When the Word is put to music


Artists like Jessi Colter turn the poetry of Bible verse into lyrics that speak beyond cultures and faith.

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The country singer Jessi Colter, best known for “I’m Not Lisa,” has a new album called “Psalms” -- Bible verses set to her own melodies. 

It’s not exactly gospel music, but it sure delivers the Word.

To watch Jessie Colter perform “Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd,” click on the video player below.

Jessi Colter - PSALM 23 The Lord Is My Shepherd by JessiColterVEVO on YouTube

It got me thinking how many popular songwriters have used scripture as a lyric sheet.  I don’t mean artists like Aretha Franklin or the Staple Singers, who came out of gospel and kept that vocabulary; I mean a song like the reggae standard “Rivers of Babylon,” which is pretty much taken line-for-line from Psalm 137, a lament for the children of Zion in the Babylonian exile. 

Here’s how it was used in the classic reggae movie, “The Harder They Come”:

The Harder They Come (Soundtrack) by David Juhl on YouTube

U2’s “40” is based on the 40th Psalm:

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He led me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.
I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song.

U2 - ''40'' (Live From Paris 1987) by MahavishnuBoy on YouTube

The blues man Blind Willie Johnson recorded “John the Revelator” in 1930. It’s a downright scary song based on the Book of Revelations, and it’s been recorded over the years by James Brown, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The White Stripes, Tom Waits and John Mellencamp, among dozens of others. 

Most songs based on scripture are comforting; “John the Revelator” is fire and brimstone.

John The Revelator (Live At Town Hall/2003) by John Mellencamp - Topic on YouTube

The biggest secular hit ever based on a Bible verse has got to be “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Pete Seeger’s adaption of the Book of Ecclesiastes, made into a chart-topper by the Byrds in 1965.

The Byrds - Turn! Turn! Turn! by embryonicsoul on YouTube

The Old and New Testaments are poetry, shared across cultures, civilizations and centuries. For believers and non-believers alike, these verses are part of who we are.

Happy Easter.