Tony Cummings quizzed at length veteran New Jersey-based worship songwriter LENNY SMITH
As any church-goer will know, today's believers are bombarded with new modern worship songs. There are literally hundreds of thousands being written, recorded and made available to Joe Public, though only a few become true church megahits, some by churches large and small, and recorded literally dozens of times. It could be said that the Christian music industry is continually looking for the next "Shout To The Lord" or "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)". It was in the late 1960s/early '70s that the Church first began to look beyond the musical structures of hymnody to create songs suitable for younger congregations to worship God. And so, in 1974, an unknown schoolteacher and musician from New Jersey called Lenny Smith suddenly found himself with an international hit when his composition "Our God Reigns" impacted the world Church and came to be recorded literally dozens of times as well as featured in a vast quantity of songbooks and hymnals. 20 years later, Lenny's son, Daniel Smith, found success with the group Danielson Famile, citing Lenny as a major creative and spiritual influence.
Lenny Smith never went on to write another song as popular as "Our God Reigns", but it has been the cornerstone of a ministry which continues to this day. Cross Rhythms quizzed the veteran singer/songwriter about his life and ministry. Although Lenny looks and sounds like an archetypal good ole boy from the Southern States of the US, he was actually born on America's east coast in the naval hospital in Philadelphia. He explained, "We lived in a 'military' household, in that we moved around every two years or so, until high school. My dad was a US Marine for 20 years. There were some really good times and some rough times, as I recall. My mom was an absolute saint. My dad was a marine, but, basically, a good guy."
It was when he was about 10 that Lenny had a significant spiritual experience. He recalled, "I was sitting in a small children's area at a local community church and the teacher was putting pictures up on a flannelgraph and talking about God the Father. She said he loved us and would never, ever leave us. I was totally ready to hear that and I felt lightning going up and down my spine. From that moment on, I was very, very interested in this Father. I even started to read youth books about God."
When he was at high school, the Catholic Youth Organisation were putting on a musical. As it turned out, it proved to be an opportunity for Lenny. He said, "The lead singer dropped out and the director asked me to step in. I did reluctantly and did well and that was the beginning of my singing efforts. In the seminary, later, I joined the choir of 120 male singers and after three years I learned to play guitar and later started writing songs for chapel. The first song I wrote was 'The New Jerusalem,' a song that is now on my latest album."
Studying for the catholic priesthood at seminary, Lenny wrote a few more songs. The number increased after he had abandoned thoughts of becoming a catholic priest and instead found a spiritual home in an independent Protestant church. In 1970, he married and his wife Marian was subsequently to bear him five children. Little was he to know that, decades later, his kids would gain renown as The Danielson Famile (or Danielson Family). It was in 1974 that Lenny's life suddenly went through a major change through one of his songs. He was leading worship at Living Word Ministries in Haddon Heights, New Jersey for Pastor John Poole, who was also pastor of the Gospel Temple in Philadelphia.
After reading the book of Isaiah, Lenny wrote the first verse and chorus of "Our God Reigns" in just a few minutes. He recounted, "I sang the song once and John jumped up and said, 'Let's all rise and sing that again!' And we did sing it again, and again, and again. Shortly after this, a travelling minister named Bob Mumford came to minister at our church. He heard two of my songs, 'Our God Reigns' and 'City, O City.' Bob took them with him and taught them wherever he ministered for a couple of years. He taught 'Our God Reigns' to several thousand men in a Kansas City Pastors' convention of some kind and they all took the song back home with them. Scripture In Song from Australia published the song and the Catholic charismatics in Ann Arbor, Michigan also published and recorded the song. It spread around the world and by now has been recorded on 50 albums by the likes of the Gaithers, Phil Driscoll, Evie, Marilla, Fred Bock, Tom Booth, John Michael Talbot, New Life Worship, Word, Lillenas, Sparrow, Maranatha, and lots more. The song has appeared in about 45 songbooks and hymnals and is in about 25 languages."
"Our God Reigns" became a hugely popular song in British churches through the work of Kingsway/Thankyou Music. Explained Lenny, "'Our God Reigns' was very much in circulation in the UK, when the head of Kingsway/Thankyou Music came to the US. He came by my house for a couple of days and left with the copyright of my song for Europe, telling me all that he would be able to do for my many songs in Europe. I am certain he tried, but to no avail. Recently, Kingsway gave the copyright for Europe back to my publishing company New Jerusalem Music, thankfully."
Since 1970, Lenny has been busy recording demos of his songs. He explained, "I used to have a reel to reel tape recorder and made lots of recordings for home use. Later, I recorded on cassette players, made cassette copies and gave away copies to friends and after doing some worship nights. I did, for a while, sell my cassettes and songbooks, but that was just a work of love."
It wasn't until 1988 that Lenny released the album 'Arise My Love: Our God Reigns Vol 1'. He spoke about the song "Arise, My Love": "It was written one evening at my apartment, as Marian and I were hand-writing our wedding invitations. She saw the first invitation I wrote out and immediately consigned me to the living room and told me to go play my guitar and maybe write a song. I went off in a huff and wrote 'Arise, My Love' and it was sung by our friends at our wedding. I have sung and played it at a couple dozen weddings and even some funerals. I think it works well for both. Years later, I did go into a studio to record the LP 'Arise, My Love.' The owner of the studio would not let me play my guitar. He preferred playing his electric piano and making it sound like a guitar. I was not happy with the result, but I do love the songs on that old LP."
