People sometimes ask us if they can change the lyrics to Sovereign Grace songs.
A common request we’ve received is to change the “gates of gold” phrase in the third verse of Steve and Vikki Cook’s song I Will Glory in My Redeemer, because Rev. 21:21 says that they’re gates of pearl. Others want to add verses to songs (like The Gospel Song) or rewrite entire lyrics to songs, which is a bad idea. It’s like demanding someone enter into a co-writing relationship with you when you’ve never met each other. And it’s not very often that the new or additional lyrics are an improvement on the original. So with very few exceptions, our policy is to deny requests for lyric changes to Sovereign Grace songs.
But I’m always grateful when someone asks about changing lyrics because it means they’re thinking about the words we sing, and a couple times we’ve actually made changes. We treat lyric writing as a stewardship issue, and give a significant amount of time to coming up with lyrics we think are faithful to Scripture and communicate what we’re trying to say. That doesn’t mean our songs can’t be improved upon. Far from it. But lyrics are protected by copyright, and changing them requires permission. (Two exceptions that come to mind are changing a song from 3rd person to 2nd person, or changing singular pronouns to plural.)
Last May I had an email exchange with a guy named Jeremy who wanted to change a line in the song “Father, How Sweet” from our album From Age to Age. We said no, but I thought the way he asked, followed by his response to my answer, were a great example of how to humbly a request a lyric change. Here’s how it went down:
Good afternoon! We are rejoicing in the God’s faithfulness demonstrated through the latest SovGrace recording From Age to Age. [Note: it’s good and biblical to start with encouragement!]
We praise God for His work through SovGrace. Just as a reminder, you and I have had email conversations when our fellowship was trying to report usage through CCLI. Also, you have sorted out some sheet music things for us.
As a pastoral staff, we had a question about the last stanza of “Father, How Sweet.” The last stanza/verse states, “Jesus, in glory You’ve ascended, never again to leave Your throne . . .” We do not mean to be presumptuous in making this request. Please do not take it as a challenge. We are wondering how our Lord’s return factors into that line.
Would SovGrace allow us to modify that statement to “seated upon Your royal throne” (for use in our fellowship’s gatherings)? We do not mean to nit-pick. If you say “no,” we will understand. However, we thought we should ask. Like you, we want to train the local fellowship to remember truth through song.
OK. This has been awkward! :-) Again, we greatly appreciate the Lord’s work through SovGrace.
Thank you for considering this request.
Thanks for asking, Jeremy. We love people who care about what we sing!
“Never again to leave your throne” is a poetic way of saying that Jesus’ authority will last forever. It’s not meant to be taken literally that he will not leave his throne to return for his bride. Perhaps you could explain that to your congregation? We do ask churches to sing the songs as written. Changes to lyrics have a way of making their way out beyond the original church.
Thanks for asking, and thanks for your understanding!
May God give much fruit to your gospel work.
Thank you so much for taking the time to address our request. We can understand the thought process behind the line. Yes, explaining will be the way to go! :-) I understand how allowing changes on “local levels” could/would create issues outside of the local avenue.
Lord’s blessings be with you!
Really, I was impressed when Jeremy got back to me. It’s not always quite so simple.
A few years ago I would regularly change words or phrases in songs without giving it much thought. I don’t do that now, for the reasons I gave to Jeremy. Also, if it’s a more popular song, it can confuse people who have the original lyrics already in their heads.
If I can’t sing a song because of a word or lyric, I should ask for permission, explain it to the congregation, or find another song. There are a few gazillion out there to choose from.
For more thoughts on changing song lyrics, check out the Sovereign Grace Music FAQ page.
On top of the good reasons you give, i think it’s also illegal. I contacted a well known worship artist’s publisher for permission to add my own verse to one of his songs for our own use. And they responded with a cease and desist letter.
this is an interesting dilemma! I’ve most often come across it when churches are trying to ‘correct’ Calvinist theology in songs to make it more Arminian! But anyway I wanted to ask, do you sing Hark How All The Welkin Rings’ rather than ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’? Do you sing “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” in Amazing Grace? Because both of those were changes made by people other than the author (John Wesley & Harriet Beecher Stowe I believe). There are lots of similar examples. Vikki Cook’s version of Before the throne of God has “One with himself” in place of the original “One in himself”. So where do we draw the line? That the composer is alive?
