On songwriting: The Lesson of Gethsemane (with video)

When I started writing songs in earnest, I had a singular ambition. I aspired to write an album that would be as moving on first listen and as multifaceted on the hundredth as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska had been for me.

I never actually seriously expect that I might–until The Lesson of Gethsemane.

The inspiration photo:
Reverend Bullard, preacher, and family with trailer home. Alexandria, Louisiana, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), LC-USF34- 056656-D

There’s no one reason why. To the contrary, it’s the serendipitous fact that “so many things” converged (or, one might say, “came to cohabitate together”) across its themes, music, and lyrics that changed my mind. I’ll tackle a few of them after the break.

I hope you enjoy the live video recording below or the slightly more produced audio-only version here.

In no particular order:

  • I feel like there’s a little “Carter Family” vibe to the the rounded, fully-articulated pronunciation of the lyrics and the straightforwardness of the strumming.
  • I hate to force songs to be done on a schedule rather than when they emerge as what they want to be. (I’ve taken more than ten years to complete a song.) This one flowed easily through the first three stanzas once I wrote the first two lines in response to the inspiration photo (“They started rolling Sunday and they ain’t slowed down / A spiritual revival wagon roaming town to town”). I performed the song-as-it-stood for some colleagues during a virtual hang-out, ending with “and now I need to bring it home somehow.” It was another week before the final stanza came together…and that’s great. I never had to force it.
  • The D chord coming after the lyrics has a kind of repeated jangly-ness to it. I specifically imagine tin cups hanging on a rack in the trailer, jangling as it bumps over rough roads. The Em chord in the bridge lines isn’t a “sad” minor – it’s an “ominous” minor, like seeing thunderclouds on the horizon when you’re still a ways out from your next stop, or “folks are waitin’ on me, and I’m running late.”
  • There are two narrative strands interwoven in the lyrics. The invocation of the Agony in the Garden is not made lightly: travellin’ place to place is indeed our preacher’s calling …but an easier calling would be more than welcome. At the same time, for at least as many people in each town he stops by show up for sincere devotion, his presence is mostly an excuse for a social event and breaking the daily routine. For many, he might as well be a travelling magician. But at the end of the day, whether the sincere faith of those on their knees echoing the hymns is lightening their load, or his faith carrying out his calling is lightening the load of everyone who showed up to picnic or lounge in the sun or flirt with their sweetheart, it’s all good. Because there’s a fearsome need in this hard time for it.

These are the lyrics, annotated. You can see the rhyming scheme, but what delights me is so much effortless alliteration (blue) . And something else I don’t even know has a name–echoing certain syllables within adjacent lines, like “rolling” and “roaming” and “congregation” and “benediction” (red).