I feel bad for the psalms, that collection in the Bible called psalmoi, "songs." Their music, the tunes supposed to accompany them, has been lost to us. Melodies such as "The Lilies," "Doe of the Morning" and "Do Not Destroy," denoted in the introduction of individual psalms, are mysteries to us. We have no idea how they go -- what key, what tempo, how loud or soft. Are they "happy" or "sad," lilting or ponderous? We don't even know how to translate some of the terms that likely refer to original tunes. Mahalath, for example, or gittith.
I got thinking about this because yesterday I had the rare opportunity to feast like some drunken bacchanal on live music performed by five amazing singer-songwriters. This was not a music festival but simply a day that coincidentally offered a house concert on a country afternoon and then a show in the evening at the renovated Jefferson Theater downtown. En route to each, on winding roads decorated by horses and green spring yielding to summer, the iPod on shuffle filled the car until finally I had to call "sensory overload." We let final notes float out the window somewhere between Palmyra and Charlottesville.
Music is ultimately indefinable, but isn't that the way? After all, words endure but a tune exists only while it can persuade invisible waves of sound to dance around our heads just so. My favorite music is tunes with words -- songs. This is poetry taken to a whole new level. Then again, that's not quite right because, unlike pure poetry, the lyrics of songs are an empty carapace without the tune that animates them.
They may be interesting, they may be stirring, but lyrics mean best when strung onto notes by a living, breathing singer, who hangs them like ornaments on simple respiration in a dazzlingly complex biological process. Add instruments, and wow, no limits. A song is radically impermanent. Yet it can be recreated over and over again when a set of lyrics meets its key: a tune to pump its heart, plied by those uncommon magicians, the alchemists of sound.
I suspect that each of the musicians who shifted the air of my yesterday would cringe to be called by such lofty names. But they know what they do. Danny Schmidt, with his quiet ways, has composed some of the most courageously thoughtful songs and performs them with grace. Carrie Elkin will blow you away. That girl's got chops as big as her heart and she puts all of both into each song she sings... then with the applause, shrugs and grins like she just dropped a cake. The Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) transport with heartbreaking understatement. Extraordinary musical facility, both vocal and on vintage guitars, meets humor, smarts and style on an otherwise ordinary stage. Finally (just because she was the last act we heard), Dar Williams. "The Mercy of the Fallen," need I say more? OK, then "The Christians and the Pagans."
So, I feel bad for the biblical psalms. In Hebrew, their home language, the collection is called tehillim -- "songs of praise." This ups the mystery ante. After all, the book is dominated by complaint. Evocative expressions of pain and suffering -- all kinds and on all levels are far more common than happier sentiments. Yet somehow, all together, they are "Praise Songs." And how poignant that the book's Greek title, Psalms, comes from a word that may refer as much to a stringed instrument as the "songs" it accompanied.
Now, you may call me sacrilegious, but as much as I wish we knew the full music of those biblical texts, I do not believe that they alone possess sanctifying power. I do not believe that the sacred is bound by text or that the divine is circumscribed by religion. Holiness happens in the oddest places and may be carried along by something as profound, as singular and transitory, as a song.
Follow Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kristinswenson