Also isn’t this treating song lyrics too much like scripture – never to be corrected? I can totally understand your approach from a practical point of view – many of the people most tempted to correct lyrics are less theologically astute than the songwriters they want to help – but I think if we took your approach as a rule we’d be singing a lot less hymns than we do now!
On what basis (if any) would you change someone else’s lyrics?
Matt, thanks for asking. The difference is between songs that are in the public domain, which we can freely change, and songs that are under copyright. Songs are definitely not like Scripture! But we’re seeking to walk in a way that honors the current legalities and the writer’s intent behind the lyric.
I understand what you are saying, and for the most part agree. I am a bit confused with this though, considering your additional verse in “Come, thou fount of every blessing”. Could you please clarify your reasoning on why this is acceptable? Thank you
Doug, thanks for asking. When a hymn is in the public domain, anyone can alter the words. I didn’t add a verse to Come Thou Fount but changed some of the lines that had already been written. I thought we should end the hymn with something better than angels carrying us to endless day. Actually, Mark Dever asked me to consider rewriting it for the Together for the Gospel conference in 2008.
What are your thoughts on changing lyrics to make a song more gender inclusive during a worship setting?
I’m thinking of worship pastors who I have worked with in the past who have changed lyrics on songs like Casting Crown’s “Praise You in this Storm” saying: “I can’t bear to see the one (man) I’ve been…”
Or Bebo Norman’s “Great Light of the World” saying: “I’m incomplete (half a man) here…”
Just curious as to your thoughts as a worship leader and as a songwriter.
Thanks for your thoughts!
Preston, thanks for asking. I think that despite the protests of some, it’s generally understood that “man” refers to both men and women. When I’m writing songs, I try to be more inclusively minded, but generally don’t tamper with what someone else has written.
Hi Bob, I’m curious about this one. I’ve heard professional singers change the gender in cover songs if they have to say something like “I love you boy” instead of “I love you girl” or if they have to refer to themselves by a gender-specific title.
If this is legal, then wouldn’t it also be legal to change gender if we’re asking both men and women in the congregation to sing?
Thanks for your thoughts,
Allison, thanks for the question That’s probably one of the less problematic changes. But I’m still hesitant to change lyrics. in most cases people understand “man” or “men” to encompass both men and women; e.g., “Pleased as man with men to dwell” from Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. It can sometimes be more distracting to change a well-known lyric than to leave it as is.
Correction: Meant to say “Casting Crown’s ‘East to West'” not “Praise You In This Storm”
Had one in mind and was singing the other.
what about dropping verses? seems like we do that all the time, as many of the old hymns have lots of verses we dont sing now. is it generally OK to skip a verse?
Bob, for a public domain song you can drop as many verses as you’d like! There’s also not a problem dropping verses to current songs.
Thank you for addressing a timely and important issue. You cover this sensitive issue with clarity, and giving an example is very helpful. Your explanation of poetic language, and all the various literary devices writers use, in contrast to a literal reading is spot-on. Thank you.
Bob, this was a really helpful post! I had a similar experience a few years ago with the well-known song, Come Now Is the Time to Worship, by Brian Doerksen. In the last part of the chorus it says, “One day ev’ry knee will bow/Still the greatest treasure remains for those/Who gladly choose You now”
The thought that came to mind for me and several friends I was talking to, was that the song may imply that a “lesser” treasure is in store for those who choose Christ at a later time. It almost had a ring of Universalism to it–or so we thought.
I contacted Brian to ask about this, and he graciously explained his thought process behind it–which was not at all what we had thought! :)
It really helps when song writers are able to give their feedback on why the wrote something! Thanks again for writing this!
I’d love to know what the meaning is – that one always bothers me, too!
