I entered the Jesuit novitiate after high school with that music background. In the novitiate, there were some very fine guitarists in my class and I’d learn from them. It was at the time guitars were being introduced into the Mass; we were permitted to do that. I, along with others, began to introduce guitar-accompanied music into the liturgy.
The biggest influence on my music at this time was a classmate of mine from Omaha, Bill Laird. He and I had about the same level of musical ability, and we had the same inner sense and love for music. During our free time, which wasn’t much, we’d sneak down to the trunk room, the room in the basement where they stored all the luggage. Nobody could hear us down there. We’d play the guitar, learn new songs and, eventually, began to write little pieces and bring them to each other for critique and encouragement.
I’d never written music before in my life, except to make up little melodies as I’d sit at my grandfather’s piano. We had this gentle Jesuit, Father Barney Portz, on the faculty. He was a big influence on Roc, Duff and me. He taught mathematics but was also a musician. He was the choir director, and he recognized musical gifts in us. He’d corner us after we’d finished doing the breakfast dishes and take us down to the trunk room where he’d give us singing lessons. He’d look at these pieces that Bill Laird and I had composed and he’d offer us his comments and suggestions. At some point he’d say, “You know, I think it’s ready for us to try at Mass; let’s see what happens.” He was really the one who first saw the possibility of my music and encouraged me. He asked me to direct the choir and taught me how to do that.
Who were your early influences?
Simon and Garfunkel; Peter, Paul and Mary; Gordon Lightfoot; Rogers and Hammerstein; Lerner and Lowe. Later on it was the Beatles. The style of Peter, Paul and Mary especially fit the style of music we might be able to do at Mass. Many of their songs grew out of the folk tradition — that is, music that is meant to be sung by people, ordinary people. Most folk music was never written down but passed from family to family and generation to generation. It was music that people learned by heart and would sit around and sing together. That’s exactly what we do at Mass, in a very simplified way. It was music for people to sing together and less for people to sit and listen to.
What was your first song?
One of the first songs that I wrote was a “Hail Mary” that has never been published. We sang it a few times at Mass. There were a few pieces from that very early time that have made it. One is “You are My Sons” that, for inclusive language reasons, later became “Before the Sun Burned Bright.” When I was writing my Advent and Christmas album, I took the melody of that piece and changed the words to make it an Advent piece.