I have been listening to Jesse Colter’s new album, which is her covering the Psalms. I have qualms, which I’m going to state up-front, that there is a time or two on the album when I felt like she was musically trying to suggest that this is a project God’s Big Three religions could come together and listen to and I’ve grown more and more ill at ease with the Christian belief that, if Jews would just relax and let Christians have their way on things, they could be great allies. And I think it’s inevitable that this will eventually be the attitude Christians also take toward Muslims, so, I assume I will grow more ill at ease with that as well. So, that’s my huge caveat–that the ways in which the album nods towards a universal experience, I wasn’t so sure about.
Also, I don’t think her rendition of Psalm 23 is what it could be considering how brilliant other songs on the album are and how powerfully meaningful that psalm is to, oh, just about every Christian. So, I’ve included up top a less faithful rendition lyrically, but one that I think gets at more of the tension and uncertainty and hope and desperation of the psalm. (And for the record, my favorite Psalm is 62, which, in the version I learned as a kid goes, “The Lord is my rock and my salvation. I shall not be greatly moved.” I know most newer translations change that to shaken, but that doesn’t do it for me. To me, that changes the meaning completely. “I will not be shaken” says “I will remain firm and resolute.” But “I shall not be greatly moved” says “I won’t be firm and resolute, but I’m going to try to remain faithful anyway.” I like the uncertainty and the struggle of it. The promise not that you’ll do the right thing, but that you’re trying to do the right thing and often failing.)
All that aside, I want to talk about Colter’s album and I don’t know how to talk about Colter’s album. Some things are just stray observations. I love hearing such a country voice, left to be its country self without the music having to be country. I couldn’t decide what genre this would be in. It’s hard for me to imagine it being sold in Christian outlets, just because it seems raw in a way I don’t think Christian musicians are allowed to be.
I also recognize this in my bones in ways that make me uncomfortable–not in a bad way, maybe unsettled is the right word. From the moment I learned the Psalms were songs, I used to sing them to myself. And I felt a kind of religious…not ecstasy, but maybe a kind of trance? Like that the rest of the world would go muted and that it would be just myself and the song and the words. I hadn’t thought about that in years. I mean, I did this as a very young child. I’m sure I stopped either in high school or right before.
And hearing her do the same thing…I don’t know. I just don’t know. It feels like listening to someone’s most sincere prayer, like overhearing something that’s not meant for you. And yet, she put the album out, so it must be okay to listen. But it feels like eavesdropping on a woman singing a private song to her closest companion.
Which I think is part of what’s so brilliant about it. In a way, it feels like lullabies for God. The way you make up melodies for children because the point is not to PERFORM but to reach each other and comfort each other. There’s a kind of intimacy when the song is just meant for one other person, and a level of un-mindful-ness you allow yourself when you sing to a baby or, I suppose, your God.
And yet, obviously, she didn’t write these songs. Most Christians believe, and I assume she does, too, that David wrote them. Which also adds a layer of one artist trying to show what she loves about another artist’s work. Like doing a whole album of Bob Dylan covers, because you think he’s a great lyricist, yet, in this case, your song-writer was working thousands of years ago.
That makes me wonder, too, who her imagined audience is. Is it God she’s in communion with? Or David? Or both? There’s a way in which, for me, the connection between what she’s doing and her faith is so bold and profound that I haven’t gotten past it yet. I’m still only hearing what she’s doing for and with God. But I want to hear what she’s saying about David, too. I’m just not there yet.