Little Bit of Light
I had been wanting to write a “December song” – not a Chanukah song or a Christmas song, and not necessarily a song that combined, or explicitly mentioned either of those holidays. But, a seasonal song, and I was looking for a link.
It was my good friend Sarah Taub, of blessed memory, who found it for me. She said it so quickly and easily, as if it was just so obvious, that once she said it, it was so obvious. I was musing and fretting about how the various holidays of the season have nothing in common, religiously or historically. “There is no link,” I declared. Without hesitation she said, “Of course there is: Light.”
Of course it is. Every culture, in every era, since before Chanukah and Christmas existed, before Judaism and Christianity were established, humans have been using light to celebrate during the darkest and coldest part of the year. Light. That was the seed that was to grow into this song.
This is where my memory grows hazy, though. I remember that sometime after that conversation, I was driving to western Connecticut for a weekend gig. Somewhere along the way, I got stuck in an hours-long, full-stop traffic jam. By the time I was finally approaching western Connecticut, it was very late and very dark. It was a clear night with lots of stars.
Now, the story my memory wants to tell me is that I saw a shooting star. But, honestly, I don’t know if I did or not. The story is much more romantic to say that I did. In any case, for some reason, the first line of this song popped into my head: “In the trail of the tail of a shooting star…” By the time I got to the hotel, I had the first three lines. By the end of the weekend, I had the whole song and sang it in my concert on Sunday.
Sometimes, all we need is a little bit of light in the nighttime sky.
With the rhythmic acoustic guitars, the snappy electric lead guitar, the piano, bass, drums and other percussion, I knew this song was going to be full and stand nicely on its own as it was. But I also wanted to give it a little extra push and I always knew that was going to come from a bright-sounding gospel chorus, echoing Noah’s lead vocals, in harmony. I felt the same way about Only Love.
Both songs came out sounding the way I wanted them to and thought they would. Neither song needed horns or strings; just a few voices. And on both songs, Steve Gordon’s buoyant electric guitar really shines through.
This song was written on a dare, though the person who issued the dare didn’t know he had done so, nor did he have any intention of doing so.
“Mi shebeirach” are the first two Hebrew words of a healing prayer recited in the synagogue, usually when the Torah is read. The prayer is commonly known as “the Mi Shebeirach prayer,” or simply “Mi shebeirach.” The first English words of the prayer are “May the One who blessed our fathers … and our mothers … .” Our fathers (avoteinu) and our mothers (imoteinu) are understood to be our Biblical fathers and mothers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
There is a standard formula for this prayer, but there are many contemporary interpretations of it. Some musical interpretations stick closely to the standard text, and some take a few liberties. I strayed quite a bit from the text and took a lot of liberties. In fact, the only parts of the text I really stuck to are the four Hebrew words I chose to use: Mi shebeirach and avotenu v'imoteinu. In the verses I used imagery from the Noah’s Ark story (the raven, the dove, and sailing on the water), and from our redemption story, Exodus (walking on the burning sand).
Several years ago, as we neared the High Holidays, Rabbi Eddie Sukol and I were going over music choices for the upcoming services I would be singing. When we got to the Mi Shebeirach he asked me which version I wanted to do. I mentioned some and for each one he had a different reason why he didn’t want to do it that year – he wanted to change the service up a little, he wasn’t particularly fond of that one, etc. Finally, I said (half-joking) that I could write a new one. He said, “No. You don’t have time. Just do the one we always do.”
That’s all I needed. The next week when I came to our planning session, I took out my guitar and said, “Here’s your new Mi Shebeirach.” It’s been our Mi Shebeirach for many years now and many in the congregation know it by heart.
Now I get to share it with you.
I hope it brings you a little bit of comfort or spiritual nourishment whenever you need it.
I was born in 1960 and raised on folk music. I knew all the words to “The Hammer Song” – a/k/a “If I Had a Hammer” – by the time I was four (and I still play it in concert). I was also raised with an awareness of the Civil Rights Movement as it crested in the ‘60s. My awareness and understanding of history and current events have deepened as the decades have worn on. And it was through the folk singers, especially Pete Seeger, that I learned about and intuited the power that songs could have.
One morning while driving my car (a lot of inspiration seems to find me in the car) I was listening to an NPR story about a photo exhibit at the Akron (Ohio) Art Museum. The exhibit was of rarely or never-before-seen photos from Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960s. In that era before information was instant, documentary photos taken by people with film in their cameras were vital to garnering support for the cause, and building steam and speed on the train that was the Civil Rights Movement as it surged out of the South and across the land.
The songwriter brain is an interesting thing (and mine is still a mystery to me). Sometimes I’ll hear a word or a phrase – a common word or phrase, one that I’ve heard a thousand times before – and suddenly my brain says to me, “That’s going to be a song.”
That’s what happened that morning with the word “Birmingham.” By the time the radio story ended, I knew I was going to write a song called “Birmingham.” I didn’t know anything else about it, no lyrical or melodic idea. Just “Birmingham.”