Thanks for the clarification. I do enjoy all of your songs in general, and that ending of Come, Thou Fount in particular.
While I respect your zeal for the gospel, and your excellent example as a worship leader, I vehemently disagree with your view on how copyright law intersects with worship music. However, putting that dispute aside, I don’t think you can simultaneously hold the position that we CAN’T change songs which are copyrighted but CAN change songs in the public domain – at least, based upon your reasoning here:
“It’s like demanding someone enter into a co-writing relationship with you when you’ve never met each other. And it’s not very often that the new or additional lyrics are an improvement on the original. So with very few exceptions, our policy is to deny requests for lyric changes to Sovereign Grace songs. …[and also because] Changes to lyrics have a way of making their way out beyond the original church.”
Can you please explain how changing public domain hymns, for example, operates within the spirit (if not the letter) of what you say here?
Colin, thanks for the excellent question! I had to think through the answer as at first blush it sounds like I’m contradicting myself. The difference between current songs and PD songs is that the author is living. Yes, I know Isaac Watts never gave me permission to alter his lyrics, but he can’t! My responsibility as a songwriter/editor is to write lyrics that I think have the greatest potential for communicating clearly to those I lead. The difference with current songs is that they’re being written in the same time period as I’m living in. So I can’t say the wording is “archaic.” As to being an improvement on the original, I was thinking of a number of submissions we’ve received for altering lyrics that weren’t as good as the original. There are definitely some songs that are written today that I think could be improved upon, but since I wasn’t involved in the creative process, I let them alone.
Your point about lyrics making their way beyond the original church is a good one. Having said that, I”ve been grateful for some of the altered hymns out there, and have been happy to relearn a phrase here and there. At root, the issue is a legal one and giving honor to whom honor is due. I understand the perspective that seeks to separate copyright law from music in the church. But I’ve also seen firsthand, and heard from others, how compensation for songs that are being sung in the church has enabled writers to further the gospel through song and other ways.
At this point, it’s the prerogative of the composer/publisher to give permission to people/churches to sing/record their songs. And it’s something we do regularly. But we’re not at liberty to change songs that others have written, however well or poorly, when they’re protected by copyright.
Please feel free to follow up!
Great Post! As a songwriter myself, I always make it a point to be as accurate as possible when I am playing current praise and worship music (I don’t actually lead much public domain material at our church). You also have to be careful when pulling lyrics off of the internet, as I have seen situations where people will post the lyrics to a song, but it is obvious upon listening to the song on the album that the lyrics you pulled off of the internet had errors in it! :( But anyway, great post. I completely agree that changing the lyrics to songs is something that should only come after you have asked permission from the writer.
I would also ask you your opinion on putting two or more songs together, sort of like a medley… we used to do this with the songs “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” and “Amazing Love”. It was so awesome… we would Play one verse of “How Deep the Fathers Love For Us”, and then transition right into the first verse of “Amazing Love” and play the entire song. This was met with tremendous positivity, and always brought about a very worshipful response :) Anyway, I would be interested to hear other people’s take on this subject.
I would also like to hear about how other worship leaders have put songs together into medleys? Always interested in hearing how other people do things :)
Josh, thanks for commenting. Putting songs together in some kind of medley form can be an effective way to use songs as tools rather than tyrants. In other words, use the part of the song that best serves your need at that moment, and don’t necessarily be restricted by the original form of the song. Taking the chorus of one song and singing it at the end of another can help people hear that chorus differently. For example, the chorus to “All I Have is Christ” is very powerful tacked on to In Christ Alone.
Bob, thank you so much for such a thoughtful and humble response.
I’m not sure whether your answer clarifies things. In fact, I wonder whether it makes the situation a bit more murky. Your original argument was based upon the legal distinction of public domain: public domain is what makes it legally and morally acceptable to make changes/updates. Now you have added a second criterion: whether the artist is “living” or “dead” – which, while seemingly reasonable, is ultimately arbitrary. Legal experts and judges have struggled to use this distinction for legal matters (should a copyrighted work enter the public domain after 30 years? 100 years? 500 years? And, more importantly, because it is an arbitrary rule, we can’t really rely upon it for determining an objective answer of right versus wrong. Why is 501 years more or less moral than 500 years?
