Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Leaning on the Everlasting Arms: Thoughts About Shared Songwriting

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Two days ago, I posted the story of the history of the hymn that forms the musical basis of the soundtrack for the recent film version of True Grit. In short, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was co-written in the late nineteenth century by two friends, Anthony Showalter and Elisha Hoffman. Showalter conceived of the refrain for the hymn as a way of encouraging two young men whose wives had recently died. But he just couldn’t come up with the words for the verses. So he wrote to his friend, a prolific hymn writer, asking for his help. Hoffman came up with three stanzas for the chorus, which Showalter then put to music. The result is one of the most beloved hymns among Christians in America.

I’m impressed by Showalter’s willingness to acknowledge his inability to come up with the right lyrics for the verses. I’m quite sure he could have put together something that rhymed and had theological merit. But Showalter apparently had his standards. Plus, he was willing to admit his own inability to meet those standards. This kind of humility is impressive, and it led to the production of a fine hymn.

I have often thought that today’s worship songwriters would do well to team up in their writing. Yes, some are able to writer wonderful lyrics and tunes while working alone. But so many songs, it seems to me, contain great raw material, but are published before they’re ready. Some intentional teamwork would have made them much better.

Many times throughout the past two decades, I have been asked to help songwriters with their lyrics. Some of these writers are well known; others are “undiscovered.” But all of those whom I have helped have been humble enough to say, “I need some assistance.” Usually, they’re looking for theological guidance, though sometimes they want help with the poetry. To this point, nobody has asked me for help with the music . . . for good reason.

Greene-Buddy-Harmonica-5.jpg

The story of the co-writing of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” reminds me of a more recent example of such teamwork. It began when Mark Lowry wrote some lines for a Christmas pageant at his church. They were used in the service, and that seemed to be the end of it. But, sometime later, Mark Lowry gave those lines to his friend, Buddy Greene, asking him to put them to music. Lowry says he made a joke about “writing a hit for us.” Greene didn’t get the joke, however. He put Lowry’s words to music, and thus was born the song “Mary, Did You Know?” In less than two decades, this song has become a Christmas favorite, and for good reason. Score another big point for collaboration in songwriting! (Here’s is a YouTube video of Lowry and Greene singing their hit.)

Speaking of Buddy Greene, who is a friend of mine and a regular, beloved leader at Laity Lodge, he is not only a fine singer/songwriter, but also one of the top harmonica players in the world (literally). For a delightful gospel-music version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” featuring Buddy on harmonica, check out this link. And if you want to see his amazing classical performance in Carnegie Hall, click here.



  • Ray

    Thank you for bringing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” back into my brain. Once in a while, I get up early on a Saturday and sneak off to the church before anybody else is awake just to spend a couple of hours before daylight playing the grand piano in our sanctuary. We can’t really afford it, but it was a gift given several years ago by two widows who each contributed toward its purchase in memory of their late husbands. We don’t have a regular paid pianist, and I probably spend more time on it than anybody, both during worship and in my predawn Saturday practice sessions, and I always think of Pop Murrah every time I sit down to play. Anyway…a couple of Saturdays ago I was working on the accompaniment for a soloist who was singing during worship that Sunday, when I suddenly found myself ripping out a ragtime version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. I don’t know where it came from, it just unexpectedly flowed out of my fingers. Totally inappropriate for worship, but it was DARN fun to play! Not sure if I could ever play it the same way again, but it certainly interrupted the stillness of a dark sanctuary.
    I love hymns, and I love playing around with them, putting them to different harmonies, changing the meter, and generally committing hymnological heresy. I even doctored up the Doxology, of all things. I’m not sure I can still get into Heaven after that. But a question about hymns has always puzzled me…how can Martin Luther write a hymn in German that ryhmes in English???

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