Some songs come easy. Or, at least, easier than others. This one was in the “others” camp, at first. I’d never been to Alabama, so I looked up information about Birmingham, historical and current. I went to their official website as a researcher and a tourist. But, there was one document that became my guidepost. Again and again, I went back to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” If you’ve never read it, I recommend it. It’s relatively short in length, but long in inspiration.
One night I got tired of waiting. Or, rather, the song got tired of waiting for me and let me know it was ready to be finished. (Really, it was the ghosts, who show up in this song and in a few others, and of whom I’ll say more about in future essays.) Once the gates were open, it just poured out. What you hear on the record is pretty much the first draft. Shortly after I finished the last verse – it might have even been that night – I played it for David (my brother and lead producer on the album). I had never really heard it in its entirety, and David had never heard it at all. When I finished I said, “I think that’s a song.” David agreed. And so it was. And so it is.
This song is what most listeners would describe as folky, because of things like its melody and general demeanor. I would, too. And if you heard Noah play it with just his acoustic guitar, you would as well. But Noah and I thought it should also include instruments like electric guitar and Hammond organ.
I also wanted the banjo in there, which helps keep it grounded in its folky roots. And the banjo was brought to this continent by the Africans who were forced to come here. The electric guitar and Hammond organ also came to white culture, for the most part, by Black musicians.
So, there’s this consistent balance of traditional and more modern instruments; and Black and White sounds. And the drum beat is very militaristic, and though It’s a bit on the soft side, it is a reminder of things like marching – marching of time and progress, and of marching as in plowing forward through hardships, and marching as in protesting. And that doesn’t let up.
One other comment about this song: In Noah’s essay, he says that he knew all the words to “The Hammer Song” by the time he was four. That’s almost true. He knew all but one word. When he was that age, he thought the line “I’d hammer in the morning” was “I’d hammer on the awning.” I mean, why not? We had a big awning on our front porch, so …
Our mother was reluctant to correct him on that, because she thought it was cute. So I set him straight. And it’s a good thing, too, because he started singing it for audiences just a few years later, and, had I not, they might have been confused.
Love Will Follow
This one started with the riff in the bass line on the guitar, the simple musical figure that opens, closes, and fills the gaps between the verses of the song. Musically, the whole song is pretty simple and straight forward, and doesn’t have any of those “surprise” diminished chords I like to use.
Lyrically, It’s deceptively complicated. I didn’t think it was going to be when I set out to write it. I thought I was writing a simple song, but the rhyme scheme became tricky with lots of internal rhymes. I don’t even know how to map out the rhyme scheme with letters of the alphabet. Maybe like this?: A AB C CB D DE F E. Whatever – it’s complicated. But I like that kind of word challenge. I mean, I set those parameters up for myself, so I’m not complaining. The challenge is to get the message across effectively while staying within the rhyme scheme, and without sounding forced or trite. One of my main guideposts as a songwriter is: Just because you can make two words rhyme doesn’t mean you should.
As for the message, I wrote this in April 2018 and, like many Americans, was still reeling from recent political events. Even though it may not sound like it on the surface, this is a very political song. It includes a lot of current events of that time. One of my goals as a songwriter is to write about very specific things in ways that are universal and have a chance to stay relevant in any era. There are metaphors in this song that could also be literal. That’s where we get lines like “I believe that walls divide us and fools will guide us … .”
The message may also sound depressing and negative to some, especially at first. But if you listen closely, the message is one of hope. And love. Always love.
In 2006, John Mayer released a song called “Waiting On the World to Change.” Generally, I like John Mayer. Sonically, I like that song a lot. But, while I understand what his intended message is, I don’t really like the delivery system. The hook in the song is, “We’re waiting, waiting on the world to change.” It’s a strong hook. And that’s a problem. No matter what any of the other lyrics are, the thing you come away with is “we’re waiting … .”
Waiting is passive. Waiting for change to happen is almost pointless. The thing is, change will happen. The question is, what will you have done to influence that change? There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Being the change is much more proactive than just waiting for the change.
This song is my direct response to John Mayer’s song.
And here are a couple of “Easter eggs.” I’ve referenced two other songs in this song. The first one is “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield. My reference comes in the first line of the first verse: “I heard it said a train is coming … .” The second one comes in the second verse: “That mighty oak may still be standing but the river runs on past that tree” is a reference to the old African American spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved,” whose lyrics say, “Just like a tree that’s planted by the waters / I shall not be moved.” That reference, of course, is Biblical, and, again, I understand its implicit meaning. But I sort of turned it inside out.
May we all be moved to stop waiting and be the change we wish to see.
About the recording of “Hey John”:
I’m an artist who understands his limitations. Or, to put that more positively, I understand my strengths and weaknesses. Even better, I’m not afraid to surround myself with enormously talented musicians and artists. In fact, I embrace it. Some musicians tend to feel intimidated or threatened by other talented musicians, but I realized a long time ago that very talented musicians make me sound better.
