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Monday, June 11, 2018

SongStories 56: Psalm 1—Roots in the Earth (Vision, 1992, GIA)

For desert folks, a permanent, flowing stream is a great symbol of divine love and protection, and if there’s a tree growing beside it, or an entire oasis, even more so. The image appears in a couple of psalms and in the book of Jeremiah. Today’s responsorial psalm, Psalm 1, is from the wisdom psalms, songs that describe the way that life should be lived by the people of God in an idealized way. When the psalm, describing the “just man (sic)” gets to verse 3, the psalmist declares:

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers.
I wrote my musical version of Psalm 1 in my occasional sojourns to northern Arizona, sometimes with Gary, sometimes alone, in 1990-91. The music we wrote together in those trips were recorded on our third trio album, Vision, and some were on Gary’s 1993 recording, Praise the Maker’s Love. I honestly can’t remember why I decided to set Psalm 1, though I associate it with using on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year C (1992), and that my friends at the Franciscan Renewal Center (where Gary worked) wanted to do sacred dance with it. This is probably why it's dedicated to Ginny McKinley, who was part of that ministry. Using the psalm this week, I substituted it for another psalm, because I think it fits the imagery in the first reading and gospel, which is all very agricultural. The cut-time feel and modal music lends themselves to dance, and the short musical interludes also give opportunities for expression. The song ends with a round on the refrain, so that there is a sense of a vocal dance in the whole assembly, with people and choir singing the chorus, “Roots in the earth…” in three or four parts at the interval of one measure. The air itself can seem to dance when the mood is right!

In adapting the song, I wanted to stretch the language toward more a inclusive reading, so the refrain uses the plural pronoun “they” to reflect all of God’s children, and the verses alternate between “he” and “she” for the same reason. The words of the refrain take up the “wisdom” theme echoing that third verse of the psalm, summarizing the psalm in four lines.

Roots in the Earth (Psalm 1)  by Rory Cooney

REFRAIN: Roots in the earth,
Branches stretched to the skies,
Those who hope in God
Are happy and wise.

Happy is he who rejects bad advice,
Who knows that integrity and justice have no price.
Happy is she who in good finds delight,
The law her companion through the day and through the night.

Just like a tree near a stream given root,
Season to season richly yielding its fruit.
See how they soar, how their leaves never fade!
Broad are their branches, and abundant is their shade.

Not so for those who rejoice in their sin:
Like chaff on the floor they shall be driven by the wind.
God guards the road for the just night and day,
But death lays an ambush for the wicked on their way.

Copyright © 1992, GIA Publications. All rights reserved.

Psalm 1 (New American Bible, Revised Edition [NABRE]) vv 1a, 2-4, 6.

Blessed is the man who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked…
Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy;
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers.

But not so are the wicked, not so!
They are like chaff driven by the wind….
Because the LORD knows the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.

Here you can get an idea of how I might approach the adaptation of a scriptural text. In the days of Comme le prevoit (1969), the philosophy of translation that Pope Paul VI promulgated after the Second Vatican Council and that was in effect until 2001, the rule was called “dynamic equivalence,” based loosely on the work of linguists like Noam Chomsky and stating that translations should “take into account not only the message to be conveyed, but also the speaker, the audience, and the style. (6)” For Comme le prevoit, the essential act is communication. But late in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, it was superseded by the philosophy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and others. The 2001 instruction Liturgiam Authenticam took the position that it is the words themselves, not their meaning, that “express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.” Thus, the Latin (Vulgate) bible and other sacred texts needed to be translated not only by precise translations of the words, but the word order, syntax, also had to be “translated” into modern languages. In other words, the words themselves, not their meaning, is what needed to be translated. Homilists and catechists were charged with explaining the liturgy, so that people weren’t confused, for instance, by new translations that the covenant in Jesus’s blood, expressed in the consecration of the mass, was for all, and not for the many, though the priest has to say “for the many” because that’s what the exact words say.

To a songwriter and I think to many, many liturgists and scholars, both things are necessary. But psalms are songs, for one thing, and ought to convey not just words but emotions, and carry the weight of the human experience of God over the millennia. Precision is important, as is study, but when the bible is used in liturgical assembly, along with liturgical prayers, we think that intelligibility matters, and that we shouldn’t say “many” when we mean “all,” because one is exclusive and another inclusive.

So in rendering Psalm 1 in this way, even though the NABRE translation says “Blessed is the man,” we know that even though the Latin uses the word vir it doesn’t mean simply “man” in the gender sense. Its deeper meaning is that everyone who stays away from evil people is blessed.

Production notes: The percussionist on this track was Dom Moio, if I recall correctly. He employed multiple percussion toys in his arsenal, and I'm not sure what the overdub drum was, maybe a talking drum or djembe, but Gary wanted a really low "boom" on the downbeat of the chorus, and the sound of that drum was so elastic and deep that when we were mixing I kept saying that it sounded like the choir was singing "boots in the earth." Not helpful. Also, about doing the canon (round) at the end of the song with the choir: this was very near the time when I swore off being anywhere near the studio for making records. I think of a round as about the simplest kind of counterpoint one can write or sing, but the studio makes even that into an endurance test, as all kinds of extra dynamics are required for the round not to sound like everyonetalkingatthesametime at a cocktail party in a very resonant cave. I don't have the patience for that kind of thing: thank God Gary does, and Terry does. Me, I'm good for going out to Starbucks or a liquor store, depending on the time of day.

Creating singable psalm texts was a huge part of my ministry when I started out as long ago as the early 1970s. Before I had been published or recorded, my friend Bill Foster recorded at least of my psalms in the late '70s to early 80s: Psalm 40 (Here I Am, Lord), Psalm 139 (Wings of Dawn), Psalm 137 (If I Forget You), all of which appeared in (wait for it....!) Folk Mass and Modern Liturgy magazine, published in San Jose, CA, back in the William Burns days, before the name change and before John Gallen was part of the operation.  Our current album, To You Who Bow, includes several psalm settings like Psalm 104 ("Send Out, Send Out Your Spirit"), and in 1992’s Vision album, there were settings of Psalm 51 (“Create Me Again”) and Psalm 85 (“Your Mercy Like Rain”), along with “Roots in the Earth.” All of these songs tried to do the same thing: offer a modern take on the ancient texts we call psalms, and give us another reason to sing them again, and give us a window of emotion and rhetoric to connect us with the human experience of God, and what that has meant for our interactions with each other, for three thousand years.

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