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Henry Gaffney remembered

Songwriting faculty member Henry Gaffney passed away on May 23. (Read the Berklee news story.) Alumnus David Ragland wrote a tribute.

Henry Gaffney, songwriting faculty. Photo by Bill Gallery.

I was lucky enough to have Henry Gaffney for a lyric-writing class, a production class, and for a one-on-one directed study in songwriting class. He was brutally honest, and he encouraged everyone to follow their hearts when it came to their writing. He was also brutally honest with himself, often referring to his early career as “self-indulgent,” and that it took him time to find his style and voice. The final classes of the semester were a highlight when he would have all the students announce the grades we thought we deserved and back it up with an explanation.

He always had great stories to share. My favorite story of his was that he worked in a suit and tux shop in New York in the 70s, and John Lennon came in to buy a suit. Lennon was fitted for a suit, and Henry’s plan was to sew a demo tape into the inside jacket pocket. He ultimately decided against it, and was happy to have met Lennon a handful of times.

It was in my directed study with him that I learned the most from him as he helped me pick apart my songs and shape my portfolio into something I could confidently bring with me into the industry. The last time I ever saw him, he shook my hand and told me he thought I had what it took to make it as a writer, and he wished me luck. I walked out of the room forever grateful for everything I learned from him, and I will always remember his gritty humor and sincerity. Henry was the real deal, and he will be missed.

Did you study or work with Henry? Share your own memories in the comments.


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  1. Henry was my songwriting teacher back in 1998 at the New School in New York City. Later, he became my mentor and friend.
    I had maybe written one song before that class, and decided to sign up for it on a whim, mostly to see what I could get out of the experience. I spent almost the entire class too scared to participate, not even feeling worthy enough to express myself through such a new and dumbfounding artistic medium.
    During the last two classes of the semester, I finally got up the courage to perform the first two songs I had ever written. Henry took me aside after class and gave me so much confidence to believe in what I was doing. Shortly afterward, we began co-writing together in his home studio in midtown Manhattan. I would meet with him regularly to work on new material and get feedback, and we even produced a demo of my original tunes. He was a true mentor for me. I will never forget how drastically my life changed in the years that followed, all because of him.
    One day, as we were discussing the bridge of a tune, Henry turned to me and said, “Would you be interested in teaching music?” I’d never seriously considered it before, but thought it might be kind of fun. A couple days later, I found myself in the passenger seat of Henry’s car, on our way up 95 north to Berklee College of Music for an interview with Jay Kennedy, who was (back then) the chair of the Contemporary Writing & Production Department. I was 24 years old, had never been to Boston before, and found the entire experience exhilarating. Henry introduced me to Jay as a “great candidate.” Consequently, after a successful interview and a couple weeks of proving myself through written work, I got the job as a new faculty member at Berklee. I packed my bags and moved out of Lower Manhattan on Sept 1, 2001 for a career as an instructor, and eventually an assistant professor. Ten days after my move, as I taught my very first class on 9/11, I felt somber yet grateful to be far away from lower NYC. Nine years later, following in Henry’s footsteps, I am now teaching for the Songwriting department as well as CWP, Harmony and even (potentially) Ear Training next year. I have released 2 studio albums and one live album, and continue to perform and record as an independent artist. I owe my entire existence in Boston, and at Berklee, to Henry Gaffney.

    Thanks, Henry. You gave me the strength and courage to be a songwriter and a teacher. You are the reason I’m able to carry on your tradition of continually inspiring students to fulfill their musical aspirations. I think of you every day as the muse that gave my very first songs life, and the catalyst that sparked my entire songwriting and teaching career. I will miss your constant good-natured demeanor and welcoming smile every time I used to run into you in the halls of the Professional Writing Center. Every time I work on a new song, your voice continues to be in my head, spouting great suggestions and endearing words of encouragement.

    Sarah Brindell
    (aka “Hey, Brindle!”)

  2. I took Henry’s Lyric Writing class in the Spring of 2000, and was so impressed with everything about his style, particularly the freedom he allowed us all not only as songwriters and musicians, but as artists. One day he brought in Magnetic Poetry and we all did these free associative word exercises. He taught the class in such a connected, humor-filled, and warm manner that it was hard not to come out of that course knowing not only something more about songwriting, but a whole lot more about yourself. He also respected each of our individual styles, something that I will never forget. My heart goes out to his loved ones.