Nowhere on this album is that more evident than the song “Hey John.” It’s easily the “biggest” track on the record. It’s the longest song at 6 minutes and 12 seconds. It’s the largest file (at 102.87 MB, for those of you keeping score). There are 12 musicians doing a combination of 14 different things, i.e. playing instruments and/or singing. That’s second only to the number of people listed on the song “Hymn (Love Is Real)” because we have a nine-member choral group on that one; And I’d guess that “Hey John” uses the most individual tracks out of all the songs, but I’d have to check with the engineer, David Shaw, on that.
But, the real magic, the real brilliance, on this song is the combination of all the different enormous talents that come together in different ways. First, there’s David’s written arrangements for the horns and the voices. (David Budin, lead producer. Not to be confused with David Shaw, engineer.) David was able to take a little song that I made up, hear in his head what kind of instruments would bring it to life the way we wanted, and write out those parts for certain musicians to play or sing. In this case it’s a trumpet, sax, trombone, and a three-part gospel chorus. And, of course, there are the musicians who can come in and read and play or sing those parts.
Then, there are the musicians who can hear the song and come up with parts on their own, usually on the spot. Most of them can read, but I like it when they don’t need to and can put their own stamp on it. I was fortunate to have Alan Douglass on the piano and Steve Gordon on the electric guitar, for instance.
But then, there’s Ed Ridley, Jr., Nicole Sumlin, and Joshua Jonson. They came in and sang the choral parts as written … but then we asked them to “go to church.” That is, we let them each improvise some vocal parts all the way through the song, in the style of an African American church experience. In fact, I said the words “go to church” to them. At first, Nicole demurred, telling me that the others were better at it. I stood in the studio while she did her one take through the song. When it was over, I had a huge smile on my face, looked into the booth where David and David were sitting and said, “I went to church. Did you go to church?” They went to church. We all went to church. As you’ll hear on the track, everyone went to church.
So, there are several layers of vocals on the track – my lead vocal, the written gospel chorus, and the “go to church” improvisation. And, by the way, Ed Ridley, Jr. also plays the Hammond B-3 organ on this song. Ed never needs a keyboard part written out for him. He’s one of the best in the business, not just locally, but anywhere. I’m grateful to have him on this project.
Really, I’m grateful to have had everybody who contributed to this project – all of the musicians who came into the studio and played or sang into a microphone; the backers whose generosity allowed me to pay the musicians; the engineer and others behind the scenes; and especially to David Budin, who produced the record – he wrote arrangements, played multiple instruments, sang backup, conducted the orchestra, and sat in on every minute of studio time making sure that each note, each beat, and every emotion hit in the right way, in the right place, and at the right time – all to make me sound good.
I may have written the words and the melodies, and it may be my voice singing the leads, but I couldn’t have done it without everyone else. We’re all in it together.
Perhaps the lesson here is, when we all play to our strengths and aim our time and energy toward the common good, everyone is lifted up.
Swiftly Fall the Years
This one took a very long time to write. It just didn’t want to reveal itself to me. I’m not a patient songwriter, but I’m also the kind of songwriter that knows better than to force a song.
When I first caught a glimpse of this song, my daughter Rachel was in middle school. I had a musical idea and a couple of possible lyric lines. A good many years later, when she got engaged to be married, I realized that, as the father of the bride, I was going to be expected to give a speech at the reception. I have nothing against speeches, nor am I shy about giving them. But I realized I had an opportunity to make my “speech” unique.
That’s when this song revealed itself to me. I jotted down the line, “swiftly fall the years,” which became the hook, and the verses flowed.
From the time I came up with the first version of the musical idea and the first four lines or so, to the moment I called it finished, about a dozen years had passed and my young children were now young adults, ready for marriage and other grown-up things. Swiftly fall the years, indeed.
For this song’s arrangement, we decided on strings (a three-part section: two violins and a cello) and a clarinet. Strings, for the same reason we were using strings on several song on the album: They provide a different texture behind the guitars, keyboards and percussion instruments, and they can sustain notes and chords. A clarinet because, first, it has a sound that’s different from every other instrument here, and it stands out against the strings. And it can be playful. A flute can, too – as can other instruments – but a clarinet is a little more substantial than a flute, but not as stark a difference as, say, a trumpet or oboe would be.
The clarinet plays twice: In the two instrumental sections – one within the body of the song; the other after the regular part of the song ends. At the end, the strings and clarinet continue playing, after all the other instruments stop, in the same way that life goes on after any kinds of changes, which is one of the meanings of this song. It’s a father talking to his daughter as she’s embarking on her own life. (Noah wrote it for his daughter’s wedding.)
The strings represent the "family" (implied in the song), including the narrator; while the clarinet represents the daughter. So, in the main solo, both times through it, the first violins are playing mostly the melody, with the other strings playing harmony parts that are moving – again, like life, like family members – moving around, but in harmony with each other. The clarinet, the first time through, stays close to the melody, with some little variations, like a kid, growing up and finding her own way; and the second time through, the clarinet starts with the melody, but up an octave (testing her wings), and then moves all over the place, playfully and innocently, but still in tandem with the strings (the "family"), though moving around them.
