"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Music Tuesday: Chuck Berry, In Memoriam

These In Memoriam posts are usually too late.  If you’ve heard of rock ‘n roll, by now you’ve heard that Chuck Berry has died at the age of 90.  If you think rock ‘n roll is special, then Chuck Berry is the most consequential pop musician of the last 65 years.  Chuck passed away on Saturday, March 18th at a ripe old age.  From Billboard:

Chuck Berry, the singer, songwriter and guitar great who practically defined rock music with his impeccably twangy hits “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis,” “My Ding-a-Ling” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” has died. He was 90.

The singer/songwriter, whose classic “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by Carl Sagan to be included on the golden record of Earth Sounds and Music launched with Voyager in 1977, died Saturday afternoon, St. Charles County Police Department confirmed. The cause of death was not revealed.

During his 60-plus years in show business, Berry in 1986 became one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He entered The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in ’85 and that year also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

He performed in 1979 for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, landed at No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and trademarked his stage showmanship with his famous “duck walk.” 

John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” He paved the way for such music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Sex Pistols and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.

Every single Rock band can trace their roots to Berry.  He was idolized by the Beatles and the Stones and I can’t think of a Rock musician who didn’t revere him.  Let’s start his retrospective with a song that shows all the elements of Berry’s music, “Maybelline.”  

First listen to that introductory guitar lick.  It’s neither pretentious nor gaudy, simple and yet distinct.  From there the guitar moves right into the melody over a thumping blend of rhythm and blues beat and country western intonation.  The guitar riff is his signature contribution.  Add his poetic use of diction and deft articulation—here the verse at twice the tempo of the chorus—and you have Chuck Berry.  Here you have Rock and Roll at its purist form.  One can see how he took America by storm.  He crossed all sorts of racial and musical boundaries.  And he was prototypical American and proud of it.  I still get patriotic fervor when I hear “Back in the USA.” .

The lyrics of this one are just too good to not post:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U.S.A.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol' St. Lou

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.

Looking hard for a drive in, searching for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.

Chuck Berry - Back In The Usa Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now that was big for a black man in pre-civil rights America to say he was glad about living in our country.  Skyscrapers, Delaware Bay, California coast, hamburgers, and juke box.  He captures the America of his day.

Another thing that made Berry so popular was that he sang to the hearts of the young just when the youth culture was rising in strength.  Whether this was coincidence or his insight I don’t know.  So much of his music has a dance element to it, a youthful dance step.  One of my all-time favorites is “Carol.”  

“I got my eyes on you baby, 'cause you dance so good/Oh Carol, don't let him steal your heart away/I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”  I remember wishing as a teen I had a girlfriend named Carol just because of that song.

And then there is this little gem.  I picked a clip with the lyrics because I wanted to showcase Berry’s skillful storytelling.  “Memphis, Tennessee” is not exactly what it seems if you’re just casually listening.  It’s about a broken home and trying to connect with a daughter. 

Both R&B and County Western music have a history of song subjects on broken relationships.  If “Memphis, Tennessee” is about a broken family, “30 Days” is about attempting to reconstitute the family. 

Here’s a song that’s probably not as well know, but it’s one of my Berry favorites, “Down the Road Apiece.”

The lyrics are so good here, you just have to read along.

Now if you wanna hear some boogie like I'm gonna play
It's just an old piano and a knockout bass
The drummer man's a cat they call Kickin' McCoy
You know, remember that rubber-legged boy?
Mama's cookin' chicken fried and bacon grease
Come on along boys it's just down the road apiece

Well, there's a place you really get your kicks
It's open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

There's a place you really get your kicks
It's open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

Chuck Berry - Down The Road A Piece Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now if you listen to the instrumentation, you can hear that beautiful, lyrical piano accompanying Berry’s equally lyrical guitar riffs.  That piano player is Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s long time pianist.  I would venture to say that the Chuck Berry sound and style would not have been what it was without Johnson.  While Berry took songwriting credits, Johnson ultimately disputed that it was solely Berry.  My guess is Johnson contributed immensely. 

