The words to songs can explode in your heart
or clobber you over the head
or make you laugh with delight one moment and have you sobbing the next.
In the middle of my kindergarten year, my family moved to the suburbs. The district we moved to didn't have kindergarten, and so I was put into the first grade. Reading was happening! On one of my first days, I remember the teacher writing "want" on the blackboard. I knew enough to try to sound out the word, but all I could think of was that "want" must either rhyme with "ant" or "paint." Neither of those could be right, could they? I don't really know why I remember so clearly my teacher pronouncing that mysterious word "want," but somehow learning that word seems to me to be the first moment I realized how powerful words could be. I thought, I want more.
I don't think I memorized the words to the first songs I learned. I think I just absorbed them like a sponge. I knew a lot of hymns long before I understood what the words meant. I learned funny songs my mother sang and some songs from the '40s, which my cousin had on some old 78 records. Then one day my dad, who worked at a furniture store where they were selling the latest "hi-fi" record players, brought home a "demonstration" partial soundtrack to the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. Oh, how I loved those words! I listened by the hour to "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "On The Street Where You Live" and poured over the synopsis of the play in the album's liner notes, trying to figure out where and how those songs fit into the story.
I had my crush on the pop songs of Elvis and The Everley Brothers and Brenda Lee and Motown and The Beatles, but Broadway had my heart. Carousel and Camelot and South Pacific and Oklahoma and The Music Man—each new set of lyrics were a feast to me. I would save my allowance until I had the money to buy the next Broadway cast album on my list, and then I would listen again and again until I knew every word of every song.
There was always church music. My dad led the singing at church and mom sang in the choir. I fell asleep every Monday night hearing them in the living room, trying to figure out how to teach the choir some new song by Audrey Meier or something else from Manna Music. I think it was a blessing that my dad was completely untrained in music. What he knew, he learned because of the passion he had for it. The other constant in my week was watching my mom pour over her Matthew Henry commentaries as she prepared to teach Sunday school. In our home, words weren't thrown around carelessly. They mattered.
I love that I can trace my passion for writing and for language back that far. Somehow I've always understood that words can change things. The words to songs can explode in your heart or clobber you over the head or make you laugh with delight one moment and have you sobbing the next. I will never get tired of trying to learn how to find the ones that affect people just that way.
Occasionally someone will ask me when I'm going to retire. Retire. From writing songs! I always want to say, "Why would I do that when one of these days, I may figure out how to get this right?"