One morning in 1995, while working with Waylon Jennings on his autobiography in Nashville, I came into the living room to find Jessi Colter at the piano, singing the Psalms.
She would place her fingers on the keys, forming simple chords and expressing melodies as they came to her. There was no forethought, no conception of composition; only the intuitive expression of the spirituality behind these most ancient of sacred poems, the divinity they wellspring within each of us.
I listened transfixed while she paged through the Old Testament, choosing each Psalm, finding within them the emotive voice of the Shepherd Boy, the Warrior, ultimately the King that is David. It was one of the most beautiful expressions of belief I had ever witnessed. After Waylon’s passing, in the early years of the new century, I told Jessi that there was an album I would love to hear, reminding her of the day when she had illuminated the Psalms for me.
In the early months of 2007 I secured a studio with a good piano. There was no rehearsal. We would select a Psalm. She sat behind the keyboard, gathered herself, and then began to sing. There were one, perhaps two takes of each. Sometimes I accompanied her on guitar. Over the years I decorated them with chosen musicians, careful not to disturb their intimacy or their moment of improvised creation and inspiration.
They have been with us for three millennia, these hymns of hallelujah, lamentation, thanksgiving, penitence, forgiveness, supplication, gratitude, transcendence. In Biblical Hebrew they are referred to as Tehillim, translated as “songs of praise.” That they have a long tradition of being sung is reflected in the word psalm itself, descended from the Greek word psalterion, and the stringed instrument that is a psaltery, or psalmos, the latter inflection implying an instrument made expressly for accompanying the voice. This instrument is generally grouped within the lyre family, and can be traced back to the orchestra of the Temple of Jerusalem, where the Psalms were sung by the Levites as part of the worship service, often enhanced by cymbals and a small drum known as a tof; pipes and flutes like the uggav and halil; and the paamonim, which were small bells attached to the High Priest’s robe.
It is impossible to know the provenance of the Psalms, gathered as they were over centuries into the formal ordering in which we read them today. Most are ascribed to David, youngest son of Jesse the Bethlem-ite, whose path to the Kingship (circa 1012 – 972 B.C.E.) is preceded by his skill as a musician. In Samuel I 16:16, Saul, beset by his demons, attempts to “seek out a man, who is a cunning player on a harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.” As David strokes the strings, “so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”
For this gifted healing, he is made Saul’s “armour-bearer,” a mixed beneficence when he must bear arms against Goliath, his only weapon a sling and stone. David’s triumph, his ascent to royalty and his military conquests, his outsize lusts and loves (seen to saturated Technicolor effect in the 1951 David and Bathsheba, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn – “His needs are the kingdom’s,” she demurely says) is the journey of the Psalms, the return of the Ark to Jerusalem amid premonitions of exile. His moral quandaries are human weakness seeking the comfort of song.
Even if authorship is as much ascribed as inscribed, seventy-three of the Psalms bear his imprimatur, his embodiment of their apocalyptic imagery and yearning for faith, the hope that Divine Presence will walk beside you, offering comfort and consolation and the commitment of belief. Robert Alter, in a sensitive and deeply felt translation of The Book of Psalms, alludes to the many ways in which the Psalms speak to us over the centuries, “the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible,” their roots in polytheistic mythology as well as a bridge between Jewish and Christian tradition. That they continue to have resonance, that they ultimately return to the figure of David, the “Sweet psalmist of Israel,” (Samuel II, 23:1) are for us to cherish, and turn our voices to the Psalms as well.
With music, we traverse the gap between language and the miracle that is existence. No less an eminence than the redoubtable Cotton Mather suggests that “Outward melody in Religious singing is no small help to inward Devotion…” It composes and “unites the Thoughts, to engage and fix the Attention.” It helps you learn the words, in other words. Singing the Psalms has waxed and waned with the tides of religious fashion, depending on the strictures of Scripture as interpreted by each sect. Primarily vocal, all traces of instrumentation were lost in the transliteration of Hebrew chant to Gregorian Christian, while engendering an ongoing debate of whether musical elaboration put greater emphasis on performance rather than the word itself.
This schism was still being skirmished by the time the Psalms were rendered into English in the early 1500s. John Day’s Book of Psalms emphasized meter and borrowed musical settings from English balladry of the day. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought the Psalms across the ocean and produced the first book in the English-speaking New World, The Whole Booke of Psalmesin 1640, directing potential singers to Thomas Ravenscroft’s 1621 psalter. There was an interest in psalmody as “a work of art in itself,” as Richard C. Leonard has traced, citing Colonial American composers such as William Billings, Daniel Read, Timothy Swan, and Amos Bull, who “began to create settings of psalm or other religious texts that were suitable for choral performance rather than congregation participation. Rapid tempos, word repetition, imitative voice (“fuging”) and other devices made the music too complicated for the use of the typical worshiper.” Frontier life removed most melodic ornamentation from the Psalms; hymns and gospel spirituals superseded them in popular imagination. Yet these touchstones of comfort, revelation, and self-awareness in the face of the unknown, seem never to lose their light, are more universal in lasting truths than ever before. Now foretold.
How ’bout this one? We open the Bible, and pick a Psalm. It is random and not-so, trying to sidestep ones that spake of retribution and revenge, drawn to those that promise peace, healing, Yahweh’s mercy and companionship.
The Psalms are usually grouped within their inclinations, though these definitives are hardly exclusive. There are Praisings (150, 114, 136), Enthronement (99), Judgment (75), Glorification (21), Serenity (23), the Chosen (24) as well as those Psalms that chose us, as did Psalm 136, with its repeating refrain of his loving kindness endures forever. There is a Royal Wedding in Psalm 45; even the Bible calls it “a song of love.” Outside the canon, discovered in its earliest forms within the caves of Qumran as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is Psalm 151, David’s gentle tale of his becoming. Psalm 72 ends the prayers of David, the son of Jesse, though really they have just begun. In hindsight, these Psalms found us as we found them, allowing them to sing through us, their own instrument, as we encouraged the musicians on this album to discover their own way within the original tracks. We cannot thank enough those who took the leap to faith with us, understanding the homage of Psalm 87:7. “As well the singers as the players of instruments shall be there: all my thoughts are of thee.”
And so, The Psalms, sung and honored by Jessi Colter. All praises be