How about live clip of “Nadineto show off Berry’s showmanship and classic duck step with the guitar.  Keith Richards, who adored Berry, is playing rhythm in back and that’s Bobby Keys on sax. 

Chuck played with that energy and work ethic up to 90 years of age. 

Finally, you can’t have a Chuck Berry retrospective without his classic, “Johnnie B.Goode.”  

Louisiana woods, New Orleans, country boy, log cabin, electric guitar, name in lights, this is such an American song.  The lyrics are just classic.

Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell

Go go
Go Johnny go

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play

Go go
Go Johnny go

His mother told him "Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight."

Go go
Go Johnny go

Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now here’s the wonderful news to go along with the sad news of Berry’s passing.  Chuck had just finished recording a new album, the first with original material in decades.  

ST. LOUIS, MO – OCTOBER 18, 2016 — Chuck Berry, the artist who codified the
sound, rhythm and language of rock and roll, celebrated his 90 th birthday today
with the surprise announcement that he will release a new album – titled simply
‘CHUCK’ – in 2017 on Dualtone Records (an Entertainment One Company).

Comprised primarily of new, original songs written, recorded and produced by the
founding rock and roll legend, ‘CHUCK’ is Berry’s first new album in thirty-eight
years. It was recorded in various studios around St. Louis and features Berry’s
longtime hometown backing group – including his children Charles Berry Jr.
(guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica), plus Jimmy Marsala (Berry’s bassist of
forty years), Robert Lohr (piano), and Keith Robinson (drums) – which has
supported him for over two decades on over two hundred residency shows at the
famed Blueberry Hill club. More details about ‘CHUCK’ and other Berry-related
events will be revealed in the coming weeks.

“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry, referring to his wife
of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this
record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

Isn’t that wonderful!  I can’t wait until it’s released. 

Eternal light shine on Mr. Berry.  You gave us so much pleasure.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Imam’s Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom by Hannah Shah, Part 1

I bought this book on a whim.  I think it was one of those Amazon deals where the price is reduced to 99 cents or maybe it was $1.99.  Something in the book description lured me, since this is not the type of book I would normally read.  It’s a confessional memoir called The Imam's Daughter by a Muslim lady (or I should say, former Muslim) whose family were immigrants from Pakistan to England. It’s mostly about her childhood and her coming of age.  Her story describes the abuse she lived under by her abusive father, who was an Imam at their local mosque, and how she broke free to find Christianity. Even at the now price of $5.99 it's still worth it. I read it in five days, which is super-fast for me, and I read it while trying to keep up with my current reading schedule. I couldn't put it down.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

From my childhood—the images sketchy and opaque, a splash of color here and there among darkness—I remember one thing clearly: my street. East Street, in Bermford, the north of England. Two rows of identical, brick-built Victorian houses and a shady park at the north end like leafy branches atop a blood-red trunk. I saw the gnarled trees as fanged monsters among whose knotted, bestial shadows our childhood games darted.

I flitted—daydreaming, pigtailed, hand-me-down mary janes rubbing the long spine of the cracked sidewalk—from house to house. Doors were always left open, and there was no fear of being robbed. I could wander down to my friend Amina’s place whenever I felt like it. I was welcome to stay for as long as I wanted. If I was out for more than three or four hours, someone would come looking for me—my mother or one of my brothers. But it was still a kind of freedom for a little child.

I’d be offered a drink of Pakistani tea—water boiled with tea leaves, hot milk, heaps of sugar, and sometimes cardamom—and something to eat. It was chocolate digestives or Rich Tea biscuits one day and curry or chapattis the next. Hours later I found my way home, skipping past window after window blooming yellow into the dark soil of night.
It was the 1980s. We were Pakistani. We were British. We were East Street.

