Cross-posted to my trad music blog Hogfiddle.

Recorded for online worship service on Sept. 6, 2020, Providence Church, Austin, Texas.

This is the story of how I came to be singing an old Baptist folk hymn from the Sacred Harp under my breath as the anesthesia was taking hold last week in the cath lab at Springfield’s Prairie Heart Institute. The procedure was a fairly routine cardiac ablation, and I’m told it got my heart back into rhythm immediately.

But going into it, I was terrified.

It was my first time in a cath lab (more formally known as a cardiac catheterization laboratory). In fact, I didn’t know such a thing existed. I was reassured by the array of high-tech equipment I noticed when I was wheeled in on a gurney, and even more by a wisecracking nurse who reminded me of the reruns of M*A*S*H I used to watch on daytime TV. But when the banter ended and the procedure began, I was on my own.

And that’s when I recited the hymn. It’s an early American shape-note folk hymn most often known by its first line as “How Firm a Foundation.” Calvin University’s Hymnary.org website, which is authoritative on such matters, says it appears in no fewer than 1,948 hymnals of all Christian denominations. But I know it from the Sacred Harp.

“How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,” it begins, “is laid for your faith in his excellent Word.” But the second verse is the one I sang to myself in the the cath lab (although I sang it with “thee” and “thy” because that’s the way I learned it). It goes like this:

“Fear not, I am with you; O be not dismayed,
for I am your God, and will still give you aid.
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand. …”

The third verse goes on to say, ““When through the deep waters I call you to go, / the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow …” But by the time I got through God’s “righteous, omnipotent hand” in the second verse, the anesthesia was taking effect.

All of which, I am certain, is exactly what I needed at the time.

Call it a kind of intercessory prayer. In a book titled Knee Deep in the Funk: Understanding the Connection Between Spirituality and Music, Orthodox Jewish rabbi Tzvi Gluckin has a take on prayer that draws on his experience as a punk rock, jazz, metal and blues musician before he studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. I’ve blogged about it before in times of trouble, HERE and HERE.

Especially in times of trouble.

“Of course you would pray [then],” Gluckin says. “You can’t do anything else.” He adds:

You can only turn to God. In a situation like that you don’t think. You don’t rationalize. You don’t remember your philosophy lecture from college. You don’t wonder about the existence of God or the effectiveness of prayer. You pray. And you beg God to save you. […] You don’t make a pragmatic decision. You don’t think, “Well, just in case — you know on the off chance — that God really exists, I might as well pray. Just in case.” You don’t think like that in the heat of the moment. You don’t wax philosophical. You are too busy, distracted, devastated, upset, or out of your head to meditate on the possible existence of God. You cry out in prayer.

There are no atheists in foxholes, as the old saying goes. Nor, as far as I’m concerned, is there any room for theological speculation when I’m undergoing treatment in a cath lab.

Now I’m home, and I was delighted to see “How Firm a Foundation” was included in a new collection of mountain dulcimer music I’d ordered before I went in the hospital. It’s in Nina Zanetti’s Glories Immortal: A Collection of Hymns from America’s Past (she calls it BELLEVUE, the name given to the tune in the Sacred Harp).

The melody is slightly different in the denominational hymnals, and I like it better in the Sacred Harp and Nina’s dulcimer tab. Why, of course I do! That’s the way I’m used to singing it, and playing it on the dulcimer calls back happy memories of shape-note singing conventions in Chicago, St. Louis and down South. Perfect for playing at night by the fireplace now that I’m home.

“How Firm a Foundation” was first published in 1787 by John Rippon, an Baptist minister in London who also wrote (or revised) classics “Rock of Ages” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Rippon credited it only to to “K—,” whom he didn’t identify but was probably a teacher or musician in his church.

And the melody is one of those sturdy Anglo-Celtic tunes handed down in oral tradition back in the British isles that came to America with the early Scots-Irish settlers. It may have some German overtones or influences, too, since it was first collected in 1832 by a Mennonite composer named Joseph Funk in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Since it’s in so many denominational hymnals, it’s all over YouTube; but most of the mainstream congregational arrangements strike me as being, well, a little insipid. To get a better sense of its musicality, check out these versions:

  • A lovely, minimalist duet, backed by guitar and keyboard, by a praise team at Providence Church, a “gospel-centered church” in Austin, Texas. It was recorded in September 2020 for a livestreamed service during the Covid-19 pandemic. A YouTube video is embedded at the top of this blog post.
  • A group performance in contemporary worship music style backed by electric guitar, keyboard and percussion, led by the Norton Hall worship band at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The band is a project of the Department of Biblical Worship, a division of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry at SBTS.
  • A sound file (no video) of congregational a cappella singing at Mountain Home Primitive Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C. The slow tempo is typical of Primitive Baptist hymnody. Posted on the same page are sound files of hymns from other traditions, including the Swedish-American “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and Primitive Baptist folk hymns like “Wondr’ous Love” and “The Mercy Seat.” Worth a listen!

