Maria Dunn: ‘When I Was Young’

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: Maria Dunn is a Canadian national treasure. She’s one of those rare songwriters who don’t spend most of their time describing the state of their own emotions, but take a profound interest in the world around them and in the lives of others. Maria has spent her career researching the stories of others – and especially those ‘others’ who are less fortunate than we are – and putting them into her beautiful and memorable songs.

Here’s a fine example – a song written from the perspective of Dorothy McDonald-Hyde, the first woman to be elected chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, and her sadness about the pollution of the Athabasca River as it flows through her home community, only sixty miles downstream from the Fort McMurray oilseeds projects. As Wendell Berry says, treat those who are downstream from you as you would like to be treated by those you are downstream from.

On this song Maria is accompanied by Shannon Johnson on violin and Jeremiah McDade on whistle. They are members of The McDades, another excellent Alberta musical ensemble. This song has been recorded on Maria’s recent CD ‘Gathering‘.

Find out more about Maria at her website here. And if you haven’t already done so, buy some of her CDs. you won’t regret it.

Hunting Song

When I lived in the Northwest Territories I was lucky enough to make regular trips out on the land with local hunters; those were some of the best experiences of my Arctic days. Sometimes we made one-day trips; at others we stayed out on the land in tents or in cabins. In the latter case we usually travelled out the first day, hunted the second and then came back to town in the dark, arriving home frozen and tired and ready for a hot bath and a hot meal!

This photo was taken on one such trip I made up into the mountains (probably across the border into the Yukon, actually) in the spring of 1988.

This song lyric is an amalgam of some of the trips I took when we lived in Aklavik in the Mackenzie Delta. It starts on the second day, waking up in the cabin. The tune doesn’t have a regular time signature; I’ll try to post a recording before too long.

Hunting Song

© April 2012 Tim Chesterton

 Deep in the northern forest
Stars shining bright in a sable sky
Wind in the trees comes whispering through the night

Deep in the heart of winter
Hours yet to pass ‘til the shortness of day
Creatures of night slip silently on their way

I wake in the dark of the cabin
Fire in the woodstove takes the chill off the air
Wood smoke and coffee warming us into dawn

Breakfast of bannock and oatmeal
Kamiks and parkas with wolverine trim
Stillness of morning split by our engines’ roar

Our/snowmobiles follow the river
Snow-covered ice shows the promise of prey
Caribou tracks are leading us on our way

Up on one knee I’m riding
Weight of the rifle across my back
Off in the distance moving specks catch my eye

Speeding toward the horizon
Wind on my face cuts as sharp as a knife
All my pretences finally stripped away

Now in this one vital moment
Food for the winter is all that we know
Crack of the rifles echoes across the snow

Superman’s Fallen

This is my good friend Rob Heath singing a song that we wrote together about Christopher Reeve, perhaps best known for playing Superman, but also for his brave response to the riding accident that left him a quadriplegic.

Rob has admired Christopher Reeve for some time, and a few months ago he sent me a lyric he had written in tribute to him, asking me if I could write a ‘Celtic/traditional-style’ tune for it. So the song started out as a combination of Rob’s words and my tune, but over the next few weeks he modified my tune a little, and we worked together to polish the lyrics. It was a very enjoyable process and Rob is a great songwriter to work with.

Hope you enjoy the song!

If you’d like to see more of Rob’s songs, check out his YouTube channel here.

The appalling CCM songs meme

There’s a meme going around Christian circles on the Internet about CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) songs. The gist of it is as follows: ‘Please try to name ONE (I know, there are so many to choose from) CCM praise song that you find unbearable and at least 2-3 reasons why, pointing to specific lyrics if you must’. Responses have appeared from Clayboy, Elizaphanian (briefly!), Phil’s Treehouse, Banksyboy, to name a few.