That sort of idyllic opening belies the life that went on inside the home.  We shortly get an inkling of what’s at the heart of the problem.  From later in that opening chapter:

Across the street lived an Armenian family, a mother and her one son—one of the few families on our street who weren’t of Pakistani Muslim origin. The Armenian mother tried to communicate with Mum, but her English was very limited. Mum told us to call her “Auntie” as a traditional sign of respect, but Dad didn’t agree. He refused to show respect to anyone except other Pakistani Muslims—not even the Indian Muslims who lived around the corner on Jenna Street.

The problem is the father of the family and his interpretation of Islam.  It’s hard to separate what can be attributed to Islam and what are cultural norms, and far be it for me to be an expert on Islam or Pakistani culture, but Islam is a not just a theology.  Through the Quran and the Hadiths and Sharia law, it does prescribe culture.  How much of what goes on is not clear whether it’s Islam or Pakistani culture or isolated to this family.  What is clear I think is that masculinity does take a preeminent ranking in the social stratum, and the father of a family has a level of authority well beyond what we are used to in western culture.  It appears to be dictatorial, though prudence and charity should give a father pause from exerting such power.  This father had neither prudence nor charity.  Here is a scene where the mother had arranged to take some lessons in English with a Miss Edith Smith, who came to the house.  The mother and daughter knew the father would be against it, so they arranged for the lessons at a time of day the father would be out of the house. 

Miss Smith brought a ray of light into Mum’s world.

“How are you?” Miss Smith asked.

“I am fine, thank you,” Mum replied.

At first Mum’s words were stilted. But with Edith’s encouragement, she was soon sailing into deeper conversational waters.

“How did you sleep?”

“I slept very well.”

“How many children do you have?”

“I have six children.”

“Are you married?” Mum smiled, embarrassed. What a thing to ask—of course she was married! How could she have six children and not be?

“Yes, I am married.”

“Where do your children go to school?”

And so it went. After Miss Smith left, I helped Mum practice the English alphabet and numbers, and tried to engage her in basic conversation. After those visits, Mum was noticeably happier. She was very clever, yet she was never given the chance to study and learn. Mum was like a caged bird without a chance to fly.

One day Dad came home early from the mosque. As usual, Mum and Miss Smith were in the lounge with me. We heard the front door open and shut. Mum immediately tensed up. The lounge door opened and Dad sat down on the sofa. For a moment, he failed to notice Miss Smith, but then he caught sight of this white woman in his home. Instantly, his face darkened like a thundercloud.

“Hello,” said Miss Smith, trying to smile at him.

Dad scowled back at her and buried his head in his Qur’an. Miss Smith did her best to carry on with the lesson, but a dark and menacing atmosphere had seeped into the room. Mum looked terrified. She wasn’t laughing and joking with Miss Smith anymore.

When the lesson ended, Mum saw Edith to the door and went straight into the kitchen. Dad jumped up and followed her, immediately shouting. “What are you doing bringing that gori into the house? A dirty gori infidel! In my house! How dare you?”  

From where I was sitting in the lounge, I heard that first, sickening thump of fist on flesh. Mum cried out in pain, but Dad was merciless. He beat her again and again.

My brothers were upstairs. They heard Mum’s screams, but they didn’t react. They supported Mum when they could, but they wouldn’t dare challenge Dad’s violent authority.

I sat in the lounge. Minutes earlier Mum had been laughing happily with Miss Smith about her awful pronunciation. Now, for that simple, innocent pleasure, she was being savagely beaten by Dad. I was five years old and too scared to do anything but sit in silence. Finally, Dad stormed into the men’s lounge, shutting himself there in a silent rage.

I crept into the kitchen. Mum had collapsed onto the floor and she was sobbing hysterically. She couldn’t get up, shaking as she was with shock and pain. I tried to put my tiny arms around her, but she pushed me away. She was ashamed and embarrassed she had been beaten again and didn’t want her little daughter to see her in such a state.

