The Power of Simplicity

The Southern Gospel songwriters of the 1970s produced a decade of enduring classics that has never been matched. The decade’s greatest writers, including Bill & Gloria Gaither, Rusty Goodman, Dottie Rambo, Ronny Hinson, and Squire Parsons, all hit a creative peak at about the same time (~1967-77), and what a time it was.

Each of these writers kept writing into the 1980s and beyond. But we would all say that their strongest output was in the 1970s. Why is this? Why would so many of the greatest writers of their generation hit their peak at the same time?

It’s quite an odd phenomenon. I’ve been pondering it for several months. And I think I have found the answer: Simplicity.

To a man (or woman), each of these writers’ great songs from the 1970s had a distinct simplicity: Simple message, simple lyric, simple melody.

But about the time the calendar rolled over to the next decade, each of these writers shifted to a more intricate and involved style of songwriting. One of Dottie Rambo’s finest songs from the 1980s is “When His Kingdom Comes“; compare that to, say, “The Holy Hills.” For Bill & Gloria Gaither, compare “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” to “Because He Lives.” For Rusty Goodman, compare “Only For His Eyes” or “Standing In The Presence Of The King” to “Had It Not Been.” The difference is simplicity.

Let me be clear: There’s nothing wrong with intricate songs. Sometimes songs need to explore complex topics. In fact, those are often my personal favorites. When it comes to Squire Parsons, I’ll take “Crown of Bright Glory” over “Sweet Beulah Land” any day. But at the same time, I know which of the two pretty much any Christian in the South can sing by heart, and I think I know why.

There’s always a time and a place for songs that explore complex topics. Our genre has plenty of those right now—plenty excellent ones.

But it’s time to bring the simple songs back.

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La, la, la

For a variety of reasons, one of which is that it sometimes sparks post ideas here, I regularly read some of the most thoughtful columnists in other genres of Christian music. When it comes to worship music, one of those voices is Bob Kauflin.

Several weeks ago, he posted a column on generic syllables in Christian songs at his Worship Matters website. He notes an increasing trend in worship music to sing “lengthy portions of songs using vowel sounds rather than actually singing words.” Of course, this is a more prevalent phenomenon in worship music than in Southern Gospel, but we still see it on occasion in our own genre.

Kauflin’s examination of why we sing words with our melodies (and melodies with our words) is well worth taking the time to read his column. His thoughtful conclusions, though intended for congregational singing, have relevance for any genre of Christian music:

This seems to be a matter of balance. If there was one song or even an occasional song that used “oh’s” as a filler, this would be a non-issue. But when every third song we lead incorporates vocal sounds rather than words, we’re developing an unhealthy pattern and could possibly be teaching people that the feeling of singing is more fulfilling than the truths we express. . . . 

Single syllables are easy to learn and people tend to belt them out passionately. In fact, at times I’ve heard crowds at their loudest when they’re singing generic syllables. As I lead a congregation, my hope is that they’ll be most excited about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. It’s not hard to get a crowd singing “oh oh oh” at the top of their lungs. What is harder and certainly more fruitful is to lead them in loudly singing something like, “And on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” The point isn’t how loud we sing, but why we sing so loud.

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Songs That Answer Questions

In 1976, when Bill & Gloria Gaither wrote “Songs That Answer Questions,” their generation had specific questions that needed to be answered. Today, the song’s theme can be applied to a new generation: This generation needs songs that answer questions, period.

(But first, a brief aside relating more to the song above than the post below: There is merit to songs that are culturally relevant. But there’s also merit to not permitting our lyrical emphases and themes to be wholly driven by our culture. The central themes and focuses of the Bible need to be our central themes and focuses, too.)

In other genres of Christian music, songs posing unanswered questions are considered fashionable and relevant. In some songs, practically every line is an unanswered question.

The increasing trend of unanswered questions is fairly directly connected to the rise of postmodernism in Christian thought. This is rarely the intent of the songwriters; it’s more a side effect of being immersed in today’s culture. In postmodernism, where one of the core tenets is that all truth is relative, anyone who dares to make an open declaration of truth is ridiculed as an uppity elitist know-it-all. So Christians in this postmodern culture hesitate to speak truth definitively in their schools, workplaces, and even a few churches.

If Christians, then, are scared to speak truth definitively, how does truth get communicated at all? It has become the popular thing to formulate leading questions that hint at an answer, without ever being so divisive as to actually state it. That, it is argued, is how Christians are to reach out to the modern culture: Never directly speak truth, but be nice and gracious and non-confrontational, and suggest the truth through gentle questions that never make a sinner feel bad.

From Isaac Watts, the father of English-language hymnody, through the Christian writers of the 1980s, Christian music was viewed as a tool to proclaim truth. This even applied to much of early Jesus Music and CCM, and early praise/worship. To a small extent in the 1990s, and to a greater extent in the 2000s, though, some songwriters in Contemporary Christian Music and in praise & worship music have started to trend in the direction of the nice, gracious, non-confrontational unanswered question.

