“Selah” Performed and Recorded by Prisoners at Pittsburgh Institution
Selah, a word of dubious origin and definition, most likely comes from the Hebrew phrase to lift up and exalt. It is also defined as an indication to give pause, such as in a musical direction. It could also mean “forever”. Selah is found at the end of dozens of verses in Psalms and the Hebrew Bible.
Just as the name “Selah” can be interpreted multiple ways, so can the song by David Corley. In a previous interview by columnist Gary Stoller for No Depression, Corley explains finding meaning in his songwriting: “I think the message is up to you, the listener, to decide. My songs work on different levels and mean different things to different people. I wrote ’em, the rest is up to you.”
David Corley wrote “Selah”, but set it free. He generously donated it to his good friend Hugh Christopher Brown. Brown, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and activist, took the song and shared it with the Pros and Cons Program, which he founded over three years ago at Pittsburgh Institution in Canada. The program encourages professionals to mentor prisoners, and the result was an entire album, Postcards From The County, produced entirely behind bars by the inmates themselves, with the help of Brown and friends. See ND Columnist Cara Gibney’s inspiring interview here: http://nodepression.com/interview/pros-and-cons-chris-brown-and-prison-music-program-offers-hope
Corley says, “It was a real honor for me, to have these guys, in prison, taking their own time to do something special with this song that I wrote. This is a very personal song to me. I could hear, right away, from the first recordings, the genuine care and effort they were putting into it. I originally gave this song to Chris to record on his own record, and he, in turn gave it away to them. That’s just Chris, and these fellas. This song’s free, and for anyone and everyone….a prayer and a song of life and love and time passed.”
The lyrics of “Selah”, as in so many of Corley’s songs, are filled with emotion and loss, but also a sense of being at peace with the choices one has made. The softspoken, anonymous vocalist interprets those lyrics, and reminds me of the wavering voice of Johnny Cash in some of his final recordings, such as “Like the 309”. The raw, unrefined chorus and deceptive simplicity of the instrumentals make it all the more powerful and heartfelt. For those four minutes, and all the minutes leading up to recording this song and the previous album, the prisoners are not the numbers and labels assigned to them at the time of their sentencing, but vocalists, lyricists, arrangers, instrumentalists, producers, and engineers, striving for a common goal: to make music.
Sometimes, it only takes one courageous man to pull the thorn out of the lion’s paw.
For more information about the Pros and Cons Program, please watch Hugh Christopher Brown’s Tedx Talk at Kingston’s Queens University: https://youtu.be/qvQAXmKuj9Q