TBT^2: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

It’s Exam Week again, and I’ve managed to stay on top of grading as of the time of this writing.  My school only requires teachers to be on campus this week for exams we’re proctoring, so it’s been much quieter and more relaxed than the two weeks preceding this one.

It’s interesting looking back at this post in its prior permutations, though they both explore the same idea:  the genius that arises from pressure.

I don’t work well under pressure, but if I have to twenty-three-skidoo together a song in twenty-four hours, I’m far more likely to get it done than if I have an amorphous, open-ended deadline.  I’ve been approached on a small number of occasions to compose music for certain purposes, and I usually fall down on the job.  I find that while I can write a song fairly quickly, I do not compose instrumental music terribly well under pressure.  That requires a great deal of thought, especially if the music is programmatic in nature.

That said, I’ve been listening to more of my buddy Frederick Ingram’s work, and even some of my old EP.  It’s pretty remarkable listening back to some of the songs that I wrote, a few of them nearly ten years ago!  I also realize that I actually wrote some pretty good songs—and I’ve been trying to figure out where that inspiration and lyrical subtlety went.

For example, I’ve long written off one of my songs, “Funeral Pyre,” as kind of a throwaway tune.  I wrote it the morning I was supposed to begin recording the record (but that session was rescheduled due to a snowstorm).  It was based on an interesting line that popped into my head one night before bed:  “That crackling fire/was the funeral pyre/for the flame that I held out/for you.”

The song was intended to be a Meat Loafian ballad about unrequited love and romantic mistakes that, despite the pain, bring with them growth.  But it’s never been a fan favorite, and I gradually stopped playing it at live shows except only occasionally.

In listening back to it now, I’m actually pretty darn impressed with some of the poetic imagery I managed to evoke (I was probably twenty-nine at the time I wrote it, if I have my dates right).  It is very much inspired by Jim Steinman’s writing for Meat Loaf, and the piece is actually quite vocally demanding (though not nearly as impressive as Loaf himself).  It doesn’t have the toe-tapping, singalong quality of “Hipster Girl Next Door” or the iconic hooks of “Greek Fair,” but I find that I am finding depth in my own song that I didn’t realize was there!

Well, anyway, that’s enough navel-gazing.  I promise I’m not trying to brag about how brilliant younger me was, but it’s pretty cool revisiting my older works.  To be sure, listening back to some of those tracks now almost sounds like karaoke, with my voice over pianos that are mixed—why am I only noticing this years later?—a little too loud, giving the sensation of a karaoke track.

With that, here is “TBT: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting“:

Christmas is looming large—a mere eight days away—and I have been enjoying an unexpectedly quiet exam week.  After returning from Orlando Monday evening, I’ve enjoyed some sleepily productive time at home, writing Christmas postcards and letters, watching movies, and enjoying the warm glow of my Christmas tree.  I’ll be spending next week with family, and all the hustle and bustle of my niece and nephews, so this quiet time at home has been a welcome calm before the joyous storm.

Despite the lack of serious deadlines (other than waiting for final exams to roll in so I can grade them), I’ve managed to get quite a bit done, and I hope to get a bit ahead on the blog.  I enjoy writing daily posts, but it’s nice knowing I have a few posts squared away some days in advance, as it relieves some of the pressure to produce.  I’ll be doing more throwback posts and the like as Christmas approaches, as it’s the time of year when we’re all scaling back our efforts and taking a bit of a break.

That all goes to the point of this TBT post, “O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting.”  The story behind the sweetly iconic carol is one of last-minute inspiration and hasty songwriting.  There is something about the intense pressure of a time-crunch that turns the coal of writer’s block into glistening diamonds.  Not every songwriter works this way, but I know for myself that a hard deadline does wonders for motivating this songwriter’s pen.

Indeed, during the height of distance learning in the spring, I fully anticipated I’d be churning out new hits, maybe even finalizing a long-delayed follow-up to my piano-and-vocals debut, Contest Winner – EP.  Instead, I squandered my newfound time (well, “squandered” is a strong word—I quite enjoyed taking that time to work on the blogto travel, and to do the other things I’m usually unable to do).  Without a deadline pushing me to create, I didn’t get anything done!

Or maybe that’s just my excuse.  Regardless, I imagine it’s something many songwriters can relate to, and it’s certainly the story behind “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

With that, here is December 2019’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting“:

Somewhere—I think it was in one of the Civilization games, but I can’t seem to find the exact quotation—I heard a pithy saying, something along the lines of “Genius is a combination of pressure and time.”  It’s one of those expressions that instantly rings true.

Years ago, a coffee shop in a nearby town (it’s now become a hip, upscale dining spot—and it axed the live music) used to host a quirky songwriting competition.  The premise was simple—every month, participants would pay $5 entry fee into a pot, and a “secret judge” would pick a winner, who would win that evening’s pot.  Sometimes there would be a small “second round” of the top three contenders for that evening (I won once, back in January 2014, when I believe I debuted “Greek Fair“; I was surprised, but also thankful that I wouldn’t spend $5 a month for the rest of the year).

After ten months of these mini-competitions, the winners would be invited back for one big songwriting contest.  The winner would take home, among other sponsored goodies, [some] kind of cash prize.

