One Year Later: Marathon Song Gets New Arrangement

By
Lesley Mahoney
April 15, 2014
Alumnus Evan Chapman (left) arranged a song Ben Johnston and his classmate wrote about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Musicians perform Chapman's arrangement of "I Don't Have a Song for That."
Student Mark Joseph performed lead vocals for the song.
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

Almost exactly one year ago, Ben Johnston and classmate Jordan Lucero were tasked with a co-write for their Songwriting II class. The problem was that the ideas just weren't flowing. Lucero remembers saying, “I don’t have a song to write right now.” Instead of staying stuck, the two channeled their writer's block into another idea: when things go bad in a relationship, a songwriter often wants to write a song but sometimes can’t because the words simply won't come. The result was a decidedly different take on the original seed: “I Don’t Have a Song for That.”

When they presented the song in class, associate professor Scarlet Keys praised the chorus but said the verses could be stronger, advising them to find a defining storyline or theme.

Then the Boston Marathon bombings happened. Classes resumed the following week, and Johnston and Lucero decided that the song’s chorus—“I don’t have a song for that / When the words just disappear and I don’t know what’s going on. . .”—was also eerily applicable to the mood in Boston. The students did not have the words to explain the tragedy that had just unfolded blocks from the Berklee campus.

The revised song met with favorable reviews and, many months later, at the end of 2013, the two performed it at two singer-songwriter concerts on campus.

A year after the bombings, as Boston reflects on the terror that shook the city, the song will be among the artistic tributes shining a light on the anniversary. Alumnus Evan Chapman '13, who launched and produced Berklee's Loft Sessions and who co-orchestrated a flash mob performing "O Holy Night" at the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston last December, was tapped to create an arrangement of the song that would work well for a video production.

Read about Evan Chapman's approach to arranging "I Don't Have a Song for That."

On a recent day at the Berklee Performance Center, a 28-person choir, string quintet, and musicians playing electric guitar, electric bass, and percussion joined Chapman on piano for a video recording of Chapman's arrangement. (Johnston was scheduled to sing in the choir but was sick that day; Lucero graduated in December and now lives on the West Coast.) The video’s release has been timed in conjunction with the anniversary of the marathon bombings.

“I think it’s pretty incredible,” said Johnston. “It’s been really interesting to watch the energy gather around the song starting around late December when we performed it in the Red Room (at Cafe 939) and now in the context of the anniversary of the event.”

For Johnston, the experience also gave him a real taste of the career path to which he aspires: writing songs for other artists.

“It solidified for me that I want to be a songwriter,” he said. “Seeing the response to this song and just knowing that something we wrote and created resonates with people is pretty powerful to witness. It makes me want to keep writing more songs.”

Up until this point in his Berklee experience, Johnston had almost exclusively focused on the craft of songwriting, not the recording or production of those songs, simply because he was so hungry to gain the tools he’d waited so long to acquire. In fact, Johnston came to Berklee on a circuitous route. He started writing songs in high school but didn’t think pursuing music as a career or as a course of study in college was a viable option. Instead, he attended a small liberal arts college in his hometown of Dayton, Tennessee for a year before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserve. Two years later, he began attending West Point.

“While I was at West Point, I played guitar and wrote a lot of songs. They were mostly autobiographical. I don’t think I was improving much but I was definitely engaged in songwriting,” he said.

Johnston graduated in 2006 as a second lieutenant with a five-year commitment to the Army ahead of him; during that time, he was deployed twice to Iraq. While on his second deployment, his wife’s (then girlfriend) father recommended he consider Berklee, where his own son had attended—advice Johnston followed. His deployment ended in February 2011, his five-year commitment ended in May, he got married in July, and two days after his honeymoon, he took a bus from upstate New York to Boston to audition.

Now in his fifth semester at Berklee and studying songwriting, Johnston realizes the value of formalizing his music education. “I’m excited to keep getting better. For a long time, I was writing a lot, but essentially writing the same level of song over and over again.”

From song form to rhyme scheme to battling writers block, Johnston, a guitar principal, is devouring the tools he needs to become a better songwriter and to understand what makes a song work. “Two years ago, I would have had no idea,” he says.

At Berklee, he learned about singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, whose songs he describes as, harmonically, very simple. “I gained an appreciation for what I used to think of as bare bones songs,” he says, adding that he learned how they can actually be very powerful songs and how simpler harmonies can serve as good pairings for emotionally heavy songs. These days, Johnston is embracing the folk genre and using it as a channel for his lyrically driven songs.

He’s also finding that his experience in Iraq prepared him for writing songs with emotional weight, such as “I Don’t Have a Song for That.” Some of what he lived through has led him to process things in a more emotionally detached and analytical way. While he still connected to the bombings in an emotional way, he said his experience in Iraq gave him access to “step outside that emotion, yet still connect to it and write something authentic that would help people.”

And with this particular experience, the obvious irony is that they did, in fact, have a song for that.