July 9, 2019
Gonna Sing My Lord

JOE WISE

Alongside the music of Ray Repp and the early Dameans, for me, the music and pioneer spirit of Joe Wise was most significant for me in my very young days in discovering the folk-music revolution that had emerged from the liturgical music renewal of the Second Vatican Council.

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Joe was in the seminary at the time of the Council, at St. Mary’s in Baltimore.  Like the other ground-breaking songwriters in the early folk-mass days, Joe was deeply influenced by the folk music that was the voice churning the social consciousness of the time.  He eventually left the seminary and ran a coffee shop and continued to lead music and compose simple songs for the liturgy.  He met Father Clarence Rivers at a liturgical gathering in Memphis, and things at that point changed for Joe.  He remembers it well: “… he heard my music, and he gave me three thousand dollars of his own money, and said, ‘if you don’t sell enough to pay me back, fine.  If you do earn the money, pay me back without interest.’ It was an awesome gift.”

Well – we, the praying church attempting to find its voice during those years, were the real recipients of this gift.  Joe recorded a simple tape and began his own company, Fontaine House, and his very first LP, “Gonna Sing My Lord” was released by World Library of Sacred Music in the fall of 1966.  This recording reflected what these early “folk-groups” sounded like – simple accompaniment of guitar, bass, at times banjo, and a small group of amateur singers.  But Joe had a unique gift of singable melodies and poetic lyrics that were different and distinct.

The title song was one of the first liturgical songs that I learned, but it was his iconic “Take Our Bread” that I remember so well taking hold of me, and for those who sang it in those early years, truly a catechetical and theological reorientation of what we do at Eucharist:

Take our bread, we ask you.
Take our hearts, we love you.
Take our lives, Oh Father, we are yours. We are yours.

Yours as we stand at the table you set.
Yours as we eat the bread our hearts can’t forget.
We are the sign of your life with us yet.
We are yours, we are yours.

Your holy people standing washed in your blood;
Spirit-filled yet hungry, we await your food.
We are poor but we’ve brought ourselves the best we could.
We are yours, we are yours. 

(Copyright © 1966 Joe Wise / GIA Publications.  Used with permission)

Today it is common place to discount these early anthems of the pioneer folk-mass days – but we need take a slow and close reading of this text.  It still is profound and wisdom-filled for us all.  Eucharist is the great meal of surrender that we are called to feast upon. Joe was among the first to create a song to help us in our understanding of these early ritual actions of “offertory,” and communion.

“Gonna Sing My Lord” became a smash success, and so what followed for Joe was a full-time journey of travelling and singing at concerts and the early workshops of that were part of this exciting era that continued on for many years.  His manner was so simple and comfortable – he would simply sit on a stool, share his songs, and weave powerful stories that helped us to crawl into what was going on in his heart – and the songs became ours.

In the midst of the crazy schedule that he kept in those early years, he earned four degrees: in philosophy, theology, education and counseling. Over the span of his liturgical music creativity, he released 22 albums, several among them for children, and all of them, almost always in collaboration with his wife, Maleita.

Some of the songs that truly found a home at liturgies throughout the world throughout the years include “Lord, Teach Us to Pray,” “This is My Gift,” and for me, a personal favorite was his beautiful song, “Watch with Me,” that I used to sing on Good Friday years and years ago at my home parish back in Michigan:

Watch one hour with me;
Stay just a way by my side.
When my “alleluia” days, streak into blues and greys,
Be my guide, stay a while.  Watch with me. 

I won’t ask you to be strong with me,
I won’t ask you to be kind,
I won’t ask you to stay long with me;
just help me find my mind.Stay with me.

And in hard times I will look for you,
want you gentle by my side,
and in soft eyes tell me one more time,
no need to run and hide.Stay with me.

And when death comes I’ll reach for your hand,
feel our love flow in your breath;
in your eyes I’ll find a way to stand
and see more life then death;Stay with me.

(Copyright © 1971 Joe Wise / GIA Publications.  Used with permission)

Then a few years later,  came “Take All the Lost Home.”

Joe Wise did it to my heart again with this collection, and of course with this title song, that I sing at concerts and retreats still to this day (that I finally recorded a solo version of on my most recent CD, “I Will Bring You Home”).  In this recording I found a gentleness and simplicity that has always been a hallmark of his music.  I also fell in love with the baptism song on this LP, “Bathe Her in Your Love.”

There are also Joe’s incredibly creative collections of music for children, both religious songs and other fun songs as well, in his recordings “Close Your Eyes … I Got A Surprise,” “Show Me Your Smile,” “Pockets,” and “Doodle-be-Doo.”  There is nothing quite like these collections, and GIA eventually did a compilation CD of the best of these wonderful songs!

