Psalm 146: Praise the Lord!

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

My fourteen Psalm extravaganza continues with a new text by Charles Freeman. Charles chose Psalm 146, an exuberant Psalm of trust and praise. When I sat down at the piano, I immediately heard Black Gospel. I wanted this song to sit comfortably between Andraé Crouch’s “Bless the Lord” and James Moore’s “Taste and See.”

One of the things that has been different about this month’s collaborations is that I’ve had to communicate my vision for a song while it’s still in the draft stage. Whereas my workflow is ordinarily scribble, revise, ruminate, refine, notate, record, and edit notation, this time I often need to let the text writers hear the direction I’m taking the music so they can make adjustments to the lyrics. My piano playing is atrocious, but I’ve still tried to play and sing the rough drafts. So far all my collaborators have been gracious, assuring me that my piano playing could be worse. I will spare you those recordings, but I thought you might be interested to see what my musical chicken scratch looks like. Below is the first draft of “Praise the Lord!”

Praise the Lord!
O my soul, praise the Lord!
O my soul, praise the Lord!
I will sing praises to God my whole life long.
Praise the Lord!

1. Put no trust in mortals,
you’ll find no help there.
Breath departs, laid in earth,
and all their plans just disappear.
Seek the God of Jacob,
hope in God your Lord.
The One who made the heavens and the earth
is faithful evermore,
is faithful evermore,
our God is faithful evermore! Refrain

2. God is bringing justice,
feeds the hungry, too;
and God sets prisoners free–
behold and see what God will do!
God restores our vision,
lifts the broken high;
and with the ones who live in righteousness,
the Lord will abide,
the Lord will abide,
with the righteous will the Lord abide. Refrain

3. God cares for the stranger,
hears the orphan’s call;
widows find a faithful friend
in God, who is the Lord of all.
Our Lord reigns forever,
Zion’s God on high;
now let the praise, the praise of our Lord
forever be our cry,
forever be our cry,
God’s praise forever be our cry! Refrain

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Psalm 7: Arise!

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

When I host songwriting workshops, I often advise writers to choose a hymn they like, write new music for the text, then write a new text for the new tune. Voila! An entirely new song! This is a great way of priming the songwriting pump.

I followed my own advice on this song. I found Isaac Watts’ setting of Psalm 7, “My Trust Is in My Heav’nly Friend” at hymnary.org. It is a good text, but I couldn’t see myself singing “Tho’ leagu’d in guile their malice spread, / A snare before my way: / Their mischiefs on their impious head, / His vengeance shall repay.” So I set to work re-tuning and re-texting his hymn.

It must be said that Psalm 7 is not an easy sell. It is, as Watts described it, about “God’s care of his people and punishment of persecutors.” The Psalmist makes some pretty explicit suggestions about how God might bring vengeance on enemies. But it is also full of vivid language like “save me or they will tear me like a lion” and “he who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment.” So, while this is unlikely to be my big hit, I think my Psalm 7 song does a good job of letting the text speak. Or as I like to say: This is not the best song you’ve ever heard, but it’s probably the best Psalm 7 song you’ve ever heard.

1. My only hope is in the Lord;
I refuge in my God.
God save me from those hunting me
like lions seeking blood.

If I had brought this on myself
I would not call your name,
but I’ve done nothing to deserve
their anger or my shame.

Arise! Arise! Arise, O Lord!
Arise! Arise! Arise, O Lord!

2. Arise, O Lord, and stay their hand
or I will be undone;
for only you can judge the heart
and keep me safe from harm.

My strong defender is my God;
my Savior is the Lord
who judges every human heart
and wields a righteous sword.

Arise! Arise! Arise, O Lord!
Arise! Arise! Arise, O Lord!

3. Their ripened rage gives birth to wind,
for God has changed their plans.
They find themselves ensnared in traps
that they themselves have set.

But I give thanks to my good God,
whose righteousness prevails.
I sing the praises of my Lord,
whose love will never fail.

Arise! Arise! Arise, O Lord!
Arise! Arise! Arise, O Lord!

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Hey You!

With ten more Psalms to go in as many days, you would think I would have my nose to the grindstone. I do. But I also can’t resist chasing a rabbit trail or two. In this case, the rabbit trail is a new jazz tune we tried out last night at Euro Bistro.

Earlier in the week, I was drinking my afternoon coffee when this little opening lick popped into my head. Pretty soon I was spinning it out into different pitches and keys until it became this delightfully twisty little song that would be at home surrounded by jazz standards like “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Indeed, Euro Bistro patrons didn’t seem to think anything was amiss when we snuck this new tune in one of our sets.

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Psalm 23: God Is Our Shepherd (with Michael Morgan)

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

It’s hard to believe I’ve never written a song based on Psalm 23. (Unless you count this and this.) Perhaps I felt it was such low-hanging fruit that I moved on to other Psalms, or maybe there are so many beautiful Psalm 23 songs that I felt I didn’t have anything to add.

