Writing the song “Follow the Prophet”

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Video Version of \’Writing Follow the Prophet\’

I get asked fairly frequently to speak to groups about how I came to write the song “Follow the Prophet.” This is an abbreviated version of what I tell them.

In 1987 I got a call from the general music committee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They said, “We are putting together a new book of children’s songs for the Primary. We would like you to write a song for it. We would like three things: First it should be about the Old Testament prophets. Second we want it to sound like a Jewish folk song. Third, we want it to be a happy song that the children will want to sing.”

I had written other things for the Church including radio and television scripts, lyrics for a musical, The Spoken Word and other things for the Tabernacle Choir. I sometimes worked a little humor into some of these scripts. Maybe I overplayed my hand. I learned years later from a member of the committee that when my name was suggested to write the song, she said, “You mean Duane Hiatt who sang with The Three D’s?” They confirmed. She said, “He’s the funniest guy I know. How would we ever get it through the correlation committee?”

But I suppose the people doing the serious business of approving Church publications enjoy a chuckle now and then. The song didn’t survive correlation unscathed, but they were kind and gentle to it and to me.

However, first trying to squeeze the doings and teachings of Old Testament prophets into one song is sort of like engraving the Bible on the head of a pin; possible but not easy. Second, the Jewish folk song motif; not to worry, I write a Jewish folk song every morning before breakfast, sometimes two or three—not. But the big problem was writing a happy song. This was not a fun time in my life. Two weeks earlier Diane, my beloved wife of twenty-six years and mother of our fifteen children had died of cancer.

But I consider myself a professional able to go on stage or get the work out despite personal difficulties. More importantly I believe the Lord will magnify our abilities to accomplish his purposes. I prayed for help and he answered. He always does.

As I pondered the project I thought, “What would be the best message we could give the children concerning the Lord’s prophets?” I remembered a pioneer I had written about in a script many years before. His name was Stillman Pond. Driven out of Nauvoo and crossing the plains he lost his wife, and all but two of his eleven children to what they called, “chills and fever.” He himself became so sick he could only sit tipped sideways on his wagon seat. To drive his team he peered through a knot hole in the dashboard of the wagon. All he could see were the wagon tracks of those who had gone before him, including Brigham Young.

In my mind I can hear him saying, “I know God lives, but I am so sad, so sick, so weak. How can I go on? I will peer through this knot hole and step by step, I will follow the prophet.”

I said, “That’s it. That’s what I want to tell the children of the Church, and all of us. Follow the Prophet.”

Thus the Lord sustained me in this sad time of my life to write a little song. People tell me it does have the feel of a Jewish folk song. The children seem to enjoy singing it. People send me stories of children singing the song in many different conditions and languages all over the world, and ways it has helped them.

I believe that on our journey through life we will do well to follow the prophet, because as the song says, “He knows the way.”

My faithful long time friend

Duane performs: \”My Faithful Long Time Friend\’

