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Becoming an Artist

By 2010 I'd already recorded two independent CDs filled with my own songs, but when I decided to make a Christmas CD with my cousin, Tammy McMorrow, it was my first attempt to arrange songs written by other people. Strangely enough, it was also the first time I really felt like an artist.

Selecting "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" for our Christmas CD, "Tidings," was an easy choice. Our grandmother, Naydeen Taylor, loved this Christmas hymn, with words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Grandma Naydeen was a pastor for many years, and she was a great storyteller. Honestly, until I heard her tell the legend that goes with this song, I'd never liked it much. It always seemed rather static and wordy to me. But once I heard the story (and saw my grandmother's emotional reaction to it), I fell in love with it.

The legend goes that Longfellow wrote this song on Christmas Eve, 1863, while his son was away fighting in the Civil War. The first two verses reflect his hope for peace in the midst of war. The third verse demonstrates a distinct change of tone and a loss of hope. The legend says that just before writing this verse, Longfellow received word that his son had been wounded in battle. And then, finally, the fourth verse creates a triumphant, hopeful message, one that perfectly fits my grandmother's outlook on life: "God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men."

Over my Christmas break in 2009, I sat down at my piano to begin to consider how we could bring our own interpretation to this song. I wanted the song to still be wholly recognizable, but I also wanted it to be new. I also wanted to capture its back story (for whether or not the legend is entirely true, Longfellow's words do reflect both despair and victory). 

Fairly quickly I discovered a simple chord progression that could take the place of the traditional music. Not only would it be easier for me to play, but it has a dissonance that I felt complemented the words. I also added my own brief refrain (a simple repetition of "peace on earth"). Finally, it seemed obvious that the final verse should come with a key change. 

I really loved how the song was coming together, and I was excited to record it. I was also excited to sing the final, triumphant verse. But once we were in the studio, it became obvious that Tammy should be the one to sing that verse. I knew I had the vision for how to sing it, but I had to admit, I didn't have the notes. It was hard to give up that verse, but once I heard Tammy sing it, I had no regrets. She truly captures all of the emotion I wanted for those words (and the contrast with my slightly darker tone in the previous verse works really well, I think). 

Our wonderful producer, Dean Baskerville, put the finishing touches on this song when he arranged a cello part and hired the talented Skip von Kuske to record it. 

I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do:


  1. What a great story. Very moving. The song really does invoke all those emotions. I guess that's why I love music so much! Keep up the good work and God Bles!!

  2. I love this song and this blog post as well. It is awesome to read some of the thoughts behind the creative process. You are such a blessing to me.


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