“Songs for the Journey” was one of the very last liturgical music recordings and collections that Joe would create, and it is a gem.  It introduced to me, like the work of Ed Gutfruend, bringing together folk styles into liturgical song, especially with his very unique, almost “square dance” version of Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” which became a concert opener for me during some of my earliest liturgical music concerts and programs.  Marty, Michael and I always loved it, and we included it on our popular “Come and Journey” live concert recording.

Joe was always advocating for the renewal of the liturgy and its sung prayer, and he was on the first board of directors for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians at its inception, and was a mentor for composers of the next generation, especially for people like Marty Haugen and myself.  We both had the honor to be able to sing and present with him on occasion in the last few years that he was involved with liturgical and catechetical conferences, around the same time when our own music was just beginning to become better known … and Joe had an important part in that happening for us and for others.

Around 1985-86, from L to R: Bobby Fisher, Marty Haugen, Joe, and David

After a time, Joe brought an end to recording, composing, performing and travelling in liturgical music circles.  But that did not mean an end to his spiritual walk, nor his creative spirit.  Over the years he published three books, scored a film, and even wrote an article for Sports Illustrated, entitled “Aching for Basketball,” a humorous piece about basketball for middle-aged men (December 18, 1989).  Over the last several years, Joe’s path (now in Arizona, – along with Maleita)  has been in the arena of visual art, and he has specialized in water colors and has won several awards for his artistic work. They both remain active in presenting workshops and retreats in art, journaling and writing.  Check out their website: www.joeandmaleitawise.com.  Here are a couple of samples of his work (which you can order prints and greetings cards with these images on their website):

After a time, Joe brought an end to recording, composing, performing and travelling in liturgical music circles.  But that did not mean an end to his spiritual walk, nor his creative spirit.  Over the years he published three books, scored a film, and even wrote an article for Sports Illustrated, entitled “Aching for Basketball,” a humorous piece about basketball for middle-aged men (December 18, 1989).  Over the last several years, Joe’s path (now in Arizona, – along with Maleita)  has been in the arena of visual art, and he has specialized in water colors and has won several awards for his artistic work. They both remain active in presenting workshops and retreats in art, journaling and writing.  Check out their website: www.joeandmaleitawise.com.  Here are a couple of samples of his work (which you can order prints and greetings cards with these images on their website):

In terms of faith, Joe now walks a path not tied to any particular denomination.  But he is a person of gratitude, and expressed this so beautifully in 1994 when GIA (now the distributor and agent for all of his recordings and music that he has created over the years) released the first of two CD recordings that celebrate his tremendous contribution, Most Requested: Music for the Spirit.

 “Thanks to all of you who supported my work and music for so many years.  My life energies and spiritual path find me no longer in many of your arenas, but I am grateful for the rich and abundant opportunities that you gave me for so long.”

And he concludes, with the lyrics of one of his later songs:

The Lord lets His face shine down upon you,
the sun rises up to meet you on your way,
the Spirit of Her love invades the circle of your friends,
your vision keeps you changing day by day.

For me personally, I owe a lot to Joe Wise.  He was among the very first to encourage me to write music and to always stay attentive to the muse in my life.  Joe, Maleita, and their two children, John and Michelle – we all remain friends to this day.  I wish I was able to see them more often than I have been able to.  I will always be grateful.  And while he no longer is a part of the Catholic community, I know that the praying and singing Church would not be where we are now if not for the likes of people like Joe Wise.   My life has been changed by his presence, the precious gift of himself, his songs, his poetry, and his spiritual insights.  And to be his friend is an even greater gift.

I want to end this essay with a little-known prayer of his, that I believe still rings true for me and for all of us in the ministry of liturgical music.

Sunday morning services, Lord, they
always come after Saturday nights

the heads and tongues are thick and dry
Let me go slow
go real to where we are
go with the old
the young, the not so sure

Go easy
appear and disappear lead and be led
in the flow . . .
let me be quick
to hand over
the quest
for your presence
and ours to each other
to all of us

Help us get inside
the rhythms today Lord

Really inside
core out the words
taste, touch and handle them as once we did
with your best word

Trigger our inner journeys

Invest us in our tunes

Squander us on your word

Lay us out
rainbowed
voice to voice
face to face
drummer boy
Best for you
Best for them
Best for us.

[DH: 7.7.19]

Song-Videos:

[All of Joe’s recordings and published music edition are still available, from GIA Publications:  www.giamusic.com]

Take Our Bread / Joe Wise
Lord, Teach Us to Pray / Joe Wise
Pockets / Joe Wise
Watch with Me / Joe Wise
Take All the Lost Home / Joe Wise / Sung by David Haas
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