How To Excavate Gems From Other Writers

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Sojourn's Charlie Richardson, singing about the Kingdom of Light

Earlier I wrote about how that great “music expeditionary” Bob Dylan borrowed from other writers and artists while writing the songs and creating the concept of his 2006 album Modern Times. Dylan has made a half-century career of that, beginning with his re-imagining of Woody Guthrie and other American folk music pioneers of the early 20th century.

Poets, songwriters, preachers, novelists and other creative writers have always paid homage to the works of others. And you can do so too, without “stealing” from those whose work you admire. A couple examples from my own songs:

The Kingdom Of Light

Hopefully you’ve all downloaded our free song “My Song In The Night” (you can do so in the right column of this web page). The phrase “Kingdom of Light” in the final verse is my homage to a song we sing at Sojourn Church but have not recorded, written by Charlie Richardson, called “Where Your Praise Never Ends.” Charlie is a great Sojourn writer, having written some of our best songs like “There Is A Peace” and the revised Isaac Watts hymn “Early My God Without Delay.

In “Where Your Praise Never Ends,” the song builds to a bridge where we all get to belt out:

In the kingdom of light, in the kingdom of light,
Your praise never ends; it forever begins …

Great stuff. I hope Sojourn, Charlie or someone else records it someday. So I used the phrase for:

Adopted by God to the Kingdom of Light
You conquered the darkness, my song in the night

Now keep in mind the difference between using a phrase from one line of a bridge and using something more substantial. I would not, for instance, write:

I’m coming back to the heart of worship

Sojourn worship leader Rebecca Elliott

Rebecca Elliott, my songwriting partner on "All I Have Is Yours"

into a new song because it’s the main line and title of a popular contemporary praise and worship song. To do so would show a lack of imagination and judgment — two characteristics that make the difference between being a “musical expeditionary” and a thief.

Was blind but now I see …

“Amazing Grace” is perhaps the most famous Christian hymn, at least in the United States. Even many people who have the faintest familiarity with church can recite “Was blind, but now I see.”

When I wrote the lyrics to “All I Have Is Yours,” recorded by Sojourn (featuring singer Rebecca Elliott, who wrote the melody) I wanted to work in “Was blind but now I see,” giving it a different twist. “All I Have Is Yours” is a modern hymn for the offering (the hymn meter is 85.85.888.5).

The second verse describes the way in which God grows our own faith as we give. It took me years to learn this and to receive it in faith, so I could truthfully write:

The more I give, the less I need
I learn that you’ll provide for me;
Was blind to this, but now I see
That all I have is yours.

Writers work at a songwriting workshop at our church, Sojourn

Writers work at a songwriting workshop at our church, Sojourn

Writing Assignment:

Write a verse or chorus using one of these phrases:

  • “Save from wrath and make me pure”
  • “Lord, there is none like you”
or one of your own favorite gems from another songwriter. Find a way to say something different than the song from which you’re borrowing. The goal is not to walk the same path as the earlier writer but merely to let his or her well-turned phrase take you on a path that you might not have gone down. Maybe something like:
I only wanted loaves and fish;
You saved from wrath and made me pure
I never knew of love like this,
A father’s arm so strong and sure
I don’t claim that’s the greatest quatrain ever written — all those “v’s” might be hard to sing — but you see my point? Let the writing of others inspire you, and then begin your own journey.

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