I stood bewildered. I longed to help Mum, to comfort her and make her life happy—as it had been a few minutes earlier. But how could I stop Dad from hitting her? Even at the age of five, I understood it was only a matter of time before he beat Mum again, and again after that.

My dad was a bad man. How could he do this to Mum—my gentle, funny mother who never hurt anyone? Dad had really worked Mum over this time, and I was sure he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew where to hit Mum to hide the damage. It was planned. It was deliberate.

As you can see, male authority takes preeminence (notice there is a “men’s lounge” in the house) and fatherly authority is never challenged.  Would such behavior be prosecuted in Pakistan or another Muslim country?  Perhaps not, but the father was aware of it being criminal in Britain, and so he made sure the trauma marks were in places of the body that would not be spotted.

In the opening paragraph above I called this work of non-fiction “a confessional memoir.”  I don’t know if that’s the proper term, but it seems right to me.  A memoir is a subset of an autobiography, “differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus.”  The narrowed focus here is a coming of age story, thereby limiting the scope to the author’s childhood and blossoming into adulthood.  The Center for Autobiographic Studies (CAS) defines a memoir as a work that “puts a frame onto life by limiting what is included.”  The frame that Shah places here is her Muslim upbringing, especially how it pertains to growing up female.  The CAS website provides a list of common frames, and several also apply here: memoir of place (North England), of relationship (family), religion (Islam and Christianity), of dealing with adversity, and ethnic tradition (Pakistani).  But I call it confessional not because Hannah is confessing some sin—she doesn’t sin unless you include being a rebellious Muslim a sin—but because she is confessing some dark family secret.  It seems to me that a successful memoir lets the reader into a world they have not experienced, and yet is very real (unlike fiction) right under their very noses.  Here not only is there an exotic Muslim culture living right beside the at large British culture but concealed is a horrific account family abuse.

When I said above that the father’s authority is never challenged, I was imprecise.  It was challenged by Hannah once.  The next time the father “worked over” his wife, Hannah, all five year old girl, alone among her family stood up against her father.  She tried to block the blows that were directed at her mother, and even sternly rebuked her father.  At first he was startled, and then he pushed her out of the way, indirectly hurting her.  Then later, fully premeditated, he turned his abuse toward his daughter.  She had challenged him and violated the hierarchy of submission. 

I had broken the unwritten rules of the household. I was only five years old—would I dare break the rules again? Perhaps the normal way of doing things was the only way to survive. But the normal way of doing things meant watching Dad beat up Mum, and that I couldn’t bear.

In fact, the normal way had already changed. My instinctive act of resistance had changed it irrevocably. From then on, instead of hitting Mum when the food wasn’t right, Dad hit me. If the house wasn’t perfectly clean, he beat me. I became the object of his aggression.
To start with, he beat me about once a month. But, gradually, it became more frequent.  Worse still, Mum never tried to intervene.

She was relieved Dad wasn’t hitting her. Each time he beat me, she acted as if nothing had happened.

My mother’s lack of response hurt more than any punch.

Whenever he hit me, Dad abused me verbally: “You’re stupid, lazy, and useless! You’re an ugly, worthless daughter!” There was no point in yelling, because everyone pretended not to hear my cries, and no one came to help. After that first beating, I never screamed again. I simply went silent whenever the blows started raining down.

One feels so bad for the little girl, but it does make for compelling reading.  However, the story will take an even darker turn. 

At first, Dad used my behavior—food prepared incorrectly, cleaning done incompletely—to instigate the beatings, but it wasn’t long before his violence became capricious. As abusing his five-year-old daughter became habitual, Dad’s mind began creeping into even darker places.

Before I turn to what her father does next, let me say that Hannah is one of six children, having three older brothers and two younger sisters.  Nowhere in the story do we hear of the other siblings being abused, even the two other girls.  The other children never challenged their father, and on the surface performed all their religious and family duties.  Hannah became a sort of scapegoat, but she became more than a scapegoat.  She continues.

