Don Francisco. Date of Interview 3.29.19
For the next few weeks, I am certain that many of us will see and hear on our social media pages, Dolly Parton singing “He’s Alive”. I bet every one of my friends will post that song during the Easter Holiday, myself included. No other song, in my opinion, tells the story of the resurrection story as well as this song does. Dolly does a wonderful job bringing the song to life with Christ Church Choir in her 1989 appearance at the CMA awards. The song, however, was written years earlier around 1975/76 by Don Francisco. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Don, and he shared with me how he came to write such a powerful song.
The song was released on Don’s 1977 recording called Forgiven. In 1980, he was named Songwriter of the Year along with “He’s Alive” as Song of the Year at the Dove Awards. In addition to Dolly’s rendition, the song has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Walt Mills, The Gaither Vocal Band, Ray Boltz, and countless others.
My own love of the song is tied to a pastor at our small Baptist church in East Tennessee where I grew up. Pastor Jack’s kids were nearly grown and were off at camp most summers, so he would let me stay with him and his wife while they were away. Pastor Jack played this new sort of Christian music that was different from the music we sang in church. He had an 8-track tape and would play the music of Don Francisco. Of all the songs he played, He’s Alive is the one I remember most. As a child, I remember hearing this song and being drawn into it. At the time, I thought that the story was told from my point of view as if I were a bystander at the events the song described.
Talking with him felt like reconnecting with an old friend. The following is what he shared with me on how the song came to life:
He begins, “Around the mid 70’s I was doing my best to be a songwriter; I was working full time at it, making myself sit down and write for hours on end. There were times back then when we literally were living on peanut and jelly sandwiches– it was a time of intense poverty, at least by first-world standards.”
During that time, he was doing a few concerts in churches and had only one song to sing about the crucifixion. As Don states, “The song was written by a friend of mine and it stopped with the crucifixion, with all this guilt. I just couldn’t continue using it, so I sat down with the intention of writing a song about the resurrection. At first, I tried it from Thomas’ point of view. I was attempting to get whoever was listening to the song to go along with me, from Thomas’ doubt into faith when he saw the risen Lord, but I just couldn’t get it to work. Nothing felt real to me– I couldn’t get into Thomas’ head.
“So I tried again, this time from Peter’s perspective. I found I understood Peter. He’d denied Christ three times– and the last time Jesus had turned around and looked at him– so the weight
of guilt on him must have been crushing, I’m sure.” Don pauses from talking about the song to explaining how his own life could relate to Peter’s.
“You see, I’d been in Peter’s place,” Don continues. “Up until a couple of years before writing this song I had been living a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and I was full of guilt and fear of the consequences. Although I’d been raised in church (we were there every time the doors were open), and in spite of the fact that my dad was a seminary professor as well as a Baptist preacher, I had simply blown off any sort of relationship with God by the time I reached junior high school. Everything I was being told and shown described an angry, judgmental God. Like most of us, when I reached my teens I wasn’t all that rational– I was just in a desperate, emotional search for some kind of love, and I wasn’t finding it in church or at home.
“When I was 28 years old, two years before this song was written, I had a powerful experience with God. I wasn’t looking for him. As I mentioned earlier, I was into the whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing, but also into yoga and Transcendental Meditation. One morning in August, I was alone doing my yoga session, sitting in the full lotus position and concentrating on emptying my mind, when suddenly I heard a voice so clearly that I thought someone was in the room with me. There was no one, yet the voice was so clear it was almost audible. The voice said, “Don, this is Jesus. I love you. Why do you keep running from me?” And along with those words came an experience that I can only describe using the line from Galatians 1:16, “When it pleased God to reveal His Son in me…” I suddenly knew Jesus/God was not this angry, judgmental, legalistic monster that I was raised with– and that He was alive in me. At the moment he spoke those words to me I was a pretty bad dude but he didn’t mention any of it. He only said that he loved me.”
That experience completely turned Don’s life around and upside down, as he put it. Because of that revelation, that moment of hearing Jesus speak, Don said that he was able to write with real gut-level excitement and conviction that He is alive– and I’m forgiven, heaven’s gate are open wide…
Don says, “Because of that revelation, I knew that I knew him, not because I’d read it in a book, not because someone had told me, but because the Lord Himself had shown me in the deepest part of me who he really is.”
Turning the topic back to the song, Don says, “I had probably written over three times as many verses as I actually used. For me, the songwriting/storytelling process is one where I edit and cut to the point that if I cut out any more of the song then no one will understand the message. I kept working on it and finally picked up a guitar to put music to it. When I thought the song was completed I sang it to my wife. It originally ended with the last verse– where it says “Guilt and my confusion disappeared in sweet release, And every fear I’d ever had just melted into peace.” That’s where I ended the song. When it was over my wife said to me, “You can’t stop there, you just can’t end it like that!” So, I went back, and in about 20 minutes or so realized how Peter would have really felt, not just all this peace but incredibly excited.” And with that, Don finished the song and gave it the dynamic chorus proclaiming, “He’s Alive, He’s alive, He’s alive and I’m forgiven, heaven’ss gates are open wide!” He’s alive, Sweet Jesus.
Here he is preforming his song He’s Alive.