  3. I am very deeply saddened by the news of having lost Henry. I was fortunate enough to get to know Henry by taking a few classes with him. A few years ago during my last semester at Berklee I took directed studies with Henry. I got to know him personally, He was a real sweet man. Henry’s way of teaching was very personal, He wanted to know his students and genuinely cared for them.

    At the time when I was a student of Henry’s I was dealing with some major health issues. Henry was by far one of the most understanding and supporting person I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Even years after that period, Every time I would run into Henry around campus the first thing out of his mouth was always a concern about my health. It really meant the world to me since few people are as caring as he was.

    I had no idea Henry was fighting cancer. I wish I had known and could have been there for him to show him support like he did for me. Not knowing is one regret I’ll always have.

    Henry was truly and incredible person, A very loving person. I am shocked by the news of his passing. The music world had lost a brilliant mind and the world had lost a beautiful soul. My deepest condolences to the Gaffney family. God bless you.


  4. One of the best decisions I made during my time at Berklee was taking as many classes with Henry Gaffney as I could. His experience and individual talent, coupled with his honesty, passion, and selflessness, created a learning experience that not only enriched my songwriting but enriched my life as well.

    There are so many things about Henry that I will always remember – so many moments from his classes that I’ll never forget. There were times when I
    laughed so hard I couldn’t stop, moments where I got chills from something profound he said, and moments where I left his class so inspired that the only thing I wanted to do was get a practice room and write.

    One of the things about Henry that set him apart was the freedom he taught his class with. He made it about the students – about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to improve. It wasn’t about curriculum or about fitting into the structure of a lesson plan. He made us challenge ourselves and come up with our own projects. So in the end, what you got out of Henry’s class was exactly what you put in. He taught against the grain in a way that only he could and it was different – it was refreshing.

    I feel incredibly grateful having had the opportunity to be around Henry – to have absorbed all that he so generously offered. I can honestly say that what he taught me will never leave me, but there is one important lesson in particular that stands out. It was the first day of the first class I ever had with Henry – Lyric Writing 1. This is roughly what he said: “This class isn’t going to make you a songwriter and I can’t make you a songwriter. If you want to be a writer….write. Just write all the time. Don’t ever stop doing it. That’s what will make you a writer.” Well, Henry, I’m writing all the time – good or bad – and I have you to thank for that.

    One thing we can all take comfort in is the fact that there will be a part of Henry Gaffney living on in every student he inspired and in the music we make.

  5. Laura Clapp Davidson

    I can’t believe Henry is gone. His classes literally changed my life and his wisdom is something I will cherish forever. His no-nonsense approach to writing and teaching was so inspiring and I took as many classes as I possibly could with Henry to capture what I could. Thank you, Henry, for challenging me to become a better writer and for giving me the encouragement to succeed.

  6. John

    If I learned anything at Berklee it’s that, if you’re going to take the time to do something, you may as well do it the best you can. I learned that from Henry, and I’ll never forget it.

  7. My first songwriting class at Berklee was with Henry Gaffney. I had never written songs before and didn’t know if I could- I will always remember him fondly for helping me begin my path towards being a songwriter. His methods were practical and he was very approachable- I’ll never forget his kindness in inviting me to meet with him when I went to New York. He leaves a rich legacy in all the students he inspired over the years.

  8. Henry Gaffney – he made us dig deep and gave us the skills to cut through the garbage and he encouraged us to write and write and write because even if the pile is largely garbage, there is a gem in there waiting to be discovered. He never let us get complacent as writers. I miss him already.

  9. I had two semesters with Henry, I cherished each class. He had a great, twisted sense of humor and brutally honest with all of us, which I especially liked. He helped me look for inspiration where I never expected to find it and made me dig deeper to find the right emotion to move a lyric.
    He talked to me privately about setting up a business pitching tunes, which I did. He offered great advice and didn’t sugar coat anything. I owe him a lot!
    My deepest sympathy goes to his family.