This theme is like a red rag to a bull for me, because there really are many so-called ‘worship songs’ that I find not only banal and trite but also genuinely irritating and even ‘appalling’. Not that I know even a fraction of the songs out there; at our church we sing fairly traditional music from ‘Hymns Old and New’ , with a supplementary binder of praise songs ranging from seventies material to almost the present day. But I’ve been around enough services where the CCM approach is used, and although this style does seem genuinely to engage a lot of younger people, there are some serious drawbacks which I’ll address in a moment.

And yet… and yet… in the 1970s my own Christian faith came alive as a result of the charismatic movement, and many of the songs we sang then were indeed ‘trite, banal, and perhaps even genuinely irritating and appalling’. How about “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart”? Or “The Bell Song”? Or “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength”, whose fourth verse went like this:

‘Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
The joy of the Lord is my strength!’

But here’s the thing: as a teenager and a new Christian I loved this stuff! I found most hymns stuffy, boring and (in many cases) virtually incomprehensible (what on earth does ‘ineffably sublime’ mean, anyway?). In contrast to that, the new stuff being promoted by groups like the Fisherfolk was simple, direct, enjoyable, accessible and refreshing. And I’m so grateful that I became a Christian in a church where this stuff was welcomed. I’m pretty sure that if my nascent faith had had to deal with a purely traditional worship style I’d very quickly have gotten bored out of my tree.

So I want to be careful about dismissing the CCM praise songs genre, simply because the sort of criticisms some people level against it sound disturbingly like the things some people said about our music back in the seventies when twelve-string guitars and Arran sweaters first arrived in our eleventh century Norman church in Southminster! The question of what exactly constitutes worship music is a slippery and elusive one, and I need to remind myself that in the end what is really important is that people focus on the living God and go away with their lives transformed as a result.

Nonetheless, I do have a few questions about much of what I hear sung in churches today:

Is it really worship if the subject of a song is not God, but rather our feelings about God?
Let me give an example of what I’m talking about:

You know that I love you
You know that I want to know you so much more
More than I have before

These words are from my heart
These words are not made up
I will live for you
I am devoted to you

King of Majesty, I have one desire
Just to be with you my Lord
Just to be with you my Lord

Jesus you are the Saviour of my soul
and forever and ever I’ll give my praises to you.

Now, quite apart from some rather strange (if ‘these words are not made up’, how precisely did they get onto the page?) and even downright dishonest (“I have one desire” – really? No, really? Does your wife know that?) statements, notice that the entire attention of the worshipper singing these words is the state of his or her own emotions. Is this worship, to focus on my own gut, rather than on the glory and majesty of God (who is glorious and majestic whether or not I feel his glory and majesty)?

Is worship in which the most frequent pronoun is the singular ‘I’ really faithful to the Biblical vision of Christian worship?
Quite simply, Biblical worship is primarily corporate: the people of God coming together to join in words of praise and in ritual action. The worshipping agent in the Bible is not primarily an ‘I’ but a ‘We’. Not that the Bible doesn’t contain prayers and psalms written in the first person, but they do not dominate as they do in contemporary worship music.

Interestingly, the old Book of Common Praise (1938) of the Anglican Church of Canada contained a small section entitled ‘Hymns Chiefly for Personal Use’. Is it not true to say that in a book of contemporary worship songs, that section would comprise probably 80% of the material? And is this a healthy balance?

Is a genre of worship music that virtually ignores the Christian stories really true to the Bible (which is overwhelmingly composed of narrative)?
Here’s an exercise: take a Sunday in which you know that a well-known biblical story (other than the crucifixion) is going to be read in the service at your church. Now try to find a contemporary worship song in which that story is sung. In most cases it simply can’t be done, because the songs do not exist.

In contrast, older hymn books included many songs that recounted biblical stories. These songs, once again, helped to focus the attention of the worshippers away from the state of their own entrails and onto the great objective story of God’s love told in the Bible and supremely in Christ.

