Psalm 54: Save Me, O God (with Doug Gay)

February 2022 proved to be too short to achieve my goal of 14 Psalm collaborations. (You can hear a concert of the 12 songs I completed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBiORFbDulE) However, I’m trying to make things right by completing two more songs that I left as drafts earlier.

This one is a hymn Doug Gay wrote on Psalm 54, a prayer for salvation from enemies. It is the kind of Psalm I once dismissed as petty and paranoid. But now that I am older (or more petty and paranoid?) I see that, indeed, life is full of people who get a thrill out of bringing others down a few notches: “Arrogant foes are attacking me; ruthless people are trying to kill me–people without regard for God.” (Turn the page to Psalm 55 and you’ll see that sometimes the worst foes are former friends!) Doug has done a great job of capturing the spirit of the Psalm honestly while focusing more on God’s salvation than the malice of the attackers.

Musically, I heard it as an urgent, yet confident prayer. It needed music that is vulnerable, but strong. My original version (which is retained in the SATB version of the music) sounds like an early music consort, with modal harmonies and a hand drum. But as I developed the song, I wanted to make it accessible to those who don’t have Estampie at their church, so I wrote a simple piano accompaniment. As I recorded it, it morphed from Estampie into Malicorne or Steeleye Span. One could do worse…

1. Save me, O God, save me by your great name.
Uphold my life, by your almighty power.
Those who despise me, pitiless and cruel,
seek to destroy me, mock me to my face.
Hear me, O God, draw near to hear my prayer.
Draw near to hear my prayer.

2. Still I confess my faith, that God is near.
God is my helper, God is my defense.
And I believe my enemies will find
God will not let their callous evil stand.
Come, faithful God, and bring it to an end!
Come, faithful God, be near.

3. In love and freedom, I will bring my praise.
I will give thanks, O Lord, for you are good.
You have delivered me and saved the day.
Now I can see my enemies dismayed.
Danger is past, my hope has been renewed.
I will give thanks, O Lord.

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Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies

Charles Wesley originally titled this text simply “Morning Hymn.” Indeed, the text is filled with images of morning, light, and day. Of course, Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, is praised as the true source of all light.

Even though Charles Gounod wrote one of the more famous tunes for this hymn, I’ve never felt like any of the tunes do the text and theme justice. This wide-eyed, joyful text needs something that makes you feel the refreshing hope of a new sunrise.

I hope my tune captures some of that vitality. It is a simple folk song with a melody that rises and sets like the sun. Though the song itself is simple and singable, I’ve added a challenging and exciting instrumental verse that can be played by either keyboard or two solo instruments. In this recording, I used the keyboard solo as an intro and the duet as an instrumental verse between verses 2 and 3.

1 Christ, whose glory fills the skies;
Christ, the true, the only light;
Sun of Righteousness, arise;
triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Daystar, in my heart appear.

2 Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by thee;
joyless is the day’s return
till thy mercy’s beams I see;
till they inward light impart,
cheer my eyes and warm my heart.

3 Visit then this soul of mine;
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
fill me, radiancy divine;
scatter all my unbelief;
more and more thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.

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Psalm 102: My Heart Is Sick (Linda Bonney Olin)

I first collaborated with Linda Bonney Olin in February of this year. Our setting of Psalm 8, “How Often in the Deep of Night” was part of my 2022 Psalm Collaboration project. I’m now coming back to some other texts she sent in February. Among them was “My Heart Is Sick.”

The song title certainly catches one’s attention. Though the title doesn’t sound as inspiring as, say, “Like a River Glorious,” there are plenty of times when our hearts are sick and we don’t feel glorious at all. The Psalmist is certainly experiencing one of those times in Psalm 102. The Psalm vacillates between utter despair (“I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears”) to hope in God’s unchanging love and ability to save.

As I began working with the text, I could hear waves of dissonance that mirrored the heart-sickness and longing of the Psalm. Indeed, many notes of this melody are dissonant against their accompanying chords. What keeps all this dissonance from descending into chaos is an undulating stepwise motive that is woven throughout the song. It’s surprisingly singable.

Of course, there’s no lily I’m unwilling to gild! As I wrote the piano part, I began to imagine what the song might sound like with an accompaniment of low strings instead. I finally gave in and wrote one. The score calls for a cello quartet, but I’m sure I could be convinced to re-score it for string orchestra if you asked nicely. On this demo, though, it is played by a quartet of basses played by yours truly. For those of you who are having a hard time imagining a quartet of low strings accompanying this Psalm, a demo of the piano accompaniment is below.

The tune is named DESERT OWL after the lonely nocturnal bird in verse 2.

