Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Singing Kate to Sleep

When I sing our new baby to sleep, I often turn to hymns, probably because I know them best. It has been eye-opening to me to see how many hymns I know most of. That aside, I've discovered that some hymns are more lullaby-like than others. For example, "Disposer Supreme" hardly seems appropriate.

Conversely, many American melodies from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are very easily sung at bedtime. Perhaps it's the pentatonic nature of them, coupled with their easiness to sing in general, but many of them have a wonderful, gently rocking quality that calms my daughter right to sleep (most of the time).

One such gentle melody is the tune RESIGNATION, taken from William Walker's Southern Harmony. Published in 1835, the Southern Harmony was one of the most influential of the shape note tunebooks, selling over 600,000 copies during the 19th century. RESIGNATION (don't be confused—the melody is printed in the tenor there) was joined with the text "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm by Isaac Watts.

I'm shocked to discover that Watts has appeared nowhere on kirchenlieder, for he is often called the father of English hymnody. The oft-repeated (although possibly apochryphal) story goes that Watts complained to his father, a dissenting pastor in Southampton, that singing the psalter at church was dull. "Write something better," his father said, and so Isaac did. He became a famous hymnwriter, as well as scholar in general. His books on logic were used for decades in many of the major universities, as well as several of his other writings.

Some of Watts' best hymns come from his own psalm settings, published as Psalms Imitated in the Language of the New Testament—indicating Watts' changing of the texts to indicate Jesus, and, in some cases, replace Israel with Great Britain. Watts was best known in America through a couple of publications: first, what was known as Rippon's Watts or Rippon's Selection (often used in Baptist churches); and, preserving them further, the shape note hymnals, among them the Sacred Harp and the one at hand, the Southern Harmony. Here is this text, presented in the three-verse format of Southern Harmony. The last verse is especially good.

1. My shepherd will supply my need;
Jehovah is his name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wand'ring spirit back,
When I forsake His ways;
And leads me, for His mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

2. When I walk thro' the shades of death
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of Thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.

3. The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Lance--Kate is lucky to have such rich lullabies! Blessings--

Mike Jordan

Keith said...

"Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" is one of my favorites to sing my son to sleep with. When my daughter got restless, I discovered that 8 verses of "For All the Saints" usually put her right out.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who does this!