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Dan Schutte: How I wrote ‘Here I am Lord’’

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Dan working at the piano. Photo: Supplied
Dan working at the piano. Photo: Supplied

He is arguably the Paul McCartney of Catholic liturgical music.

For a generation of Catholics growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Dan Schutte’s songs have been the soundtrack of their religious lives.

Over five decades, songs like “City of God,” “Sing a New Song,” “In God’s Perfect Time” and “You Are Near” have become the heartbeat of Catholic worship throughout the world.

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But it’s a gentle hymn Schutte wrote nearly 45 years ago called “Here I am Lord” that won him a special place in the hearts of Catholics the world over.

Voted the most-loved hymn of all time by an international Catholic survey in 2004, “Here I am Lord” is the “Hey Jude” of hymns, in terms of popularity and legacy.

“Here I am Lord” is just one of the songs he wrote as a member of The St Louis Jesuits that revolutionised the sound of Catholic worship by introducing gentler guitar based, folk-style hymns.

It culminated in their album “Earthen Vessels” that sold two million copies and was nominated for a Grammy award.

Last week Schutte, now 76, spoke with the Catholic Weekly’s Darren Ally, about the amazing story behind “Here I am Lord” and how this iconic hymn.

CW: What can you remember about writing “Here I am Lord”?

It was not an easy piece to write. When a Jesuit friend came to request the song because he was planning the Diaconate Ordination Liturgy in just two days.

I was wrestling with a mighty flu virus. It felt like someone had poured concrete into my head.

I told my brother Jesuit I couldn’t guarantee anything but promised to try. The only help he offered was to suggest that I look at the story of the call of Isaiah in scripture. I closed my eyes to offer a prayer for help.

CW: What came first, the words or the music?

Typically, when composing a piece, I start with a few words of text or a small snippet of melody and just begin playing and singing.

In those early years—meaning those first 15 of these 50—of writing, I depended greatly on my companion composers, the Saint Louis Jesuits, to advise and criticise me. We all did.

When I first showed “Here I Am, Lord” to my companions, their reaction was gratefully positive and delighted. But as we talked, several of them sensed something not quite right about the opening lyrics to the refrain.

That original text was “Here I am, Lord. Here I stand, Lord. I have heard you calling in the night.”

While those words capture the meaning of the scripture, my companions sensed something important was missing. That uncertainty and insecurity that we all experience was what they sensed was missing.

I found a solution by making that second phrase into a question, “Is it I, Lord?”

That subtle, little nuance would not have been there had it not been for the honesty of my companions. The song is much better than it would have been because of them.

Dan Schutte and the St Louis Jesuits. Photo: Supplied
Dan Schutte and the St Louis Jesuits. Photo: Supplied

CW: Why do you think it still maintains its power to heal and inspire?

The song is a conversation and dialogue between God and us, the People of God. Because of that, the song involves us by its very structure to engage in a dialogue with God.

God speaks love and compassion for us, and we are urged to respond to God’s question, “Whom shall I send?”

In a way, it’s a setup. God puts us on the spot just like he did those Old Testament prophets who heard God “calling in the night.”

In essence, God is asking us what we will do and how we will respond to the needs of our sisters and brothers.

And then the song puts into words our best response to God as we sing, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?”

CW: What have people told you about the song’s impact on their lives?

I’ll share a couple of stories people have told me over the years about “Here I Am, Lord.”

At one of the parish events I did a few years ago, a mother came up at the end of the evening wanting to share a story about her 13-year-old son.

Like many boys that age, he doesn’t share much with her about his life. He goes to Mass with the family on Sunday, but she explained that she often wonders if anything is happening inside his heart.

On many afternoons, he takes his bike out for a ride, sometimes with friends but sometimes just by himself. On the days he rides alone, he often wears his headphones and listens to music.

One day, she looked out the window to check on him, and he was singing as he rode. She cracked open the window so she might hear what he sang and realized that he was belting out “Here I Am, Lord” for the whole neighbourhood to hear!

The second story touched my heart differently.

Several years ago, I received an email from a United States military chaplain who was writing from Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

For security reasons, the information he could share was limited. He told me that the day before, he had held services for a group of soldiers holding a key position in the battle, but it was a precarious situation that could quickly go bad.

As they gathered for the service, one of the soldiers asked if they could sing “Here I Am, Lord.” The chaplain was surprised that many men knew the song by heart, and he recounted how the men knelt on the dirt and softly sang the song, many with tears in their eyes.

“I have heard you calling in the night, I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

The chaplain simply wanted to thank me for the song. He wrote, “Your song helped these men carry on, with a fortified faith in the eyes of danger. For me, it touched my soul in the most profound way.  I knew then I was doing what I was called to do. Thank you, Dan!”

I read his email in the warmth of my home, sipping herbal tea in California, humbled with tears as I imagined those men on a hill in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, asking God for help to do what they had been called to do.

CW: It has such a special place in people’s hearts. Why is it so special? What is the key to its enduring legacy?

Those familiar with my music will immediately recognise that I love melodies that reach inside us and speak, even without words, with a beauty that captivates us.

People tell me they love my music because it often sounds like a love song to God. And I suppose, in a way, it is.

The songs may not explicitly express that, but they come from my heart, which God has touched and drawn into a relationship with God.

“Here I Am, Lord” is one of those pieces.

Here I am Lord original score by Dan Schutte. Image: Supplied
Here I am Lord original score by Dan Schutte. Image: Supplied

CW: Did you ever imagine; your music and the music of the St Louis Jesuits would resonate, as it still does, after 50 years?

Our Earthen Vessels collection is the best-selling album of Catholic liturgical music ever produced, selling more than two million copies over its 45 years of life.

There’s been a range of honours and awards I’ve/we’ve received over the years, including several honorary doctoral degrees.

The five of us St Louis Jesuits are blessed to leave behind us such a rich and significant legacy. But that wasn’t our purpose. We didn’t write music to become famous.

We simply responded to the needs of our sisters and brothers who came to worship with us and wanted to speak to God through a kind of music that was an authentic expression of their faith.

CW: Of all of your hymns, do you have a favourite?

My answer is always “You Are Near,” my setting of Psalm 139.

I’ve always loved that psalm because it speaks so tenderly of God’s presence to us. The psalm’s image of God is of one who knows us intimately and stands beside us always.

“Where can I run from your love? If I climb to the heavens, you are there. If I fly to the sunrise or sail beyond the sea, still I’d find you there.”

It’s the image of a God who knows us intimately and still loves us beyond our imagination.

CW: You are still a prolific composer, author and in-demand presenter. What are you up to currently?

Throughout the year I’m invited to parish communities throughout the United States and sometimes abroad, to share evenings of music, stories and reflections with people.

I present the music in a context of our praying together and invite the people attending to join in the singing with me.

I continue to write new music and work with my publisher, OCP Publications, to get that music into the hands of parish communities. People sometimes ask if I’ll ever retire.

That’s just not the way I think. As long as I love what I do and as long as it gives life to others, I’ll continue to do it.

CW: What are you most proud of?

I’m proud that the music I’ve written has helped people pray and enabled them to experience the presence of God in a way they might not have without it.

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