ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: A personal exploration of Jewish identity in a Midwest USA setting

Two quotes about the Psalms. Germaine Greer, in a forum in 2012, was cited as identifying ‘the Psalms as the high point in all the voices of human yearning for God.’ Christian pastor and Bible translator Eugene Peterson said this about the Psalms.

By means of the Psalms, we find our voice in the dialogue. In prayer, we do not merely speak our feelings. We speak our answers. If we truly answer God, there is nothing we may not say to him.

E.H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, (Waterbrook, 2017)

Both of these quotes share some resonance with what seems to be happening on Kentuckian folk guitarist and archivist Nathan Salsburg’s new album, a melodic collection of new versions of the Psalms sung in Hebrew. There is plenty of human yearning woven into this project.

Salsburg embarked on this five year project while working on other albums as a way of trying to get ‘some kind of rigorous and creative Jewish engagement’ with his Jewish identity. Salsburg has spoken about how that has been hard to achieve in the Midwest of the USA, finding himself with limited experiences of Jewish community. Music is a way towards dealing with yearning to connect on this album, the same as for, say, a Plymouth street-dancer, or a suburban punk.

At the heart of this album then, is a well-considered tension, as Salsburg manages to create something that is both very Jewish and very Kentuckian. The vocals recorded in Hebrew put Salsburg’s Jewish identity front and centre. His first time lead singing on an album, there is a vulnerability and exposed quality in his voice that is absorbing. The rough edges in his voice leave space for the listener to stumble into holy ground.

The guitar playing is also interwoven with Jewish rhythms, but still sounds utterly, distinctively like Midwest American folk. Fans of Sufjan Stevens early work, particularly Seven Swans, will find a friendly companion in Psalms. There are also moments when a listener might think they hear a guitar gently weeping or get a fleeting glimpse of a goddess on a hiway.

The Psalms presented here are captured in a private, contemplative mode. Which is entirely appropriate, the Psalms are for when you are on your bed at night, working through your questions and answers. That reflects the universal quality of the Psalms and their genius as vessels for the constant reinterpretation of human experience. The Psalms sound wildly different between the parishes of England or in the woods of Kentucky, but they still oscillate between community and loneliness, richness and austerity, considered wisdom and raw emotion.

In producing something Kentuckian and Jewish, Salsburg also perhaps starts to speak his answers. Salsburg has spoken how, in the course of this project, he has picked up the discipline of Shabbat, resting and turning off his phone. This collection is a gentle political statement. What does it mean to engage with Jewish identity in the Midwest? What does it mean to hold both geographical roots and longing for shared community? What does it mean to participate while holding the ability to reflect? Old questions that ancient words still have the strength respond to.

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