While working on my last article, a reflection on the Katie Hill ordeal that was all over the news as October transitioned into November, I ran across this news headline: “Pence praises rule that would let adoption agencies exclude gay parents.” It immediately captured my attention. Pence said he “couldn’t be more proud” of the “decisive action” taken at “President Trump’s direction” on this issue. Great. Let’s narrow the pool of stable and loving families available to children in need of a secure home. Seems logical.
On a more serious note this pronouncement was just the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of cruel and illogical policies that spew forth from the current administration on a daily basis. This White House has rendered fictional portrayals of politics in pop culture dull in comparison to the daily circus of inhumanity rolled out by Trump and company. An article published in The Atlantic in October of 2018 posited that Trumpsters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear, that indeed the cruelty is the point for them. I can find no better explanation for their actions.
Once I had settled on a subject matter, I had to choose a medium. As my undergraduate studies were in music and I spent the first 20 years of my professional life as a clarinetist in Army Bands, music seemed to be the right fit. I decided to write and record a song based on the aforementioned news item and the overall climate being set in related areas by the current administration. The project proved to be a challenge. As stated above, I do have plenty of experience with music, but my experience is generally as an instrumentalist, and specifically as one trained to perform the music of others, typically as part of an ensemble such as an orchestra, wind ensemble, or smaller chamber group. This project would call for a completely different skillset, and a skilled collaborator in the person of my wife.
The first step for me was to write a poem that would serve as the basis of the song’s lyric:
They’ve got a letter for you
What we recognize
As human truth
There is a burning cross for you
They want the right to limit you
Jesus Pence will choose for you
A rally he can pander to
Children hunger for silent arms
To save them from a frozen sky
Red faces twist in fiery rage
The flock would rather see them die
Weary arms behind their backs
They watch through briny tears
Fear runs like water deep and black
Spreads like kudzu through the years
Hold your breath and fly with them
The chosen one has decreed
Close your eyes and die with them
Lo, you sinners never bleed
Build a world with empathy
Tear it down with black and white
Pro-life’s for the people here
Whose condemnation’s not their right
Do not smother them with blindness
In the shadow of Leviticus
Forge the bonds of loving kindness
Unwrap the cloak of loneliness
I decided to include rhyme because rhyme works well in songs. The difficulty with using rhyme is that it can easily sound trite, especially when dealing with a serious subject. My hope is that the music will prevent that. My wife and I worked together to come up with a simple chord progression in the key of D minor. Then she repeatedly played the 4-chord progression on the ukulele while we experimented with melodies on voice and clarinet until we came up with a basic framework. Next I edited the poem to help it fit the rhythm. The difficulty there is to make changes without losing the meaning of the poem and altering the original intent. We added a mechanical rhythmic track using a simple keyboard. The final product consists of an ostinato rhythm, the ukulele providing the simple harmonic framework, my wife’s vocals, and the clarinet as sort of background mood and punctuation to reinforce the meaning of the words. Finally, after some experimentation and a bit of rehearsal we recorded it with a somewhat rewritten lyric.