TBT^4: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

It’s another Exam Week, a welcome respite after two weeks of madness.  Proctoring exams is a pain, but it’s the kind of tedious pain that we’re all used to enduring from time to time.  Fortunately, it’s basically two hours of boredom at a time, followed by frantic grading.  The sooner that’s done, the sooner Christmas Break can truly begin.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how pressure creates diamonds.  I was incredibly, almost superhumanly productive in the two weeks after Thanksgiving because I had to be.  I was putting in twelve-to-sixteen-hour days to get everything done, and while I was exhausted, I felt like a champion.

Then this last Saturday I had an endless day before me, and accomplished almost nothing.  Part of that was recovering from the craziness of the week before; part of it was woman problems (the greatest drain on energy and resources); part of it was the lack of anything to do.  I understand why retirees die within six months if they don’t find something productive to do—I was starting to think that all my endeavors meant nothing (maybe they do mean nothing, but as a Christian I know they do; if they didn’t mean anything, it’s all the more reason to keep myself moving so I don’t have time to dwell on The Darkness).

Anyway, that pressure can create Beauty.  All this pressure has had me thinking about Neo’s comment on my post “You’ll Get Everything and Not Like It“: “I always remember that our soldiers in France in 1944 had a saying, ‘The road home goes through Berlin’. Berlin is on all of our ways home.”  That’s the end of a very long and poignant comment, but those two sentences say it all.

With that, here is “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.

6 thoughts on “TBT^4: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

    • It’s Internet slang for “Throwback Thursday.” People started doing it on Facebook years and years ago—they’d post an old photograph of themselves or repost an older post on Thursdays. With the blog running daily, I needed something to ease the load a bit while also calling back to classic posts of yesteryear, so I decided to make Thursdays “Throwback Thursday,” or “TBT.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. I’ve seen it for a while but didn’t know what it meant. Like most acronyms, I bear them for as long as it takes for me to finally ask. 🙂

        When are the Christmas reviews going up, by the way? I’ll link them to TCW. Someone might pop over. A shame they won’t join us under the line, though.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m probably going to run the first one tomorrow (Friday, 16 December 2022), which will probably be yours; then run one of Audre’s next week; and I’ll get mine in at some point (maybe Tuesday?). I won’t be able to get all six in before Christmas, but I’ll get most of them in, for sure.

        I’m thinking as I type: I could do your first one on Friday, as noted; my first on Tuesday of next week; Audre’s first on Wednesday of next week; your second on Friday of next week (23 December 2022), then my second the Monday after Christmas (in lieu of my #4 pick), then Audre’s second the Wednesday after Christmas. That gets them all in during the Christmas season/in December. I’ll be working on getting all of those scheduled this afternoon and evening.

        Liked by 1 person

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