Nina Zanetti’s Glories Immortal has several other shape-note tunes as well. THE MIDNIGHT CRY and HALLELUJAH by William Walker, and AFRICA by William Billings. So I’ve been noodling around with them too, picking up intricacies in the melody for some and checking out Nina’s arrangements of others I already know by heart. And I’m reminded of others that aren’t in her book, like Billings’ JORDAN, and working out the melodies by ear.

Nina’s isn’t the only dulcimer book out there, by the way. Anne Lough has a collection of White Spirituals and Folk Hymns, with old-time gospel songs like Angel Band” and “Twilight is Stealing” that I remember from Christian Harmony singings in North Carolina. And Don Pedi’s collection Old-Time Sacred Music for Mountain Dulcimer has shape-note Christian Harmony hymns, old-time string band numbers and African-American songs like North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson’s “Oil in My Vessel” and “Swing Low, Chariot” collected by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The diatonic melodies of the Anglo-Celtic and African-American string band traditions of southern Appalachia are perfect for a diatonic instrument like the dulcimer.

(Since the songs are probably unfamiliar to most people, I linked to YouTube videos so you can hear them if you’re interested. They may sound strange — shape-note singers precede the lyrics by “singing the notes” of the old fa-sol-la solfège system, and, yes, we often rush the tempo. That’s the tradition. Calling songs by the name of the tune, written in capital letters is another characteristic quirk of shape-note singers. We’ll refer to them by page number, too — we also think of BELLEVUE as “No. 72, bottom brace,” as you can see by the linked copy from an 1860 edition of the Sacred Harp.)

So the old early American folk hymns are what I’ve been playing by the fireplace since I got out of the hospital. But does playing the dulcimer qualify as spiritual practice?

I dunno. I’m not even sure it qualifies as musical practice.

But I’m pretty much in the moment, sitting by the fireplace with Debi, cat on her lap and dulcimer on mine, savoring the fall evening, trying to capture the feeling of the music.

Tzvi Gluckin has this to say about it in Knee Deep in the Funk (excerpted on the Aish.com website), the book that helped me so much when I was first struggling with intercessory prayer:

I realized my goal as a musician and my goal as a Jew were exactly the same. I wanted to be knee-deep in the funk 24/7. The only difference was that music was limited to music. When the music was over it was over. What about the rest of the time? How did it offer transcendence in real life?

Instead of getting lost in the world of music or art, instead of tapping into the cosmic fabric via a canvas, Judaism was telling me: Let life be your canvas.

I’m not sure that my noodling around with early American folk hymns by the fireplace qualifies as tapping into the cosmic fabric. But I like something else that Gluckin says — “Every moment in life is an opportunity for transcendence.” Why not playing the dulcimer by the fireside? Maybe moments of transcendence, which I’d define as those moments when I’m aware of the presence of God, don’t have to be dramatic or other-worldly.

Maybe prayer is a two-way street. Maybe I can hear the voice of God — at the very least, echoes and overtones of God’s voice — when I’m listening for the harmonies, phrasing and dynamics of a melody I remember from my shape-note singing days. And trying to feel it and recreate it on the dulcimer as I listen.

As Fr. James Martin of the Jesuit magazine America says in a primer on Ignatian, or Jesuit, practice, “Anything that draws you deeper into prayer, helps you feel closer to God, or, as Ignatius says, builds you up, encourages you, gives you hope, is probably coming from God.” That, I am coming to believe, would be equally true in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola; an early American shape-note tunebook; a shape-note singing convention in Chicago or North Carolina; an operating room in the Prairie Heart Institute or playing the dulcimer by my fireside at home in Springfield.

[Published Oct. 21, 2021]

2 thoughts on “‘How Firm a Foundation’: Calling on a shape-note folk hymn in the hospital … and later by my fireside at home

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