Tuesday, January 10, 2006

As We Gather In Your Presence

I wrote this song with two services in mind. Well, three, actually. But the third one was a ceremony. It all started when…

Rabbi Daniel Roberts hired me to teach and lead music for the confirmation service at Temple Emanu El in Cleveland, Ohio. The service included a song to be sung at the time the students were to give an offering of a “floral gift.” I didn’t know the song that had previously been used, and I didn’t have an appropriate one in my repertoire. So I wrote one. Actually, I sketched out the chorus and the first verse.

Around the same time, another service was coming up at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, also in Cleveland. It was an end of the school year Shabbat Hamoreh, a service at which all of the teachers were recognized and appreciated. We were also saying goodbye to two of our beloved administrators who were moving on to other positions and, in one case, another city. The second verse came with this service looming.

Finally, 8th grade graduation was nearing at The Agnon School where I taught music. I played the nearly finished song for one of my eighth grade students who helped me with some marvelous suggestions for the Hebrew chorus. (I’ve taken Hebrew Level 1 five times now. He was much better at it than I was.)

The song was completed and sung at all three occasions. It’s proven to be a pretty sturdy opening song for almost any service or ceremony, and I certainly open with it often in concert.

Hallelujah Land

This was the song that started it all! It has rather inauspicious and humble beginnings. I wrote it in about three hours one late night, and what you hear on the CD is pretty much the way it came out that night.

One evening, after the kids (and my wife) went to bed, I sat up playing through my Rise Up Singing songbook. I was struck at how many Moses songs there were, and at how many of them were not exclusively Jewish. In fact, most of them were not “Jewish” at all, but gospel songs that originated in the days of slavery, such as Let My People Go. And some were modern day folk songs, such as Man Come In To Egypt, by Fred Hellerman (The Weavers) and recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

I was also struck by the melodic beauty of these songs, eloquent in their simplicity. And, of course, the message of tzedek (justice) articulated by the stories of, and the longings for, freedom.

Sometimes a songwriter just needs to be open to the forces around him or her and not try very hard. Sometimes the very act of “trying” or “working” impedes the creative process. Sometimes a song is “received” rather that “written.” I don’t know where the words “Hallelujah Land” came from. I just found myself singing them that night to this ridiculously simple I, IV, V chord progression and four-note melody. The verses just kind of spilled out as I went along. I added the III chord (Em in the key of C) to the latter part of the verse (that’s the songwriter part), which gives it a little “lift.”

Jerusalem In My Heart

Here’s another example of writing out of need. The middle schoolers where I taught were having what would amount to be a Shabbaton, an overnight at the school, but it started at Havdalah (Saturday night) and went through Sunday. The theme was “Jerusalem.”

I was asked to come for the evening and lead Havdalah, and did I have a nice opening song? I would find one, I said. Saturday night, an hour before I was to lead the service, I still hadn’t found a song. So I wrote one.

I was doing dinner dishes at home (see, not trying again) and the words “Jerusalem In My Heart” came to me. I dried my hands, sat down, and wrote out three simple verses. I wrote it as an echo song. Nobody would have heard it before I played it that night (including myself) and I wanted them to participate actively. They did. The song worked and it stuck around.

Standing At The Bottom of Ararat

I’ve always loved the Noah story. And I always thought it had much more to offer than what we usually read on the surface.

As a songwriter, I’m always looking for that interesting and vivid image, or unusual turn of phrase. “Standing at the bottom of Ararat” provided that and became the “hook.”

The first three verses are a basic retelling of the story. The fourth ties in my message: “That rainbow sign is for me and you. We’re all on that ark.”

Sukkat Shalom

This is one of the rare instances in which I incorporated liturgy or text into a song. This text spoke to me. “A shelter of peace spreading out over all of us. A shelter of compassion, of life, of peace.” (Roughly translated.) Again, the image is vivid and multi-layered.

Though this text is not usually associated with the holiday of Sukkot, I chose to link them in this song. The holiday of Sukkot, like this text, is also multi-layered. It’s about much more than celebrating the harvest; it’s about leaving the corners of the fields and the gleanings that drop so that the less fortunate may eat. It’s about basic human survival. It’s about compassion and Tikun Olam (repairing the world).

This song is all about the poetry and the imagery of the lyric. The musical structure is fairly simple (it’s really almost exactly the same as Hallelujah Land if you think about it). The chorus departs somewhat with a riff borrowed from Elton John’s Your Song. I make no apologies. Whether Elton knows it or not, he is now a part of, what Pete Seeger calls, the Folk Process.

One Life

This song is about second chances. If you’re lucky enough to get one, run with it.

Musically, I was paying homage to the first really successful group I was in in Chicago, Illinois. It was an a capella music and comedy group called Four Guys Standing Around Singing.

That’s all me you hear on the recording. We did it in eight hours on one day.

Early In The Morning (Late At Night)

I wrote this one in the car while driving home to Cleveland, Ohio from a Children’s Music Network conference in New York State. As these kinds of conferences tend to do, I was energized musically and spiritually. Though I don’t recommend this, I literally jotted down they words as the came to me while zipping along on the turnpike. When I got home (early in the evening) I took out my guitar and (without ever having played any music to it yet) proceeded to play it in its entirety for my son, who was about seven at the time, and my wife. Zac said he liked it. I knew it was a keeper.

