Not only did we have this hymn sung at our wedding, but I fully intend that it shall be sung at my funeral.
I say ‘had it sung’ because it was not a congregational song; rather, a wonderful team of friends had assembled themselves into an excellent choir for the occasion (having rehearsed for weeks under the superb direction of Hazel Law), performing two set piece items –a more challenging Betty Pulkingham anthem written for her own son’s wedding –‘For You Shall Go Out in Joy’ –with wonderful harmonies, echoes and changes of tempo; and this song sung more simply in unison, but equally powerful. The legend has it that after the singing of these songs, I was so entranced and thrilled that I stood up as if to leave, thinking the service over, almost forgetting the bride next to me and the vows I had come to make. I wish I could say that the legend had no truth.
I absolutely love this song. So much so, that it is practically the only song I have bothered to learn to play properly and completely on the piano (if we forget Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ and half of ‘Rainy Night House’) painfully working my way through right and left hand parts from my dog eared copy of ‘Sound Of Living Waters’. The family are probably sick of me playing it on the piano but, bless them, they’re far too nice to tell me so.
I suspect that if I were north American I would have grown up with this song being a far more familiar old chestnut; it is, after all, a north American folk hymn – possibly, I read somewhere, from one of the ‘Great Awakenings’(though probably too employing an early English folk tune). As it is, I did not hear it until I was into my twenties and it will be no surprise to friends that it was the Fisherfolk who introduced me to it in their beautiful album of hymns ‘Lo He Comes’. They treated it as a simple choral piece, unison, nothing fancy, and actually the album gives us only two verses – a kind of teasing taster.
Given that the song is always bigger than the sum of its parts, it’s hard to clearly identify why I love it so much, but I think I can put my finger on some of the ‘parts’ that add to its appeal. Well first I’d have to say the content, wouldn’t I, dealing with themes I’ve built my life upon. Four verses (at least in the version that I’ve become familiar with) declaring a sense of wonder at divine grace in Christ; an acknowledgement of the depth from which I’ve been lifted; the resultant desire to worship; and a grateful sense of hope and joyous continuation beyond death. Secondly, the repetitions –ah, tricky, dangerous things. Repetitions can give a song tedium, frivolousness and even suggest heavy handedness; but here the repetitions feel just right –beautiful key phrases picked out, of or expanding into, longer statements, the repetitions gaining a meditative strength for these sometimes short phrases, sometimes longer lines, all suggesting simplicity but also a kind of focus.
Thirdly,I have come to see how much the tune means to me, too. I learned recently that the song is written in the Dorian mode, and this made sense, reminding me of (the only time I ‘learnt’ – in some measure – about modes) when I learned, from a book, how to play the Appalachian dulcimer with its distinctive sound reliant on drone notes. The Dorian mode tuning was less common, I seem to recall (I tried the tuning and wrote only one song in this tuning – ‘Touch Me’ which I can probably neither sing nor play now, but am quite proud of) and, for reasons I don’t really understand, I find the mode a truly haunting one. Ironically though, dulcimer queen Jean Richie sings it here acapella.
And though I still love the measured, choral versions, I can see now why its folk origins and format lend themselves perhaps even more naturally to looser renditions in acoustic folk and particularly American bluegrass – listen to this lovely version by Blue Highway, which is a recent discovery for me – I think they miss some of the full range of melodic nuances, but the force of it, the haunting dorian mode, the ‘white spiritual’ of the lyric is all here, especially in that lovely overlapping finale, so stick with it till the end.
I don’t regret it as a wedding choice – My soul was in awe at wondrous love (‘what wondrous love is this…?!’) then as I am now; an even better choice for a funeral , though, you might indeed think (‘And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on…’). On that occasion, if you’re there, it’ll be congregational. Learn it, sing along.