The best songs often come to me when I have no idea what I'm doing or writing about.
A case in point is "Holy Man," just released on the album Live and Listening. One day I was plunking away on my Strumstick (more on that below), landed on a minor-key riff, and somehow found myself singing this:
I am not a holy man
I take the wisdom when I can
A crack of light around the granite door
I could not tell you where those lines came from. They just materialized. I literally had no idea. But wow—that snippet of words and music just felt loaded with emotion and possibility. It created a vivid picture that made me want to see more.
One of the most important lessons of writing is that when you receive any sort of gift like that, you should never stop and ask, "What does this mean?" or "Is this good?" or any other self-conscious, judgmental questions. Instead, you just go with the feeling and flow and capture as much as you can. Build on the thing even if you have no clue what the thing is. Follow its implications and momentum.
Later on, you'll have plenty of chances to ponder the meaning or value of what you've created. The motto, as I've espoused in The Complete Singer-Songwriter, is: Write now. Think later.
That's what I did with this song. Rather than wonder about the identity of this mysterious not-holy man or the nature of the wisdom, I just started building.
Here's the song I wound up with. Below I'll share more about how I got there.
Writing on Strumstick
This odd little three-stringed instrument was central to the creation of "Holy Man." The Strumstick is a sort of cross between a dulcimer and a guitar; I wrote this cheeky song to introduce it to audiences. I've released two other Strumstick songs: "Humming My Way Back Home" and "Eight Days in January," both played on G Strumsticks (tuned G D G). I also have a larger D Strumstick (tuned D A D), and "Holy Man" is my first song on it.
Here's a video intro to the instrument.
The vast majority of my songs are written on acoustic guitar. I've been woodshedding on that instrument since I was a teenager. I play it obsessively. I write about it. I teach it. I even started a magazine about it! I've accumulated a lot of knowledge about the guitar, which is great and useful for sure in writing songs. But it's also great to play an instrument that's less familiar, where you aren't sure what you're supposed to do, so you just put your fingers down and see what happens.
That's the zone I'm in when I play the Strumstick. I don't think about what chords or notes I'm playing. I just fool around. And even if what I'm playing is actually harmonically simple or conventional, it doesn't sound that way because of the instrument's distinctive punchy tone.
The Strumstick has some interesting characteristics as a writing and accompaniment instrument. Like a mountain dulcimer, it has a diatonic fingerboard: that means the frets give you the notes of a major scale (plus the flatted seventh up the neck). You can play eight notes in all (not including octaves) out of the possible 12. Notes not in the major scale simply aren't available, so you've got real harmonic limitations.
Another way to look at the limited palate of notes and chords, though, is that it gives you real freedom. You can put your fingers anywhere and you'll find something musical. You won't get crazy dissonances. As the instrument's maker likes to say, there are no wrong notes on the Strumstick.
The bottom line is, on a G Strumstick, you're pretty much going to play in the key of G (or Em, the relative minor, which uses the same scale). And on the D Strumstick, you're going to play in the key of D (or its relative minor, Bm).
Which is why I'm so damn proud that I wrote "Holy Man" on the D Strumstick in...drum roll, please...the key of E minor.
I made this discovery just by instinct, but if I put on my theory hat now, I realize that the key of D major has two sharps (C# and F#), and the key of Em has one sharp (F#), so they are not too different. Plus, as noted above, the Strumstick does include the flatted seventh, which in the key of D would be C natural. So on a D Strumstick, when I play in the key of Em, I have the desired F# (because that note is in the key of D major too) and also the C natural (because that's the flatted seventh in D major). All the notes of the Em scale are available somewhere on the Strumstick fingerboard.
Another limitation/opportunity of the Strumstick is that you've got only three strings, and two of them are tuned to an octave, so at most you can play two or three notes at a time. The chords are very stripped down, which leaves lots of open space for the melody.
In "Holy Man," I pick a melody on the Strumstick right from the top and through the verses. I sing a different melody that harmonizes with the Strumstick line, so in effect it's a duet. This is something I'm working into more and more in my songs: using my instrument like a backup singer.
Completing the story
After those pregnant first lines about the granite door, I wanted to explore more of the narrator's perspective. I imagined someone trying to gain clarity and understanding, trying to get away from the noise of the crowd, so that's the direction I took in the rest of the first verse and into the chorus.
I love songs that travel to several locations, so in the next verse I moved to a thematically related but different scene, based on driving at night through a blizzard. (I live in the Syracuse area so have a lot of firsthand experience to draw on.)
The last verse really took me by surprise by opening up into something much more optimistic—a hope or belief that fellow seekers will recognize and use the power that we hold. I say we (in the previous sentence and in the lyrics) because although "Holy Man" isn't a song explicitly about my life, as John Lennon put it: "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together."
Truly it was not my intention to convey the message that emerges in the end of the song. I got there by following the implications of the original idea. This kind of writing feels more like listening than leading. Along the way you discover what the song wants to be.
While I was writing "Holy Man," I heard clarinet weaving around my voice and Strumstick. From playing with Wendy Ramsay, I've fallen hard for the woody sound of clarinet, and I find it a perfect complement to steel-string guitar (or steel-string Strumstick). So I took a stab at notating the clarinet part I heard in my head, using Finale software.
As in other arrangements, Wendy worked with my rough sketch of a clarinet part and made it way more interesting, and then she took the song a big step further by switching to flute for the instrumental break—bringing a touch of Ian Anderson to her solo. And finally the drums of Josh Dekaney and bass of Jason Fridley locked in the groove. Who knew Strumstick, clarinet, flute, bass, and drums would make such a killer combo?
Going from the lonesome sound of Strumstick, slowly building up to an unexpectedly funky/rocking break and final verse, and falling away again to the solo Strumstick... That's a real journey in four minutes—all suggested somehow by those opening lines.
The band had only performed "Holy Man" a handful of times before the concert we recorded for Live and Listening. The track captures the magical moment when a song fully comes to life for the first time.
I still can't fully explain what "Holy Man" means, line by line, nor do I really care to pin it down. All I know is this song takes me somewhere, to a deep emotional place, and it seems to do that for audiences too. And that's all I could ever ask of music.
—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Words and music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers Music/ASCAP)
I am not a holy man
I take the wisdom when I can
A crack of light around a granite door
I’m trying to leave behind the din
The voices dig beneath my skin
The less they know, the louder they are sure
I’m going away, gone away
Where the blaring fades away
I am not a man of steel
I take my chance behind the wheel
A yellow beam across the blowing snow
I’m trying to find where I am bound
Crunching on the frozen ground
The only way to see is just to go
I'm going away, gone away
Where the sun breaks through the gray
Hesitation gone today
Nobody is in my way
You are not the only one
To seek the words and drop the gun
Slowly now we gather and we rise
We are stronger than we think
We might be standing on the brink
Power in our hands and in our eyes
Going away, gone away
Where we find the voice to say
Resolution here today
Nobody, nobody, nobody is in our way
I am not a holy man
Come beside and lend a hand
Put your weight against the granite door