1. My heart is sick, my body weak.
I’m starved to skin and bones.
My mouth, too full of dust to speak,
can utter only groans.
O God, my God, see my distress
and heed my wretched prayer,
for I am poor and powerless
without your gracious care.

2. As lonesome as a desert owl,
I lie awake, in tears.
Around me adversaries prowl,
with curses, taunts, and jeers.
And you, the God I have adored,
in anger shun me too.
Restore me to your presence, Lord,
to walk once more with you!

3. Our days on earth so swiftly pass,
like waves on restless seas.
We fade away like withered grass,
like smoke upon the breeze.
But you, O God, will always be,
eternally the same.
All generations, hear and see!
All people, praise God’s name!

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Teach Us Your Peace (David Bjorlin)

Update: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

I was talking to my boys yesterday about the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. I admitted that lately, I’ve become callous to the whole process: some troubled person murders multiple innocent people, the whole nation acts shocked, and then we quickly go back to life (and death) as usual. The Christians make pious statements about the existence of evil being the real problem. The conservatives sing the praises of the freedoms that make this country great, including the freedom of unrestricted gun ownership. (Did you know that there are 1.2 guns for every person in this country?) It’s an endless cycle that won’t stop until we decide we love our children more than our guns.

A short time later, David Bjorlin sent an email with a new hymn text addressing the world-weariness I was experiencing. As he described it, there is “something inherently life-affirming about the creative act.” Indeed, this life-affirming hymn is an act of defiance in a culture so enamored with weapons and so willing to offer children to the god of untethered freedom.

He wrote “Teach Us Your Peace” to the tune of FINLANDIA. I hope my simple tune will bring something new to our hearing of these important words.

1. Teach us your peace when death is all around us
and we are fed the bitter bread of tears;
when hollow words and cowardice confound us
as hope for action once more disappears.
Teach us your peace, and with your love surround us–
your perfect love that casts away our fears.

2. Teach us your peace where weapons meant for killing
are turned to tools to help us grow and thrive,
where hardened hearts are furrowed by your tilling
and stubborn seeds take root and come alive.
Teach us your peace where everyone is willing
to harvest change so children may survive.

3. Teach us your peace till peace rules every nation
and justice springs and streams to every shore,
till you return to cradle all creation
and put an end to violence, hate, and war.
Teach us your peace, a holy habitation
where we will dwell and death will be no more.

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Everybody Knows

I continue playing my bass each week with a jazz trio at a local restaurant and I continue to write new songs for said trio. I try to do something different each time: a different style, mood, or tempo. Sometimes I base a new song on an existing standard: Brubeck’s “Take 5” becomes my “Take 3.0” or Jobim’s “One Note Samba” becomes “The One More Note Samba,” for example. I figure my songs will be more likely to be played if I can slip them in beside a similar classic.

But his time I actually stole from myself. I was thinking about how my rap song “We Know the Changes,” would make a mighty fine jazz-funk groove. I began playing with some melodies that might work on top of the chords from that song (called a “contrafact” in musical terms), but it soon morphed into an entirely different thing.

“Everybody Knows” ended up as an A minor groove that pivots up and down a step on phrase two and four. That’s a cool way to keep things simple without getting boring. As you can hear from this recording from last night, the trio took to it like fish to water.

I probably won’t use the words with this one, but I include them here for posterity:

1. Everybody knows
and there’s no denying.
Everybody knows
And you know it, too.
Everybody knows
try to hide it, but it shows.
Everybody knows, everybody knows
when they fall in love.

2. Everybody knows
they can’t fight the feeling.
Everybody knows
it’ll only grow.
Everybody knows
just give in and let it flow.
Everybody knows, everybody knows
when they fall in love.

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Trio

I continue to explore jazz, this time with a healthy dose of classical composition technique. “Trio” is so named because it’s written for 3 players and in “3” (3/4 meter). More interestingly, the three players play a 3-part canon. Player #1 begins the canon (also known as a round), followed by Player #2 eight bars later, and Player #3 eight bars after that.

While this canon could theoretically continue repeating into infinity, my hope is to perform this with three musicians who will begin to improvise once their written melodies are finished. Imagine: three players improvising at the same time, like Dixieland, but more serene. Then, one at a time, they’ll come back to the head and take the coda to end the song.

For now, we will have to satisfy our ears with a quick demo of just the melody and coda.

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Iguana

Photo by Patricia Guillory

“Iguana” began its life as a bass line. I wanted to write a groove-oriented jazz tune like Herbie Hancock’s iconic “Chameleon.” (“Chameleon”…”Iguana” Get it?) The bass line soon morphed from a dirty funk into a smoother, jazz fusion groove with an ever-ascending harmonic sequence. While I was working on the melody I was also memorizing Thelonius Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.” I was fascinated (and a little bit infuriated) by the way Monk takes one melodic motif and then shifts it to different positions in the meter each time it appears. A little of that leaked into “Iguana.”

