Some Thoughts on Songwriting

by Marvin Payne

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    One recent October somewhere around Tucumcari, my guitar player and bass man started confiding. We were on the road to play for a youth conference in Dallas and were mapping out a little journey through some songs that we hoped would give those people a good feeling, something to remember, a concert that would make them feel comfortable with their ideals. It hit both sidemen at once.

    “Y’know, it wasn’t until just a few months before my mission that I started really listening to those lyrics that came out of my mouth every weekend.” They were talking about the kind of music that you hear on the radio, the kind that folks think they have to sing if they’re playing for stake dances every week, the kind of lyric in which just about every third verse mocks the beauty that’s a part of every child of God. And then they thought, “Well, it’s probably because we were so into the music that we didn’t hear the words. Not everybody’s a musician. Maybe not everybody’s as dumb as us.” And the conversation rested for awhile on that regretful but hopeful end.

    We arrived, played the concert, and shared some good, true feelings back and forth with our new friends. The last encore was “I Am a Child of God.” Afterward, as we shook hands all around and shared greetings, the dance committee was setting up their record system.


    Like a bolt of black lightning, six heavy speaker banks exploded with a Led Zeppelin lyric that you can’t print in Church magazines. The three of us (and several of the young people) looked at each other, and all thought the same thing: The scriptures never said that Satan would deceive only the very dumb.

    I love good songs and good sounds. I’m like a lot of you—I feel like the days just wouldn’t go by so sweetly without the mellow feelings, the sometimes waking-up feelings, that come through music. But I’m scared. Scared that when I give my attention to one of those people in the world who write and sing the music—when I open my precious mind and invite them and their songs inside—that they’ll hurt me. And how might they hurt me? By not touching my life with the kind of reverence it is due. You see, they don’t know that I’m a child of God. They don’t know how vital it is in my life to be clean. They don’t know what I’m hungry for—a godly love, the touch of the Spirit. They want to feed me; but I ask for a fish, and they give me a serpent. I ask for bread, and they give me a stone.

    I have a musician friend who lost his faith. Before he lost it, he used to say, “Marvin, you have to understand that songwriter X doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t have the gospel. You have to understand that and listen to him.” Our neighbors have a dog that doesn’t know any better than to bite me. He’s probably a great dog in every other way, but I avoid him like crazy. Think of the songwriters who are special to you. Do they know you? Do they share your ideals? Do they love you? And if you feel they really do, then embrace their best. But be honest enough to reject anything less.

    I write songs because I’m virtually the only songwriter in the whole world whom I trust. And often I don’t even trust myself. I have to go to the Lord, to my friends, to my family, and ask, “Is this all right? I mean, will this song contribute to the solution instead of to the problem?” The answers put a lot of songs in the wastebasket rather than on records.

    Some people only write the songs that spring out of intense personal experiences. But I write songs for a living and can’t always wait around for those dramatic moments. For instance, when my little boy Sam was just three years old, he stood up after family prayer one night and announced that when he grew up he was going to be god. He said, in a child’s words and a child’s faith, what the whole gospel plan is all about. When I recovered from the audacity of it, and the beauty of it sank in, I thought, “Wow, out of the mouths of babes is come a beautiful song!” And so my children went to sleep that night to the sound of Daddy and his guitar trying to catch in a song the spirit of what Sammy said.

    But he only said it once. We look forward to and cherish those moments that are worthy of songs, but they don’t happen nearly often enough in just one person’s life. So I have to imagine that I’m living in many people’s lives. I have to imagine what it’s like to be a faithful, forgiving friend I know whose husband deeply offended her:

    Maybe a moment or two inside my mind

    Is all you can spare.

    But if you could only be there,

    You’d see your face—everywhere.

    Or to be a young lover painfully breaking a relationship rather than compromise moral standards:

    No tender hour of surrender

    Would ever blind me to the price we’d pay.

    But oh, I think I may remember—

    I loved you, I loved you.

    Or even to reach out into the visions of the future and grab for something celestial:

    Maybe there’s a star to wish upon,

    Where the mountains shine like heaven

    And the sunsets linger on—

    And the songs that weep inside us

    Finally laugh against the sky,

    As we take each other’s clean and precious hands,

    And maybe cry.

