Great songwriting often happens in teams (not committees, teams) of two, one of whom seems to major in tunes, and the other in texts. Think of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Gilbert and Sullivan, Lennon and McCartney, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I am NOT a team.
Sometime in the late 1980s I began to write texts for existing tunes. They were all for use in ecclesiastical settings. The tunes were rather leaden, and my texts pedestrian. Through the 90s I got slightly better, but only slightly. In 2001 I attended a conference that accelerated the process. I even got the idea that I could write tunes. But, I couldn’t. A couple times I attempted to write church music in Taiwanese… DOUBLE DISASTER! Finally I separated “tune” from “text”, so at least things were singable, if not exciting, and hewed pretty closely to existing texts in Taiwanese or English only.
Last summer I met a high school classmate. We hadn’t met in the 60s when we were both at that school. That’s no surprise, because there were nearly 600 people in our graduating class. She had been an amateur poet over the years, and in 2011 self-published a collection of about 100 devotional poems. Since October of 2019 I’ve been adapting those poems for singing in church settings. She wasn’t initially willing to have her words “monkeyed with”, and I don’t blame her. Writers are notorious about disliking their editors. So I agreed to proceed with the project on the basis that it would be sent to her alone, and only released beyond the “private audience” with her approval on a song by song basis. I recently finished the project, neatened up the files, and sent them to her on a .usb drive, by post.
The process was good for me in more than one way. First, the faith so much on display in her verse strengthened mine. Second, reworking her words into metrical and rhyming verse was a good brain exercise. Third, and probably most useful in the long run, I learned a lot of tunes that I’d never contacted before. These will be a treasury from which I’ll draw as I adapt other stuff, or even write my own stuff going forward.
Probably the best thing I learned was to separate my minor facility with words from a non-proclivity for tunes. Sorting things out, separating what one CAN do from what one SHOULDN’T touch, is profitable.
David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.