The book of Psalms begins with metaphor. The righteous, those who are close to God and follow his way, are like trees, Psalm 1 says. This message is foundational for understanding the rest of the psalter. It is the referent for psalms of praise and protest, of comfort and fear, of adulation and anger.
Michael Morgan’s hymn “Trees” traces several of Psalm 1’s “mile markers” through the book of Psalms. After walking us through the woods of the psalter so we may witness its splendor, the final stanza of the hymn constitutes a vow to continue in God’s way.
The tune DIX is familiar but is not so tightly bound to any single text as to be a distraction. It can carry the hymn in just about any style. One effective way to sing the song is with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. The realization of the guitar chords provides a great opportunity for strumming guitarists to try their hand at picking the chords. (The same effect can be accomplished by playing these broken chords using a nylon guitar setting on a synthesizer.) The melody can be traded off between cello and violin. When not playing melody, the cello can play the bass line. For the beginning cellist this can be accomplished by simply playing the roots of the three chords on open strings. The hymn can also be interpreted in grand fashion with orchestra or organ and descant for choir or trumpet.
Consider making the witness of the woods both an aural and a visual experience. Four different groupings of singers can sing the first four stanzas with all joining together on the final stanza. The first four stanzas can be accompanied by projected images of individual trees, with the projection of forest images reserved for the final stanza. It is also possible to interpolate the reading of key verses from the corresponding psalms between the hymn stanzas. Before the summation stanza 5, the reading could reprise a verse from Psalm 1 or move to the end of the psalter with lines from Psalm 150.
“Khwaam suk yeun yong/Happy Are They”
While the tree metaphor seems to transcend the span of time and culture, its interpretation can vary widely. “Khwaam suk yeun yong/Happy Are They” comes from Thailand, with English translation by Erik Routley. I have heard it sung in various North American contexts. When I ask people to reflect on the setting they invariably comment on how it seems to slow down the text and encourage contemplation. The music resists the assertive push typical of European hymn tunes. The Thai melody matches well the Eastern sense of the wisdom psalm. Christian ethnomusicologist I-to Loh offers these suggestions: “This Thai melody should be sung unhurriedly and with a light voice. It may be accompanied by some voices or soft instruments droning on G and D throughout. A light wind or string instrument may double the melody. Soft hand drum and finger cymbals or triangle may also be added. The Thai pattern for accompanying with finger cymbals is to begin with a closed strike (short ‘chap’ sound) followed by an open strike (ringing ‘ching’ sound)” (performance notes from Psalms for all Seasons, p. 1077). Congregations unfamiliar with this style of singing would do well to have a rehearsed ensemble lead in the singing. We sing in new styles not because they are readily accessible, but because they uncover meaning. Therein is the delight.
“Feliz la gente/How Blest the People”
Another setting of Psalm 1, “Feliz la gente/How Blest the People,” was composed by Juan A. Espinosa with English translation by Mary Louise Bringle. Oftentimes songs such as this are labeled as “Latino” or “Hispanic,” as if that were a singular genre of music. “Feliz la gente” demonstrates that there is no such simple categorization.
Espinosa is a Spaniard serving as a liturgical musician at the San Estanislao de Kostka parish in Madrid. He lived for a time in Peru, and his compositions fuse Spanish and Andean styles. “Feliz la gente” is not so much a psalm paraphrase as it is a psalm-inspired hymn.
Espinosa’s texts reflect the social realities he experienced in Latin America, emphasizing hope for the oppressed, social justice, and the power of faith. His hymns, however, are most commonly sung in North America.
Espinosa’s riff on Psalm 1 echoes the words from Christ’s sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the persecuted. . . .” Indeed, the refrain rings a tone of persistent defiance. Even when the evidence seems to be to the contrary, as God’s people we are blessed.
