Notes on the Song ‘All My Favorite People’ By Linford Detweiler

Over the Rhine Linford Detweiler comments on the song All My Favorite People for Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Franciscanized World blog.

One thing worth noting about having a wife for a writing partner: you get to playfully argue about which one of you first had the idea for a song.

Karin and I can no longer remember which one of us first said, outloud, “All my favorite people are broken.” We can’t recall the particular details of the conversation, only that it took place four or five years ago in the kitchen of our old farmhouse in Southern Ohio. What we do remember vividly is that right after we heard those words we both said in unison, “Oh, that’s good.”

That’s the thing about writing: it’s often mostly about having your ear tuned, or being aware of some part of your body that begins to resonate and wake up when the universe tries to hand you a small gift. The writer who is aware of these unpredictable moments of grace then has another choice: whether or not to receive.

Think of the writer as a butterfly catcher. If she realizes a green-clouded swallowtail is drifting her way, she can gently capture it in her net, or she can let it drift on by and disappear forever. If she chooses the latter, she won’t be punished. When it comes to creativity, the universe vibrates with generosity and abundance. But my wife has a theory: that same butterfly will sooner or later land in another writer’s net.

The writer’s butterfly net is a small notebook, or handheld recorder – any device that preserves a moment for later contemplation and exploration. The writer is often an eavesdropper, a collector, a hunter and gatherer. Not everything captured proves useful in the end, but one can be hopeful.

I eventually sat down and began writing and this quickly spilled out:

All my favorite people are broken

Believe me my heart should know

This opening couplet seemed strong enough to hang a song on. It felt intuitively like it could bear the weight of a song. This was my focal point.

I once heard Billy Collins compare his poems to the eye chart we all encounter when we get our vision examined. At the top of the chart is that big “e.” Everyone can see it. But then the print gets progressively finer and one has to work a little harder to go deeper in.

Most songs that endure have that big “e.” Think of the Nick Lowe song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” It’s a revved up pop song coming at you full tilt and a lot is happening quickly. But when you get to that line, Nick’s big “e,” everything suddenly comes into focus, and the entire room effortlessly shares in that moment. It’s inclusive.

My own big “e” moments in songs often revolve around something that was caught in my butterfly net. I’m not usually a good enough writer to create something memorable on the fly. I have to stumble across it when I’m not looking and then be aware enough to keep it with me for later.

But now for the real work: what did this song want to reveal?

All my favorite people are broken

Believe me my heart should know

Some dreams (prayers?) will break a rib cage wide open

Try to fly free, try to fly home

The above felt interesting, even a bit clever, and perhaps an idea was trying to make its self known. Maybe the reason we’re broken is that something is actually trying to break free, be born. I liked the idea of a rib cage being like a birdcage. Unfortunately, after a year or two of contemplating the above and continuing to work on more verses, I had to reject it outright. This was not what the song was trying to reveal.

At this point in the process, I decided to call in some help. My wife and I met with Mary Gauthier, an excellent songwriter who lives in Nashville, with a long and juicy story of her own which included overcoming alcoholism, navigating gracefully the tricky emotional terrain of being an adopted child, and ultimately making a life for herself that was meaningful and rewarding. I thought, “If anyone is going to be able to help steer this song forward, Mary will know what to do.”

We met in her beautifully appointed Nashville condo and dove in. But Mary had a problem with my big “e.” She was unsure of “favorite,” and wondered if we should just go with

All my people are broken

or even

All God’s children are broken

And Mary wanted to get the song out to sea. She kept hearing “tossed and blown” and thought of a boat being steered tentatively through a storm. We sketched and sketched in our notebooks and sat around her kitchen table with our guitars, but the way forward was not revealed.

We finally agreed to keep working on the song separately, but when I saw Mary a few months later at Rocky Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, she said that she had sat with the song at various times, but on her mind’s computer screen she kept getting the message, “Access denied.”

My wife told me what I think I knew all along: I was going to have to write this one alone.

My father was a protestant minister for part of his life in a little coal-mining town in Southeast Ohio, and I have been haunted since I was a child by something that would take place at Wednesday night prayer meetings. After we sang a few hymns, my father would go to the front of the sanctuary with a little spiral notebook and ask if there were any prayer requests. Folks were free to express their concerns: Edith was back in the hospital with complications from her knee surgery. Andy was afraid that there were going to be layoffs at the coal company where he worked. Mike had a particularly difficult chemistry test coming up.

But occasionally someone would raise their hand and say, I have an unspoken request.

An unspoken request? That captured my imagination. What were these prayers too intimate or too intuitive for words?

I was working on the song and that dilemma found me once again:

All my favorite people are broken

Believe me my heart should know

Some prayers are better left unspoken

I just want to hold you and let the rest go

I e-mailed Mary Gauthier and ran it past my wife, and they both felt like I was on the right track.

Then back to writing additional verses, a process that took a few more years, with many false starts and many verses ultimately ending up on the cutting room floor.

Karin and I eventually recorded All My Favorite People in one take in South Pasadena, CA, with a wonderful group of musicians that producer Joe Henry assembled for our project, The Long Surrender. All My Favorite People closes out the project.

And now that it’s recorded, hopefully the song can speak for itself, can exist apart from explanation and commentary. After all, songs have to be heard, in order to be known.

The writer can only hope the listener will turn the volume up, fully surrender a few minutes and be transported.

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