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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Bob Kilpatrick - Five Notes and a Simple Prayer

  • 1999 9 Dec
Bob Kilpatrick - Five Notes and a Simple Prayer
courtesy of {{Christian Musician}}

Songwriting has always been the favorite aspect of what I do, but as a young man I misunderstood it. When I first began writing songs I was enamored of the process, and exhilarated at my ability to create something beautiful.

Creativity comes in seasons, however, and when the seasons changed, and I first went into the autumn and winter of my creative year, I thought for sure that I had lost the gift. I got on my knees and prayed to God, crying out in pitiful tones, asking for redemption and favor in his eyes. If I'd had a sackcloth and ashes I suppose I would have worn the cloth and dumped the ashes on my head as well. I thought maybe I had done something wrong and that the ability to write had been taken from me. Months passed without even a glimmer of an idea for a song. Then, suddenly, it returned and I began to write songs again. I was thrilled! Music poured forth, and the river of creativity again ran deep.

Then I went into another dry spell. I thought God was disapproving of me, that he was saying I'd been a bad steward of the songs he'd given to me. I suppose it took me a long time to learn that ebb and flow is a natural part of creativity, and that it is impossible to be creatively charged all the time, or to figure out a formula for writing music. Trying to write a song at the wrong time is like picking fruit before it is ripe. You must let it mature, give it time, nurture it. There is a cycle to songwriting, and it is in God's time that the fruitful season returns. Perhaps it is his way of reminding us that he is a partner in our creativity, and that it does not spring from our own abilities, but his ultimate creative power.

The first song I ever wrote was in fourth grade. I called it "What Kind of Fool Did You Think I'd Be?" All I remember about it was that at some point it contained the words "really, really, really love me." For some forgotten reason, I went on a songwriting hiatus after that. In seventh grade my parents bought me a guitar (in addition to the trumpet I already played in the school band). Some friends and I started a garage band and played cover tunes like Van Morrison's "Gloria," and other easy-to-strum songs of the time which undoubtedly aggravated the neighbors and drove house prices down in our neighborhood.

But it was later, when I moved to Turkey for my sophomore year, that I began writing songs again. Two influences had come together in my life: the Beatles and folk music, the type played by Peter, Paul and Mary. I thought the Beatles were the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to be just like them. They wrote their own songs-unusual in the music industry at the time-I wanted to write my own songs. On the other hand, folk music was much more accessible to people like me who had limited means. All you needed was an acoustic guitar and you could sound just like all the other popular folk groups. With those influences in mind, I began testing my own talents to see if they held any worth.

One of the first things I discovered as a songwriter was that you needed a certain amount of confidence to get by. You have to actually think that what you write is worth expressing, and that other people will benefit from hearing your music and words. I'm almost hesitant to admit it, but there are times when a songwriter's ego swells to great proportions-and perhaps this is necessary for music to be written at all. On the other hand, there have been quite enough times to balance that out when I felt like a fool for believing that anyone would want to hear anything I had to say.

I began to write with my eye toward a career in music in the early 1970s and had enough initial success to embolden me to keep going. Jim Miller recorded a song of mine called "Skipping on the Mountains," and offered to produce a record for me if ever I decided to put one out. I was astounded that he would think of me in a professional context, but his confidence gave me confidence. Then a song I wrote called "We Are a Lamp Upon a Stand" was heard by Barry McGuire (who had a hit called "Eve of Destruction" during the Vietnam era) and Richard Souther, and Barry decided to record it. Due to contractual wrangling, the album was recorded but never released, but they had shown faith in my song, and that was a tremendous boost-and part of the reason I decided to go into full-time music ministry.