    You see, a lot of songwriting is just sitting still on a dry, humdrum day and beginning to count blessings, recall friendships, analyze commitments, define elusive feelings, and empathize with people we don’t even know. Then we comb our imagination for images to clothe our ideas, to make them real, concrete. And that kind of disciplined meditation and analysis can lead to songs.

    A feeling about faithfulness got dressed up in the pioneer woolens of my great-grandmother’s brother who froze to death hauling the tithing to Salt Lake City. A feeling about the manliness of tears got dressed up in the uniform of a prisoner-of-war returning home to his frightened-of-crying son. A feeling about the joy of singing and dancing even got dressed up like a grasshopper “with a fiddle in his hand and a head full of sweet green things to sing.”

    Still, some people are surprised (and often disappointed) when they learn that a song that has touched them with its seeming spontaneity and lyric flow was methodically hammered out at a regularly scheduled, after-lunch songwriting session with my guitar player and frequent collaborator, Guy Randle; that we wrote the music first (a discipline to improve our melodies); that we used a rhyming dictionary; and that neither of us had a clue when we came at 1:30 of what kind of song might be taking shape by dinner time. And no, neither one of us had had our hearts broken or our souls transfigured in the very recent past.

    A couple of years ago a young brother came up to me after a concert and asked if I’d ever seen the kid in the back of the room watching the man up front play his guitar, wanting with all his might to just open up like that and let his feelings out. And then he told me that he was the kid, that it was destructive to his spirit and hurtful to his head to feel the constant pressure of those dammed-up feelings and emotions and ideas. I didn’t doubt his sincerity, but I thought it might be just one more case of never having really tried. I asked him what he was doing to develop his talent. “Well, I’m studying voice right now, and I’ve been playing classical guitar for five years.” Obviously the problem had to be something else.

    I invited him to come out to my house in Alpine (a small town in Utah County) when he could, and we’d talk about it. (Incidentally, his desire to share his light so touched me that I wrote a song about him that night before I went to bed—a song that a lot of my artist friends relate to really well, because they, too, frequently feel those “dammed-up” pressures.)

    Not long after, we spent the day together in Alpine. The main element in his problem turned out to be a fairly simple misunderstanding. He somehow had the idea that those phrases and images that roll so easily off the singer’s tongue roll just as easily from the writer’s mind. He had begun hundreds of verses on hundreds of days, but whenever a word or picture got stuck in the pen, he felt that he had failed and quit. I have a song about swimming in a river. I sang him the lines:

    You can see the fishes dancin’

    Dancin’ silver rings around you and me.

    Then I told him how I spent an hour a day for about three days writing those two lines, singing the song over and over, getting to that empty place and trying to hear those two lines, filling that place with a dozen different images, finally finding that image and saying it a dozen different ways, then singing it again and again, testing it on my tongue, my ear, my sense of balance.

    He asked what the green book on the piano was—a rhyming dictionary. The blue one—a Thesaurus. And the cassette recorder—a recorder to tape four or five notes at a time, playing them back, seeing if the structure sounded fresh and yet inevitable. What was written in the pile of music notebooks? Melodies that didn’t work. The other notebooks? Lyrics that didn’t work. The filing cabinet? Ideas for songs. He wrote me a letter recently from the mission field in South America. The letter was in rhyme—not a hit song lyric, but real feelings breathing on the page.

    At the basis, however, of all the craft and discipline and scheduling, there has to be a careful continuous tuning of the mind and the spirit, so that anything beautiful that happens will set a song in motion. I’m thinking of a recent evening with some friends, people I don’t know nearly as well as I’d like, people I like a whole lot more than they know. And their beauty and gentleness and faithfulness struck me, and humbled me, so that by two the next morning there was a song about how I’d like to have those kinds of friends forever. That song completely healed a pretty frustrating, dry week.

    Two months before my little daughter Eliza was born, there emerged overnight an anti-abortion song (or maybe I should say a pro-birth song) that became a regional hit, and nobody minded at all when Eliza turned out to be David.