I never won “the big one,” but I set a personal challenge for myself:  I would write one new song for every monthly competition I entered.  In many cases, I would be up into the wee hours of the morning hammering out a song to play that evening.  During the years the competition ran, I wrote some of my best work.

It’s worth noting that, once the contest shut down in 2015—the prime mover behind the event moved to New York City—my songwriting largely dried up.  Without the monthly deadline looming, there wasn’t the same push to get it done.

That’s a lengthy, self-indulgent way of making this point:  the story of the sweet, sleepy carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is the story of time and pressure creating something beautiful, a true diamond of [a] hymn.

The rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Phillip Brooks, wrote a little poem about Bethlehem following a visit there in 1865.  In 1868, he asked the church organist (it’s always the organist, it seems), Lewis Redner, to set the poem to music a week before the Christmas service.

Like most musicians, Redner put it off throughout the week.  The Friday before the Sunday morning service, at which the tune was to be sung, Brooks asked Rector if he’d cranked out the music.  Rector said no, but that he would have it done in time for the service.

Here is Redner himself on the dilemma (quoted, to the dismay of historians everywhere, directly from Wikipediaitself quoting from Studies of Familiar Hymns):

As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porchand it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’

Every songwriter or creator of some kind, with the exception of those possessing the most diligently Germanic temperament (not usually the artistic types, it should be said), have run into this sort of conundrum; at least, I have.  All of the other pressing work of the week takes precedent, with the gnawing feeling that something important but difficult needs to be done.

The pressure builds and builds throughout the week, as previously neglected tasks of a mundane character magically get accomplished—all in service to avoiding the daunting task of creation.  But as the hours dwindle and pressure builds, creativity bursts forth (well, hopefully).

I’m not endorsing procrastination, but Redner’s story resonated with me, one songwriter to another.

As for the song itself—the purported focus of this rambling post—it is a beautiful tune.  As I wrote yesterday, it’s one that evokes peaceful sleepiness.  I imagine listening to it while falling asleep next to a dying fire on Christmas Eve.

The B section of the Redner setting contrasts appropriately—and powerfully—from the sleepy sweetness of the languid A section (which itself has some impressive intervalic leaps—a hallmark of all good Christmas carols, it seems).  The tune moves into a rousing minor mode (though not enough to wake you from your long winter’s nap), before dissolving back into the lyrical final A section.

Like other carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” features some secondary dominants harmonically.  In the key of G—the key in my church’s hymnal—the fifth measure moves from the tonic G to an E major.  E minor is the relative minor of G, so this makes sense, but it also allows for interesting chromatic movement (already established in the first full measure, on the word “town,” when the B in the melody moves to an A#):  the G in the G major chord steps up to a G#, while its B stays consistent and its D walks up a whole step to E.

All that theoretical mumbo-jumbo aside, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is another classic Christmas carol.  It lacks the power and majesty of “O Holy Night” or the exuberance of “Joy to the World,” and it falls behind “Silent Night” in the “sleepy, beautiful” category of carols, but it holds its own.  Little wonder, then, we’re still singing (and dozing) to it well into the twenty-first century.

11 thoughts on “TBT^2: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

  1. I can’t speak to all that technical music stuff but I can say that song writers never cease to amaze me. How is it that they are able to tell an entire story (beginning, middle, and end) in just a few stanzas? I consider myself a writer and I’m not at all verbose but I’ll be darned if I could tell a story in as few words as songwriters do. Maybe it’s because I tend to be linear and songwriters seem to be ‘capturists’ – they have a snapshot in their heads and it’s that picture they capture with just a few words. Whatever it is, I know I can’t do it and very much admire the folks who can.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Me and Peter Evans joked about that a while ago. I read one of his war and peace comments and boiled it down in a sentence. We both had a giggle about it.

      The mark of a good writer is someone who can broaden the landscape or ask a ton of questions in a single sentence. You can do it, as can many other writers I’ve read. It’s a good talent to have.

      Liked by 2 people

    • People will ask me sometimes how I write songs, or how I get inspiration. I never really have a good answer for it; I do know that it is part inspiration—the idea popped into my head—and part hard work—just sitting down at the piano and hammering something out of that idea.

      I think you are correct re: the “capturist” idea: it’s often about giving the essence of a scene. The music and lyrics combine to paint the picture, even if only Impressionistically.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I heard a story a while ago which I believe to be true (you might have to take a peek yourself). Michaelangelo was apparently sitting for days at a time staring at a piece of marble and someone asked him what he was doing. He replied, ‘I’m working.’ David was the eventual result of weeks of pondering.

    While it’s a completely different medium (and I’m not comparing myself in any way to someone of Michaelangelo’s stature), I started to write my debut novel some months ago. I stopped to take a break and have yet to return to it but in the time I’ve been away, I’ve been mapping out the story in my head. The hope is when I return to it, I’ll have a better idea of how to shape it. See, it’s not really procrastination if you’re working in your head. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Peter Evans is an amazing writer and a lovely, gentle soul, but he is a man of many words, lol. Perfectly chosen, perfectly strung together … but that string is a day and a half long!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • A while ago, he said to me that if he is planning to go for a run, he pops down the basics of a comment and doesn’t feel the need to be verbose whereas if he has a bit of time on his hands, he’ll look at getting all the finer points down.

      I told him he should go running more often! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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