Is the intimate really the best and most appropriate tone to use in worship of God?
‘I’m longing for you’ – ‘I’m desperate for you’ – ‘Hold me close, put your arms around me – draw me near nearer to your side’; it has often been observed that the God (or, more frequently, the Jesus) addressed in these lyrics sounds more like my girlfriend than the exalted Lord and Creator of the universe. Where’s the genuinely shattering spiritual experience expressed by the author of Revelation when he saw the risen Jesus in a vision and said “I fell at his feet as though dead”? Where’s Isaiah’s “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King”? (“…and he was high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple”.) Does the metaphor of the romantic relationship have quite the dominance in the biblical approach to God that it does in contemporary worship music?

Do the authors of contemporary worship songs understand the difference between performance and participation?
I go to a lot of concerts and gigs, and I often sing along with the songs that I know, but the purpose of the concert is not for me to sing along; the purpose is to listen to the music, and hence the stage setup and the amplification draw attention to the performer’s voice, not mine. And is it not true to say that this is the natural setting for much contemporary worship music?

Here’s the thing: tunes written to be performed can be idiosyncratic, can bounce all over the place, can come down off the beat, can have bridges that are only sung once in the song, can have instrumental solos – all features of performance music. But congregational songs are different. They need to have memorable tunes (test of a memorable tune: can it be sung unaccompanied and still sound beautiful?) that can be easily learned and sung by a non-musical congregation. And here’s the crux of the matter: in much contemporary worship music, the congregation is singing along with the band (which has the amplification system to back it up), whereas, it seems to me, in the older approach to worship the instrumentalist (pianist, organist or whatever) was playing along with the congregation, to support their singing.

Finally, what does it say about the value we place on the God we worship, when we can’t be bothered to take a little more care with our lyrics?
I’m not trying to sound like a snob here, but I can’t help but contrast much of what I hear in contemporary worship music with my monthly experience at a songwriters’ circle here in Edmonton. And I can’t help thinking that much of what gets written and recorded in contemporary worship music would never make it past the first ten minutes in our songwriters’ circle. The rhymes are bad or non-existent, the metaphors are mixed and slippery and inappropriate, and the overwhelming impression, for the most part, is that the lyrics were just dashed off and recorded without any substantial time being taken for that essential feature of the songwriting experience – the rewrite!


Music is a sensitive issue, because for many people it is the language of the heart. But having said that, let’s remember that the metaphor of the ‘heart’ is a very slippery one. In modern times it means the emotions, but that was not the meaning it carried in biblical times. In the New Testament it was the intestines that were seen as the seat of the emotions, not the heart (hence the King James Version phrase ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘Heart’ meant something much closer to what we would now call ‘the will’ – the seat of our choices and commitments.

So the purpose of genuine biblical worship is not just to arouse our emotions but to change the direction of our lives by orienting our will toward genuine Christian discipleship. And this discipleship is not primarily about ‘me’; it’s about God and my neighbour. Worship music ought to help orient our lives in this direction, and I think that intelligent Christians have a right to insist that our worship songwriters understand this. Too often, I’m afraid that they don’t.

Should ‘Money for Nothing’ be banned?

I would never use the word ‘faggot’ in my everyday conversation. Whatever one’s views on homosexuality, common decency and politeness means not using terms which have been used in the past as slurs and insults. And I would certainly not use the word in a song, if I was speaking in my own voice.

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Not all songwriters speak in their own voice; I certainly don’t. Sometimes when I write songs, the ‘I’ is not ‘me’, and I may express ideas or views which are not mine, because they fit the character in the song who is speaking at the time.

Mark Knopfler does this a lot; that’s one of the things that makes him such a great songwriter. And he did it to great effect in his song ‘Money for Nothing’, which is found on the 1985 Dire Straits album ‘Brothers in Arms’ (the song became Dire Straits’ most successful single). Here is Knopfler’s account of how the song was written:

‘The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/ custom kitchen/ refrigerator/ microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real….’