It could be reasonable to conclude, for example, that updating/changing one of Charles Wesley’s hymns is a violating act, even if Wesley has long gone to be with our Saviour. His descendants, church, denomination or some other party could argue the same case you make for living artists – regardless of whether public domain exists (and in some cases it doesn’t, and the copyright has been transferred to someone else). It is also theoretically possible that public domain comes into force while an author still lives. Patents, for example, normally enter the public domain after 20 years. The statutes of copyright law have been shifty ever since they were first instituted, and I doubt that the law is settled. It may be the case that future leaders decide that copyright should only last for ten years. The point of this exercise is to highlight what I think may be a contradiction in your reasoning here: even if it is legal, are we violating someone’s rights by modifying their work? Based upon your concerns in the original post, it seems that public domain, or even the distinction you’ve added of “living” versus “dead”, doesn’t help us solve the moral issue at the heart of this discussion.
The issue of compensating someone for their work is important to me, and I would never want to advocate theft. Most legal experts, scholars and regular people who question copyright do so out of concern over whether something virtual, intellectual or otherwise not naturally scarce is actually property in the same way that your house or car is property, not out of a sense of entitlement to other people’s things or because it’s a tricky way to legitimise theft.
Though not a book specifically about copyright and the church, Against Intellectual Monopoly by Boldrin and Levine was one of numerous works which brought me full circle from a position similar to yours to the position I hold now. Neither of us may change our positions, but I’m always glad to be a part of an amicable conversation. I hope that God is glorified in our discussion, even if we don’t come to agreement on this secondary issue.
What about Spanish translations to your songs? I heard the new Spanish album, and I disagree with some phrasing. It just doesn’t sound natural.
Michelle, thanks for asking. We run our Spanish translations past a team of people from different cultures. No one is ever completely satisfied, but we aim for the majority of people approving the transaltaion. With translations you have the tension of communicating what the original song actually says, what words can fit, and what sounds natural. That means at times we may sacrifice “naturalness” for a faithful translation, and other times sacrifice literal transaltion cor aesthetic values. It’s extremely difficult to do well in all three areas, but that’s what we’re aiming for. The Spanish translations we release are the ones we prefer people use, but we understand there may be slight variations in different countries.
Nearly twenty years ago I composed some extra verses to a single-verse chorus that was extremely popular at the time. In consultation with some industry experts, I was advised to send a ‘courtesy letter’ to the author, who was also the pastor of a high profile church.
Just days later a letter arrived in which he thanked me for sending him the lyrics adding something to the effect that, “It’s always good to hear from fellow-worshipers.” He said that I was not the first to do something like this, but that they could not officially ‘adopt’ any of the submissions as they wanted the ‘official’ version of the song to stand as written.
However, there was no notion of ‘cease and desist.’ All I got in that letter that day was grace and blessing.
Perhaps those were simpler times.
Paul, thanks for your thoughtful and well written comment. As I considered your last statement (Perhaps those were simpler times) I think that yes, those probably were simpler times. No Internet. A fledgling worship song industry. A lot fewer songs being written.
I loved the response of the pastor you wrote to. In heart, I totally agree with him. We can’t “officially adopt any of the changes people make and would like the official version of the songs we publish to stand as written.” But we’re not going after anyone who changes our songs, and we’re not even looking. We’re mostly grateful people are even singing our songs!
As a publisher, Sovereign Grace Music has a responsibility to protect the hard work that songwriters have invested in their songs. Again, it’s not that songs can’t be better. It’s just that the way the law currently stands you should check with the original author before you change or add to their song. And in most cases, the changes people are asking for aren’t ones we think make the song better.
I’ve tried to look at this topic from the perspective of a songwriter, publisher, musician, worship leader, former contemporary Christian band member, and pastor, all of which I’ve been or currently am. Because of the fact that music and lyrics are copyrighted today, it’s up to an individual songwriter to determine whether or not their songs are going to be placed immediately in the public domain. I respect and appreciate people who do that. At the same time, I want to support their work and see the copyright system as a way of doing that. I can see it from both perspectives.