And at the end, the closing instrumental section, there's the "family" again (the strings), with the top strings taking over as the "narrator," playing the melody and the other string parts moving around constantly, but not wildly; and then the clarinet (the "daughter") comes in on top of that, but this time completely independently, with its own separate melody, though still in harmony with the family (especially on the final two notes, where they are all completely together).
My wife is a Presbyterian Minister. She wasn’t always a Presbyterian Minister. Her undergraduate degree is in Art Education. When we met in Chicago in 1985, she was just starting seminary to get her Master of Divinity, but not to become a minister. It wasn’t until we had settled back in Cleveland and had three children in various stages of elementary and middle school that she decided to become a minister.
She’ll tell you that she didn’t decide, but that she was “called.” That’s not unusual for people who go into ministry. She’ll also tell you that she was literally “called” to do this. I don’t mean on the phone. I mean, she says she heard a voice, an actual voice, possibly God’s voice, that told her to do the thing she really didn’t want to do – preach. She does not like public speaking. Or, she didn’t. But, when you have a conversation with God, and God says that you have important messages to share, well, I guess it’s kind of pointless to argue. The Bible is filled with reluctant prophets who didn’t want to do what God asked them to do. They usually end up doing it anyway, but it usually takes some extreme convincing. I guess she didn’t want to spend time in the belly of a whale.
Anyway, the point of that whole story was that, as you’ll see in a moment, it doesn’t surprise me anymore when she says things like, “God talked to me today.” I mean, I can be as skeptical as anyone, but I just let her have that one.
Now, jump ahead to 2013. One day, a word popped into my head. As I explained in the essay about the song “Birmingham,” sometimes words or phrases, common ones, ones that I’ve heard thousands of times in various contexts, ones that never occur to me to write songs about, suddenly announce to me that they’re going to be songs. The word on this day was “Grace.” I had no idea why. I just knew I needed to write a song called “Grace,” and I knew it was going to be about my wife. My wife’s name is Sharon. Her given middle name is Marie. But now I needed to write a song about her called “Grace.” Okay. Who am I to argue with my muse?
I’m very private when it comes to my songwriting. When I have a song in progress, I usually don’t tell anyone about it. I don’t play half-finished versions of it for anyone. I don’t say anything about the title, the theme, or any of the ideas. I don’t workshop it. I don’t even know if it’s ever going to become a viable song, and I don’t want to share it in that state. I just like to get a good, solid draft of it, something that I’m comfortable with, before I share it with anyone. Even my wife. Nobody even knows that I’m actively writing anything. That was the case with this song.
A few weeks after having started the process of writing “Grace,” one ordinary day, not even thinking of the song, my wife casually says to me. “God spoke to me today.” I said, “Oh? What did God say to you?” She said, “God told me to change my middle name.” Well, that was new. “Huh. What did God tell you to change it to?”
She said, “Grace.”
I froze. I couldn’t speak. My jaw literally dropped. My mouth opened and closed slowly three times without words coming out. I finally told her about the song. I knew then that I had to finish it. I worked on it off and on, and on Christmas morning 2013, I got up really early and finished the song so I could give it to her that day.
The title song. The thing is, I wrote this song about 10 years before I made this album, but as soon as I wrote it, I knew it was going to be the title of my next album. I just didn’t know it was going to take 10 years.
I think the intent of the song is pretty straightforward. There are no hidden messages in it. And the message isn’t exactly original. I mean, just about every songwriter and poet has said it in one way or another. Burt Bacharach and Hal David certainly hit big with it, with “What the World Needs Now is Love.” The Beatles broadcast their version of it to over 400 million people worldwide via the first ever live global television link, doing their song “All You Need is Love.” I’m not in any sense putting myself in that category. I’ve just tried to say it in my own way, because it’s what I’ve really come to believe about living in this world.
There’s a Maya Angelou poem called “Touched By An Angel” that ends with the line, “Yet it is only love / which sets us free.” I’d love to say that I was inspired by Maya’s poem, but, the fact is, I had never read it until this album was already in production. This kind of thing happens to me more often than seems it should. I’ll write something, then some years later discover a text from which it could have been drawn, but one which I had never read or heard of before. I don’t know, maybe that kind of thing is supposed to happen. Maybe some artists are just able to tap into … something. I try not to question it. I’m just grateful for the times that that energy flows into and out of me.
And love. I’m grateful for love.
History of Time
About two songs back I mentioned that my daughter Rachel got married. As it often happens, the parents of the bride and groom eventually become grandparents. Tommy is (so far) the one and only grandchild of the four grandparents that include me in that number. I’m Papa Noah. This song is for him. It’s a lullaby.
The song has sort of an unusual construction: Two verses, an instrumental break, and it ends with a bridge. (Though the term “bridge” isn’t really apt since it really doesn’t bridge anything.) Also, I didn’t write it with a break. David added that.