  10. jenn

    What can you say about Henry? There will never be another like him. He gave it to you straight up, like he saw it, never candy coating, just the facts and the truth. I had the great fortune to take a few of his classes. He made my Berklee experience exceptional in every way. I am deeply saddened at the loss. He was the best living example of how to live a whole life. His encouragement and dedication to music and his fellow writer will remain an unending inspiration to all that knew him. I can’t say how much I will miss him, there aren’t enough adjectives and determiners in the English language. Well, maybe I can sum it up with this, Fuck, Henry, it just wont be the same without you. May you find music and much joy in heaven. Down here we will be thinking of you.

  11. Rob Hochschild

    Henry Gaffney made his mission at Berklee very clear. He was here to help songwriters find their voices and to coax them toward becoming artists. In the Lyric Writing I class I took as a staff member, he kept pushing us, urging us, making sure we knew that the only way we were going to get anywhere as songwriters was by going after it every day. He made us feel like his equals, his colleagues in the art of writing songs, though most of us were beginners. His mixture of humility and deep knowledge of the craft inspired me to take the class seriously and make sure I brought in worthwhile ideas.

    Henry also had a great sense of humor. Remembering the way he told stories—he would get a mischievous look in his eyes and his Brooklyn accent would somehow get even twangier—will always put a smile on my face.

    Though I took Henry Gaffney’s class more than ten years ago, I still have my notebook, with its pages of false-start lyrics and quickly scribbled Gaffneyisms. When I need to kick my songwriting rear, all I have to do is flip through those pages and remember how much he motivated me. I read through my fevered lines and—though most of those lyrics are pretty rough—I look at them and think, “Man, was I productive.” Henry made me work HARD. And he never stopped. Many years later, every time he would see me, he would make sure he said something like, “And, hey, I want to hear what you’re working on. Stop by my office and bring your guitar.” It saddens me to know I’ll never again hear that voice, gently pushing me to keep trying and moving forward. Thanks for everything, Henry.

  12. Christiane K

    Thank you Henry for being the gentle and brilliant and funny teacher, then the dear friend and esteemed colleague you were to me for many years. Thank you for always being there for me, in music and in life, and thank you for making me laugh so many times. I smile as I write these words because even though you are dearly missed, I know the joy you brought will always be in the hearts of the many people you touched.


    “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . You–only you–will have stars that can laugh!”

    And he laughed again.

    “And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you . . .”

    And he laughed again.

    “It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh . . .”

    And he laughed again. — The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery


  13. I wish i had gotten to know Henery a great deal better than i should have. But a couple of things i did take from him and still remember to this day.

    he taught me that you can bring anything to life through music, whether it’s just trees, a house, dog, or even some person talking mean to his or her kid. you can look these situations sqaure in the face, and give it life. I have to admit this might be why so much of the time i play songs off my ipod to express what i feel, so that the songs can personify what is going on in my mind.

    he was also one of the brave teachers to almost always be honest. he would say in one class. So does anyone have a song they’d like to play? did anyone write a song this week? do you even give a shit? honestly when he said shit i couldn’t help have an uncontrollable laugh everytime he said that. I also had him for directed study. and sadly i can’t remember a single memory that i had directed study with him. I guess to me i just thought that 20 minutes wasn’t a big deal.

    Henry, thank you for brining out this critical rule of personification, it opened my eyes widely to how much everything is truly animate even the stuff that is inanimate

  14. Wonderful teacher. I’ll never forget one thing he said: “All music is folk music. You just have to know which folks you’re talking to.”

  15. Ed Conway AKA Twitty

    I grew up with Henry and played in a band with him. I have pictures
    of the band and our group. He was a great musician and friend.
    He was fifteen when we started the band and was by far the most talented of anyone I knew at that time. His parents moved to Butler
    Place when he was pretty young, I was one of the first to meet him
    playing stickball. His son Julian is a master guitar builder living in California presently. The talent runs deep!

    If you would like to see the pictures I will e-mail them to you. I could write for hours about our growing up together. I remember a line from the movie Stand by me. Although I had not seen him in years I know I
    Will miss him. He stopped by my home town about ten years ago and
    I use to call him every year on his Birthday March 8th.


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