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Singing the Shepherd Psalm

Part 3 of Three Articles on Psalm 23

The following article, though not typical for Reformed Worship, is well worth spending some time on. Pastors, musicians, and worship planners alike can benefit from considering the pairing of text and tune and the challenges that arise from a plethora of choices. In addition, several denominations are in the process of developing new hymnbooks for congregational song. This series of articles provides a glimpse of some of the detailed discussions that take place when considering the pairing of texts and tunes.

—JB

A Text and Tune Usually Found Together

We turn to a pairing of text and tune that consistently appear together (at least in current North American hymnals): Isaac Watts’s “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” and the shape-note tune Resignation [PsH 550; PH 172; RitL 91; H82 664]. This pairing began in 1836 and has become almost automatic in recent collections (It should be noted that RitL 91 makes the unusual substitution of Thomas Sternhold’s 1549 version for the opening quatrain, then continues with Watts’s paraphrase. Also, SNT 236 uses Resignation for the Eva Snyder text “In Christ, Our Faith, in Christ, Our Hope.”)

The text in question is one of three paraphrases Watts created for his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, published in 1719. As he often did for popular and much-used psalms, Watts created three versions of Psalm 23, one each in Long Meter, Common Meter, and Short Meter. Each such paraphrase was created as a separate entity; seldom was there any borrowing of an eight-syllable line here or a six-syllable line there in constructing each version. Given the New Testament passages concerning the Good Shepherd (as noted earlier), it is also remarkable that all three versions of Psalm 23 refrain from Watts’s announced purpose to Christianize the Psalms. There is nothing here, for example, that corresponds to “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” his unabashedly Christological paraphrase of Psalm 72:8-19. In all three meters Watts demonstrates his customary skill at making each line a complete thought (a great advantage when psalms and hymns were still being lined out), but there is a certain flabbiness in the eight-stanza Long Meter version because of the frequent modifiers added to fill out lines (“Thy staff supports my feeble steps, / Thy rod directs my doubtful way”). The mandatory conciseness of three six-syllable lines in the six-stanza Short Meter version proves conversely too narrow to allow for smooth transitions from line to line, so that the middle ground of Common Meter affords just the right milieu for a balance between easy flow and forceful brevity.

A special strength of this six-stanza Common Meter version is the subtle drama Watts has woven into it. He prepares for this element in the original second stanza (the second half of the first stanza when the text becomes Common Meter Double to fit the Resignation tune), where “he restoreth my soul” in the biblical text becomes “He brings my wand’ring spirit back / When I forsake his ways.” This dramatic expansion calling attention to the activity of the narrator anticipates the ultimate resolution of this roving inclination in the final stanza. Rather than being “an inspired addition” (as Erik Routley calls it in An English-Speaking Hymnal Guide [Liturgical Press, 1979], 58), the sixth stanza operates as a balancing dramatic expansion illustrating what it means to “dwell in the house of the Lord.” First, it shows Watts’s logical gift for articulating stability (“settled rest”) by contrasting it with its antithesis (“others go and come”)—which was the narrator’s own previous condition in stanza 2; then it identifies who is eligible to “dwell”: not “a stranger, nor a guest,” but “a child at home.” For Christian singers this narrative explication of the psalmist’s aspiration resonates with Jesus’ admonition that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become as little children (Matt. 18:3, 19:14; Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17). Perhaps this is Watts’s implicit Christianization after all.

This intrinsic narrative flow of Watts’s paraphrase is a significant reason why it pairs well with the shape-note tune Resignation, whose composer is unknown. Although it was occasionally used with other texts (and was sometimes identified by other names) both before and after it was first used as a setting for Watts’s text in J. W. Steffy’s Valley Harmonist (Winchester, VA, 1836), no other combination has proved as popular. In particular, their yoking in the fifth edition of William Walker’s influential Southern Harmony (Philadelphia, 1854) did much to perpetuate the expectation that they would always appear together. Corroborating George Pullen Jackson’s identification of Resignation among the “Eighty Most Popular Tunes” in the “white spirituals” tradition (See George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1933], pp. 127-150), the appeal of this pentatonic (five-note) melody as a setting for a paraphrase of the most popular psalm was further enhanced by Virgil Thomson’s effective anthem versions (1937).

Like many other tunes in double meters, Resignation has a melodic turn at the midpoint, a customary technique for approximating the renewed energy that accompanies the beginning of a new stanza in the single meter. In some ways, the very obvious AABA structure of this tune manages to confer even greater emphasis on what were the original even-numbered stanzas than they would receive in a Common Meter tune. That only one of the eighteen melodic notes is below the dominant in the B phrase causes it to contrast sharply with the A phrase where only two of the eighteen melodic notes are above the dominant. This significant difference in register draws more attention to the higher B phrase than it would have if it had continued in the range of the lower melodic pattern of phrase A. Variation is also achieved by the presence of melisma on the first, third, seventh, and ninth notes of the A melody, compared with melisma on the third, seventh, ninth, and eleventh notes of the B melody. This shifting balance of melisma both prepares for the movement from A to B and anticipates the return from B to A. The 3/4 rhythm strengthens the careful iambic stresses of Watts’s text and further facilitates the easy fit between text and tune. There is also a significant sympathy between Watts’s intentionally simplified style and the sparseness of the pentatonic melody; together they provide a convincing equivalent of the psalmist’s original song of thanks and hope.

As this three-part survey of a very few of the hundreds of Psalm 23 paraphrases reveals, there are many ways for this beloved psalm to be recast as congregational song. Just as the psalm itself serves effectively in a broad range of worship settings, each paraphrase brings together a combination of words and music that offers yet another means of integrating this ancient sung prayer of gratitude and trust into the joys and sorrows of our own day.