Six months after the first time Dad beat me, he stepped into my bedroom. He’d already beaten me that day, and I was lying on my bed, imagining the Lavender Fields. Dad never entered the women’s bedroom. As the door creaked open, I shrank under the blanket in a desperate attempt to hide.

He stared at me, an expression of loathing mixed with something else on his bearded face. “You…you’re evil,” he announced quietly. “You will surely burn in hell. But for now, your evil must be punished, driven out of you. Beating isn’t enough.”

He stepped toward me, murmuring over and over that I was a “dirty, worthless, temptress girl” and that he’d “never wanted a daughter.” He stopped by the bed. I clamped my eyes shut, willing the Loneliness Birds to carry me away.

I felt his hand pawing the blanket. My body tensed as he tugged my cover away. As my father sexually molested me, he told me he was punishing me. It hurt physically, but not as much as the beatings. Yet it felt far worse emotionally. My terrified mind could not comprehend what was happening. All I knew was that it was wrong and dirty.

I accepted my “punishment.” I was a confused and terrified little girl, and part of me still longed for my father’s approval and love. I hated him for doing this to me, yet I wanted him to love me as a father should. Would acquiescing to his demands make him love me?

Finally Dad stood up from the bed. “You deserve everything you got,” he sneered. “And if you ever tell anyone about your punishment, I will kill you. And then you’ll go to hell, for Allah would never allow a dirty little girl like you to enter Paradise.”

That’s right, he raped her.  Not only did he rape a five (or perhaps six at the time) year old girl, he raped his own daughter.  But it wasn’t just once.  He established a cycle of physical abuse and rape.

I could do nothing to stop my father, and so I did as he demanded—no matter how sick and revolting it made me feel. It was a vicious cycle. The more I was abused, the dirtier and more deserving of such punishment I felt. The more my father abused me with impunity, the darker and more abusive his power trip became. In many Islamic societies, a victim of rape is often seen as the guilty party who has tempted the man into sexual excess. So it was with my father. Eventually the hurried rapes in the bedroom no longer sated him. Or perhaps the bloodied sheets were becoming harder to explain away. Either way, Dad decided to take me to a new place of torture. At the back of the house, beneath the kitchen, was our cellar. It became my hell for the next ten years.

That’s right.  He raped her from five years old to fifteen.  Let me untangle a little of the father’s underlying logic.  The little girl challenged his authority, which proved there was something evil in her.  If she were evil, she needed to be punished.  In beating her, he felt a temptation of her sex, which further proved she was evil.  And so, that evil needed to be punished, so he raped her.  In raping her, he felt the sexual urge, and so he needed to stamp out that evil, and so the rapes continued.  His rapes only stopped when he realized she was menstruating, and at that point he stopped only because she was no longer considered clean in the eyes of his religion.

This is getting long.  I’m going to have to break this up into two parts.  Stay tune for Part 2.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Psalm: An Introduction and Psalm 1

Last year’s reading of the Book of Psalms inspired me create a new series of posts.  I’m going to call this series “Sunday Psalm,” where I’ll perform an analysis of a psalm.  I would love to write up a post for each of the 150 psalms, but that’s rather daunting.  If I posted one every week it would take me nearly three years, and I could never keep that pace.  More realistically at one per month it would take me twelve and a half years.  That’s forever!  So for now I’ll start in series and then we’ll see where it takes us.  I’ll probably will have to pick and choose and jump around.  This post, which is going to be longer than what I expect the others to be, includes an introduction to the Psalms and will start with the first Psalm.

The Psalms are extremely rich, and there’s a lot to say, but let’s say up front I’m not an expert.   But I will fall back on a few noteworthy books to bounce off the thoughts I have.  Nonetheless, take everything I say with a grain of salt; I’m not a Biblical scholar or a theologian.  I’m just someone that reads, and that can be very dangerous and very wrong.  But I will approach this as honestly as I can and with humility.