Lenny continued his story, "After many years of leading worship with my Gibson and my songs in about eight churches, we settled into a church that we liked, but the pastor and worship leaders just did not care much for my songs and my style. I tried to write songs that were more 'contemporary,' but still the folk and country seeped into my songs, and still does. None of my songs were really used there for the 20 years we spent there. Finally, for lots of reasons, we moved on. I have on occasion been asked to visit churches to lead worship, but the occasions have been few and far between. It was just not to be for me to become a famous worship artist."
An unexpected development in the Lenny Smith story occurred in 1993 when, while attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, Lenny's son, Daniel Smith, experienced a spiritual awakening. Daniel began recording songs which were to form the basis of 'A Prayer For Every Hour'. With two friends and brothers Andrew and David, an ad-hoc group were formed and Danielson Famile, with their eclectic mix of indie pop and acoustic rock, found themselves a growing audience with hipster Christians. Three albums released by Tooth & Nail Records in 1997, 1998 and 1999 all met with critical success, and singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens recorded and performed with the group.
In 2000, Daniel Smith turned his attention to his father's prodigious songwriting skills. Said Lenny, "My first CD, 'Deep Calls To Deep', was recorded by my son, Daniel C Smith, in his own studio. Daniel has produced lots of albums, at this point. He has produced albums for Sufjan Stevens. He likes to keep his productions earthy and not too slick. I like it that way too. Life is earthy and not too slick. His own label is Sounds Familyre, on which he has released albums by lots of his friends."
In 2012, Lenny's 'Who Was And Is And Is To Come' album emerged. The veteran commented, "At 75, I still have a good voice, but Daniel still needs to be very patient with me. His patience is what I remember most. I especially love the song 'I Have Everything I Want Or Need In You' from this album. I think every one of my songs is the best one I have ever written, until time passes and I see that it wasn't. We have released three of my albums on Great Comfort Records, and I might have it in me to do one more. We shall see."
Lenny continued, "My last album was 'You Are My Hiding Place'. What Daniel and I have been doing is just picking through my 200 songs from the past very many years and recording the ones we agree on. He likes the old ones he heard as a kid and I tend to want to record my later ones. We compromise. All three of my albums have some really old songs and some newer songs. I am always writing new songs."
Lenny spoke about his hard-to-classify musical style and lyrical approach. "My songs are strongly something, perhaps folk, folk-rock, or soft country, soft rock. I think they could be called 'old Jesus songs.' I just love writing and singing Scriptures. I love melodies. I am not much into the contemporary rock songs being written now. I love rock music and celebration and rejoicing, but I also love the gentle songs, the peaceful songs, the lovely songs. Some songs can take us to the outer court. Some can take us to the inner court. Some songs can take us into the Holy of Holies. I especially like those."
Lenny has never been drawn in to the write-a-hit-song-and-hit-the-road pattern of most successful musicians. He explained, "I have always had a day job. I taught high school for five years (English, religion, Latin) and then I did carpentry for 30 years. My music has always been done nights and weekends. 'Our God Reigns' has brought us lots of money over the years. God is good to help us so much. My wife was able and wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and she did an awesome job of it!"
Lenny has a positive attitude towards the Christian music industry. "The industry has been very good to me in terms of using 'Our God Reigns' on about 55 albums and in about 45 songbooks and hymnals. I am just one of dozens of writers and artists who have been raised-up high for a while, and then gently let back down to earth. I understand how it works, and it is fine. I think most people in the industry should have a day job, for security and sanity." Despite his positive attitude towards the Christian music world, Lenny does admit that there has been some questionable behaviour among some parties. He said, "We have identified about 35 substantial infringements, some more than others. Presently we are contacting these people to see if we can work out agreements, and I am optimistic."
Cross Rhythms asked Lenny what he believed has been his greatest achievement in music ministry. "My greatest achievement has been in staying with my wife. I tried with all my might, energy and heart, to 'make it big' in the worship music industry, and my wife kept pulling me back to earth. My second biggest achievement has been that my five kids love me and think well of me and have turned out to be such bright lights. I knew very early not to encourage them to go into the world of music. They got involved on their own, so any highs and lows did not come back on me."
He continued, "I have learned that we have been wrong to think and believe we have the power to separate ourselves from God, who made us and sustains us and loves us and likes us, just the way we are. 'In Him we live, and move, and have our being' actually means what it says. We are very much like the fish in the ocean of God's love, but we often think we are in some desert, dying of thirst. We need someone to wake us up and show us we are already in the Kingdom of God, we are already at the banquet table, we are already safe in God's loving arms, we are already his chicks, safe under the shadow of his wings. We have nothing to fear, nothing at all. Jesus told us it would be better for us to have the Holy Spirit than even to have him. The Holy Spirit will lead us unto all truth. What a great adventure we are all on! To finally be able to open the eyes of our minds and see just how very close we already are the heartbeat of God. To see how deeply and totally he loves us. He has never taken offense at anything we have said or done, because Love Takes No Offense. He actually likes us too, probably much more than our own spouses and children and friends do."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.