Thanks again for the comment.
I suppose, if there was only a chorus, it could be considered that what you wrote was an entirely separate song that you ‘just happened’ to always sing as a medley with the original song :-)
Thanks for this post Bob, and as I see you’re ‘taking questions’ as it were, I have one on a similar theme: what are the legalities to changing chords for a song? Songs like Lord I lift Your Name on High often have varying chord progression and I’ve been listening to some of the recent Mars Hill Music recordings and they use a whole bunch of different chords for new songs like Getty/Townend stuff, and indeed, SG’s own Before the throne of God above. What are you thoughts about this?
Andrew, chord changes are fine. They’re considered arranging and aren’t part of the copyright. Although at times an arrangement is so distinct that people have copyrighted them.
This is an interesting conversation. I wonder what you think about those who add something to an existing song but don’t give proper attribution to the original lyricist or composer. For example, I see that some musician (easily Googled) has added a couple of new lines to “Before the Throne of God Above.” In the church where I have sung this “version,” the tune is the one composed by Vikki Cook, yet she is not given credit as the composer. It struck me as odd that someone could make a minor change or addition and then present the whole song as their own work. Do you have any thoughts on this? Thanks!
Susan, thanks for the comment. I wrote a post on this a while back and called it “Before the Throne of God Above (music by Vikki Cook).” Typically, if you make minor changes in a song it’s not a new copyright, nor an infringement of copyright. If a person makes a minor change/addition to a song that’s currently copyrighted and then tries to establish it as a new copyright, it usually won’t be accepted.
I appreciate the spirit in which you have written, Bob. Your explanations for the various occasions when changes to lyrics are acceptable seem well-intentioned, but unconvincing. Most believers do not find ourselves on a platform before thousands. We have absolute freedom to sing our praises to God using whatever words we choose. That is a glorious privilege of the believer before his God in contrast to the restrictions man has placed upon the performer upon the platform.
Ed, thanks for the encouragement and the challenge. Believers are certainly free to sing whatever songs they want with whatever words they choose. I’m a fan of spontaneous choruses emerging from a song we’re singing. And I’ll often sing my own words to songs in my times with the Lord. But that’s not the same thing as intentionally altering what someone has sought to communicate in their lyrics. I don’t think this is as much about “performers upon the platform” as it is seeking to honor the labor, time, and thought that people have invested in writing the songs we sing. Hope that’s helpful.
I’m sorry, this just seems so rediculous trying to make sure people sing your lyrics exactly. Who cares if people want to sing it differently? I’m sure hymn writers of old were not cracking down to make sure people sang eveything to the letter. This attitude and way of thinking just doesn’t sound biblical to me.
Hey, Lydia. Thanks for the comment. We don’t spend a lot of time making sure that people sing our lyrics exactly, but we do care about it. Why? As I mentioned in the post and in some of my comments, because people have invested time, thought, and energy into writing lyrics that are biblically faithful. Also, people have asked to take the gospel out of songs, change the theology of songs, or add lyrics that make a song confusing.
As to hymnwriters of the past, this is a statement from John Wesley’s introduction to a 1761 hymnal regarding the songs in the hymnal: “Sing them exactly as they are printed here without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.” While we don’t want to be overly scrupulous in this area, there are good reasons to care about the lyrics we sing.
The defense of the song writer is pretty childish,and I think reveals a little bit of the artist’s heart. Trying to restrict what someone does to the lyrics of your song is selfish at best. Did you write the lyrics for the edification of God or for yourself? I highly doubt that anyone wishing to change lyrics does so out of a selfish motive, but rather from a motive of serving their congregation better and worshipping in a manner that’s more effective. So, why restrict another brother or sister in their worship. Oh, that’s right you “Own” the sole rights and you are really the creator of the song there’s no way that the Holy Spirit would lead someone else to…no…say it’s not true…improve your song. In Christian love, I urge you to grow up, get over yourself, and be happy that your song has in some way encouraged someone to worship the true creator rather than just the creator of the song.
