to make the song more suitable for a church’s beliefs. It would be contradictory if the pastor of a denomination preached about the sabbath being saturday when the band right before the sermon sang “Sunday Meeting Time”. Its a way to use a great southern gospel song without compromising doctrine. And 99% of the song stays the same.

  14. A perfect example of changing lyrics because of doctrinal differences is when the Gaither Vocal Band recorded “I shall wear a robe and crown”. There is one line where it says “I’m gonna tell him how I made it over” but the GVB changed that lyric. The rest of the song was the same and there was no big fuss about it either.

  15. Very interesting topic – (song style and denomination). It almost begs this question: does the adept songwriter alter his writing style to accommodate those denominations (and groups)?

    Here’s what I mean: consider the music of Ernie Hasse&Sig.Sound: old blues done up huge, and modern Southern Gospel (hook-driven songs). It’s completely different from the Perrys’ Kyla Rowland-infused discography (experience/deliverance-based songs).

    I can’t speak to the denominational affiliations of anyone I just mentioned, but I can tell you that their choice of songs sure does have some obvious earmarks of what their choice of denomination MIGHT be.

    So yes, denomination plays a big role in songwriting. But it also makes sense that the modern gospel songwriter should be able to write in many styles and accommodate many denominations. That means songs with loaded hooks, intimate truths, story songs, and spectacle songs.