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Review: by Prof. Paul Koptak - October 2010
Professor of Communication and Biblical Interpretation at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL.

The Covenant Companion
October, 2010

Charles Pettee and FolkPsalm, The Way of Manna: Agrarian Songs from the Bible for the Care of Creation
(FolkPsalm Music, 2009)

There has always been a place for gospel music in bluegrass. Time was, performers would not finish a set without doing at least one song that spoke about the life of faith. Today, some do and some don’t, but for nearly a decade, veteran mandolin picker and vocalist Charles Pettee of the Shady Grove Band has been charting new territory by setting the Psalms to music-- “bluegrass, just like the ancient Hebrews intended.” For the wary, let me calm your fears. While there is the loud bluegrass trio of fiddle, banjo, and dobro in the mix with guitar and mandolin, the music does not twang—it’s more like Alison Kraus than Ralph Stanley. Here in this third recording with the group FolkPsalm, Pettee juxtaposes the psalms and with biblical narratives and prophecy, producing a rich biblical theology of agrarian stewardship.

Included with the CD is a booklet of comments written by Ellen F. Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture (Cambridge University Press). Chapters reflect the pairing of these Scripture-songs, highlighting the way they read each other. “Food and Blessing for All” (Genesis 1, Psalm 148) notes that both human and non-human creatures are blessed to “be fruitful and multiply” but neither at the expense of the other. Likewise the heavens, sea creatures and “stormy winds fulfilling his orders” join the human chorus of praise. While the theme is common, the song for each text receives a different musical treatment. “Genesis 1” kicks off with a twin fiddle intro that comes right out of the old bluegrass sound, then Pettee breaks into the boisterous refrain: “It was good, it was good, it was very good.” By contrast, the world-wide sweep of “Psalm 148” is sung to a gentle waltz-time melody by a women’s trio.

The same tensive approach juxtaposes the peaceful, confident melody of Psalm 62 and the minor tonality directed to those who refuse to learn “The Way of Manna” (Exodus 16): “Hear now you who were once were slaves/ Will you remain in Pharaoh’s ways?/ This gift which comes while you sleep/ Is not for anyone to keep.” Davis provides a brief but strong description of ancient forms of commodity-driven agriculture that left its farmers sharecropper poor: “food is not the product of an imperial (or industrial) economy; it is the daily gift of God.”

One could imagine the prophets singing blues, and that blue-noted mandolin intro to “Naboth’s Farm,” sets up Pettee’s vocal. He gives Elijah’s words to Ahab a wizened “what goes around” finality, their judgment extending to big agriculture’s disregard for family farms and their culture today. Pettee continues singing “Psalm 14” with prophetic fire over a funky drum and banjo rhythm: “Do they not know, all who do wrong?/ They eat up my people/devour them like bread/ Consuming the poor and ignoring the Lord.” Listeners might be surprised to find this much judgment in Psalms, but we expect “Amos” to let it fly: “Oh…Your fruit may be heavy on the vine/Oh…But you’ll never get to drink its wine.”

God’s gospel takes center stage in the last three songs. The repentant prayer of “Psalm 51” is answered with blessing of new manna in “Jesus Feeds 5000.” The latter takes its chorus from the beatitudes, bringing new meaning to “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst/ Hunger and thirst for what’s right/ Blessed are those who hunger and thirst/ For they shall be satisfied.” Finally “Psalm 65” uniquely portrays God as a farmer who prepares and waters the earth, bringing the creation imagery full circle.

A brief review cannot touch on all the insights, but it can report that the cumulative effect is strong. Just as there are groups that discuss books and movies, a group could gather to listen, read the booklet, and probe these Scriptures to study creation care.

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