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“I hate the Psalms!” I’ve been known to say.

On hearing this once, my pastor frowned, and offered, “Well, they are the songbook of the church.” Which is true, but also part of the problem.

Two-thousand-year-old Hebrew poetry, in translation, versified by medieval ministers of the word who didn’t much like music, or rewritten by Evangelical praise musicians? I take note that older people often appreciate the Psalms, and I am willing to believe they might sound better in later life. Still. . .I’m getting up there in years, and not even the Grail Psalter has helped.

Maybe for me the Psalms need not a new translation but a transformation, something like what Coleman Barks did in The Essential Rumi, but with music.

Enter Paul Simon, whose music has been the soundtrack of my life since I first heard “Kodachrome” when I was 15 years old.

Simon claimed a few years ago that he had retired from writing and recording. “I’m done,” he told Malcolm Gladwell, and he sold the rights to his catalogue to Sony.

Then he had a dream. He was told, “You’re supposed to write a piece called Seven Psalms.” He resisted, thinking, “I’m not sure I even know what a psalm is.”

Paul Simon’s music has been religious since the day he converted from trying to write high school hits for the Brill Building to “looking for the edge of what you can hear,” as he puts it now, and out came the “Sound of Silence.” His music is religious not just for its occasional use of Gospel sonic motifs, or its more than occasionally obvious lyric, like “God and his only Son paid a courtesy call to earth one Sunday morning,” but religious in an eclectic way, a Jewish way, a searching way, a secular way, in which the words of the prophets are written on subway walls. Many listeners have noticed over the years, from Judith Piepe, who had him sing on her BBC religion program “5 to 10” during his sojourn in England in 1965, to a perceptive analysis of “The Mysticism of Paul Simon,” in the New Yorker earlier this month.

I wondered, how can a songwriter with such a past not know what a psalm is? His comment made me uncomfortable. Maybe I didn’t know what a psalm was, either. I hadn’t thought of that.

Seven Psalms is a 33-minute musical meditation in seven movements. Simon said in an interview that it is “very much about God, but not always a praise.” It is “an argument I’m having with myself about belief, or not,” he said. “I have my reasons to doubt. There is a case to be made.”

The credits refer to a large number of musical instruments, but they are deployed in a subtle soundscape, and Seven Psalms is marvelously spare. Mostly it is a record of Simon’s clear guitar, and his voice, soft, vulnerable, accepting of advancing age.

Simon’s name has never appeared on any lists of the “greatest guitarists of the rock era”—he does no extended solo demonstrations of virtuosity—but his immensely gifted playing overwhelms the senses.

“I lived a life of pleasant sorrows, until the real deal came. Broke me like a twig in a winter gale. Called me by my name.” That is a seal of authenticity, decipherable by anyone who’s been there.

This might be the best record Paul Simon ever made, and it’s not a pop hit. “My Professional Opinion,” has a catchy blues tune. A danceable rhythm suddenly appears in “Trail of Volcanoes,” but it is brief and darkly ironic. There is little in the way of verse and chorus.

The first lines allude to Psalm 23, but not in comfort, setting the theme and tone. “I’ve been thinking about the great migration; noon and night they leave the flock. And I imagine their destination—meadow grass, jagged rock.” The opening riff returns periodically as a refrain, with words circling around an unflinching, insistent search for the Lord, who is inscrutable and personal at the same time. “The Lord is a face in the atmosphere. . .The Lord is my engineer. The Lord is my record producer,” and many more names, too rich and surprising to ruin by quoting selectively from the song. It is sometimes funny, sometimes strange, but also very direct. Every word has force.

Right in the middle there’s a Simonesque story in which the everyday becomes ethereal, about a couple picking up a pair of hitchhikers in the rain, a woman and her son. Simon sings it with his wife, singer Edie Brickell. “Hurry get yourselves inside the truck,” they tell them. The woman tells of being turned out from her home town, “they don’t like different there.” Then the song morphs into a search for David’s harp, and “The ringing strings, the thought that God turns music into bliss.” The pickup truck is left in the driveway, and “the moon appeared as amber in the mist.”

