I Will Sing a New Song…
During a late night essay writing session I was burning away the midnight oil with Radio 2 as a faithful companion. I was humming along to Turn! Turn! Turn by The Byrds when suddenly I was struck by the fact that the lyrics are adapted entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The popular 1965 version sang by The Byrds was actually a cover. The original version was put to music by Peter Seeger in 1962. He donated 45% of the royalties to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions but the song did not become a hit until it was covered by pre-psychedelic Byrds.
I felt pretty stupid having not acknowledged this before but it got me thinking about other pieces of popular music that consist of large parts of scripture being put to music. What struck me was the number of psalms that had been set to music. The most obvious was “Rivers of Babylon”, based on Psalm 137. Of course this psalm is much prized by Rastafarians and was originally recorded by The Melodians in 1970. Whilst this version was popular amongst reggae enthusiasts, the song would not enter the hit parade until Boney M covered it eight years later. It would also be their only substantial entry into the US charts.
The final track on U2’s 1983 album War was a modification of psalm 40. “40 (How Long)”, was only released in Germany as a single but has proved to be one of the Dublin band’s popular live set-pieces.
Of course scripture has been and still is set to contemporary music. What is unusual is that certain types of scripture seem to be able to crossover. One of the reasons the Wisdom Literature is so attractive to musicians is that it expresses human nature and psychology so honestly. The questions and emotions presented in the psalms are still posed by people today. The problem is that people do not look at the answers contained in these works. Despite the anguish and despair they always point to hope and security in the Lord.