In 2000, Knopfler appeared on another interview program and explained again where the lyrics originated. According to Knopfler, he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store. At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all tuned to MTV. Knopfler said there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching. As they were standing there watching MTV, Knopfler remembers the man coming up with classic lines such as “what are those, Hawaiian noises?…that ain’t workin” etc. Knopfler asked for a pen to write some of these lines down and then eventually put those words to music.

(taken from Wikipedia).

Here are the lyrics:

Now look at them yo-yos that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain’t dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TVs

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchens deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TVs

I shoulda learned to play the guitar
I shoulda learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it stickin’ in the camera
Man we could have some fun
And he’s up there, what’s that? Hawaiian noises?
Bangin’ on the bongoes like a chimpanzee
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Get your money for nothin’ get your chicks for free

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TVs, Lord

Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free


Apparently Knopfler himself is less than comfortable with these lyrics these days; in live performances he has taken to replacing the word ‘faggot’ with other terms like ‘Queenie’ and ‘Maggot’. Nonetheless, it’s clear to me that in the song he is not standing behind the term ‘faggot’; he’s faithfully reporting the words of someone else (should drummers sue him because he describes them as ‘banging on the bongoes like a chimpanzee’?). In the same way, John Grisham will use the word ‘nigger’ in his novels when faithfully reporting the speech of a racist, while not in any way standing by that term himself.

Well, from now on Canadians who listen to the radio won’t be able to make up their own mind on the subject, because the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ruled that the unedited version of the song is unacceptable for airplay on Canadian radio stations; the Council made this ruling after receiving a complaint about a gay slur in the lyrics.

Like Mark Knopfler, I must confess to being somewhat ambiguous about this ruling. On the one hand, I can well understand the feelings of gay people on hearing that word. But on the other hand, that’s the point of the song! The song isn’t defending homophobic attitudes any more than it’s defending the other attitudes expressed by the speaker; if anything, it’s ridiculing them.

And of course, where do we stop? How many times have I sat in coffee shops and heard musicians sing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (which explicitly links having a religion to having something to kill or die for, and says the world would be a better place without religion at all) and then experienced their surprise when I won’t applaud for it. And that song is far more direct than ‘Money for Nothing’. Lennon isn’t parodying anti-religious attitudes; he is speaking with his own voices, and those attitudes are his own. I choose not to applaud that song when I hear people play it, and I’ll be happy to explain my views about it to anyone. But I would never suggest that it should be banned.

Underneath it all, of course is the growing attitude in our society that it’s my human right not to be offended, and it’s your responsibility to tiptoe around my sensibilities and say nothing that’s remotely likely to give me offence. I have a problem with that attitude. Yes, I have a Christian duty to love my neighbour, and that includes speaking to them, and of them, in a respectful way. But I also believe that emotional freedom includes taking responsibility for my own feelings, and realising that there are many times when taking offence is not a given, but a choice that I make. And whenever it’s possible for me to make the choice not to be offended, I believe I’ll be better off if that’s what I do.

Songwriting in the Traditional Mode: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Alex and I have been asked to lead a workshop for the Uptown Folk Club in January, and we’ve pretty much been given free rein as to the subject matter. I’ve been thinking that I might like to address the subject of ‘Songwriting in the Traditional Mode’.

I got back into songwriting a couple of years ago after many years of being away from it. The material that inspired my return was the traditional folk music of the British Isles, specifically as performed by Martin Simpson, Kate Rusby, John Renbourn,Jacqui McShee, Martin Carthy, and others like them. When I started writing songs again, I found myself writing in the traditional style – a very different style from the sort of songs I had written in my teens and early twenties.

I’m not alone in this of course. Some of my favourite contemporary songwriters have trodden the same path – Stan Rogers, James Keelaghan, Jez Lowe, David Francey, and Kate Rusby, to name just a few. The success of their music has shown that, even after decades of what I call ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’, the traditional style still has a compelling power that draws people into the stories it tells.