When I wrote it, I was sitting on my porch playing around with chords and finding some nice progressions and melodies with these pseudo jazz chords. (A note: I do not consider myself a guitarist. I play the guitar. Better than some. Not as well as many. Enough to write pretty melodies and interesting changes. But I’m not a guitarist.) As soon as I wrote it, I found it really difficult for me to play. It uses chord shapes I don’t often use, and I couldn’t play them cleanly.
When David and I were planning the recording sessions and I realized that (1) he was already writing a lot of arrangements for a lot of different instruments, and (2) we were going to have a day where all of those instruments were going to be in the studio all at once recording all those parts, I asked him to write an orchestral arrangement for this entire song so I wouldn’t have to play on it. He did. And so, there is no guitar on this track.
When, on that night in 2018, it was my turn to hold Tommy for the first time, I sang to him. My voice was the first music he heard. I’ve been singing to him ever since. I wrote this song for him shortly after he was born. And now, he’ll have me singing to him long after I’m gone, through modern technology, and through the history of time.
Noah wanted to do one song without guitar – his or anyone else’s. This seemed like the song for that, because, for one thing, as he says, “my writing on this song surpassed my skill level as a guitarist” (though I think he could have played it successfully). But, also, I thought this song was candidate for leaving out Noah’s guitar because the chords are a little more jazz-flavored than the mostly folky other songs here. So, instead, it has a piano, playing somewhat sparingly; and a quartet of instruments – a flute, a clarinet, a cello and a string bass – all playing all the time.
I wanted two each of the woodwinds and strings so that each pair would blend and mesh with itself, and both sections, the woodwinds and the strings, tend to blend well with each other. The quartet provides all the chords of the song, plus all of the percussion. To achieve that effect, there is always at least one instrument changing notes on every quarter note. So, while you can’t hear the beat in the way you would with percussion instruments playing, you can feel it, maybe subconsciously, and in a manner that doesn’t get in the way of the song that’s being sung.
I was driving to a gig in Pittsburgh in the autumn of 2018 and I was listening to news on the radio about severe flooding in various parts of the country. Rivers in West Virginia and other states had been overflowing their banks. Homes and lives were being lost. Also, it was 2018 and many of us were still reeling from the political state of the nation.
When you drive anywhere near or through Pittsburgh, there’s no avoiding driving along or over a river. These three things all came together in my head in that moment – the reports of destructive floods, the real-time visual of the beauty, peacefulness, and power of a real-life river, and our nation’s political woes. From past essays, we know my muse likes to visit me in the car.
By the time I got home from Pittsburgh I had the beginning of a song. I was inspired by one of my favorite folk songs from the early 1960s, “Well, Well, Well” by Bob Gibson and Bob (later Hamilton) Camp. I came up with a good chord progression and words for the chorus, but then I didn’t know where to go.
I went to where one always goes these days when one doesn’t know where to go: Social Media. I discovered that my friend Rabbi Joe Black, an incredible guitar player and singer/songwriter in his own right, had posted his recent High Holiday sermon. It was about rivers.
I got in touch with Joe and sent him what I had. The next day he sent me a bunch of lyrics for verses. It didn’t take long. After a little back and forth (between Cleveland and Denver via technology), we had a song in about five days. That’s Joe you hear playing lead guitar on the track. He and David Krauss, the harmonica player, are trading riffs.
A note about my vocal: I recorded it in one take. In fact, it’s what’s known as the scratch vocal. But we didn’t scratch it. I liked it enough to keep it. I sang the whole song through, but when I got to “We will walk right through that water in freedom’s name” I completely messed up the rhythm, which made me laugh a little. But I kept going and sang the last chorus. We went back and rerecorded that one line, but you can still hear a little genuine laugh on the first word of the chorus. As one of my early recording mentors, Troy Dexter, once said to me, “Leave it in. You can’t buy stuff like that.”
Life is made up of small moments. And a rising river is made up of single drops of water, just as real social change happens one small act at a time.
Noah mentioned that Rabbi Joe Black, of Denver, played the lead guitar part on this song. But I wanted to point out an interesting (at least to me) aspect of that: Most people – or maybe everyone – listening to that part would think that he’s playing an electric guitar, but he’s not; it’s an acoustic guitar. But the way it’s recorded makes it sound like an electric guitar.
And I don’t know exactly what recording method was used that made it sound that way, because, as I said, Joe is in Denver, where he recorded the part and sent it back to us, here in Cleveland. But I do know that this is done quite a bit, in many different ways. In fact, going back to the late 1960s, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards recorded his parts for “Street Fightin’ Man” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on acoustic guitars that sounded like electric guitars. He says that the way he accomplished that was to record his guitar parts on a little portable cassette tape recorder. As I understand it, the guitar sounds he made were a lot for that little machine to handle, which overloaded it, and the resulting distortion made it sound more like electric instruments.