For the uninitiated congregation, the rhythm and melody of this song may be difficult. Have a soloist or ensemble sing the first stanzas. Even when used in English-speaking congregations, the refrain is best sung in Spanish. Guitar accompaniment is ideal, perhaps coupled with a string or electric bass. There is a playful, rhythmic interplay between the steady eighth-note pattern in the bass of the accompaniment and the driving 3+3+2 rhythm of the melody. These counter-rhythms can be heightened by percussion instruments such as shakers and woodblock.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” with “How Happy Are the Saints of God”
Psalm 1 also inspired singers during the African American civil rights movement. The song “We Shall Not Be Moved” references the psalmist’s tree. Protesters held to the promise of the psalm: righteousness and justice will one day prevail; the wicked with their evil schemes will be defeated.
Earlier this year I was asked to prepare the song as a processional in a service commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Using David Gambrell’s stanzas as lead-ins to the refrain makes the psalm connection more explicit. Gambrell’s paraphrase has been published in the Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God (2013) with the tune WAREHAM. These stanzas sing well to that tune or to any number of sturdy Long Meter tunes. But coupling the stanzas with the refrain lends a sense of urgency, perhaps frustration, but also joy. What are the righteous like? They are like this. . . . And then the they becomes we as the congregation responds with a vow to be rooted in God’s Word and to act as bearers of the fruits of godliness.
Soloists or different groupings of singers can render the stanzas in call-and-response style, with the entire congregation singing the refrain. The three-part texture fits well with the sort of improvised singing that might emerge in a protest march. If a lower bass line is desired, some of the men can make up a part based on the roots of the chords. Ideally this song would be sung without accompaniment, save some percussion and hand-clapping.
“It’s Good to Give Thanks”
Some years ago I had the privilege of being part of a colloquium of musicians and wordsmiths experimenting with the collaborative composition of congregational psalms. One of the collaborative assignments was to create the framework for a child-friendly rendition of Psalm 92 that brought out its tree imagery.
After 30 minutes of brainstorming, each group shared their ideas. It was no surprise to me that the group that included singer and songwriter Ken Medema produced more than an idea. They sang for us the prototype of what eventually became “It’s Good to Give Thanks.” Many people of my generation will remember Medema’s earlier “Tree Song,” which is enjoying a resurgence in my children’s generation. (“Tree Song” is available on Medema’s CD Kids’ Play, sold via KenMedema.com, iTunes, and Amazon Music; the song is free through Amazon Prime.)
Like the earlier song, the Psalm 92 tree song is eminently singable, perfect for children and adults alike. The optional accompaniment works well, but beware of it becoming simply rollicking. I have heard this song accompanied by a jazz pianist who slowed down the rhythm a bit, allowing for a more subtle interpretation.
Last summer I was collaborating with a preacher who was preparing a sermon based on John 15. She asked if I might suggest a complimentary psalm. Together we looked at Psalms 1 and 92, and she proposed an interweaving of the texts with “It’s Good to Give Thanks.” The resulting collage brings into relief the themes of promise and judgment in all the texts. The accompanist vamps under the spoken texts. By alternating between soloist and congregation, the sung material is easily picked up without any need for instruction. (Note: depending upon which Bible translation is used, some pronouns may need to be made explicit so that the referent is clear. For example, the “they” of Psalm 92:14 refers to “the righteous,” not “the wicked” of the last verse read from Psalm 1.)
Soloist: Sing refrain.
All: Sing refrain.
Reader 1: Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. (Ps. 1:1-2)
Reader 2: It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High. (Ps. 92:1)
Soloist: Sing stanza 2.
Reader 2: The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. (Ps. 92:12-13)
Reader 1: That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. (Ps. 1:3)
Reader 3: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)
All: Sing refrain.
Reader 1: Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. (Ps. 1:4)
Reader 2: Though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever. (Ps. 92:7)
Reader 1: Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. (Ps. 1:5)
Reader 3: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:4-7)
Soloist: Sing stanza 1.
Reader 1: For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Ps. 1:6)
Reader 2: They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Ps. 92:14-15)
Reader 3: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:8-10)
All: Sing stanza 2.
Reader 3: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
All: Sing refrain.