There are exceptions, especially in the modern hymn movement, where writers like Keith & Kristyn Getty follow the traditional method of Christian songwriting, direct proclamations of truth. Some other writers in this modern hymn movement, though, try to emulate the Gettys musically but don’t quite “get it” when it comes to standing against the cultural trends of postmodern lyrics. It takes more than skipping a chorus to make a song a modern hymn.

Yes, great Christian songs through the centuries—even going back to an occasional Psalm—leave questions unanswered. There’s a place for that once in a while, especially for something that’s a component of a larger body of work (e.g. other Psalms) where these unanswered questions are clearly answered elsewhere.

But we need to be mindful of the current cultural context in our country, where Christians are urged to never answer their questions. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what sort of culture we live in; in our sermons and in our songs, we need to never shirk our responsibility to clearly proclaim the Biblical answers to life’s questions.

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Guest Post: Chris Allman on The Process of Pitching

Editor’s note: Songwriter and Greater Vision tenor Chris Allman contributes today’s post. (Thank you, Chris!) He maintains a songwriting blog at www.hooklinesandsingers.com.

We’re in game seven of the series and it all comes down to who’s on the mound.  If the man who started the game still has a little heat left in the rocket, the manager makes the decision to let him finish.  If he’s been hoisting watermelons with a dish rag for the last two innings, it’s time to call in relief.  There’s a reason why the game wins and losses are credited to the pitcher.  The delivery of the ball to the catcher has everything riding on it.  One batter may rob you blind on the low and outside.  Another batter may just be licking his chops waiting for your fast ball.  Bottom line is this… Whatever the man with the stick is wanting, you don’t want to give it to him!

This same premise goes for pitching a song except when you’re pitching your music; you want to be throwing what they’re wanting.  I’ve been on both sides of the pitch.  You might think just because I sing tenor with Greater Vision and ride the bus with the Nolan Ryan of songwriting that getting my music recorded is a breeze but you’re mistaken.

Pitching music for me is the same as it is for everyone.  Sure it helps that GV looks at mine and Rodney’s songs first but we still consider every song that’s sent our way.  In this day and age everybody wants to be a songwriter and that has made it a bit more difficult when trying to get your music considered.  

With that said, there has never been a day when it was easier to get your songs to the person you want to hear it.  We used to have to take the demo, seal it in an envelope and mail it off.  Now, within minutes you can get your song to the other side of the world with the click of the send button.

If you are trying to get a song pitched and recorded, there are a few things you need to do that will give you much better odds of success.

  • Record a good demo – Often on the road, writers will come up to me or Rodney and give us an envelope with lyrics enclosed.  While the lyric is truly the most important element of a song, it doesn’t do us any good if we can’t hear what the song is supposed to sound like.  It’s going to cost you a little, but it will be worth it if it gets the song a listen and possible cut.
  • Make connections – Go to concerts and get to know the ones singing the music.  Now, I don’t suggest you walk up to the table and introduce yourself as a songwriter.  I mean, really get to know the singers.  If you love this music and you want to be involved, you need to build relationships with others who love this music.  If you do so with an ulterior motive, trust me, it will not work in your favor.
  • Secure a publisher – This is important for obvious reasons.  First of all, you need to protect your creations.  A good publisher will make sure all of the bases are covered in regards to copyright.  Second of all, a good publisher has connections that you don’t have and will pitch your music for you.  You may want to be self-published so you can keep all of the royalties but if you aren’t an established writer, you need to be willing to part with publishing royalties so that you might experience some success.

These are just a few ideas for you to ponder.  If you are gifted in the realm of songwriting but aren’t realizing success, you may want to consider the list above.  Best of luck to you getting your songs pitched!!!

Thanks to Daniel Mount for allowing me to share today!

If this has helped you at all, I blog every day Monday through Friday at www.hooklinesandsingers.com.  Come on over and sign up to follow!

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Songwriting: Overusing Metaphors

It seems to be a slow news week so far, so let’s take a look at a spin-off question that arose in yesterday’s discussion:

Is it possible to over-use a metaphor?

Can we actually have too many songs about the Prodigal Son, Lazarus, the Ninety and Nine, or Psalm 23?

Let’s put it in more specific terms. Suppose a group has been going for seven years and has released five albums—and every single song on each album is about the Prodigal Son. Can one actually have too much of a good thing?

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Songwriting: Saying “Love” instead of “Jesus”?

There have always been and will always be songs about God’s love. (Examples: “Boundless Love,” “If That isn’t Love.”)

But over the last fifteen years, it seems there have been a steadily increasing number of songs which use “love” as a directly equivalent replacement for “God” or “Jesus.” This practice is not completely new, of course; “Love Lifted Me” used this metaphor. (Examples: “Love Lifted Me” is a direct equivalent for “Jesus Lifted Me,” while “Boundless Love” would not make sense as “Boundless Jesus!”)

