The voice of the psalmist still sings. I have finally heard it. After years of church psalter recitation in unison, antiphonally, by verse and by half verse, read chorally, with and without antiphons, chant and plainsong, metrical setting, the psalm seemed somehow empty, an odd interlude between lessons, so awkward that we were uncertain whether to stand or sit. Sometimes we eliminated it altogether if we needed to cut something out of the service for the sake of time. Other times we might replace it with a hymn or anthem, less messy, easier to sing.
But at last I have heard the cry of the psalmist, clear and inescapable, sublime and scandalous in its open expression of pain and wonder. At last I know what the fuss is all about.
For me it came most unexpectedly from a source that shocked me - a voice lovely and strangely familiar yet absolutely unknown to me - Justin Hayward. A singer and songwriter of much popular success over the past 30 years, Justin Hayward is still largely anonymous. His fame is as lead guitarist and primary voice of the Moody Blues, a group that prides itself on its unity and lack of individual celebrity. The result is that I find most people are like me and know little of Mr. Hayward and his remarkable work.
I commend to you a non-Moodies album from 1975 called simply "Blue Jays." It is an amazing body of work. Upon first hearing Blue Jays, I was shocked and captured by it, so unlike my usual "taste in music." But I could not stop listening to it. What is it?, I asked myself. What is it that holds me? Then in a moment I knew. I had found the psalms. Here was the voice of the modern psalmist crying out from a life full of ambiguity and tension, pain and confusion, yet balanced with wonder and a kind of steadfastness.
The psalms come so concretely out of everyday life, wails of agony from oppression alongside whoops of joy from the defeat of enemies. In this tradition, Mr. Hayward speaks from his own experience, visceral, tactile, nocturnal wrestlings, struggles we all experience in the confusion of getting to the next day and the next after that.
His callings have a prayer-like quality. In "This Morning," the opening song of the album, he sings:
" ... I don't know if I can survive ... sleepless are the hours and lonely is the night for the poor tormented soul who is searching for the light."
The pain is palpable as he relates the theme of endings and beginnings, death and resurrection. We all know deep in our bones the experience: Life is changing, how will I survive? Then, from all the torment of souls in "This Morning," in "Nights Winters Years" and "When You Wake Up," he can turn right around and rejoice in the promise of friendship ("Remember Me") and a sunrise. My soul understood his cries and I could not stop listening.
Once introduced to Mr. Hayward's music here, I went back to earlier works and listened again to Moody Blues' albums old and new. My experience was that the Justin Hayward works stand apart from the rest in substance, style and tone. It is an amazing thing suddenly to hear something for the first time, something that has been right under your nose all along, a kind of grace, a treasure revealed.
So as I listened, I came to believe that, just as Bob Dylan has been widely recognized as a prophetic voice, a modern Isaiah, nagging us to repentance and righteous action, so Justin Hayward's voice is that of a modern David, carrying the clear and passionate cries of the people, full of both the glory and suffering of life, at once both praise and lamentation.
His music has proved a terrific teaching tool. Initially, I was hesitant about using his work in classes. It was important to me; what if others didn't like it or agree with my assessment of its power? I need not have worried. It reaches across age and sex and philosophical barriers. I am amazed at the response I have received. This winter I introduced his work as a part of a curriculum I called "Searchings of the Soul. Longings of the Heart: Our lives as exile. Psalm and gospel," which also uses the writings of Frederick Buechner and Walker Percy. Mr. Hayward's music has gripped people. They don't want to return my tapes and CDs. As a result, I have bought out the neighborhood record stores' supplies several times in order to meet the demand. It is a delight to find something so meaningful to others and to share it and watch the results.
I had wanted to resist the temptation to use words from Mr. Hayward's songs in this article because I think that the penetrating power of his work lies in the integration of lyric and music. I want you to listen to him. I think, however, without some examples my argument is empty. So I offer these lines:
In "Question," one of his more familiar songs, he sings, "In the grey of the morning my mind becomes confused between the dead and the sleeping and the road that I must choose ..."
Yet still with confidence, he looks for a miracle in his life. More subtly but no less powerfully, in "New Horizons" he cries out, "... I long to hear, I need to see, 'cause I've shed tears too many for me." Then comes the hope, " ... I know I'm going to find my own peace of mind someday."
Finally, in "Running Water," simply and gently he observes, "we live to love another day." So we continue on in life. Christ has promised to be with us always, to the close of the age.
It excites me to recognize a biblical voice alive today. I know there are others. You can name some, I am sure. People who have captured the essence of Jeremiah or Job or Jonah. Or, more accurately, voices who have captured the same aspect of God conveyed so many years ago by Job or Jeremiah. God immutable remains the same. It is our perceptions that drift and stray. Then once more someone sees and hears and calls and we recognize Yahweh in our midst. q
("Question" is from the 1971 Moody Blues album A Question of Balance; "New Horizons," Seventh Sojourn, 1972; "Running Water," The Present, 1983.)