• GLORY •
I’ve got a special place in my heart for Gospel Train songs of the sort that Jonny Cash or Hank Williams might have sung, back when trains ruled the Appalachian southland. Usually in these songs, the train is employed as a metaphorical vehicle by which the faithful are transported to glory land. A modern day chariot of fire. So when I decided to write my Gospel train song I thought I'd explore having my Jesus returning to this Earth in glory riding on a train. Figured I'd shake things up with a bit of unexpectedness. Which then led me to thinking that maybe Jesus would be playing a banjo with a couple of old time stringband friends.
As is often the case with creative works, several seemingly unrelated events mashed together to make this song come alive:
First, I'd been to a choir camp all morning on the fateful day. It was a Saturday in late August, just before Labor Day, and our church choir had been joined by two visiting choirs for 4 solid hours of singing, mostly ancient Advent songs of dubious theological origin. And we did a lot of warming up. It turned out that each of the 3 directors insisted on taking us through their favorite warmups regimen, convinced that we'd all suffer and die a terrible death if we weren't warmed up properly.
Next, on the way home from the choir camp, Hank Williams himself came on the car radio, straight out of the past, and sang a few lonesome train songs. I couldn't help but notice how a lot of Hank's little yodels and vocal gymnastics that he was so famous for reminded me of the choir warmup exercises we'd just been singing. I'd half convinced myself that Hank himself had been a chorister as a lad, when the pre-recorded announcer (from 1947) asks Hank how it was that he could write so many good songs, and Hank replies, 'Well, I reckon if you can't write a song in 20 minutes, it probably ain't worth writing.'
If felt as if a challenge had been laid down from beyond the grave.
I found the house empty on my return, Sandy and Elsie being out and about, and so I picked up my guitar to compose, with my first thought being that if nothing else, I could write a choir warmup song. That way, no matter what state the tune was in at the end of the 20 minutes, I’d just fill the gaps with yips and yelps and yodels, Hank-Williams-style, and call it good. And at some strange level, this is pretty much what happened. Banjo #9 is a very short song with lots of empty space for improv. My 2nd thought was already put forth in paragraph one above, that being: wouldn’t it be so fine if Jesus came back in glory, on a train, and playing a banjo in an old time string band?
All that was left was to get it done in under 20.
That first day I put 10 minutes into the writing of the song and got the bones of the piece down. I put in another half hour into the learning what I’d written, but I didn't count that. I figured Hank wouldn't care one way or the other, and besides, he's dead. The song definitely had choir warmup material worked into it right from the start. Over the next few days I put another 9.5 minutes into the song, and I reached a point where it felt finished. I sang it at my sister's house in the coming days, and Jeanne Sales, gospel train song lover, was there and she got everyone to sing along in the way that only Jeanne can. The song was done, or so I thought, and I felt ever so slightly smug that I still had 30 seconds left on the clock. I wasn't planning on any more changes.
Oh yeah, Jesus was still sporting he/him pronouns at that juncture.
A few weeks went by, and one day I was practicing the song, as it was still rather new and it just wanted to be sung, when I accidentally sang the first pronoun referencing Jesus as ‘she’ instead of 'he'. It literally popped out of my mouth wrong, but the thought came to mind right away that I ought to finish singing the song using all feminine pronouns, since I’d started it that way. So I did. But when I finished singing the song, I realized that by making a change to the lyrics, I’d turned the ‘clock’ back on, and that by the end of that singing, the ’20 minute’ bell had rung. Time was up and there was no going back. I tried once, sometime later, to sing Banjo #9 with masculine pronouns as originally written, and found I was unable to do so.
Enjoy this song for what it is: A choir warmup song. A gospel train song. A fast-moving vehicle upon which one might consider the intersectionality of Jesus, and gender, and banjos.
Of all the songs I've ever written, this one felt like it had a mind of its own as the writing happened, like I was just along for the ride, including the very last edit which left me with a feminine Jesus. I could write for another week about how this tiny change to the song has changed me, and the way I see my Lord and Savior, but I'll save that for another post, as it's complex.
For now, I present Banjo #9. By far, the most fun song to sing I've ever written, with the possible exception of Daisy Shanty, and my most wild and beautiful version of Jesus that I can imagine, where she comes home for her children, on a train, playing her banjo, ripping and roaring through this old world leaving peace and justice in her wake.
I am reminded, whenever I write the name of this song, Banjo #9, that its working title was initially just ‘Banjo’ and that I was recording new versions of it onto my phone as I was composing and I’d arrived at Banjo #9 just about the time I was wrapping up the last verse, which conveniently needing something to rhyme with ‘son of a gun was flying.’ Serendipity and a tight deadline led to the naming of this song.
Enjoy this song for what it is: A choir warmup song. A gospel train song. A fast-moving vehicle upon which one might consider the intersectionality of Jesus, and gender, and banjos. Feel free to yodel along.
~ Christopher Brown