In the Summer of 2016, poet Maggie Smith experienced something that few poets ever do: her poem “Good Bones” went legitimately viral online. The poem was published online shortly after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, and it struck a chord with readers around the world. Over the coming months, it would come to be considered the “Official Poem of 2016” because of how deeply it resonated in the wake of what seemed like countless difficult and awful events that year.
I had met Maggie at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts several years earlier, and we had kept informed each other’s doings via Facebook, so I was overjoyed to watch Maggie’s success unfold in real time. In one of her earlier posts about the unexpected popularity of the poem, she included a link to “Good Bones”, and I immediately fell in love with it, as had so many others before me. I knew immediately that I needed to set her words to music. I reached out to ask her permission, and she happily granted it.
That August, mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen was a guest on my podcast, and we hit it off right away. After her interview, we chatted about the possibility of me writing something for her, and I suggested “Good Bones”.
Over the next year, I struggled to write this short song – a situation that is unusual for me, since I usually write quickly and easily. But words as beautiful as these deserved equally beautiful music, and Maggie had set a high bar. I composed in fits and starts, letting the song percolate in the back of my mind for months at a time, until finally, in September 2017 – 13 months after I first put pencil to paper – it was finished. And I hope I’ve lived up to Maggie’s words.
I’ve aimed for an emotional simplicity in my setting of the poem. When I read the poem aloud, my interpretation is full of anger and cynicism: “the world is at least fifty percent terrible”. But I made the conscious decision to exclude that from the music. Instead, I’ve chosen to emphasize the aspect of the poem that has captured the hearts of the world: hope.
This place could be beautiful, right?