AJ, thanks for your comment, but I’m afraid it doesn’t leave much room for dialogue. I can assure you that people who don’t want their lyrics changed are not necessarily motivated by selfishness, greed, or pride. They can also be motivated by a desire for biblical faithfulness, stewardship, and love for the church. Publishers can be motivated to protect the integrity of their songs as well as the songwriters they serve. As a songwriter I’m always grateful that anyone would benefit from singing a song I’ve written, and the Sovereign Grace songwriters I work with would all feel the same way. Thanks for directing our hearts and attention to the Giver of all good gifts.
Any lyrics, no matter who they were written by, need to be vetted by the worship team. Humans are fallible, and just because someone spent time to write lyrics (or change the lyrics of well-loved hymns) doesn’t make them automatically theologically correct. Sometimes people change the lyrics to a hymn which has been vetted over centuries for a change that seems right to them, but is actually farther from the Bible. It is actually our job as believers to use discernment in worship and hold writers or worship leaders accountable when necessary. [Certainly, no one should change lyrics and then try and sell the new song as their own]. As such, if a songwriter is demanding that no one ever change their song, that is equivalent to a pastor getting angry if someone points out after service that he used the wrong verse. Nor are we, as Christians, supposed to be worrying about copyright in regards to each other – especially in regards to the worship of God! How many people have written songs based off psalms? Imagine God saying “Well now, David’s copyright hasn’t expired, so you better quit that!”
I would far rather a worship team change lyrics as needed to reflect the Bible if they like a song and wish to sing it. (Consider the song “Above All”, for example – a beautiful song of praise, minus the chorus that elevates man above God – so many worship teams simply rewrite one line).
Also, AJ is right that people rarely change lyrics out of “selfishness”, but rather to be sure what we are singing is honoring God vs. letting fuzzy or even incorrect ideas slip in.
If an author is so married to their song that they cannot let fellow worshipers of God tweak it for correctness, as they believe their artistic expression is above the other spiritual gifts, they they would be better off not allowing anyone to use that song for worship. Our gifts are for the building up of the church, not for our own glory.
We love the SG song “Jesus, Thank You” by Pat Sczebel, but the end of the first line has always bothered me. “You, the perfect holy One crushed Your Son, drank the bitter cup reserved for me”. I know what he’s trying to say, but it comes out sounding like modalism. The Father didn’t drink the cup, the Son did. The last time we sang it we added the word “Who” before “drank the bitter cup…” What are your thoughts regarding this?
John, great question, and that’s one of the questions people asked early on that actually resulted in us changing the song. If you download the lead sheets and charts for “Jesus,Thank You” you’ll see that the line is question is now, “Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me.” That change would be something we wouldn’t have a problem with any way. As much as review our lyrics for theological accuracy, there are always going to be things we miss or lines that people understand a different way.
Oops. Bob, I altered a line in “I Will Glory in My Redeemer” years ago and have been singing the altered line with my congregation ever since. I changed “I have no longings for another; I’m satisfied in Him alone” to “I turn from longings for another to be satisfied in Him alone.” My thinking was that no Christian can truly claim to be devoid of longings for another in this life–at least not always. Perhaps the thinking behind the line is that an undivided satisfaction is present in the moment of singing. Is that how you would explain the line? I generally give songs a generous reading, but I had trouble running with this particular line several years ago and have stuck with the new one.
Kent, no problem. Thanks for mentioning it! I wrote a post a while back in which I tried to address that topic. I called it “Are We Lying to God When we Sing?” Let me know if you think it’s helpful.
This is a fascinating conversation. First, the author’s willingness to interact is both highly unusual and greatly appreciated. Second, it speaks to questions I’ve had for years on this and related topics.
Here’s one additional question, related to the discussion, that bothers me: If a church is using a song in public worship, and the song is not in the public domain, and the church either (1) changes the lyrics (the topic of this post) or (2) doesn’t pay a license fee, the government steps in and does some type of enforcement.