Perhaps the best way to start is to state what psalms are.  From Meriam-Webster’s Dictionary:


Etymology:     Old English psealm "psalm," from Latin psalmus (same meaning), from Greek psalmos "psalm," literally, "twanging of a harp," from psallein "to pluck, play a stringed musical instrument"

1. a sacred song or poem

2 capitalized: one of the hymns that make up the Old Testament Book of Psalms
Word History The Greek word psallein originally meant "to pull" or "to pluck." It then came to be used with the meaning "to play a stringed musical instrument." From this verb came the noun psalmos, which literally meant "the twanging of a harp." Since harp music often accompanied singing, psalmos took on the meaning of "a song sung to harp music" and later simply "a song or poem." It was borrowed into Latin as psalmus and came into English as psalm.

Let’s get specific and go to the Hebrew understanding.  From Wikipedia:

The Book of Psalms, Tehillim in Hebrew (תְּהִלִּים or תהילים meaning "Praises"), commonly referred to simply as Psalms or "the Psalms", is the first book of the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the third section of the Hebrew Bible.

So in psalms we have the notions of a song, poem, and “praises,” and by praises I think it means to say prayer.

The authorship of the Psalms has been commonly attributed to the Old Testament King David, and while some of the psalms may been written by him, there is no evidence that he actually did, and it is clear that for many of them he could not have, since they refer to events after his death.  The psalms span a vast array of time.  Psalm 29 could have been written by the Canaanites who preceded the Israelites and later readapted by the Israelites for the Jewish God.  I find that rather interesting.  There are two possibilities that I see here in locating the cultural roots of the form of the psalms.  It’s possible the Israelites could have adapted the form from the Canaanites or it’s also possible that given the Canaanites were also a Semitic people the form could have been passed down from a proto-Semitic culture.  I don’t know if the scholars have an answer to provide, but it’s certainly a question I would have for them.

There are 150 psalms, and over the centuries the numbering has been in dispute.  The reasons for the numbering disputes are two fold from what I see.  It can be questionable where one psalm ends and another begins in the original sources.  They were not nicely laid out in a Bible text as they are now.  Second, when third century B.C. Jews had their scrolls translated into Greek for the widespread Jews who had migrated into the Greek world, that text came to be known as the Septuagint, and the numbering of the psalms for the Septuagint Bible were already muddled from their origin, and so subsequently various religious groups numbered their psalms differently.  Jews stuck with the original Hebrew scroll numbering, Catholics and Orthodox with the Septuagint numbering, and Protestants I think wanting to distance themselves from Catholics went with the Hebrew numbering.  I think today most religious groups have come to an agreement on the numbering and division of the psalms.  Ah, religious harmony. 

It’s quite clear than many if not all the psalms were originally used for Jewish Temple liturgical service.  Several of the psalms allude to a Jewish festival or a sacrifice.  It’s not known exactly how they were used in the Temple liturgies.  In today’s services, both Jewish and Christian, the psalms are either read or sung.  But it’s possible that in the Temple they had some incantation type of function, a spoken prayer that effects the nature of a situation, sort of like the process of transubstantiating bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in Catholic and Orthodox services. 

The arrangement of the collection of Psalms is not haphazard or in the sequence they were written.  While David certainly didn’t write all the psalms (it’s not even know definitively if he personally wrote any), David is a character that progresses through the psalms.  The Psalms traditionally seen to be divided into five parts, mirroring the five parts of the Pentateuch.  Each section ends with a doxology, calling to a close that section.  Scholars call the sections books, just like the books of the Torah.  Here are the traditional divisions between the psalms:

Book 1: 1-41
Book 2: 42-72
Book 3: 73-89
Book 4: 90-106
Book 5: 107-150 

Though I agree with the divisions, it’s not clear to me what the divisions signify.  Some have suggested a historical progression through the psalter.  The first two books span David’s Kingship, the third the fall of the two kingdoms (Judah and Israel), the fourth the Babylonian exile, and the fifth the return and the rebuilding of the temple.  As I read through it last year, I can’t say I was able to discern that narrative, but perhaps by going one by one I’ll be able to see it now.

