Archive for November 5th, 2011
Grateful (A Song of Giving Thanks)
Words and Music by John Bucchino
Illustrated by Anna-Liisa Hakkarainen
American songwriter John Bucchino has the amazing ability to write warm, candid and beautiful songs with heart throbbing emotion. His song “Grateful,” is certainly one of those. This song was made into a Singable Picture Book for “The Julie Andrews Collection” by HarperCollins Publishers in 2003, illustrated by Anna-Liisa Hakkarainen.
It is such a joy and honor to share this song and Singable Picture Book with children and yes, I am incredibly grateful for the experience. After singing it just a couple of times, the children pick up the chorus quickly and instinctively sing-along in the loveliest of voices. They also love the pictures in the book, pointing out things that they notice and mentioning things that they, too, are grateful for.
This song is appropriate all year long, of course, but I was thinking of it specifically to get center stage at Thanksgivingtime. But then, a child in one of the Kindergarten classes pointed out that it is a great song for the holidays, too. Out of the mouths of babes.
Stephen Holden writes in a 2006 NY Times article about John Bucchino’s music that,
Mr. Bucchino’s language sometimes verges on the flowery. “Grateful,” with its hymnlike harmonies, for instance…the song preaches gratitude.
Though I agree that the song teeters on an emotional edge and performers should be careful not to fall into a trap of self-indulgent sentimentality or “preachiness” in the delivery, but this is an important song for what it says. We live in an age of greed. There is no way around that. I’m writing this in November 2011 and the current financial state of the world is all the evidence needed to legitimately say that our society allows for and rewards greed to the point of immorality. In this context, a song like “Grateful” and it’s preaching the value of gratitude makes it essential.
Words and Music by John Bucchino
I’ve got a roof over my head.
I’ve got a warm place to sleep.
Some nights I lie awake counting gifts
Instead of counting sheep.
I’ve got a heart that can hold love.
I’ve got a mind that can think.
There may be times when I lose the light
And let my spirits sink…
But I can’t stay depressed
When I remember how I’m blessed!
Truly grateful I am.
And duly grateful.
In a city of strangers,
I’ve got a family of friends.
No matter what rocks and brambles fill the way,
I know that they will stay until the end.
I feel a hand holding my hand.
It’s not a hand you can see.
But on the road to the promised land
This hand will shepherd me…
Through delight and despair,
Holding tight and always there.
Truly grateful I am.
Truly blessed and duly grateful.
It’s not that I don’t want a lot,
Or hope for more or dream of more.
But giving thanks for what I’ve got
Makes me so much happier than keeping score.
In a world that can bring pain,
I will still take each chance…
For I believe that whatever the terrain
Our feet can learn to dance.
Whatever stone life may sling,
We can moan…
Or we can sing!
Truly grateful I am.
And duly grateful.
And duly grateful.
I had the great pleasure to sing John Bucchino’s song “Temporary” for a show the DC Cabaret Network produced for the 2006 Capital Fringe Festival, which was printed, like the song “Grateful” in his first songbook also titled “Grateful.” The songbook has a terrific foreword written by Broadway Musical great Stephen Schwartz and another forward by Mr. Bucchino himself. The music for his songs can be rhythmically quite intricate and tricky, but I love that Mr. Bucchino says,
The best advice I can give you is to sing [the songs] conversationally. The written rhythms of the melodies are as close as we could get tot he natural rhythms of speech. When in doubt, sing it the way you would say it.”
On the back of the songbook is a list of critic quotes and I particularly liked this one from Rex Reed,
If Tennessee Williams was alive and writing tunes, he’d be John Bucchino.
“Grateful” as a Singable Picture Book also provides a special opportunity to introduce children to the music of John Bucchino. He writes many songs, like this one, which stand alone as a wonderful song, not from a show. He’s written many songs for musicals, but an incredible number of songs that are collected into songbooks, including:
John Bucchino’s website:
Website for illustrator Anna-Liisa Hakkarainen:
A couple of wonderful renditions on YouTube
I love this rendition by Michael Feinstein, but this one always begins with an advertisement (just a little warning):
I make a strong committment to each song I perform and completing my Song Craft Worksheet is part of that process,
Because the first section of the Song Craft Worksheet involves background research on the song, I’ll share the answers with you so you can know about the song, too. The more about the song you know (both concrete facts and less tangible artistic choices), the more “authority,” and heart and soul you can put into the singing and sharing of the song with others. If you are interested in improving your artistic abilities for singing songs in any capacity, just simply filling out the Song Craft Worksheet is a great place to start! After the background research, the rest of the Song Craft Worksheet gets VERY personal…don’t worry! I won’t bore you with that.
