Songwriting

I’ve thought for years about writing songs. Not because I had a burning desire to do it, but there are good practical reasons for any musician to write his own material. They’re original, for one thing; even a lesser song has value just by being unique. And it can be easier to inhabit a song you wrote, helping you to sing it better.

I couldn’t imagine how to start, though. And the most common advice is “Just write something!” Which turns out to be excellent advice—if you can somehow follow it.

When Chris and I were at Early Country Music Week in WV, I took two singing classes, one from Barry Tashian and the other from Barry and his wife, Holly. Their history is well worth reading about. Both write songs, and at one point Barry talked about a song inspiration gone haywire. His great uncle immigrated from Turkey, part of the journey as a stowaway, became a very successful businessman in Chicago, and entitled his autobiography Stowaway to Heaven. Barry thought it would be a good hook for a gospel song, worked on the idea for awhile, then abandoned it when he realized that you can’t stow away to heaven—after all, where would you hide?

I thought it was a cool idea, though. And on the long drive home from West Virginia I put together most of a song based on the idea that you can’t stow away. Somehow the rhythm of the words I had suggested an old song to me (“Just Because”), which was the basis for my own melody but different enough that you wouldn’t confuse them.

Here’s a version we recorded last week at the Kentucky Coffeetree, along with the lyrics. (You’ll see that one line is still awkward and not settled—the lyric reads differently from what I sang.) One peculiarity is that the song is very wordy, whereas the songs I tend to admire are pretty spare. But that’s just how it turned out.

You Can’t Stow Away on the Gospel Ship

Every time that the doors of the church were open
You could find me sitting there inside
But I never walked the aisle or knelt down at the altar
I was only along for the ride
I would sing and shout with the brothers and sisters
But I never could bring myself to pray
And then the preacher said the words that set my spirit free
I still think of that glorious day

     He said, You can’t stow away on the gospel ship
     You’ve got to sign up for the ride
     Cause Jesus watches over that old ship of Zion
     And there ain’t no place to hide
     But the passage is free if you’ll only believe
     The Savior will welcome you inside
     You can’t stow away on the gospel ship
     You’ve got to sign up for the ride

He said, Some people think this building is the gospel ship
Just come inside and catch yourself a ride
But it’s the people not the building that are sailing up to heaven
As our Captain carries us o’er the tide
You’ve got to trust and obey, leave your burdens at the altar
Walk the aisle, give your life to the Lord
You’ll be walking up the gangplank of that old ship of Zion
Where the saints will welcome you aboard

Well, now here I’d been thinking that heaven wouldn’t take me
Till I’d made myself spotless and white
But finally I knew I could lay it all on Jesus
And He would make everything right
I walked up the aisle and knelt down at the altar
The brothers and sisters gathered round
And as I gave my heart to Jesus, we raised up a song
We set sail with a glorious sound

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One thought on “Songwriting

  1. Keep writing! For a first offering, I am very impressed.

    There is always room to tweak lyrics, meter, rhymes, etc. But this song has none of the stiltedness that usually accompanies new (and many more-experienced) writers.

    As far as wordiness: some songs require more words than others. The more that a song tries to say, the more words it requires. I think of the Don Francisco songs of the late ’70’s and ’80’s — that would run for 4, 5, 6 minutes. And his melodies weren’t always particularly “grabbing.” But the stories were riveting. Don’t write wordy songs that say nothing. But when they have a lot to say, they will take more words.

    Keep on!

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