I Have Seen The Light
Robert Sterling Posted on July 5, 2012
It is every songwriter’s dream to write a “standard” – one of those songs that keeps going and going, like the Energizer Bunny. Take it from me, it is a very tough thing to do, Irving Berlin and Bill Gaither notwithstanding. That’s because writing a standard requires two things that rarely happen together: a really good song and whole lot of luck.
Maybe it’s too soon to say, but I think I might have written one song that will survive me. Twenty Christmases ago (hard for me to believe), Chris Machen and I hammered out “I Have Seen the Light” on the old Steinway upright in my office. Just this year, LifeWay included it in their new hymnal. (You know you’ve arrived when one of your old songs gets picked for a hymnal.) So what happened in those twenty years?
In the summer of 1987, I was writing my first big Christmas cantata, We Beheld His Glory. GoodLife Music released it for Christmas,1988. (Remember GoodLife?) Toward the end of the songwriting process, “I Have Seen the Light” emerged. At the time, Chris and I believed we had a good song on our hands. (So much for the “good song” part of the equation.) We had high hopes. But the cantata sold very modestly, and “I Have Seen the Light” seemed destined along with the other eight songs in the book to live a very short life in print. In a matter of two or three years, the cantata faded from sight.
Now comes the good luck part. A few years after writing “I Have Seen the Light,” I moved to Nashville and there became better acquainted with former GoodLife employee, Bruce Cokeroft. Bruce now worked for a Nashville music company. He persuaded his new employer to license and re-release “I Have Seen the Light.” About that same time, Jim Whitmire, music minister at Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, used “I Have Seen the Light” in his church’s Christmas pageant. A little “word of mouth” and suddenly churches everywhere were singing “I Have Seen the Light.”
Since then, Chris and I hear from dozens of music ministers every year how “I Have Seen the Light” is one of their choir’s favorite Christmas songs. (Chris and I loooove those stories.) It seems a different Christian artist or another church choir records it every Christmas. We joke that we are semi-famous every year for about six weeks – at least in church choirs.
Perhaps the coolest thing that happened to “I Have Seen the Light” was the Gatlin Brothers. Way back when we first wrote the song I actually said to Chris, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear the Gatlin Brothers sing this?” Ten years later, I found myself teaching Steve Gatlin in a Bible study at Brentwood Baptist Church. (Coincidence? I don’t think so.) In 2002, the Gatlin Brothers made a Christmas record and my wish from 1987 came true.
Not long after, I had the privilege to hear the Gatlins sing “I Have Seen the Light” on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the birthplace of the Grand Ol Opry. That was amazing enough for this songwriter. Then two years ago, I heard the Gatlins sing it with the Lennon Sisters in Branson. I don’t know which was more surreal: To hear two iconic American family vocal groups sing my song, or to hear audience members seated near me singing along with them. Some of those folks must have already sung “I Have Seen the Light” in their own churches.
In 1987, Chris and I could have never guessed that “I Have Seen the Light” would still be a part of so many people’s lives today. It boggles my mind to think of all the choirs that have sung it over the years, and how many tenors have hurt themselves stretching for the high As. (Sorry, fellas.) And I’m thrilled to know it’s now part of the LifeWay hymnal, and will be around for a few more years at least. If “I Have Seen the Light” has been a part of your Christmas experience ever in the past twenty years, I hope it was a blessing to you. Thanks to all of you who continue to give me my “voice.”
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