The final test for any jazz tune–especially a groove-oriented one–is how well it works with real musicians soloing over its form. The first version of Iguana unraveled in that setting. The form was AABA, but the final A was so similar to the first two that no one ever knew when the song started again! In this final version, I simplified the form to AAB with a clear cadence marking the way back to the beginning. Voila! It worked like a charm.

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Behold the Love

As I was planning Easter services, I stumbled across a hymn text by Barton W. Stone called “Behold the Love, the Grace of God.” Stone is better known for his part in the Stone-Campbell Movement (also called the “Restoration Movement”) which is the precursor to modern denominations such as the Disciples of Christ. What struck me about this hymn text, seemingly the only one Barton wrote, is how effusive it is: “My soul’s on fire, it pants to prove the fullness of redeeming love.”

As I sat at the piano with the text, it suggested a rich, warm gospel ballad. The song has all the harmonic twists and turns that you’d expect in a gospel song, but the biggest surprise is in the third line when it suddenly shifts from the key of Db to the key of E. It’s unexpected but feels completely natural. (Though it is really hard to go from 5 flats to 4 sharps!)

Though I decided to write new lyrics, I tried to retain the original text’s first-person awe and gratefulness for Jesus’ sacrifice. This would be a great song for communion or Good Friday. Think of it as a gospel sibling of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

1. Behold the love, the grace of God,
displayed in Jesus’ precious blood.
My tongue will tell, my soul will sing
of Jesus Christ’s redeeming love!

I see the cross on which my Lord
bore all my sin within his pain.
He conquered death to bring me life
and I am healed; I’m born again.

2. O love of God, there is no end!
Thre is no bottom to his grace.
My sinful heart can cling to hope
when I see Jesus’ suffering face.

For though my sin could fill the sea,
God’s tender love is deeper yet.
He sent his Son to die for me,
to pay this grateful sinner’s debt.

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Psalm 9/10: Rise Up, O Lord!

Update: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

Collaborator Naaman Wood was in the middle of grading midterms and wasn’t able to get me a final version of Psalm 9/10 until February 27–the day before my FAWM deadline. While taking a walk that evening I began singing some ideas for a melody into my phone. Seven phone recordings later, I had the song mostly fleshed out. I sat down at the piano the next morning and finalized the song, wrote a piano accompaniment, and finished the recording 24 hours after seeing the text. Oh, the nail-biting life of a composer!

Though the verse melody is fairly straightforward, there are lots of harmonic twists and turns in the harmonies underneath it. This feels to me a lot like life: we may put on a good front, but there may be knots in our stomach and a prayer of anguish in our heads.

And thus ends my FAWM 2022 song project: 12 Psalm songs, based on 13 Psalms, with 16 total songs for the month. I’m tired. I will sleep during March.

1. The Lord is near to those who carry sorrow–
a shelter during troubled times.
He will remember all their cries and longings,
and will not give their hope away.

Rise up, rise up, rise up, O Lord!
Rise up, rise up, rise up, O Lord!


2. Where is our hope? How can we bear this sorrow?
Why do you hide in troubled times?
Have you forgotten to hear our cries and longings?
O, do not turn your face away! (Chorus)

3. On me, O Lord, O Son of God have mercy.
See how I suffer from wicked schemes.
They drag me down and devour me like lions.
I lay upon the gates of death. (Chorus)

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Psalm 62: Only God Can Save Me Now

Update: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

Psalm 62 famously begins with the words, “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.” The Psalmist goes on to describe the many difficulties experienced in life–those who are attacking or extorting money–always coming back to the refrain, “My soul finds rest in God alone.” Scottish lyricist, Doug Gay, has given these words an introspective feel in his setting of the Psalm. They could almost be sung by a victim of abuse, crying to God for help. That’s the thing about the Psalms: they give words to things we may have not experienced, which may make us feel like we don’t need them–until we do.

I kept the introspective, plaintive mood with music that is simple and child-like. I especially like how the chorus and verses slide into each other–there is no traditional cadence, but common tones in the melody make it feel completely natural.

Only God can save us now.
We wait in silence here.
For only God can keep us safe
on days we shake with fear.


1. I’m battered, broken, beaten down
and ready to give way.
So tired of all their shameless lies;
No trust in what they say. (Chorus)

2. We trust in God to set us free
from all our guilt and shame.
To God our refuge and our rock
we bring our hurt and pain. (Chorus)

3. The God who is both power and love
is judge of all the earth.
Don’t trust in what will pass away;
don’t sell your soul for wealth. (Chorus)

Only God can save us now.
We wait in silence here.

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