It was a warm and humid afternoon in the Caribbean. They have 365 of those annually. In the back yard of a very modest home on a couple of beat up chairs Sharon and I were hanging out with some new friends and their neighbors. Newness wears off quickly among these sociable laid back folks. Sharon’s excellent Spanish impressed them. My massacring of their language amused them.
We also brought an old friend of mine named Martin. The folks loved him. Partly I suppose they identified with him. He was scarred and beat up, a lot like they were..
But he could still sing, beautiful deep bass voice and ringing bright tenor sounds still came easily. In fact the older he gets the better he sings.
In his youth 52 years ago he mesmerized other islanders half a world away in the South Pacific, the Tonga Islands. He loves to sing, and has done so in other distant lands, and in 49 of the fifty states. (North Dakota we are still waiting.)
He can boom it out for a crowd, but he also hums a gentle lullaby to a sleepy child. He sang encouragement every Friday afternoon for several years to a paralyzed army veteran in an iron lung who finally escaped his confinement and flew to heaven.
My friend entertained other soldiers in Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam. Once when our plane touched down on an aircraft carrier the restraining line caught our tail hook and yanked us to a quick stop; standard operating procedure. But my friend’s safety harness came loose. He flew passed my head and crashed into the front bulkhead. He staggered but revived. He fell down hard in Puerto Rico and cracked his neck. That was an arm wrestle compared to the working over he got from some goons on a flight to Oregon.
With the beatings he takes, you might think my friend would stop hanging out with me, but he’s still the first one ready to get picked up every time I’m headed out somewhere.
That afternoon in the Dominican Republic the folks noticed the close attachment between my friend and me. One of them asked, “Senior if this house caught fire, which would you save first, your wife, or your guitar?”
I gave him the right answer, but I stuttered for just a nanosecond before I got it out.” They fell off their boxes, benches, boards, rocks and other perches howling with laughter. Fortunately Sharon thought it was funny too. She knows I love them both.
The romantic Latinos love to feminize their guitars. They speak of her graceful neck, her curvaceous body, her delicate touch, her sensual voice.
But my guitar is an hombre, a twanging, flat pickin’ hoss. (Although I mostly finger pick it.) When the Martin Company started making this model back in 1931 it was the biggest six string anybody ever saw. It looked like a guitar on steroids: husky neck, square shoulders, flat bottom, thick body to give it a big bass voice. Martin named it the “Dreadnaught” after the biggest battle ship in the British navy. This is not the name or the description that you would give to the lady of your dreams.
I’ve customized my guitar by wearing out the frets twice, rubbing grooves into the fret board where my fingers go on my favorite chords. It’s charred in places from my blazing solos (That’s a little joke). Like me it’s beat up and not as handsome as it used to be. But three fourths of my lifetime memories are wound around its strings. Sometimes when we’re alone together, and I feel the world and maybe the universe are beating up on me, my guitar speaks to me. He says, “Come on, you want to get it out of your system. Go ahead, pick on me.” And I do.

Camping at the Waldorf Astoria

“An unusual conveyance,” thought the door man at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to himself. Like most New Yorkers of that day he had never seen a half trailer hung over the bed and cab of a pickup truck. But with his usual aplomb, he opened the truck doors and welcomed a dignified Harvard trained university professor of philosophy and his attractive wife. “The caliber of people one would expect to greet at one of America’s finest hotels,” he probably thought.

The door man signaled the valet to come and park the strange vehicle. But laughter and talk inside the camper sent him scurrying to the back door. Before he could perform his doorman duties, the door swung open and out popped a notable writer/editor and a couple of country boys blinking into the bright lights of the Big Apple.

Doctor/professor/president Truman G. Madsen had arranged this dinner at the Waldorf for us and writer/editorElaine Cannon to show his appreciation. We were doing performances and speaking engagements at youth conferences in New York, New England and Eastern Canada. He was president of the New England mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and most of our performances were under his jurisdiction.

Truman Madsen was a man of consummate charm and charisma, comfortable in any society. A gifted speaker and writer, he represented the Church ably among the cultured society of Boston and similar environs. He also struck righteous fire in the hearts of the youth and the humbler folk of New England.

He also had a puckish sense of humor tucked inside his impressive cerebral cortex. It was his idea to come to the Waldorf Astoria in our camper, and he enjoyed immensely watching the doorman scramble to find and open all the doors of this truck thing that seemed to be disgorging people like the clown car in a circus.

Door men, bright lights and elegance were not typical accouterments of our meals on the road. Fine dining for The Three D’s was usually a truck stop, a burger to go, or in a pinch (we were often pinched) heating a can of soup on the camper propane heater. (Hints for homemakers: An elastic band hooked to the heater door will hold the soup can in place on paved roads. For bumpier trails use more elastic bands. Your standard can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle will be hot in about 40 miles of freeway. Much longer than that and the can may explode and redecorate your camper interior and your singing partners.) The three of us dining at the Waldorf was about as likely as our truck and camper winning the Indianapolis 500.

Speaking of the epicurean aspects of The Three D’s, I remember one of the best introductions we ever got. At a big Boy Scout function the mc said, “We are in for a great treat. The Three D’s will now perform for us. I’ll tell you. I would rather hear these guys sing than eat. I’ve heard them eat.”

The dinner at the Waldorf was delicious, and we enjoyed the floor show, more accurately the street show. Having missed his cue at the back door, the doorman returned to the front of the truck to unruffle his dignity. Also to be ready in case the hood popped up and more people jumped out of there.