Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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Wondrous Love revisited

Early in the life of More to Come, I wrote a post on the old Southern Harmony tune Wondrous Love, which sits right at the top of the list of my favorite songs, no matter the genre. Written with a melody that sounds both traditional and modern, one that sticks deep in the soul, the song is about God’s unending love, redemption, and the eternal nature of music. Yet you don’t have to ascribe to the belief to be moved by the music. As one commentor wrote on a popular You Tube version…

Speaking here as an unashamed agnostic… This is a lovely, dignified, decorous and beautifully restrained music.

To which I can only add, Amen.

Last fall I featured Wayfaring Stranger, another of my favorite Southern Harmony tunes, and shared a number of remarkable arrangements by musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to Emmylou, from Rhiannon Giddens to Jack White, from Tiff Merritt to Maria McKee. While it hasn’t been covered by quite the range of musicians, I want to do the same with Wondrous Love. As we did with the earlier piece, we’ll begin with the Sacred Harp arrangements.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

The first is a standard interpretation by a Texas Shape Note convention singing in the old style, while the second is the group Anonymous 4, with a lovely and not quite as strident shape note version. On occasion, before they broke up in 2015, Anonymous 4 “left the Middle Ages behind to focus on early American vocal styles, including shape-note singing and folk songs.” This rendition is from one of those albums.

The Texas version has some word changes in the first verse (i.e., “to send this precious peace to my soul” as opposed to the more familiar “to bear the dreadful curse for my soul”) which you can hear in the second. *

Several different verses make appearances in these arrangements, but the traditional ones I’ve heard most of my life have included the first verse above and this second verse:

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.

The St. Olaf Choir’s video of the tune, arranged by Robert Scholz, is one you may hear often in traditional churches. To my ears, it is a lovely arrangement but misses some of the grit of the folk and traditional versions.

Deborah Liv Johnson has a more traditional folk interpretation of the song, although I’m not fond of her word change in the final verse to “I’ll sing His love for me.” It sounds a little too modern to my ears. Her voice is lovely, however, and the historical photo montage speaks to the challenges of living in this world that are implied in the song.

The Texas Sacred Harp version above had a final verse that I’d never heard before.

Ye friends of Zion’s king, join the praise, join the praise / Ye friends of Zion’s king, join the praise / Ye friends of Zion’s king, with hearts and voices sing, / and strike each tuneful string in his praise, in his praise! / and strike each tuneful string in his praise!

I do want to say that I’m actually quite fond of the line “and strike each tuneful string.” I may have to begin incorporating that verse!

Which brings me around to showcase two of my favorite traditional interpretations. The first is by banjo master Bill Evans playing with vocalist Suzanne Thomas. It is simple but so moving. Following an innovative but spare instrumental interlude by Evans, Thomas nails the third verse, which leads directly into the powerful imagery of the finish.

To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
to God and to the Lamb I will sing;
to God and to the Lamb, who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
while millions join the theme, I will sing.

The final verse, which not all the traditional versions include, is my favorite. I love the image of being free from death to sing through eternity. As I wrote in 2008, I think of it often and I always think of my mother, who gave me my love of music but died much too young:

And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on I’ll sing on
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on
And through eternity I’ll sing on

My favorite interpretation of the song (but it doesn’t have to be yours) remains the acapella Blue Highway rendition. Following a short mandolin intro, the voices take over and build upon each other verse after verse. I especially enjoy how they return to repeat the first verse as a round. Through the years I have seen how their live version has moved audiences, and I hope you’ll enjoy it here.

Wondrous love. Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB

*As noted in the comments to another shape note singing, “the first time through is sung using solfege. Each voice part is singing not the words but rather the names of the scale, la, sol, do. Even more important is that the music they are reading from is written using shape notes. Each tone of the scale has a corresponding note head shape. (re = cup, mi = diamond, fa = flag etc.) A person can see the shape of the note and know what note to sing based on the shape. Since you learned the notes on the first read thru because you sang the solfege, now in the second time thru you can sing the words!”

Mysterious forest from pixabay

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