What are some of the features of this sort of songwriting? I’ll name a few, in no particular order.

The traditional mode is predominately narrative in form; these songs tell stories. Stan Rogers did it to perfection: a man loses the fishing boat his father has passed down to him in an accident on the sea (‘The Jeannie C.’); a farmer ploughs his field and thinks about the difficulties of the sort of life he leads (‘The Field Behind the Plough’); a middle-aged former rodeo cowboy turned rancher is having trouble with cattle rustlers and rides patrol over his stock at night (‘Night Guard’); a man volunteers for service on a privateer and returns home after seven years, having lost both his legs in a sea fight (‘The Last of Barrett’s Privateers’).

Another contemporary songwriter (not normally associated with the folk music field) who does this well is Mark Knopfler. In his song ‘Why Aye Man’ he tells the story of the tradesmen from the north of England who went to work in Germany in the early 1980s during the Margaret Thatcher years when there was so much unemployment in England, and he does so in a memorable way, rich in the speech rhythms of his native Newcastle (‘Why Aye Man’ is apparently a greeting in that part of the world, much like ‘How You Doing?” in my neck of the woods; it is apparently also a feature of the local accent to turn an initial vowel into a consonant from time to time, so that ‘our’ becomes ‘wor’). And in ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ he imagines a conversation between Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason on the ship to America in the eighteenth century, bound for the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where they would survey the country and draw a line on a map that would become famous as the ‘Mason-Dixon Line’.

The stories do not have to be about the songwriter. This is one of the biggest differences between the ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’ school and the traditional school. Much contemporary songwriting can be introduced (and often is) by the singer saying, ‘I wrote this song about a time I was going through in my life when…’ – in other words, the writer is practicing songwriting as a form of journaling. Many times the songs that result do not in fact tell a story at all; they are written in the first person, addressed to someone in the second person, majoring on emotion and using all sorts of code words and references known only to this second person; the listener is left to try to figure out the meaning for himself. This form of songwriting is so common that to many writers it seems almost sacrilege that a person could make up a fictitious story and write a song about it, just for the fun of storytelling.

Why should this be? Novelists get to make up stories all the time, and no one thinks they are any less honest because of it! Why not make up an interesting story and write it into a song?

When I got back into songwriting one of the first pieces I wrote was called ‘Becky’s Day’. I had been thinking about some single moms I’d known over the years, outstanding women all of them, who had been ‘traded in on a younger model’ by the losers they’d been married to, and had been left to provide a home for the children by themselves. I was full of admiration for the way these women had knuckled down to the job, without complaining or inviting others to a pity party on their behalf. So I wrote a fictional song about a person like that, trying to imagine the difficulties she might face in her everyday life.

Another example from my own work: all my life I’ve been interested in naval history, and as a result I know quite a bit about the story of the Royal Navy in World War Two. More recently – and somewhat paradoxically – I’ve returned to the Christian pacifism which I held instinctively in my teens. The combination of these two factors began to plant the germ of an idea in my mind. What about the story of the Bismarck and the Hood, those two gigantic warships which had been sunk within days of each other in May 1941 – the Hood sunk by the Bismarck, the Bismarck herself sunk three days later by the pursuing forces of the Royal Navy? What happened to the children of the thousands of men – German and British – who perished on those two ships? What if two of those children – one from each side – were to meet years in the future? Would they hate each other’s guts? Or would they be able to get beyond that and work for reconciliation? Out of these questions came my song ‘The Bismarck and the Hood’.

Enough said: those who write in the traditional mode often feel free to create fictional stories and tell those stories in their songs. This doesn’t mean the stories don’t have a personal element (they often do); nor does it mean traditional-style songwriters never tell their own stories (I did in ‘Watching This Town Growing Old’). It simply means that the songwriter who writes in the traditional mode has a far wider field of material than simply his or her own personal experiences.