1 Q: Who wrote the words?
1 A: John Bucchino
2Q: Who wrote the music?
2A: John Bucchino
3Q: When was the song written?
4Q: At what point in the lyricists’ and composer’s career was the song written?
4A: I can’t find any reference to how old Bucchino is or how he came to write music, by I imagine that since he is still writing almost 20 years after this song and since the song is so mature and beautiful, I imagine that it was written at the beginning of the middle of his career. There’s nothing “early” about it.
5Q: What is the song from?
6Q: If from a show, what character sang it?
7Q: If from a show, from what situation does the song arise? Why does the character sing the song? What function does the song/character play in the story?
I found the answers to Questions 5-7 in a 2001 “Talkin’ Broadway” interview with John Bucchino
Interviewer’s Question: Was “Grateful” in that? Or was that song strictly in Urban Myths?
John Bucchino’s Answer: No, “Grateful” was written to be just a song, but part way through the writing of it, I realized that it could be a closing number for one of the chunks of Urban Myths that hadn’t been written yet. My brother died of AIDS in 1992 and I wanted to create an urban myth which was an AIDS story … a story we would like to see perpetuated into an urban myth. I wrote a song called “Not a Cloud in the Sky,” which is the song I sing on the Grateful CD, and the line “You’re not really about to die” just came out of nowhere; I didn’t know it was coming! But once that line came out, I realized it could be the opening number for the AIDS myth. Not too long after that I wrote “Grateful” and I thought “Oh my God! This could be the closing song!” Then we had the difficult task of deciding what was going to happen between the two songs and who the characters were! That section turned into a beautiful story about a man who’s dying of AIDS whose lover, the one who sings “Not a Cloud in the Sky,” is very clenched and in denial about the situation. Towards the end of the piece, when his lover asks, “What do we have to be thankful for,” the man who’s covered with lesions and dying sings “Grateful.” So it’s pretty powerful and makes his lover cry for the first time during the story.
8Q: What other contextual elements of the song are significant?
8A: It is especially important to me that I would not have chosen to sing this song except for that it became published as a Singable Picture Books. This is not because I think I’m too good for the song or anything but because so many others have sung this song in a cabaret context and I’m afraid that those people did not really make me like the song. I’d always felt that it was kind of, ugh, self-indulgently sung by the self-satisfied. Somehow, I’d not heard Michael Feinstein sing it until very recently. I love his version, which seems to walk the emotional line just right. He’s emotional enough without being schmaltzy. But after discovering that “Grateful” is a Singable Picture Book, I feel compelled to sing the song, because it is so beautiful and is an example of a less commercially known but great American songwriter and because it conveys thoughts that are important to share with children. My hope and prayer is that I will be able to interpret the song in a simple, conversational way that conveys the thoughts and beauty of the song and does not succumb to pitfalls of self-satisfied self-indulgence.
9Q: Was the song written for a particular singer? Why?
9A: Not that I know of. He probably wrote it for himself to sing and then he used it in a show (see above)
10Q: If not from a show, why did the songwriter write the song?
10A: (see above)
11Q: What do you feel the lyricist is trying to say?
11A: The wonderful thing about John Bucchino’s lyrics is that the reader or listener doesn’t have to wonder or “work out” what the words “say.” Bucchino writes exactly what he means so say. Read the lyrics and there the message is…nothing hidden, no symbolism, it’s all there plain as day, gorgeously said and set to music. The trick to a song like this is to make the song personal and specific. Each person will need to populate and festoon his or her “movie in the mind” with robust memories and gratitudes which will individualized the song interpretation. The other thing that will set an interpretation apart from others is one’s motivation for singing the song. One must be able to specifically explain one’s reasons for singing the song and what one hopes to accomplish by singing it.
12Q: Does the song tell a story or just express feelings or ideas?
12A: This song expresses feeling, thoughts and ideas.
13Q: Who else has recorded this song:
13A: Michael Feinstein and Art Garfunkel
The rest of the questions require VERY personal answers and I will spare you those!