Simon’s music liberates the psalms from the Church, recapturing them as a form for the sequential contentment and crises of this beautiful life. Pain is not overcome, not renewed, not redeemed, it is acknowledged and set alongside simple joy and true love. Simon does not know the original languages, but he has lived a long time and is a master of language, and in the spaces where words fail his voice settles on True-lu-lu.

Seven Psalms sounds like a Post Script, this American psalmist’s last word. PS is both the first two letters of Psalms in English, and separately, Paul Simon’s initials. In the video trailer you see them, scribbled on the sheet of paper where in the middle of the night Simon wrote down that dream. It is framed on the wall of his home studio.

On his “farewell tour” in 2018 he used these initials as his signature logo for merchandising. I have them on the ball cap I bought. Maybe I’ll wear it now when I read the Psalms.

Douglas Howard

Douglas Howard is enjoying his retirement from the Historical Studies Department at Calvin University, which made him the one and only recipient of the "American Tune" award on the occasion. He is a sometimes musician of the church, stays active in interfaith relations, and likes camping and strong coffee.


  • RZ says:

    Thank you for this prompting reflection. I look forward to exploring “Seven Psalms.”
    To be honest, I caught myself reading this through Pharisee lenses, looking for signs marking Paul Simon as a “Christian,” a “convert,” a “Bible- believer.” Has he joined our tribe? I suspect he would not sign our form of subscription. But his prophetic gift remains undeniable. In so many ways he exhibits a curiosity, a humility, a gentleness and vulnerability that too rarely exists in our Christian leaders. He is definitely not a Churchian, but undoubtedly a Beatitude kind-of -guy. I suspect Jesus might go out of his way to join him at his house for dinner. The “subway walls” do have something to teach us.

    • Doug Howard says:

      Thanks for the comments. I like your word “curiosity” to describe Paul Simon’s religious vision. I like his eclecticism and willingness to explore different paths and different means of expression.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    And then there’s his “American Tune,” with a J S Bach melody line . . .

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Thank you for writing about Simon in this space. I, too, came of age with Simon’s unforgettable lyrics. I, too, read the New Yorker article and bought the CD. I was puzzled at first but in time, like so much of his music, phrases and “mystical dangles” begin to jump out at unexpected places.

    • Doug Howard says:

      I have the same reaction when I hear one of his albums for the first time! I think–what is this?! It’s so strange! It takes several times listening and sitting with it to begin to hear it well.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    I love this! Thank-you!

  • Ria says:

    I am listening now. Beautiful!

  • Rudy Eikelboom says:

    Interesting contrast to Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms
    Both suggest outsiders are sometimes closer to God than we are.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I would like this better if not for “medieval ministers of the word who didn’t much like music.” I don’t know of any such. Do you?

    • Doug Howard says:

      Thanks for pointing out that sentence. I had in mind the Authorized Version, which is how I first learned the Psalms. I know, not exactly “medieval” by most chronologies–but I couldn’t resist the alliteration! Probably I should have resisted, and said something more substantive about the things I really dislike in the Psalms, such as the constant royal imagery, the military imagery, even the pastoral imagery, besides the unpoetic and overly literal translations. And actually I have come around to prefer the King James version to many of the than more recent translations.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    I am also a Paul Simon enthusiast. When arguing with my wife, I sometimes croon “Negotiations and love songs -are often mistaken for – one and the same”

    Mr. Simon is very quotable, but I must say, some of your thoughts in this article are very sage and quotable as well. Paul has rubbed off on you… in a good way.

    • Doug Howard says:

      I laughed out loud at this, and then read it to my wife! Our arguments are more like “Gimme my robe, I’m going back to bed!”

  • Phil Coray says:

    His open line “Many the times I’ve been discouraged…” made me think of ” Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded” adapted and harmonized by J. S. Bach. Also one of the themes in “The Godfather I” begins like “Take Time to be Holy”.

    • Doug Howard says:

      I hate to admit it but–I have never seen The Godfather! Okay, it’s out there now! Too intimidating, maybe. But right, some reviews I have read seem surprised by Simon’s, and other popular artists’, deep familiarity with religious music, when it should not be surprising at all.

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