Also interesting (at least to me) is that for those two songs, and other Stones recordings, Richards used one regular acoustic guitar and one in Nashville tuning (which means that the bottom, or lowest, four strings are replaced by their higher components from a set of 12-string guitar strings, making them an octave higher), which is what I did on several of the songs on this album (though not trying to sound like the Rolling Stones).
Hymn (Love is Real)
In 2017, a small group of social justice activists/musicians in Nashville got a grant to put out a collection of new social justice music. They sent out an open call to all songwriters, and they reached out to several they knew personally, including me. This was not a guarantee that one’s song would make it into the collection, just a personal request for a submission.
As I’ve alluded to in earlier essays, I’m not an “on-demand” songwriter, but I decided to give it a try. There were really only two possible outcomes: I would either come up with a song before the deadline or I wouldn’t. Then, I reasoned, that if I came up with a song before the deadline that I thought was good enough to submit, there were still only two possible outcomes: My song would get selected or not. And if not, I’d still end up with a good, new song. This was a no-lose situation.
“Hymn (Love is Real)” was the song I submitted. I worked hard on it. The song is long by popular music standards, clocking in at 5 minutes and 41 seconds. But my first draft was even longer. When I recorded a version of it, just me and my guitar, it was over 6 and-a-half minutes. So, I did something I don’t usually do. I reached out to a couple of friends. One is a musician in Florida I only know from Facebook. The other is a long-time, real life dear friend. He’s a minister, a social justice activist, and also a guitar player and songwriter. I solicited constructive criticism and, basically, workshopped the song.
The song was not selected for inclusion in the collection. But I ended up with a good, new song.
I originally titled the song “Hymn.” It sounded to me like it could be a modern-day hymn, especially with its oft-repeated hook “love is real, love is real, love is real.” I knew people were going to call it “Love is Real” anyway so I officially added that to the title parenthetically.
But since I was thinking of it as a hymn, something occurred to me in the studio one day: We needed a choir on the track. I turned to David and said, “Does Cleveland have a gay men’s choir? We must.” Of course, we do. Cleveland boasts The North Coast Men’s Chorus, the largest LGBTQ arts organization in Northeast Ohio with over 100 members. I bought a ticket for their Christmas concert and loved it. I knew that a smaller version of them would be perfect for the song. It so happens that they have a smaller version, a nine-member ensemble called the Coastliners.
It took a little doing, but we finally set up a rehearsal date and a recording date. The rehearsal date was slated for March 25, 2020, and the session was set for April 1, 2020. Mid-March is exactly when the Pandemic hit Cleveland. That rehearsal and recording session never happened. It turned out that most events anywhere in the world never happened for the next one to two years.
I shouldn’t say “never” happened. Our recording session finally did take place on June 2, 2021, exactly 14 months from our originally planned date.
David, as usual, wrote a beautiful choral arrangement, and they handled it brilliantly. I cannot express the joy and the Pride – and, yes, I’m using that word knowledgeably and intentionally – that I feel for their presence on this recording.
Philosophers and poets have been writing about love since antiquity, and a concrete definition of the concept is elusive. My voice doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the chorus. All I know is: Love is the realest thing I know, especially when I hear those voices on this song.
This, actually, has little to do with the production of the song, but it is something that occurred as we were producing the song.
The Coastliners, a small ensemble from the larger North Coast Men’s Chorus, came in to sing the choral background on the song (after waiting for 14 months after our originally scheduled session, during which the studio was shut down in the early part of the pandemic). There were 10 guys – nine singers, plus their conductor. They did a great job. And they all seemed to really like the song.
One guy stayed behind after the others had left. He, like others, told Noah how much he enjoyed singing on this song and how much he liked the song. I assumed that he was gay, just because I assumed they all were. It turned out that he wasn’t and isn’t, and never was. Maybe, in that case, none of them are. But, well … I have reasons to believe that’s probably not the case.
I got the idea that this one guy wasn’t gay when he mentioned his wife and daughter. Still doesn’t, necessarily, mean someone’s not gay, but … Anyway, I just said it. I said, “You mean not all of you are gay?”
He said, “No. Not all of us.” And then, “I’m not.” I asked him how he started singing with the chorus. He told us that he’s from a small town in Ohio. And that he was very active in his church, which he described as a very conservative, far-right Christian organization. And that he had thought of himself as all of those things. Until his then-teenage daughter came out as a lesbian.
He said that she came out at that time, when she was still living at home and underage, because a slightly older friend of hers, in that same community, had come out to her own parents and they had kicked her out of their house. So, this guy’s daughter figured out that her parents couldn’t – or probably wouldn’t – do that to her at age 16.
I won’t go into all the details (and he did give me permission to write about this), but while his daughter’s reality went against almost everything he’d been taught to believe, she was still his daughter, and that forced him to really think about the situation in ways he hadn’t before, and to reassess his old feelings about it. And that experience helped to open his eyes, and his mind, and his heart, and to make him do an almost-complete turn-around. It changed his attitude about that, and then about many other things.