In the fall of 1977, after I had been traveling and singing for a only a few months, I was sitting in my mother-in-law's living room in Atwater, California. Cindy and I and the kids were visiting, and everyone else was in the other room watching TV, but I was having a devotional time with my Bible and my guitar. I had written many songs by this point, and several had caught the attention of other singers in the industry. However, I was not a songwriter of any great merit, and was not known as such. The songs I wrote were generally heard by my family and my concert audiences only. Still, as I sat there reading and meditating on the Bible, I thought about the songs I had written. I had sung every one of them for other people. I had made them all "public property." I thought to myself that now I wanted to write a private song, for Cindy and I to sing before we ministered to people. I wanted it to be simple, not showy, just a distillation of my desire to glorify Him. It would not be for anyone but us and the Lord. It would be our song of worship to him, our private jewel.

I worked on a melody for a while, and a song seemed to rise out of that prayer time. Simple-only five notes-pleasing, and an expression of what I really wanted to tell the Lord. Because I was not writing it for anyone else, I didn't feel the need to be showy. The song went, "In my life, Lord, be glorified, be glorified. In my life, Lord, be glorified today." When I had established the main structure I called Cindy in and played it for her. I wanted to write a women's part to it as well, sort of a counter-melody to sit on top of the main melody, and Cindy suggested a change in the second melody that sounded perfect. The song was written, and the words became the title: "(In My Life) Lord, Be Glorified."

I was very happy with the song, and though I had not intended to share it with anyone, my perspective quickly changed. I began to think that others would be blessed by it in their own prayer times, so the next day I played it for a small assembly of military families at the nearby air force chapel. Not long after that, two musician friends of mine who were on tour together, Jim Stipech and Karen Lafferty, came to northern California. During their visit I played it for them in private. They immediately fell in love with the chorus. Karen, who wrote the lovely and well-known song "Seek Ye First," was on her way to Europe, and she taught "Lord, Be Glorified" to the churches there. Jim, a well-known producer and songwriter, returned to Calvary Chapel in southern California, taught it to the congregation and sang it in their services every week for two years.

The next summer we went down to visit Jim Stipech, and we toured the facilities of Maranatha! music, a major Christian record company at the time. We met Tommy Coomes, the president of the label, and to my great surprise he said that he loved my song and wanted to record it on their next praise album. At the time, Maranatha! was pioneering praise and worship albums. They were the first to put out a recording consisting simply of songs people sang in church, and the album sold phenomenally well, so they went on to make more and more. Flattered by his compliments, I said of course he could use my song, but then he mentioned that they wanted to change the women's part. I thought for a moment, felt a stirring in my heart, and said no, I didn't want to change the women's part. It would have violated the integrity of the song, which I thought was fine as it was. "Well," said Tommy, "We may not do it, then." I said I still wouldn't consider changing it, but I couldn't help thinking, "Have I just blown it? Have I let my hard-headedness and artistic pride get in the way of something really good?" Cindy and I went home and I was convinced that I'd erased my chance at sharing the song-the Lord's gift to me-with many other people. Call it youthful arrogance, or stubbornness, but I thought I had done myself in.

A few months later he called me back: "Hey, Bob, we need to get a contract on that song of yours. We recorded it, the album is about to come out and I need to work out the details with you." I hadn't even been aware that Maranatha! was considering it anymore, but after we talked they kept the song as written and decided to include it on their album.

Our conversation then became a bit confused. He asked me who "owned" the song, and I didn't quite know how to answer. I had written it, so I told him that I guessed I owned it. "Owning" a song was foreign to me. I didn't think of them as property, but as divinely inspired works of art meant to bless the church. Tommy sent a sample contract for me to use as a template, and prevented me from inadvertently giving away my rights to the song. Being a newcomer to the music industry, I was prepared to give Maranatha! the publishing rights, which meant that they would get half of the money the song made in sales and royalties, and would own all rights to the song. Tommy protected me from my own navet. At the time, I didn't realize the significance of this. When I didn't know how to look out for myself in the music world, he guided me through it. He, the president of the company, wrote up the contract himself and took the time to work with me-Bob Kilpatrick, an unknown musician from Redding, California. I was and continue to be astonished by the grace with which he handled my song.