A few personal reflections…
Besides the standard set of questions above, I almost always keep a page of “Random Thoughts” for each song. The songs I sing really MEAN something to me and somehow my brain is wired to LIVE with them, subconsciously, all the time. This is to say that my brain is always looking for connections in memory and real life that punctuate, illustrate, articulate, validate and festoon the “movie.” Over time, my brain makes a movie for each song…a back story, front story or even just a collection of images. The result of this is that the songs become like real living things to me. I may not always consciously SEE the movie in my head when I’m singing it…often I’m just too busy communicating with the people (adults and children…I really don’t make a distinction in the way I communicate with them) in front of me to notice the movie…but I know it is there because each time I sing a song that means a lot to me, it is like visiting a friend or telling an old story. It is REAL to me.
I wrote that all to justify sharing with you some of the “Random Thoughts” that have come to mind about this particular song “Grateful.” I won’t do that for all songs, but the choices and philosophy for this song make me feel it is important to share.
My mom often said the she thought it was important to “make yourself happy.” Basically she meant that it is our duty as human beings to make happiness out of any situation in which we find ourselves. My whole family has been incredibly blessed on the whole, but my mom’s life had not been an emotional trip to the park. When she was 5, her father left. I clearly remember being 5 so I feel sure she must have had vivid memories of what it felt like to have been abandoned by the man she knew as her dad. I look at my children and think with such an ache in my heart what it would be like for them if their dad made a conscious decision to leave them behind and not come back. But this is what my mother faced and she set out to make herself happy anyway. And she did it. My mother was absolutely emotionally and psychologically marked by that experience, but she lived life with gusto and joy. There are other examples I could give of my mother overcoming adversity, but this serves as a perfect example of both her philosophy and her making good on it. This is to say that I learned from my mother that happiness is actually a kind of gratitude. You can’t be truly happy unless you appreciate what you have. And you can’t appreciate what you have without being thankful for it.
A few days ago, my son noticed a bumper sticker and read it aloud, “Happiness is a choice.” He went on to talk at length about how he thought that was true. I was AMAZED. It reminded me that my mother said that it is each person’s job to make themselves happy, which is really just another way of saying, “Happiness is a choice.”
This brings me to a central thought I have about why the song “Grateful” is important and why I decided to sing it despite the sometimes nauseating versions I’ve heard… I believe that GRATITUDE IS A CHOICE. I think it gratitude should be an active purposeful decision one makes and philosophy one lives by. I think what may have been generally nauseating about some of the other renditions I’ve heard of the song is that people were singing of being grateful in general emotional terms. Sung with general emotional feelings or without a specific focus, a song like this can get a yucky slippery sheen on it. But sung specifically and with an active focus, this song can have true heart and substance.
I’m not saying that someone sitting through my version won’t be nauseated by hearing it, but, at the very least, my goal is to make a substantive, honest, ACTIVE choice to be grateful. Life can really throw us some doozies. Life can be so frustrating and infuriating and unjust. But I want to choose to be happy and grateful.
Of course, this is true to degrees depending on who you are and where you are, but the point was made in an article I read recently (maybe it was in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday?) that, in human history, there has never been a better time to be alive. It’s hard to believe that from watching the news, but data shows that a lower percentage of people die in our modern world from disease or violence than ever in human history. This says to me that the vast majority of us have a lot for which to be grateful. But gratitude must be an active choice. To do so, we must overcome or learn to live with legitimate difficulties and gripes and reduce as much as possible the problems that we create for ourselves…and be honest with ourselves that we do in fact often play a role in making life a lot harder than it has to be.
The simple choice (simpler said than done) of having an attitude of gratitude makes the work of happiness a lot easier, enjoyable, and meaningful.
One of my favorite Singable Picture Books and songs to sing is “Grateful” by John Bucchino, even-though I will grudgingly admit that it is not a favorite of the children. It’s a little too long and slow for them and it is an emotional song and it’s got some complex ideas in it…they get tired before it is over. But I still love to sing it. It’s a song they’ll mature into one day and maybe if we sing it now, they’ll remember and have good feelings about it in the future.
I was watching the movie “White Christmas” and re-discovered that Irving Berlin penned a song with some similar thoughts and even lyrics…
Diana Krall sings, “Count Your Blessings” by Irving Berlin:
Then there’s another grateful goodie by Irving Berlin from the movie “Holiday Inn,”
SBWE Singable Picture Book Set: Holiday Songs for EVERYBODY (Part 1)
A Song List Celebrate Thanksgiving!