In any case, FAWM 2022 and a beautiful text by Michael Morgan were the push I needed to write my own setting. And while I don’t expect it will ever displace “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” in anyone’s heart, I’m still pleased with how mine came out. It is simple, using a pentatonic scale in the melody and unadorned harmonies. This serves Michael’s modest, beautiful text well.

1. God is our shepherd, so faithful and sure,
whose care and affection forever endure;
boundless in giving, God meets every need:
streams to refresh us, and pastures to feed.

2. Lord, your great spirit our souls will restore;
your vow is to ransom, and ours to adore.
Paths of contentment, vales of despair,
we will not waver – salvation is here!

3. Fed at your table, and warmed by your face;
blest with sweet oil and redeemed by your grace;
goodness and mercy are ours for always;
heaven is filled with rejoicing and praise!

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The One More Note Samba

When I’m not furiously writing Psalms this month, I’m being lured into various FAWM challenges. Every week in February at fawm.org, someone posts a writing prompt, like “Write a song with a body part in it (a la Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”). This week’s prompt was “Write a song with one note.” Of course, the gold standard example is Carlos Antonio Jobim’s “One Note Samba.” If you don’t know it, you need to listen to it. Right. Now.

Jen and Greg, being ridiculously cute.

I decided to write a song as an homage to Jobim, the great Brazilian composer whose name is synonymous with bossa nova. The homage is self-explanatory if you read the lyrics. Musically, I patterned the song after his, but whereas his B section is a flurry of scales, mine is a rapid-fire one-note melody.

Of course, since it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, my little bonbon of a love song is also an ode of love dedicated to my wife Jen. As you can see from this picture, we are ridiculously cute together and fantastically in love.

Jobim wrote a one-note samba–
a classic full of wit and charm–
but his masterpiece left eleven notes
to be used by other bards.

I’ll lay claim to two of them:
an E flat and a G.
I need twice as many notes:
I’m half as clever as Jobim.

I will use my second note to
tell you you’re the only one who
makes me sing of song of love so
true. For I was just a
lonely one who wondered if I’d
ever find a love just like the
love that I have fin’lly found in you!

That brings me back to my first note;
back to my first theme.
And though it’s not as elegant
as a samba by Jobim,

two notes are better than one note
because they make perfect harmony.
Just like the two of us–you and I–
go together perfectly!

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Take 3.0

I’m sure you all know the jazz standard, Take 5. This one’s like that, but in 3/4 time. And while it may seem they have nothing more in common than a number in their title, they share a similar rhythmic foundation. Take 5’s underlying rhythm is:
| eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter | quarter, quarter | = 3+2
and mine is:
| eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter | quarter, quarter, quarter | =3+3

I wrote this a month ago and gave it a try at my Euro Bistro gig. It went…okay. I decided the lackluster performance was not the fault of the players, but of the song itself. Back to the drawing board. I moved things around and began to feel a little better about it, but still, it was just…okay. Back to the drawing board again. The third time, as they say, is the charm. Indeed, version 3.0 was a keeper. The form felt more satisfying and the harmonic movement pushed forward with vigor and vim. You can hear it in this rough live performance. Even though the trio was sight-reading the song, there was a naturalness to their playing and improvising.

Why an Oakley pants ad? Simply because it had “Take (Pro Pant) 3.0” in the product title.

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Psalm 20: Blessing (with Kate Bluett)

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

Kate Bluett and I have already completed one Psalm collaboration, last year’s raucous “The Thunder’s Rage Is Roaring” (Psalm 57). This time around is a more placid song. Kate’s beautiful rendering of Psalm 20 is simply called “Blessing.”

She has recast the language of the Psalm in a way that speaks powerfully into our own context. For example, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses” becomes “Some trust in arms and some in power.” In my estimation, this is exactly the kind of “transplanting” that should take place in modern Psalm songs.

Musically, I kept things very simple. Much of the time the harmonies are rocking gently between a C and an F/C. This musical moderation means that even a shift to an A minor chord feels important. It also lets the melody and words speak with a candor and guilelessness that isn’t possible in more sophisticated music.

1. May God give answer when you call,
and may God’s name defend you
to shield you from what harms befall
and with great love befriend you,
then when at last the shadows fall,
with shepherd’s care yet tend you,
and may you see God’s hand in all,
wheree’er your road may send you.

2. May you take all you have and do
to be today your off’ring,
and give to God in love and truth,
in happiness and suff’ring.
May God send mercy filling you,
your heart’s desires uncov’ring,
with graces pouring into you,
and peace upon you hov’ring.

3. May God pay heed to all your prayers,
and may we know the answer,
rejoicing with you as you share
the goodness God shall grant you.
Some trust in arms and some in pow’r,
but we shall trust in heaven,
and trust still more in every hour
the vict’ry God has given.