    In a Holiday Inn in Detroit I stayed in bed one morning until noon writing a song committing my friendship to someone whose needs and goodness had impressed me deeply, and now the friendship is rich and enduring, and the song was adopted by Brigham Young University as a theme for their helping-hand “Friends” program.

    Even in the quiet corners of our lives, there are heartbeats and heartbreaks—there are sweet things to sing. Maybe it will be our gift to our children. What about songs as a way of preserving the story of ourselves and our families? It’s simple but true that folk music is the music of folks. It reflects the history of people—their moods and feelings, their happiness and frustrations, their joys and sorrows.

    But the history of our people is not complete. We are the people held back until the latter-days with talents especially suited for preparing the world for the Lord’s second coming. Where are the songs of young people singing out against the false notions of the world in which they live, or songs that spring from thankful reflection on what the gospel means to us today? Sure, we have songs of Robin Hood; but what of the real heroes of Nottingham, England, who are spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ as directed by the prophet of God? It doesn’t matter whether you come from Nashville or Brisbane, Auckland or Glasgow, somewheresville or nowheresville, the Church everywhere has people, feelings, and history; and we are part of that history. We should have our own folk music, and no one else can write it for us.

    The elusive and maybe hopeless idea of it all is simply to make a beautiful moment last. And maybe the world will buy it, and maybe it won’t. But then, maybe the world would never have bought the beautiful moment itself.


    There is a farmhouse off the highway, son.

    Oh, Billy Jenkins, won’t you stay?

    “No, no, my mother is a worried one.

    And I must hold onto the way I’m bound.”

    Back in West Jordan, he was nearly frozen, the dark had drawn around the dugout door.

    The snow was piled on the home they’d chosen—

    out in the West, where they would fear no more.

    Digging to find the door, he was not able. He had to wonder where to make his bed.

    So in the whispers of the cattle stable, he dreamed and drifted toward the dawn ahead.

    On Christmas morning, when they saw his bed,

    And Billy Jenkins was not there,

    They found him frozen in the cattle shed.

    The snows had borne him to the fair beyond.

    Billy Jenkins was proud and pretty.

    He was a fair and a faithful son.

    He took the tithing to Salt Lake City.

    The silver snowstorm had scarce begun.

    (From the “Utah” album) © 1972 Embryo Music, BMI

    Please Imagine

    Please imagine again,

    imagine the stars never end—nor my love for you.

    Please imagine again

    a million new mornings may blend in my love for you.

    Love is long—longer when it’s true.

    Ask how long. Until my life is through—

    that’s how long.

    Oh please imagine again,

    imagine that life never ends—nor my love for you, my love for you.

    (From the “Please Imagine” album) © Embryo Music, BMI


    Eliza, hey can you hear me?

    Eliza, are you near?

    Eliza, no need to fear—

    we want you here.

    Eliza can you hear us hopin’?

    Eliza, come to stay.

    Eliza, this door is open—

    meet the day.

    Eliza my love, makin’ it be like the mornin’ again.

    Eliza my love, makin’ me feel like I’m born once again.

    I’m born again, my

    Eliza, hey we can feel you

    like April at the door.

    Eliza, all of this real new life is yours.

    Eliza, my love, makin’ it be like mornin’ again.

    Eliza my love, making’ me feel like

    I’m born once again.

    Eliza, all that we have we’re gonna give, Eliza—

    Freedom to live, Eliza.

    Eliza my love, makin’ it be like the mornin’ again.

    Eliza my love, makin’ me feel like

    I’m born once again.

    (From the “Please Imagine” album) © Embryo Music, BMI


    Child of mine, do you know how tall—

    child of mine, do you know how deep you are?

    Child of mine, do you know you’re older than suns and stars?

    Child of mine, do you know how long

    in the feast of light you listened and you loved?

    Or how long I’ve waited just to send you down free and far?

    I can remember when it first came to mind.

    I sent you down with a light inside.

    I sent you down—you’re not blind.

    Child of mine, do you know how long

    in the feast of light you listened and you loved?

    Or how long I’ve waited just to send you down free and far?

    (From the “Ships of Dust” album) © 1970 Embryo Music, BMI

    Photos by Eldon Linschoten