With These Hands

Generally, I am an impatient songwriter. Song ideas usually don’t sit very long with me. I don’t mind the process of writing, but I really enjoy having written.

That being said, this song took me over a year to complete. I had this idea about hands. I liked the image. Think of all the things hands can do. They can demonstrate great strength, build great buildings and structures. The same hands can display gentle tenderness. They can caress an infant, comfort a loved one. They create beautiful and intricate works of art. They work the earth and provide sustenance.

So, I had this idea about hands. Then I thought of the title, “With These Hands.” Then I though it sounded so obvious and familiar that someone must have written it already. So I did some research. I started asking people if they’d ever heard the song “With These Hands.” When nobody had, I began to write it.

For whatever reason, the process was difficult. This one did not flow. I sat with it many a night waiting for the direction to reveal itself to me. My friend, and fellow musician, Chuck Fink, came over one night to play music with me and I presented this song idea to him. I played what I had – which was not much – a three or four chord progression and a bit of melody. Chuck helped me structure the verse musically and lyrically. It was at that point that I decided to include the eyes and heart in each verse.

Now I had a structure. I sketched out the first two verses. But I still had no direction. I sat with it. I walked with it. I drove with it. I was not ready to receive it. But I stuck with it.

About a year after I had started the process (and had completed other songs) I took a trip to Wisconsin for another Children’s Music Network gathering. It was getting close to my tenth wedding anniversary, I was away from home, getting a little homesick, and missing my children. One night sitting alone with my guitar in Wisconsin, the direction revealed itself to me and I wrote down the last two verses.

I was so unsure of it during the writing process that I remained unsure of it after it had been completed. I was uncomfortable performing it for a long time. Now, of course, it is one of the mainstays of my repertoire.

Joshua’s Band

I think of this song as having three distinct sections. There’s the chorus, the verse, and each verse has a little tag (or maybe each chorus has a little intro). I’ll start with the tag.

One time at a conference, I heard a wonderful d’var Torah (commentary) on the parting of the Red Sea. The rabbi related a midrash (story). It seems that when Pharaoh freed the Hebrew slaves, then changed his mind and sent the army after them, the slaves made it all the way to the Red Sea and then began complaining. “Moses, why did you bring us here to die? We’d rather be slaves.” Faith was hard to come by since they’d had so little for so long.

Now, most of know the story as Moses putting his staff into the water and water parting to let the former slaves pass through. Sort of like a magic trick. Or a freak act of nature. Or maybe it was the hand of God. But why would God save a group of complaining, faithless people?

Sometimes the onus is on our shoulders to take the first step, to take some personal responsibility, to have blind faith.

The part of the story that made an impression on me that day was the story of Nachshon, who boldly stepped into the water. And he walked. He walked into the sea, and it wasn’t until he was in up to his neck that the waters parted. All it took was for one person to have faith…”If you’re waiting for a miracle to set you free/You gotta take the first step…”

I am reminded of that story about the man, we’ll call him Joseph, who was among a group of people whose homes were caught in a flash flood. Joseph has faith in God and steps outside to wait. Some people are driving past in their car and they beckon for Joseph to ride with them to safety. Joseph declines. “I have faith. God will save me,” he says. The water rises up to Joseph’s waist. Some people come rowing past in a boat. “Joseph, get in. We have room for one more!” Joseph replies, “I have faith. God will save me.” The water rises. Joseph seeks higher ground and climbs up to his roof. A helicopter hovers and the people drop a rope for Joseph. Joseph waves them off. “I have faith. God will save me.” The waters rise. Joseph is swept away and, sadly, is drowned. Joseph is a little perplexed and a slightly indignant at his meeting with God. “God,” Joseph sputters incredulously, “why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “Joseph, I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter. What more do you want?!”

“If you’re waiting for a miracle to set you free/You gotta take the first step…” It is up to us to take on the responsibility of faith, and of recognizing those moments – and not just the obvious ones – when God is there.

The chorus of this song is a basic “Gospel-style” chorus which sings about “spiritual nutrition,” some of the intangible things that keep us going, in a sort of call and response format. It ends with the line “You gotta give the stories a voice and pass them along.” That is a rich and central part of our religion, our faith and our culture.

As a songwriter, I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to say things. In the verses, I tried to find unique ways to present some of the stories from our biblical history. I also tried to put myself, or rather the narrator of the song, in some way right into the middle of each story. And each story only gets one line in the song. I also like the structure of the verse: AAB, CCB. It’s a little different from the norm and helps to highlight some of the ideas. The last verse links our history to our present and ties the whole thing together.

Some miscellany:
  • I wrote most of this song in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio.
  • I always wanted to reference Caesar Chavez in a song. This was the one.
  • When I came home and played it for the first time for a friend, the only comment I got was, “It’s kind of long.”
  • I’ve played this song to great response in both synagogues and churches.
  • Troy Dexter, my arranger, producer and musician on this album, is a genius. He asked me how I wanted to record this song and I said, “Think Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers. I want it to sound like a gospel song.” Troy delivered. By the way, that’s Troy playing the bass, the piano, the organ and the tambourine on the recording. And his wife is one of the backup singers.

Now go out there and pass the stories along.

Wisdom of the Heart

I wrote this one for the same middle school graduation I referenced earlier. There wasn’t, as they say, a dry eye in the house.

Thanks to Julie Silver for spending a day in the studio with me do the backing vocals. She’s a mensch.