April 8, 2013

Song of the Week: “Psalm of Life”

It might shock you to learn that the authors at Music is Good love music and listen to a lot of it, and we’re guessing you do too.  One of the great things about music, are those occasions when we are struck by a particular song that resonates with us in a special way.  Maybe a catchy beat simply caught our ear.  Maybe it’s a particularly beautiful voice.  Maybe it was a particular way the lyrics blended with the melody and the musical accompaniment, or perhaps the lyrics were especially apropos to a current experience or feeling we had at the time.  Whatever the reason, that particular song had us hitting the ‘replay’ button over and over.  This series spotlights some of the songs that did it for us. They will vary in genre but all will have one thing in common – that special ‘something.’

 My Song of the Week is “Psalm of Life”.  It is on the album Gift, the first collaborative recording by the mother-and-daughter team, Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson, who make up part of British folk’s great dynasty.

The song puts to music the classic poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  It is one of my favorite poems.  Longfellow said of it, ‘I kept it some time in manuscript, unwilling to show it to any one, it being a voice from my inmost heart, at a time when I was rallying from depression.’  (Longfellow’s young wife was burned to death in an accident while lighting a candle.  The flames caught her skirts on fire and completely engulfed her.)

When I discovered that Carthy & Waterson had set this poem to music, I was anxious to hear what these two brilliant artists would do with it, but my eagerness was also tempered with some trepidation.  Such a powerful poem could be trivialized and ruined so easily with the wrong interpretation.  I needn’t have worried.  Carthy & Waterson nail it.  The melody they have chosen is perfectly suited to the spirit of the poem, as are the vocals and accompanying instruments.  Graceful piano notes contrast with earthy, almost clumsy-sounding trombone notes. The same contrast is echoed in the vocals, where Carthy’s beautifully smooth voice is heard alongside Waterson’s more rough, edgy one.  This smooth/rough, graceful/awkward, heavenly/earthy combination of sounds paints a very effective sonic picture of the literary message of Longfellow’s poem – a broken, depressed soul’s fumbling journey to reach an endpoint of comfort and contentment.  There is a beautiful, somewhat melancholy instrumental break featuring a violin that is also in perfect keeping with the spirit of the poem.  The song’s chorus, repeated throughout the song as one would expect,  repeats the poem’s last stanza (“let us, then, be up and doing/with a heart for any fate/still achieving, still pursuing/learn to  labor and to wait”), and is particularly fitting since it conveys the main point Longfellow wished to make.   I cannot think of a better way to express the poem musically than what Carthy and Waterson have accomplished.

Here are the lyrics, followed by the story behind the poem:


TELL me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream ! —

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.


Life is real ! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal ;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.


Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way ;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.


Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.


In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle !

Be a hero in the strife !


Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant !

Let the dead Past bury its dead !

Act,— act in the living Present !

Heart within, and God o’erhead !


Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time ;


Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.


Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate ;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.


THE STORY BEHIND THE PSALM (from “Light from Many Lamps” 124-126 (Lillian Watson, ed., Touchstone 1988):

“It was early morning. The bright sun streamed through the windows of the Craigie house in Cambridge where George Washington had once had his headquarters, and where a young Harvard professor now lived. He lived, in fact, in the very room that Washington had occupied. And as he stood gazing out of the window at the sloping lawn and the elms, he wondered if Washington might not have stood here once feeling perhaps as he did–unutterably lonely and dejected. The young man’s wife had died three years ago, but he longed for her still. Time had not softened his grief nor eased the torment of his memories. He turned restlessly from the window and wondered how to spend the time before breakfast.

He was a poet too, this young professor; but he had no heart for poetry these days. He had no heart for anything, it seemed. Life had become an empty dream. But this could not go on, he told himself! He was letting the days slip by, nursing his despondency. Life was not an empty dream! He must be up and doing. Let the dead past bury its dead. . . . Suddenly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was writing in a surge of inspiration, the lines coming almost too quickly for his racing pen. Longfellow called his poem “A Psalm of Life.” He put it aside at first, unwilling to show it to anyone; for as he later explained, “it was a voice from my inmost heart, at a time when I was rallying from depression.”

But later he allowed it to be published . . .and it went straight to the hearts of millions of people. No poem ever written became so well known so fast. It was taught in schools, recited on the stage, discussed from pulpit and lecture platform. It crossed the ocean, and spread like wildfire through England. It was translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Danish–even Sanskrit! In China it was printed on a fan and became immensely popular. A whole generation of school children grew up under the influence of Longfellow’s “Psalm.” Many prominent men later acknowledged that influence with gratitude. Henry Ford, for example, memorized it as a lad, and in later years often said that the sixth and ninth stanzas came back to him all his life, inspiring him to effort and achievement. Firestone also freely acknowledged his indebtedness to the poem, as did many other famous men. Edward Bok made a special visit to Longfellow to tell him how much the last four lines meant to him. Even Gandhi, on the other side of the world, quoted a favorite line from it just a few days before his death (“….things are not what they seem”). The call to courage and action of a man emerging from a great sorrow, “A Psalm of Life” is one of the best-loved and most widely read poems in the world. Its lines are full of hope, its message clear and unmistakable. Its appeal is as vital and timely now as it ever was; in a recent poll to determine the nation’s favorite poem, it easily won first place.

For over a hundred years “A Psalm of Life” has helped the weary, unhappy, and discouraged to be “up and doing, with a heart for any fate.” No poem more richly deserves its place among the inspirational classics of mankind.”

Filed under Folk, Song of the Week