Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bless the Lord

Note: This is an old blog that was originally posted on the now-defunct back in the mid-2000s. I am reposting it here on my personal blog site because people still ask me about this song. 

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It all started innocently enough. We were having a rockin’ jam session at St. Monica Church in Moraga, California. Yes, a flat out alternative rock blow-out right in the church, in the choir area near the sanctuary! By “we” I mean our newly formed Youth Mass Band: Marc Cavallero on electric guitar, Kevin Roth on keyboard, Dan Brennan on drums, and me on bass, plus Rich Reggio as cantor. We had just concluded our 5:00pm liturgy and now were just hanging out after Mass, the band and several other teens.  Our pastor was cool and he allowed us to jam after the church had emptied.

This was back in 1994, I think – way before Spirit & Song. There we were every Sunday night, jamming, getting tighter as a band, and basically forging lifelong friendships. One night the guys were grooving on the classic I-IV-V rock/blues progression on the G, C and D chords. “It’s an Offspring song," they claimed. They didn’t know the words so nobody sang. In earlier decades this progression was the basis for such songs as “Hound Dog,” “Louie, Louie,” “Hang On, Sloopy,” “Twist and Shout,” and “La Bamba.” But because this was the Nineties, the guys played it with an edgy alternative feel: Dan gave the drums a thwacking back beat. Marc threw in staccato power chords while I anchored him with a driving eighth note bass line. Meanwhile, Kevin filled out the sound with airy chords on his keyboard. I think we might have jammed on this progression for almost ten minutes, having the time of our lives.

It was in the middle of this jam that I started hearing the words “Bless the Lord, O my soul” in my head. I suddenly realized that we had an original liturgical song! So after we stopped I told the guys, “Hey! Do you realize that we just created an original liturgical song?”

I don’t recall any particular kind of reaction from them except maybe “Yeah, right.” I do remember that we launched right away into a Pearl Jam song – probably “Not for You,” a favorite of ours. But I kept that phrase and our approach to that chord progression in my memory and took it home with me.

I remember going to my piano and just playing with the chords, trying to find a new melody that would add spice to an admittedly tired old chord progression. As per my custom, I opened my yellowed and dog-eared composing Bible and found Psalm 103:

         Bless the Lord, O my soul;
         And all my being, bless his holy name . . .

Psalm 103 has a lot of ideas in its 22 verses. I knew I had to narrow it down. I thought about our youth group as I prayed through verses 1-6:

         . . . forget not all his benefits . . .
         . . . he heals all your ills . . .
         . . . he crowns you with kindness and compassion . . .

I especially loved verse 6:

         He fills your lifetime with good; your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

I realized this would be the perfect psalm for my youth group in the way it expressed what our youth ministry was all about. I eventually came up with the following verses:

Remember the kindness of our God,
 who showers us with blessing all our days.

Remember the justice of our God,
 who stands with those forgotten and confused.

Remember the healing love of God,
 who calls us to be whole and to be free.

So I put it all in notation and brought it to the next Sunday night jam. I showed it to the guys and said, “See, we made an original liturgical song!”

“What? You’re kidding!” The guys were jazzed to see their names listed on the sheet as songwriters. So we started jamming on the progression in our inimitable grunge way. I taught Rich the melody and he sang along. Two weeks later, we introduced it as one of the songs for our Youth Mass. The reaction was immediate and appreciative.

“Where did you find that song?”

“All right! Music that I can relate to!”

“I love that verse about being whole and free!”

The song needed one more thing. There was a lot of space between the lines of the verses and Dan used to joke that the empty riff sounded a bit like that song from the musical Grease. Hey, I-IV-V progression! Well, we couldn’t very well have that connotation during liturgy. That’s where that distinctive clapping lick came from, to fill in those measures. It eventually became the hook of the song.

Over the years the song has become very popular and I get a kick out of hearing other youth groups singing it.  I still stay in touch with Dan, Marc and Kevin – all grown up now and into their careers.  But “Bless the Lord” will always be our gift to the young church. 

Bless our awesome God, ever ancient yet always young! 

St. Monica Youth Choir, circa 1998.

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