Another thing: in traditional-style songwriting, the tune is very important. And here’s the test: you should be able to sing it ‘a capella’ and have it still sound interesting. Many contemporary songs fail this test; they were written with guitar in hand, and the first thing the guitarist did was to come up with a chord progression, after which he or she wrote the words and then droned a bit to come up with a tune for them. The resulting tune often takes shape as a sort of monotone, with many syllables sung to the same note against the backdrop of the chord changes; it works as long as it has a guitar accompaniment, but falls flat without it.

I share a couple of my own practices here, not because I think they’re hard and fast rules (they aren’t, and I don’t always follow them myself) but because I’ve found them helpful in coming up with memorable tunes. I often write the tune before I write the words. I’ve got a couple of ways of doing this. When I’m driving in my car alone I sometimes find that there are tunes playing in my head, not tunes from the radio, but tunes of my own, tunes that my imagination is creating. If something emerges from that stream of consciousness creativity, I play with it and try to shape it into a usable tune.

There are some recognizable forms here that have evolved in traditional music. For instance, a verse will often follow the ‘A B B A’ format (the first and fourth lines of the tune are identical, and the second and third lines are identical). Bridges, which are common in contemporary songwriting, are almost unknown in traditional music. And choruses, if they are used, are designed for maximum participation.

Another way I come up with tunes is to play around on the guitar – not with chord progressions, but with the notes in various keys. Perhaps I’ll be trying a different tuning (I’ve written a lot of songs in DADGAD over the past year) and I’ll experiment with different note combinations in that tuning. Sometimes the tunes evolve from improvisation; I came up with the tune for ‘The Ballad of Jake and Rachel’ one afternoon at my parents’ home in England this past summer, when my son and I were improvising on D, G and A (with drop D tuning).

And here I want to register a plea for a return to the art of learning to read and write musical notation. I know many excellent songwriters don’t know how to read music (Paul McCartney springs to mind); I only know for myself that it is far easier to work on a tune and polish it if the first draft is written down in musical notation and I can see it on a page. I don’t have to struggle to keep the tune in my memory; there it is on the stave in front of me, and I can experiment with the order, or inverting the notes, or moving parts of it up or down, just as I want, knowing that the original is still there for me to return to should I wish to do so.

When it comes to writing the words, the words must tell the story. If I have to introduce the song by saying, ‘This song is about a time in my life when…’, I’m beaten already. I shouldn’t have to explain to the listeners what the song is about; they should be able to pick out the story from the song itself.

This doesn’t mean the storytelling can’t be subtle. Once again Stan Rogers is a master at this subtle storytelling. I think of his song “You Can’t Stay Here’, in which the listener gradually realizes that the conversation going on is between a musician and a groupie who wants to go to bed with him; the story emerges as the song progresses. Another example is his exquisite love song ‘Lies’, in which a moment of reverie on the part of a farm wife gradually unfolds as the story of her marriage and her worries about its future in the face of her fading beauty.

If I were asked to name the major difference between the traditional style and the ‘songwriting as emotional autobiography’ style, it would be this: in emotional autobiography, the emotion is the theme of the song, and you’re left to make out the story for yourself. In the traditional style, the story is the theme of the song, and as you listen to the story and enter into it, you experience the emotion yourself, without being told by the songwriter how you should feel. The ‘emotional autobiography’ style evokes emotion directly; the traditional style evokes it indirectly, through the vehicle of story.

Also, the traditional style refuses the temptation to preach. One of the standing jokes between my good friend Rob Heath (who by the way is a wonderful storyteller in song) and me is that whenever he hears a new song of mine he will make a comment something like this: “I’d love it if you could give us a chorus or a bridge that would really drive home in a few words the point you’re trying to make in this song”. And I always laugh and say to myself, “Traditional songs don’t do that. If they tell their story well, people will have got the message by the end of the song; you won’t need to spell it out for them”.

These are a few of my observations about songwriting in the traditional mode. I may have more, as I do some more thinking in preparation for this upcoming workshop. Comments are welcome.