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Donna Swanson

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11/4/2010 9:49:25 AM

Think about this for a moment. God had placed me in front of the premiere lyricist and composer of Gospel music in the twenty-first century. Could I be blamed for thinking my life was now in the stream of God’s will and that my gifts would be blessed and would prosper?

With your indulgence I would like to share an excerpt from my newest book, With Heart Divided. In this passage I tell how Minnie Remembers, a poem I wrote in 1974, began to open doors into new friendships and opportunities.
I remember the first time I heard Minnie Remembers read by another. I was participating in a retreat at a local youth camp and a nurse asked if she could read a poem she had found. She walked to the little wooden podium and began reading Minnie Remembers. There I sat, tears running down my face just as moved as the others in the room. Jim McKowen, a close friend who had invited me, said later, “I always figured you didn’t know what power was in your words!”
My home church asked me to present the Minnie Remembers film on a Sunday evening and I had to come up with something to stretch the presentation beyond the film's five-minute length. I chose to intersperse a short biography of Minnie with some of my poetry. It was well received but I recorded the program and noticed at once the monotone recitations. I began to practice reading the poetry with expression and found a natural dramatic voice which became my speaking voice. It is unlike that used in conversation and the only way I can describe it is speaking with power. Never having had acting or speech lessons I had to give myself permission to use that voice. Our ordinary voices are much different. We tend to abbreviate sentences and slur over some of our consonants. So one thing I practiced often was diction. Ending words clearly and cleanly guaranteed the audience could understand my presentation. Later, when recording I learned to emphasize important words more strongly to be sure they came across.
The same has been true for my singing voice. Gradually I introduced original songs to the programs and found that strumming a guitar made it easy to memorize both lyrics and poetry. Eventually I was able to present an entire hour or hour and a half program with nothing more than a list of the pieces I would use. And this from a gal who could never memorize scripture verses for points at summer camp! More and more local invitations came in and I began to receive distant invitation as well.
After speaking at a Church near Indianapolis I received a letter from one of the ladies telling me she had just been to a Praise Gathering in Indy and heard Gloria Gaither read Minnie Remembers onstage. Praise Gathering is a festival of Gospel music and seminars sponsored by the Gaithers each year. They began in Indianapolis but now are held in various locations around the U.S. so more people can attend. At this time I was not aware of the gathering or of the Gaither's growing fame.
At the same time I was having some difficulty with church papers using Minnie with no credit line. I called Janice Grana, my editor at Upper Room, to ask her advice. I might as well have dropped a bomb in her office. She vehemently told me I had to get on top of that or I would lose my copyright. I was told to have a lawyer write a letter to the editors of those papers and the Gaither organization and demand an accounting. I wrote the letters and put them under my lawyer’s letterhead. The one I wrote to Gloria was a bit softer than the others – although I was polite on all of them -but I did also print hers on the lawyer’s letterhead. I received a call from her office manager, Randy Hammel, the same day the letter was received.
Randy explained that Shirley Dobson had given Gloria a copy of Mind Song backstage that night and pointed out the poem. She was so taken with it she shared it spontaneously with the audience. He said Bill and Gloria would like to meet me and see more of my work, and asked if I could come over to the Pine Brook Studios in Alexandria. I said I would enjoy that and we set a date for a week or so ahead.

When I arrived Bill (Gaither) gave me a handshake and that beaming smile that has become so familiar on the homecoming videos. We sat at the conference table and talked like old friends. Both Bill and Gloria are genuinely friendly and easy to know. Bill talked of the upcoming tour for which they were preparing and the two truck loads of equipment and two buses it took to transport the group. “We try to give our audiences a performance as close to what they hear on the albums as possible,” he said. The tour would cost approximately $100,000 and they would not recover that cost through ticket sales. “We make our living through album and music sales,” he told me. “We count the concert tours as publicity. And just plain fun!” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
I told him about the Secrets Softly Spoken album I had just recorded using a turntable and a boom box. “Let’s hear something from it,” he said, and put a cassette player on the table. Knowing what I do now I should have been petrified, but he was just a nice, interested guy, so I chose Death of the Baptist to play for him. The free verse poem is spoken over Ase’s Death from Finlandia and changes mood in the middle. Through no planning on my part, the music itself also changes mood and matches the poem perfectly. When that change came Bill asked, “How did you do that?” When I said I hadn’t planned it he just shook his head and grinned.
Then he said something that has been so true through this long journey. “You know, Donna, everything you do falls through the cracks. It can’t be pinned down to one genre. Gloria and I were the same way. So we just had to make it happen for ourselves.” As the interview ended and we walked out of Alex House, Bill put his arm across my shoulders. “Donna, someday you’re gonna be great!” Those words were totally inspiring and totally wrong. I drove home in high good humor!
That was the beginning of a relationship that spanned several years. Gloria asked me a short while later to give a luncheon program in her home for the women employees who worked in the Gaither complex. So, back I drove; but this time instead of Pine Brook, I turned into the Gaither’s drive.
I was also their guest at the next two or three Praise Gatherings with a pass to the VIP suite where I could meet other artists and authors. I remember talking with Gary MacSpadden one afternoon and telling him I had just spent my entire book allowance at Calvin Miller's booth. “I love his Singer Trilogy and would enjoy meeting him.”
“Well,” chuckled Gary, “He's standing right behind you. Say hello!”
Think about this for a moment. God had placed me in front of the premiere lyricist and composer of Gospel music in the twenty-first century. Could I be blamed for thinking my life was now in the stream of God’s will and that my gifts would be blessed and would prosper?
That was at least 25 years ago. About the only “prosper” I’ve had is right here in my hometown. But that’s OK. For now.

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