A Mormon Troubadour

by Dale Van Atta

Editorial Associate

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    A songwriter is a rare individual who, with a sensitive soul, becomes a lyrical and musical alchemist. He may view the human form and transform it poetically into a “ship of dust,” prepared and readied in the shipyards of the preexistence to sail the “dark waters of mortality” and eventually return to the eternal realm with “decks of silver,” sailing on a “sea of glass.”

    Such is the alchemy of Marvin Payne, a member of the El Monte Ward in California. The phrases are from “Ships of Dust,” one of hundreds of songs that he has composed.

    All of his tunes are draped throughout with Marvin’s warm baritone voice, supported by a poetic style reminiscent of a concrete Kahlil Gibran, wrapped in a folk package with contemporary feeling. All of which proves Marvin to be one of the finest and most talented young Mormon songwriters to date.

    At the age of nine he received a ukelele complete with an instruction book. After he was presented with a secondhand guitar at the age of twelve, he wrote his first song, entitled “Too Young”—“and I was,” he said with a grin. At that time, “writing songs was like blowing glass. It was inconceivable that anyone outside of Hollywood could do it,” he added.

    Complementing his folk activities with groups such as the Young Americans, Marvin has what he calls “legitimate experience.” He performed the leads in several high school musicals and attended one session of California’s Idyllwild School of Music. Then he toured Europe as a baritone soloist with the Southern California Youth Chorale and was awarded a collegiate singing scholarship.

    While serving a two-year mission in Western Australia. Marvin became information coordinator, in which capacity he headed mission publications. On preparation day, much to the chagrin of his companion, he would write poetry. Once he was released from his mission, words his father had uttered long before crossed his mind: “Why don’t you write some worthwhile tunes, something that would strengthen testimonies?”

    Since then he has been writing songs that bear his testimony. “I realized that my talent was a gift, just as fingers and toes are a gift. I have tried to become a vessel of the Lord. After training and discipline and striving to become a pure vessel with no leaks, I have asked that my talents might be increased—that the water of life might be added to my vessel so that I would be valuable to the Lord as a tool. Everyone must resonate the truth in his own particularly unique way. Mine happens to be in song.”

    There is little doubt that Marvin’s “ship of dust” is one that is steered by the rudder of Christ’s truths and principles. Adding to this voice is his wife Nikki Ann, also of Southern California.

    Following are two of Marvin’s songs, along with the guitar chords and chord diagrams, and the melody line for you who want to sample his sophisticated rhythmic style. Guitarists will note chord indications above the staff throughout the songs, and can refer to chord diagrams for finger positions. lt’s a good idea to learn all the chords for each song before trying to play it. A short interpretation of the lyrics is also added. Even if you don’t wish to use the music, read the song-poems.

    Ships of Dust

    “Having left behind the relative light and spiritual comfort of the preexistence, the singer is witness to temporal wonders and counterfeits of truth as he sails on his ‘ship of dust’ through the nighttime waters of mortality. In the dawn, as he sails into the eternal realm, he is surprised to find that his voyage is not ended, but continues on a ‘sea of glass,’ in his now celestial ship.” According to Marvin, this song was the springboard for an album of songs along these lines. “I feel very large and expansive when I sing it,” he claims.

    We wandered through the shipyards,

    through the timber and the rope,

    and the wise men saw the longing in our eyes.

    So they made for each of us

    a ship of dust, with sails of trust,

    and the sun behind us vanished from the skies.

    Now it’s a long time since the sunset,

    and the time we raised the sails,

    and the time the old shipbuilders waited for.

    There are wonders in the night;

    there are strange and dangerous shades of light,

    but the dawn is gonna see me on that shore.

    Sweet stars, mark the night.

    Fair winds, arc the right waves over my prow—

    I am homeward.

    Wooden wheels and oaken rudders

    bend like grass against the sea,

    and the canvas fails and falls against our hope.

    I am climbing on the mast

    and I see a trace of dawn at last

    and I feel a strange new feeling in the rope.

    Now the sun splits the horizon

    where I thought the beach to be,

    and the graveyard for the ships done with the sea

    But I’m on a sea of glass

    and the light is more than sun can pass

    and the deck is turning silver under me.

    Sweet stars, mark my mind.

    Fair winds, you can find me sailing your source—

    I am homeward.

    Words and music © 1971, Marvin Payne

    Build Your Brothers

    According to Marvin, the impetus for this tune was a talk in Sunday School in which it was stated that if a person wants to make a lasting mark on the eternal scheme of things, he must affect someone’s life. “It is the surest way to attain eternal joy,” he said.

    I remember a story of builders in an old Bible land.

    They were climbing the wind with a tower of timber and sand.

    They were raising in vain their own name for the foolish to fear,

    when their tongues were all broken, and the reason began to appear.

    You’ve got to build your brothers.

    Set your spirit free

    to build in a land where the temples stand eternally.

    There are Romes in the building and empires raised in a day.

    There are houses in Egypt where the dead stare the silence away.

    But my body bent over in building is slave to a sham,

    for when all the sweet cities are gone, I’ll still be who I am.

    You’ve got to build your brothers.

    Set your spirit free

    to build in a land where the temples stand eternally.

    All through the ages, since men started counting the years,

    we’ve built houses to lock in our fortunes and lock out our fears,

    but just one house will stand when these reasons have rotted away,

    it’s the tower we walk in and talk in and bend when we pray.

    You’ve got to build your brothers.

    Set your spirit free

    to build in a land where the temples stand eternally.

    Words and music © 1971, Marvin Payne