So, then, what about the chorus? He had always sung in his church services, and he has a fine voice, and during his cultural transformation, someone he knew suggested that he go and hear the North Coast Men’s Chorus, up in Cleveland. He did, and loved the concert. And while he was there, he saw a notice in the program book about the chorus looking for new members. He auditioned and he’s been a member for several years now. And he’s come so far that he doesn’t even mind being associated with what people – even people like me – assume is an all-gay chorus. I mean, I wouldn’t care about that for myself. But in his journey, he has come from a very different place.
I found his story moving and inspiring. People can change – even those deeply entrenched at one extreme end of the political spectrum, or the other. It all started with his daughter, and, as they say, love is real.
Losing Her Slowly
We lost our mother in 2019. We looked behind the couch and everywhere, but we couldn’t find her. Yes, I just made a joke about my mother’s death, but it’s the kind of joke she would have liked. It’s the kind of joke she would have made.
Greta made it to 95 and a half years old, so that’s a pretty good run. But her last three or so years were hard, both for us and her. She was fiercely independent and kept trying to continue that well past the time she was able to be. She never wanted to end up in a nursing home, which is what happened. Even before we were able to get her into the facility, we saw her slipping away little by little.
Memory loss and dementia are cruel masters. They steal your identity – not your social security and credit card numbers. Your personality. Your essence. They make you say things and behave in ways you never would have prior to their onset. Yet, our mother held onto her sense of humor for a long, long time. It was just about the last thing to go.
Death is hard. Maybe that’s true for the dying person, but it’s absolutely true for those close to the dying person. This is true no matter the circumstances. But watching a loved one slip away day by day and feeling powerless to do much about it evokes a special kind of prolonged grief. But then, the moment that it’s over feels so sudden, and there’s an odd combination of profound sadness and great relief.
Those are some of the things I tried to capture in this song. I wrote it during the last two or three months of her life. We didn’t know, of course, when the end would come, but we knew it was imminent. When the end came, I made a slight change to a lyric in the last verse. My original line was, “And each breath is holy / As we lose her slowly.” It became, “And each breath is holy / But endings never come slowly.” I could not have known to write that until that moment.
By the way, this is one of the three songs on the album where we kept the scratch vocal. One take. That was it. I do know why, but that’s an explanation for another time.
Also, my mother’s sense of humor … she still got the last laugh, several hours after she died. But that, too, is another long story – it starts when I was about 4 years old – but … for another time. Let’s just say that it has to do with a little bit of light.
Noah requested a trumpet or French horn for this song. I agreed with that. I liked the idea of trumpet, especially – a strong, clear sound – because I was going to write the part to represent our mother.
I watched her in her last months and weeks – and on her last day – and though she had diminished in almost every way, I could see that her fighting spirit was still intact; that she was still in there. Thus, the trumpet here represents her in that way – that part of her. So that is Greta on the instrumental break, “singing” the melody that Noah would normally sing during that part, when he performs the song by himself. And then she “sings” along with him toward the end of the song.
And, at the very end, when the singing part of the song ends and the music starts fading out, like her life, while the music gets “stuck” on one chord (flatlining, in a way), the trumpet takes off on its own triumphant melody, apart from the song and rising up, which I imagine our mother’s finally freed spirit doing.
Because of You (A Song for Greta and Tommy)
Greta was my mother. Tommy is my grandson. They spent about nine months together on this Earth. Greta did get to meet and hold Tommy, as well as David’s two grandchildren.
This is a pretty simple song, musically and lyrically, about my link in that chain. Every single line in this song applies to each of them individually, and both of them together.
Breath of Life
The pandemic spread across the country and hit Cleveland in March of 2020. Everything, including the recording of this album, shut down.
In May of 2020, a Minnesota police office knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, for over nine minutes and killed him. Despite the pandemic, this incident sparked protests across America and across the world. To be clear, it wasn’t just this one incident. This had been building up for years. Decades, really.
As our country began another round of reckoning with race relations, I got an idea for a song. It popped into my head, as those things tend to do. I got the melodic idea pretty quickly – a fairly simple melody and construction based on the old Appalachian folk song “Shady Grove,” just two or three chords. Then the “hook,” the line that would be repeated at the end of each section, popped into my head: “The breath of life within me.”
The idea percolated over the next couple of weeks, as I kept my eye on current events. I got the shape of the first four lines quickly, but I was having trouble focusing on the rest. Then, another line popped into my head, and I initially thought, “No. I can’t use that… even though I kind of like it.” The line was: “Byron De La Beckwith can rot in hell.” It’s not a line I would typically write, at least not for a song. But, man, it had such a strong metric component. Rhythmically, it fit perfectly. It fit the ideas I was working with, too, but, well … I just wasn’t sure I could justify putting that into a song.
I debated with myself. I realized that not too many people would recognize the name Byron De La Beckwith, so how much good would it do in there? But maybe it would be educational, and some people would look him up. Or would I be highlighting him, giving him a platform? Would it be seen as idolizing the villain while ignoring the victims? And, on and on.