The lasting effect of that experience cannot be overestimated. Instead of the money from that song going into a record company's coffers, it went directly to my ministry. During all the years I was singing for small churches that could hardly pay me, our ministry was being upheld by royalty checks from Maranatha! music. As the song grew, so did our ministry. "Lord, Be Glorified" took on a life of its own. I did not actively promote the song in any way. I didn't want it to be a "hit." I didn't send out press releases or sheet music or make phone calls praising it to industry people. I did none of those things. I merely played it in concert, and when companies began calling to request the use of that song on their records and in their hymnals, I said yes.

At first I didn't think that it would go anywhere. I was just happy that it had been included on a professional record. Then it was included on several more. I figured that it would be popular for a while on the Maranatha! label, and then fade away. It continued to sustain its popularity, however. Sparrow Records, Word Records, Benson Records, all the companies asked to put it on their worship albums. John Michael Talbot recorded it and said it was one of his favorite choruses. In less than a year, the song had taken off.

Maranatha! put "Lord, Be Glorified" on over 50 albums in the next three years. Soon, it was being reprinted in hymnals and songbooks. The growth astounded Cindy and I. One of the royalty checks we received was for such a large amount that we put it on the fridge for three days and just looked at it. Within a matter of years, "Lord, Be Glorified" was on millions of albums, in millions of hymnals, and had made its way around the world. Long before I went overseas the first time to minister, the song had preceded me. I had reports from people that they were singing it in South America, Asia, Russia, China, Australia-virtually every place the word of God had found acceptance.

Cindy and I watched the song sweep through certain denominations. One of the first was the Catholic church. Requests began pouring in to use the song-between 20 and 50 a week. Next, we saw it go through independent churches, the Southern Baptist church, and the Assemblies of God. Wave after wave of letters reached us. We could watch the Lord working throughout the world just by looking inside our mailbox! Each time we received a letter from Europe, or the Orient, or Africa, we were absolutely incredulous. Who expects to get letters from foreign countries for something they did?

In my own travels in the U.S. and Canada I was often met with examples of how the song had spread even in the most difficult circumstances. A group of Chinese students in Canada had escaped communism and fled to the west. They told me they sang my song behind the iron curtain. A Russian man told me he had translated it and broadcast it by radio into Soviet Russia. As a result, the song became a standard in the Russian church and when communism fell, my song was already there. It had preceded their freedom.

Believe it or not, I always thought the popularity of the song would begin to wane. Every song had a life span, and most have a trajectory that takes them up, and then down. Nearly all disappear and are replaced. But it was when I received a well-known church hymnal-the thick one with all the old hymns and standards in it-that I realized the song would be around for a while. Underneath the title "Lord, Be Glorified" they had printed the words, "Composer: Bob Kilpatrick, 1952 - ." Talk about an unsettling feeling!

Not only has the song helped our ministry financially, allowing us to branch out and reach more people, it has also provided entry for me into places I probably wouldn't have been invited otherwise. People react very warmly to the song, and when they find out that I wrote it they feel like I've been a part of their lives and their worship for a long time. That has been the greatest influence the song has had for me: opening people's hearts, making them receptive to what else I have to say.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful aspect of the success of "Lord, Be Glorified" was that my Mom and Dad began to hear the song every place they went to minister around the world. I remember getting a letter from them in Thailand that they had been in a Laotian refugee camp and heard the refugees singing my song using a guitar made of chunks of wood. They also heard it in Japan, India, Europe, and everywhere else they went. When they told me about their experiences I was as proud as I had ever been, because they were seeing that I had made a difference for the Lord, and had instilled in my own life the values they strived to teach.

I can say quite honestly that as much as that song was a gift to people around the world, it was also a gift to me from the Holy Spirit. I was the composer of the song, but I was also the instrument on which the song was first played. I've always told people in concert of my moment of realization when I looked up to heaven and said, "Lord, do you like my song?" And he said, "No, Bob. Do YOU like MY song?" From that moment forth I've known that it was his to begin with, and that he gave it to his people as an expression of worship, pleasing both to the worshiper and to the One worthy of our praise.