Tuesday, January 10, 2006

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.

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