When you listen to Songs for Saplings on self-titled albums or any of the six volumes of Questions with Answers, it’s hard not to sing along. For children and adults, the scripture-based music is both catchy and convicting. It’s also hard not to be curious about Dana Dirksen, the woman behind the creation of all 173 songs!
Dana, mother of six and grandmother to two (almost three) children, grew up in a family of musicians, including her mother and multiple grandparents. Her grandma kept a little notebook of songs that Dana would sing to her as a little girl, and she admits that it probably drives her husband (James) crazy because she’s always tapping out the music on his arm, “but I always have a song in my head.” It’s how God designed her brain, and she often finds herself singing the words when she reads anything. Dana sang and studied music in university and always prayed that she “could do something big with her music one day.”
She had no idea that God would answer her “big prayer” in the shape of Songs for Saplings.
Dana shared that the first seed for this project was sown early in her marriage when she and her husband moved to Washington DC. There they befriended the Hildebrandts, who invited them into their home where they witnessed first-hand how they raised eight children. One day, Dana was invited to pray with the family, and heard their seven-year-old pray, “Father, you are the only living and true God. You’re the all-glorious, almighty, all-knowing, sovereign creator and Lord of the whole universe. You are perfect, holy, infinite, eternal, and unchanging.”
Dana was floored. She asked them how their young son had learned so much about God and how to pray such a touching and theologically profound prayer. She discovered that their dad had created a simple booklet by which to instruct his kids. She began using the booklet to help instill Truth in her own children, taking it across the country with her when they moved back to Oregon five years later.
The seed was watered, as was Dana’s confidence, when she was asked to sing on a Psalms album that her church in Portland produced. During this project she learned a lot about recording, mixing and mastering albums.
She asked others to join her “big prayer” of how God could use her talents. God started answering a year later when she was asked to help teach the “Saplings” class for little kids at the school her children were attending in Vancouver, Washington. She began singing songs for the Saplings class, eventually filling cassette tapes with the ABCs of scripture - one song based on scripture for each letter of the alphabet. With the support of her husband, children, and community, the cassette tapes eventually turned into the first Songs for Saplings album in 2004.
“I’m not really a great writer,” Dana admitted, “so it’s really wonderful that melodies come a lot easier, and then for words I just use scripture.” She is thankful for her gift with melodies, beautifully intertwining them with words from the Bible and other great written resources for teaching children. “This way it’s easy for me and others to take Truth and hide it in our hearts through song. It's also a wonderful way for me to help myself memorize scripture and help my kids to get the word in their heads,” she said.
As her human saplings grew, so did the number of her albums. She’s produced seven more albums in English since 2004, including six volumes of Questions with Answers that total 115 teaching songs.
The next seed was planted when Dana and James traveled to Zambia and Malawi about 10 years ago. She was asked to sing and delighted in sharing her music in English with children in villages and orphanages. Seeing them hungry for God’s word and singing her songs were the “happiest of her music moments.” She was asked by missionaries there if she would be willing to translate the music into Chichewa (the local language) and immediately (with no idea how she would do this) said, “yes!”
She struck up a partnership with Levi Dannayo at African Bible College in Malawi and began a translation of songs into the Chichewa language. This made the songs accessible and understandable to children and adults in villages throughout Malawi. That translation has been shared with more than 100,000 children in Malawi, and is now taught in schools, churches, and camps around the country!
As other believers around the world started to see the value of these teaching tools, they started to ask for translations in the languages they spoke. Along the way, Dana decided to embark on a journey to translate and produce her albums into all the major world languages. The translated songs from Questions with Answers are now being utilized as a primary source of biblical instruction in places where there are often few resources for children.
At this point, children across the globe can listen and sing along to Questions with Answers not only in English and Chichewa, but also in Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. Dana is currently focused on translating and producing Mandarin versions of Questions with Answers. Beautifully, all the music is available for free - an important aspect of the work Dana is doing.
Some of us accumulate Bibles, music, and other resources like collector’s items - not knowing that these resources aren’t even available for many members of Christ’s world-wide body. Thousands of years ago Jews would gather around one of the few written copies to hear the word of God read out loud, then singing together to worship and remember what God had done for them.
After God delivered the Jews from their bondage to Egypt, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:20-21). The writer later records God’s instructions to Moses in Exodus 31:19-21: “Now, therefore, write this song and teach it to the people of Israel...this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring).” Now, in her work through Songs for Saplings, Dana is continuing deeply-rooted traditions of our faith, given in love by our most true and faithful God.
Her heart’s desire now is to be 105 years old, still singing, and hearing others around the world sing the music from Songs for Saplings in their language! May it be, just as Moses concluded his last song to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 32:47: “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long.”