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Cockburn Faith US Politics

Joe Biden’s shaky songsheet

The hymn Biden quoted on Saturday — a bastardization of Psalm 91 — rather misses the point

November 10, 2020

12:57 PM

10 November 2020

12:57 PM

In his victory speech on Saturday night, Joe Biden quoted the 1970s Roman Catholic hymn, ‘On Eagle’s Wings’. The President-elect said that its message helped him cope with his various personal tragedies, which are undoubtedly very real and sad. Still, Cockburn wonders whether Biden is correct in his assessment that this particular hymn ‘captures the faith that sustains’ America. If Biden is right about that, then Cockburn wonders whether the ‘battle for the soul’ of the nation was even worth having.

Of course, Cockburn doesn’t pretend to be a Catholic, let alone a good one, but having borrowed a friend’s Bible, he suspects that the hymn in question — a bastardization of Psalm 91 — rather misses the point. In his speech, Biden quoted the hymn’s chorus:

‘And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn. Make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hand.’

Compare this with the Psalmist’s original:

‘He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.’


Not only does the Psalmist not mention Dawn’s breath, he also makes sure to emphasize that the grand bird in question is none other than the Almighty himself and not, as the On Eagle’s Wings’ priest would have it, a vague vehicle of vainglory. The lowly human is placed ‘under’ the wings, not ‘on’ them. There is also no promise, in the original, that faithfulness will result in being made to ‘shine like the sun’. In fact, this line reminded Cockburn of the terrible fate of Icarus who, in Greek mythology, tries to fly out of Crete using some homemade wings his dad gave him, only to fly too close to the sun, have the wax part melt, then fall to his unfortunate death.

Furthermore, Cockburn prides himself on his musical ear and has, in that respect, spotted yet another problem. From the first verse:

‘You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in His shadow for life,
Say to the Lord: “My refuge, my Rock in whom I trust!”’

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Cockburn remembers once hearing this sung at the funeral of a Catholic friend, which is when he first noticed that, musically, the phrase ‘you who’ is more than an octave (i.e. eight notes) higher than the chorus’s starting note. The effect of this is that when the church singer (typically a woman) sings ‘you who’, it sounds awfully like the British version of cooee (i.e. yoo-hoo)defined in Wikipedia as ‘a shout originated in Australia to attract attention, find missing people, or indicate one’s own location. When done correctly — loudly and shrilly — a call of “cooee” can carry over a considerable distance.’ How so! Mortifyingly, this realization made Cockburn chuckle out loud, which was naturally upsetting to his fellow mourners.

None of the above seems to have occurred to Lana Del Rey, who, in response to the President-elect’s speech, did a spontaneous cover of ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ for her Instagram followers.

Cockburn finds the contrived vocal bend on the word ‘hand’ particularly distasteful.


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