Posted in 2022 Psalm Collaborations, Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, FAWM 2022, Psalms | Leave a comment

Psalm 69: Have Pity, My God (with David J. Diephouse)

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

I’ve collaborated with David Diephouse before (80, 107, 148) and am glad to be co-writing a new Psalm setting with him. This one, Psalm 69, comes with an origin story of sorts. David writes:

I recall hearing my mother relate a family legend about her grandfather, who was a trawlerman on the Zuider Zee. One day, his boat got caught in a sudden squall that left it capsized. While waiting to be rescued the crew kept up their spirits by singing the opening lines of Psalm 69. The story may or may not be partly apocryphal, but I like it.

I love to hear stories about how people have used the Psalms in everyday life. It’s easy to see why a person adrift in the sea would recall the lines of Psalm 69, because they are the cry of a person drowning. In the Psalm, it is an emotional drowning, fighting a flood of sorrow, betrayal, and fatigue. I wanted music that could bear the weight of the emotional variety: desperation, vindication, and hope, ultimately gravitating toward a minor melody with a rugged rhythmic foundation. I would love to hear it sung by an early music consort. For now, enjoy a demo recorded by the Greg Consort.

1. Have pity, my God: I am drowning in sorrow.
I’ve cried out to you, can you hear my desperation?
The flood presses in and the waters keep rising;
I’m weary and see little hope of your salvation.

Out of the depths of my pain you will raise me,
God, you will answer when nothing can save me,
My gratefulness I’ll proclaim,
Singing praise to your name,
to your glorious name.

2. I feel so much hate, all my friends have betrayed me;
I hear how they scoff when they see that I am fasting.
You see my great need, all the pain that besets me.
Oh, show me your grace, for your love is everlasting. Refrain

3. May all who have wronged me know shame and contrition
And tremble and faint when they feel your indignation.
Demand from them all they have earned for their thieving;
Ignore their laments when they see my vindication. Refrain

All those who have known you find healing and wholeness,
Your deeds are resounding through all of your creation,
And heaven and earth, every mountain and ocean,
Will join your redeemed in a mighty celebration. Refrain

Posted in 2022 Psalm Collaborations, Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, FAWM 2022, Hymn tunes, Psalms | Leave a comment

Psalm 8: How Often in the Deep of Night (with Linda Bonney Olin)

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

Like many Februarys, this month I will be taking part in FAWM: February Album Writing Month. This year I will be meeting the challenge of writing 14 songs in 28 days with the help of 14 lyricists who will contribute renderings of 14 Psalms, inching me ever closer to my goal of writing a song on each Psalm.

This first collaboration is with Linda Bonney Olin, who has contributed a beautiful setting of Psalm 8. One would think that the Psalm 8 well had long ago run dry, but Linda has written a text that is full of child-like wonder, bringing a new sense of awe to our hearing of the Psalm.

I have supported this ethereal text with music that floats, seemingly untethered from a tonal center. Though the song’s key is (more or less) D major, the very first downbeat is a G chord with an A in the melody. From there this nebulous shifting of harmonies continues into a (more or less) C region before a sudden change of course leads us back to D major. Interestingly, when the song lands back in D it sounds strangely unresolved.

1. How often in the deep of night
have I in silence gazed
at twinklings on the edge of sight
and stood, O Lord, amazed!
Beyond the slice of universe
that mortal eyes can see,
creation vast and so diverse
shines forth in majesty.

2. So high are you, O Lord, our God,
above all humankind!
Our finite minds are overawed
by marvels you designed.
Yet you have given humans charge
of what your hands have made.
To tend your creatures small and large,
this trust on us you laid.

3. You wield supreme authority,
yet you are kind and fair.
We too, Lord, in humility,
must act with gracious care.
We honor you when we respect
all beings’ sacred worth
and, as your stewards, we protect
the glories of your earth.

Posted in 2022 Psalm Collaborations, Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, FAWM 2022, Hymn tunes, Psalms | Leave a comment

Psalm 143: O Lord, Hear My Prayer

Update 2/4/22: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

The latest in my ongoing exploration of jazz Psalms is what is known as a responsorial Psalm. This is a form of chant in which the bulk of the Psalm text is chanted on a chant tone, a single note which continues until the phrase of text is finished and closes on a cadence. This allows for texts of varying lengths and a song that follows the Psalm very closely. The chanted verses are usually sung by a cantor (a fancy word for lead singer) and then the congregation sings a short refrain in response. (Hence, responsorial.)

This is way more complicated to explain than to sing.

This song uses the traditional Roman Catholic chanted text for Psalm 143, intended for use in funerals. The refrain is a singable melody over a ii-V-I jazz harmony. The verses work like a regular chant tone except that the musicians vamp under extended chant sections and add a quick turnaround between each phrase. Once again, I’ve made it more complicated than it sounds. Just take a listen.

O Lord, hear my prayer.

1. O Lord, hear my prayer; hearken to my pleading in your faithfulness;
in your justice answer me.
And enter not into judgment with your servant,
for before you no living man is just. [R]

2. I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all your doings; the works of your hands I ponder.
I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like parched land. [R]

3. Hasten to answer me, O Lord;
for my spirit fails me.
At dawn let me hear of your mercy,
for in you I trust. [R]

4. Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
May your good spirit guide me
on level ground. [R]

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Jazz, Psalms | Leave a comment