Take, for example:

  • “Love Did,” You Can’t Ask Too Much of My God, Bishops (1996)
  • “Love Was in the Room,” I Believe, George Younce (1998) – since revisited twice by the Booth Brothers
  • “Love Has a Place for You,” What a Difference a Day Makes, Ernie Haase (1999)
  • “Love Answered,” All Star Quartets, Daywind artists (ca. 2001)
  • “Love Brought Me Back,” Changed Forever, Perrys (2001)
  • “Strong Hand of Love,” Ready, Carolina Boys/Kingsmen (2003)
  • “Love is a Cross,” Legacy, Mike LeFevre Quartet (2005)
  • “Love is Alive Forever,” Let it Be, Poet Voices (2005)
  • “Love’s Call,” Live to Love, Hope’s Call (2006)
  • “Love Called My Name,” Under Grace, Ivan Parker (2006)
  • “The Night that Love Was Born,” Call Jesus, Kingdom Bound Quartet (2010)
  • “Love Came Calling,” Love Came Calling, Triumphant Quartet (2010)
  • “Love is a Cross,” Real Man. Real Life. Real God., John Berry (2011) (“love is saving you / love is saving me”)
  • “Love Carried the Cross,” Here We Are Again, Ernie Haase & Signature Song (2012)

Is an emphasis and focus on this aspect of God’s nature an attempt to make the “offence of the Cross” (Galatians 5:11) more palatable and marketable? If so, is this a good thing?

 

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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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Dated Lyrics

Changing musical styles often make a song’s melody or arrangement seem dated. What makes a lyric seem dated?

Obviously, outdated cultural references are one possibility. (Case in point: “No Shortage,” The Imperials)

Slang is another. (Case in point: The Blackwood Brothers’ “It Must Be the Man in the Sky”—and, perhaps, “Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs,” though I suppose there is a possibility people somewhere still use that to refer to God. Another case in point: Everything in Contemporary Christian Music from 1975-1985! 😀 )

Some would say King James-era language is a third. It probably is in Contemporary Christian Music, but in this genre, I would contend that it’s more likely to bring classic hymns to mind—and that’s far from a bad thing.

What other factors might make a lyric seem dated? What would make you say, “Oh, that sounds so 1950s”—from the lyrics alone?

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Fiction versus Nonfiction in Gospel Songwriting

Fictional books outsell non-fictional books by a long shot.

Country outsells Southern Gospel by a long shot.

Those two facts are not necessarily coincidental. Our culture prefers fiction to truth.

There are countless admonitions throughout Scripture to be truthful. Does a Christian have an obligation to sing the truth? If not, and if a Christian is singing a fictional song, as in a country-style story-song, should that be clearly noted?

It has been said that Jesus’ parables were fictional. But isn’t that an assumption, based on our assumptions about our culture and theirs? Jesus, as God, is omniscient, and could have easily known a true-life story in every case. Over the four thousand years of earth history prior to that point, there is a high likelihood that a true story had occurred that matched every parable.

One more question, in case this doesn’t stir the pot enough as it is! Proverbs 26:18-19 states: “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!'” Does that verse have a bearing on this discussion?

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The Missing Part of the Modern Christian Song

The missing part of the modern Christian song is the end of the story.

Two primary factors contribute to this. First, modern songwriters have less space. Until modern times, hymnwriters writing a song would nearly always write at least four verses, and, come the 1800s, four verses and a chorus. Five and six verses weren’t unheard of, and eight or more happened on occasion. Today’s push to keep songs down to either three verses or two verses and a bridge leaves less room to complete a broader narrative.

The second factor is far more prevalent in Contemporary Christian Music than in our genre, but is still sometimes seen here. Sometimes the relentless pursuit of relevancy leaves songs focused on the here-and-now problems, without the end of the story that offers a solution to these problems.

I can understand and live with space limitations easily enough; in fact, it could be construed as a positive, since it forces forcing lyrical and conceptual conciseness and leaves less time to wander before getting to the point. So it is the second factor that concerns me.

Here is a key point—my core point, if you will. Previous generations of songwriters also wrote relevant songs—but they also included the end of the story.

A good example is “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Most modern hymnals either only have verses one and two, or verses one and three; a few have one, two, and three. Yet for years, something about the song struck me as vaguely unsatisfying. It was not until I discovered the fourth verse about two years ago that I realized what it was: Modern hymnals had left out the end of the story.

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!

You see, while we can enjoy prayer on earth—or, more applicably for most of us, work on the habits of spiritual discipline so that we may move toward enjoying it—it is but a weak foretaste of that day when we shall no longer have to pray—for we shall see face to face.

Another example comes from “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” While I could tell many church audiences that they had never heard the final verse, I trust there are enough students of English-language hymnody here that it would not be true for some of you. At any rate, here it is:

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

With these hymns, and other hymns similarly mangled in modern hymnals, at least we have the ability to research and retrieve these glorious capstones. Regrettably, we can’t do this with many songs from Contemporary Christian Music and from those less traditional portions of our own genre that take their songwriting cues from CCM, since the end of the story wasn’t written in in the first place.

Make no mistake, relevant songs are good. Tell your story—tell a relevant story if you can. Yet don’t omit the best part, the end of the story.

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