All of those kinds of things, among many, many others, are what I think about when writing lyrics.
Let’s pause for a moment to understand who Byron De La Beckwith was. He was the man who shot Medgar Evers, an African American Civil Rights leader in Mississippi, in 1963. De La Beckwith never denied it. Shot him in the back in Evers’s own driveway in the light of day. De La Beckwith had affiliations with the Klan and other white supremacy and hate groups. He had two trials in the 1960s, both ending with hung juries. Black people were denied the opportunity to serve on juries in Mississippi back then. Also, evidence was withheld, and all of the usual tactics were employed and allowed because Mississippi wasn’t about to convict a white man of killing a black man for any reason.
Thirty-one years later, Evers’s family was able to get another trial. This time, there were eight black jurors and four white ones. De La Beckwith was convicted and sent to prison, where he eventually died at 80 years old. He had a lot of health issues by that time.
I had learned his name many years ago, and while the details had escaped me, I always remembered the name, probably because there is a certain rhythm and poetry to it. And there it was again, forcing its way into my head, over and over again: Byron De La Beckwith can rot in hell.
One night, I sat down at my computer and decided to really sketch out the song. I got the shape – the first draft – of most of the verses done. And I decided to write the verse with the “De La Beckwith” line, just to see how it looked and felt. I didn’t have to use it, but I’d give myself the choice. As I was researching more about him and Medgar Evers to inform my writing, I noticed that Evers was murdered by De La Beckwith on the morning of June 12, 1963. I froze. I lit up my phone to check the date. It was nearing midnight on June 11th. The song would be finished on June 12th.
I didn’t need any more convincing. The line is in the song.
The song was written during the break, after we’d completed the principal recording on all of the other songs, but now I wanted to include it on this CD.
In the old days, before multi-tracking was a thing, and even still sometimes today, bands and musicians would all come together at the same time in the studio and record all together. They’d do a few takes of the same song, pick the best one, and move on. That’s what we did with this song. Instead of layering musicians over a period of weeks or months, we got four good takes, after running through it several times, in about three hours.
Not only did this save time, but it suited the song, since it’s styled after an old Appalachian folk song which might have been recorded in that way originally. It also gave the song a rawness and an urgency that suits the subject matter. And if you listen closely, in the break right near the end, you can hear the fiddler hit the microphone stand with his bow when he overzealously lifted it off of the instrument. It’s faint, but since we were recording all together, it’s kind of impossible to take out. It was the best take, so we kept it. It’s real. Just like the social justice issues in our country.
Take Me Home
During the last months of my mother’s life, as her memory loss and dementia progressed, I started writing prolifically. Songwriters are often sparked by sadness. This is one of those songs.
I don’t remember any great revelatory moment in the writing of this song. In fact, I don’t remember much about the writing of it, except for the bridge.
This song, like so many others, was born out of the political situation in our country that started in 2016. I had a specific occurrence in mind, but I always try to write in such a way that the message can be transferrable, that no matter what I’m writing about in the moment, the song will be relevant in other ways for other people, and for many years to come. So, my specific reason or event doesn’t really matter much.
But there was a reason I wanted the bridge to be in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish, nor have I ever studied it. To be able to write meaningfully – even one line – in a language other than your native one, you need to be completely proficient in that language. You need to understand the syntax, the rhythms, and the poetry of that language. You can just run it through Google Translate, but it’ll come out sounding like gibberish to the native speakers.
My friend Rich Glauber came through in a big way. Rich is a wonderful musician, singer, and songwriter in Eugene, Oregon. He also happens to be fluent in Spanish. He came up with “Somos el pueblo unido” – “We are the people united.” And, as Rich texted me on the evening of September 18, 2018, “…it alludes to the famous ‘strike chant’ from the farmworkers and others…” It’s an absolutely perfect line for the song.
The first time I knew the song was impactful was on October 28, 2018. For several months, I had been planning a big concert with my band for a local nonprofit organization whose mission it is to reduce gun violence in our communities. The concert was scheduled for Sunday night October 28, 2018. On Saturday morning, October 27, 2018, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened fire during services, killed 11 people and wounded six. The concert went on as planned, with some set adjustments. I made this song the closing number. It proved powerful.
Then in December of 2018, I was invited to perform at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh as part of a fundraiser to benefit the synagogue and survivors of the shooting. It was called “Roots of Steel” and I was one of about 40 performers. Tony- and Emmy-winning actor, and native Pittsburgher, Billy Porter was the emcee. The hall was packed. I could feel the whole audience with me the whole time. I got a standing ovation. Then Billy Porter ran onto the stage and made me do an encore of the chorus so that we could all sing it together some more. You can see it here: https://youtu.be/2eFAJxAipIo
The chorus is singable, and I stand by its message, so I hope you will sing it whenever and wherever singing is appropriate. But even more, I hope you will believe it and live it every day.
I am you
You are me
We are right where we belong
I am you
You are me
We are strong