In my songwriting group, we sometimes assign ourselves to “cover” a song – creating a new expression of another artist’s song – and in the process I find myself understanding both the work and the artist in a deeper way. Listening to the song can be moving enough, but to write out, play, and sing it, is to enter in to another person’s experience, to take it on and take it in. What were they seeing when they wrote this song? Were they writing what they were feeling or what they wanted to feel?
When trying to create original music, covering a song might feel like a step backward, a waste of time. But in doing so, our creative process is pushed forward: first we duplicate (cover songs), then we imitate (write something that sounds like…), and then we create. As we get behind the artist’s eyes, we begin to see not only their canvas but also their decision-making process.
First we duplicate, then we imitate, and then we create.
A writer I would like to imitate is Henri J.M. Nouwen, but he immediately points me to “cover” someone else. Show me the Way, a book of Nouwen readings for the 40 days of Lent, has been in our family for over two decades, inspiring me year after year. During holy week, Nouwen recounts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples with the words, “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done for you.”
When we hear Jesus tell us to love and serve, not just each other but the hurting and oppressed, we may resist – that would be an interruption to my life, my studies, my learning about God, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps we could instead spend our religious efforts in doctrinal classes trying to understand more of God’s qualities.
But this would be like only listening to the song.
Listening to the song might have some effect on us, but we haven’t truly known the songwriter until we have sung their song. To more deeply know Jesus, Nouwen says, we must follow in his steps by living a compassionate life. Going beyond listening, we begin to serve others by looking into their eyes and allowing God’s whisper – “I accept and love you” – to speak itself into action. Entering into the life of Jesus means entering into the life of his creation.
In other words, as we draw closer to the downtrodden, we discover Jesus there; as we draw closer to Jesus, we are drawn to the hurting around us.
In other words, the deeper we know the song, the deeper we know the songwriter; the more we know the songwriter, the more he encourages us to sing his song.
Nouwen himself lived this out – giving up his prestigious academic life to live and serve at the L’Arche Daybreak community for the intellectually and physically disabled. Since I am currently writing from the comfort of my life, I will now (at last) hand the pen to Nouwen:
“Prayer and action, therefore, can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation.
If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.” ¹
¹Nouwen, Henri J.M. (1994). Show me the way: readings for each day of Lent. New York, NY: The Crossroads Publishing Company