What makes that or any narrative hard to discern is that none of the psalms are explicitly narrative.  They are lyrical in form, and so narrative needs to be deduced from jumps in situation from one psalm to another.   There seems to be many themes thorough out the psalms: the enthronement of God, the royalty of the king, the appeal for protection, the deliverance from enemies, the covenant with God, the wisdom of faith, thanksgiving for God’s bounty and creation, and Jewish peoples historical situation. 

Taking the psalms to a higher level of conceptualization we can classify the psalms into forms or genres.  Some simplify the psalter into two forms: psalms of praise and psalms of lament.  I think I saw somewhere that 60% of the psalms are of the praise form and 40% of the lament.  I can’t verify it but I don’t have anything to dispute it.  While psalms of praise and lament both run throughout the psalter, it is generally agreed that the psalms of lament tend to be denser at the beginning, while those of praise toward the end. 

I can’t say I fully agree with the classification of the forms to be only of praise and lament.  It seems to me that there are psalms that are neither, and it seems to me that there are psalms that carry both praise and lament.  I would classify the forms threefold: praise, lament, and theological.  By theological I mean psalms that preach a theological point or exhort a religious maxim. 

This introduction has gotten long.  I’ll have more to say as I post on them.  So let’s get to the first Psalm. I’m going to use the NAB translation

Psalm I

1 Blessed is the man who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the way of sinners, 
nor sit in company with scoffers.

2 Rather, the law of the LORD* is his joy;
and on his law he meditates day and night.

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

4 But not so are the wicked, not so!
They are like chaff driven by the wind.

5 Therefore the wicked will not arise at the judgment,
nor will sinners in the assembly of the just.

6 Because the LORD knows the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.

As you can see this is neither a praise nor a lament form.  This is exactly what I mean by a psalm that professes a theological maxim.  It’s only six lines long and has a theme—blessed is the man who follows the Torah’s law—and a contrasting theme, wicked are those that do not.  The psalm is actually a beatitude: “blessed is the man,” and you can see where Christ came up with his beatitude form (Matt 5).  At the heart of the psalm is a simile, the man who follows the Torah is like a tree, firmly rooted in the ground and delivering fruit, the fruit of God.  The wicked in contrast are like chaff, unrooted so they blow with the wind and produce nothing.  Robert Alter points out in his translation and commentary, The Book of Psalms, that in a desert climate trees only take root by water, so this image would be very familiar to one living in an arid land.  The water also connects to the significance of water as a blessing in Judaism (flood, Red Sea. Ablution ritual), which leads to Baptism in Christianity.  The tree and the fruit beside the stream can also be alluding to Eden. 

What is striking to me is that first sentence is phrased as a negation.  The psalmist could have said, “blessed is the man who does good or the man who keeps in the company of the good,” but he says “blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked… nor sit in company with scoffers.”  It’s as if the psalmist is warning his son about the influence of bad friends.  I just checked.  In none of Christ’s beatitudes does he phrase any of them in the negative.

Of all the translations, and I scanned a good dozen of the most prominent translations, the NAB is the only one that creates two stanzas.  I don’t know why they do that, and I wonder if the original does.  Several of the Revised Standard translations, including the Catholic Ignatius translation title this psalm “The Two Ways.”  While that may be an appropriate title, I don’t think it’s in the original. 

Charles Dollen, in his book, Prayerbook of the King: The Psalms,  also a commentary on each psalm, points out that the tree is an allusion to the cross.  I should point out here as part of the introduction that we Christians see in the Old Testament a prefiguring of the New, both in typology  and prophecy. 

So here’s a quick summary of Psalm 1:
Form: Theological
Theme: Follow God’s law
Length: six lines.
Key imagery: tree, fruit, stream, chaff.
Christian typology: cross. Baptism. 

Favorite lines: “He is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in season.”