Does it bother anyone out there that the government is telling the church what it can (or cannot) do in worship? If it doesn’t bother you, where does the line get drawn? To what extent does the government have control over what happens in worship? (This question goes beyond music to bible translations, etc.)
I’m just a congregant – really one of many worshippers – but I care about what I sing.
And if a lyric doesn’t seem accurate to me, I will change it in my mind and speech or be silent. I’m not trying to get anyone else to do so and in no way seek to infringe on copyright but I simply can’t sing what I don’t believe.
I understand poetic license (at least I think I do) but if the songwriter takes that license too far, I may not be able to sing the lyric – even in otherwise wonderfully biblical songs.
If worship must be in spirit and in truth, what would you suggest for people like me who by conviction can’t sing a lyric with their fellow worshippers.
EMSoliDeogloia, I do exactly what you do. Sing different words. But that’s different from leading the whole church to sing them.
I only change lyrics that do not reflect what the Bible actually says. For example, in the song “Promises” by Desperation Band, the original words are,” Your love is alive and it lights my steps…” Why not use what God’s Word actually SAYS – “Your Word is alive and it lights my steps”? There are others, but I don’t feel bad about making things more biblical. The Word of God will not return void, so why not utilize it?
Maybe I need a spanking here, Bob- ever since we started using Stuart Townend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, we changed the line:
“Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer”
to the more ‘reformed’-framed:
“Why should I gain from His reward?
It glorifies the Father”
and only for theological reasons (Sola Deo Gloria, etc…)
Our feeling was that the 1st version was kind of a ‘gee, I don’t know’, emergent-style uncertainty principle. But I’m sure that that’s not what he intended!
Due to your article, I am now going to write to Stuart and ask for his kind permission.
Tim, thanks for your humble response! I know what you’re saying, but I think the current line is also reformed in its perspective, if you view it from the standpoint of, “there is no reason in me why I should gain from His reward.” Knowing Stuart, I think that was probably closer to his intention. But it also communicates the wonder, awe, and amazement that we would be clothed in Christ’s righteousness! That’s an attitude we never want to lose when talking about God’s gift of grace.
This has been a fascinating conversation to read. Your hospitality and honesty are appreciated. [Note: it’s good and biblical to start with encouragement!]
I’ve been involved in conversations about lyric changes as an editor, composer, translator and worship leader. I’ve had people change my songs for the worse and make suggestions for making them better. In all of these things, the key seems to be respect. Songs aren’t sacred script, but if you respect the writer you’ll tread very lightly when making or requesting changes.
I have found it helpful to think about this issue in the same way I do about global worship songs. When translating and arranging a song from another culture, my dual goals are respecting the sending culture and making the song accessible to the receiving culture. It’s a delicate and imperfect balance, to be sure, but a good starting place.
So with this in mind, we can address some of the questions raised by previous posters. Why do we feel free to change Watts, but not Sovereign Grace? Copyright is a legal obligation, but Christians are called to something more than simply being legal. The deeper reasons are that we respect Watts best by changing some words to make his work accessible (“Blest Is the Man Whose Bowels Move,” anyone?), while we respect Sovereign Grace more by entering into dialogue with the writers and deferring to their decisions.
Even then, some people are so heavy-handed in their changes to public domain hymns that it brings the Ecce Homo to mind. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/9492805/19th-century-church-fresco-destroyed-by-rogue-DIY-pensioner.html) And some writers are so tight-fisted about their songs that they keep their work from being used more widely. (Is changing the word “man” really going to alter the message of the song?)
There’s so much more to this conversation, but I’m afraid a blogpost comment section isn’t the best forum! Thanks again for your thoughtful replies and for your hard work in writing and publishing worship songs in the first place.
Greg, great to read your thoughtful comments. Thanks for participating in the conversation. Appreciate your analogy of translating songs from another language/culture. When I first wrote this post, I knew it was a much broader topic than I was addressing. I’ve been helped by many of the commenters here, which is what I hoped would happen. Thank YOU for all you’ve done and are doing to serve the church in the area of using music for God’s glory and the good of his people!
Great conversation. Thanks, Bob, for engaging with your readers. I am curious why the words in I Will Glory are “gates of gold,” though. I accidentally say pearl most of the time in my car.
Matt, I asked Steve Cook about that and he said they thought “gold” was a better vowel to land on than “pearl.” You could also sing “streets of gold” in your car…
But ending on gold for the sake of a vowel seems suspect. How much “artistic license” does a songwriter have? If it is pearl in the Bible, but we change it to “sound” better, where does the line get drawn?
I appreciate your interaction here and not at all trying to sound argumentative. I am just a 31 year old who leads the music at my church and am genuinely curious. Thanks for the response!
In reading through your post along with the comments and questions, I’m curious about a situation that our ministry recently encountered.
We took a liking to the song – Come Thou Long Expected Jesus – as done on a contemporary hymns album. In this contemporary version there is a chorus added to the song.
However, in reading through the 2 verses of this song, it seemed (still does) to be a little “light” on the Gospel. So, I wrote a third verse.
The question is: Am I crossing copyright lines by singing the verse I wrote and the chorus, from another artists version of the song, together?
David, great question. Probably not crossing copyright laws, but you couldn’t copyright your version with the added chorus.
Changing lyrics is a big “pet peeve” of mine. I think archaic songs can be left unsung if they trouble you. You can always pick another song – as stated above “There are a few gazillion out there to choose from.” Also, doctrines should not be changed. If someone is Arminian in view point (one of my favorite guys-Charles Wesley) his hymns will sound that way. If he is very Calvinistic (Mr. Toplady comes to mind) his songs will sound very “that way”.
“Improving” other people’s lyrics is a pretty subjective business. I liked the way John Newton wrote his poem just fine. I personally do not care for the way it is sung now as SGM has rewritten it. Mr. Newton has no idea now and so it is somewhat a moot point but it bothers me that the “new and improved” version is now copywritten! Strange business, this.
Laurie, thanks for your comments. Sorry you don’t like our version of In Evil Long I Took Delight (called The Look). I wrote music that hopefully reflected the emotion of the lyrics deleted the initial verse, and added a chorus to give us time to reflect on the wonder of grace. Actually, hymn lyrics have been changed, adjusted, deleted, and added to throughout the centuries, even while the people who wrote them were alive. “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are two that come to mind. I think there is a legitimate place for updating language, images, and metaphors to bring an old song to a newer audience, especially when the revision is intentional in its purpose. There are too many riches in old lyrics to leave them untouched and potentially unheard or unappreciated by Christians of today.
I also have a hard time with people ‘improving’ lyrics and making new songs, especially if that ‘improvement’ is to advance one of their own personal doctrines or view points.
It is one thing to change a lyric that is incorrect to fit the verse it is based off or fit the basic gospel message. It’s quite another to change a lyric to say, be more Calvinist or Armenian, or highlight a pet view on eschatology, etc, and then brand it as a new song. [And as Laurie mentioned, it’s a ‘strange business’ that these new versions based off old hymns get copyrighted and people freak out if they are changed]. This practice is ‘Christianity + a cause’; it’s purpose is not to worship God or to vett lyrics, but to indoctrinate others in pet personal views that are irrelevant to salvation.
Oh… The Newton piece I’m referring to is “In evil long I took delight”. :)
Bob how about changing the tempo to a song? Wanting to do all i have is Christ at 110bpm. Is that problematic?
Chris, thanks for asking. You can do songs at whatever tempo you’d like! 110 feels a little quick to me, maybe making it a little harder for people to take in the lyrics meaningfully. But tempo isn’t copyrighted!
It’s great that you mentioned that it makes you feel grateful when someone asks if they can change the lyrics of the song since it means they’re thinking about the words you sing. Additionally, it’s very helpful that you mentioned about copyright protections and how a permission is needed to change a song’s lyrics. I hope to be able to get a permission to mold a song or even publish one of my own. It’s nice that there are creators, such as yourself, that are kind enough to respond to us. Thank you!