Come Thou Fount

More about text and tune.

A little while ago, Kate Campbell’s recording of “Come thou fount of ev’ry blessing” (from the album Wandering Strange) went past on my iTunes, and I realized that though it had what I think of as the “standard” tune for this text, the tune wasn’t any of the ones in The Sacred Harp — though that book has four different settings of the words.

More mix-and-match association of text with tunes, in this case with tunes suitable to the 8,7 meter of the text.

One of the Sacred Harp settings is my grand-daughter’s favorite song in the book: Restoration (First) #312b, with its fierce tune paired with a chorus that Opal likes a lot:

I will rise and go to Jesus,
He’ll embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

The story of the text and tune, from the Wikipedia entry:

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing is a Christian hymn written by the 18th century pastor and hymnist Robert Robinson. Robert Robinson penned the words at age 22 in the year 1757. The words of the hymn are in the public domain.

In the USA, the hymn is usually set to an American folk tune known as Nettleton, composed by printer John Wyeth, or possibly by Asahel Nettleton. In the UK, the hymn is also often set to the tune Normandy by C Bost. The Nettleton tune is used extensively in partial or full quotation by the American composer Charles Ives, in such works as the First String Quartet and the piano quintet and song “The Innate.”

The song has gained a degree of popularity in recent years, in large part due to an arrangement by Mormon … composer Mack Wilberg… [The article lists some recordings; there are in fact hundreds of them, in many different styles: church-choral, folk, gospel. And it provides various versions of the words, almost all of them beginning:

Come, thou fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.]

Here’s Nettleton, from the 1982 hymnal of the U.S. Episcopal Church:

I have a pile of recordings of Nettleton, some of them instrumental, others paired with the “Come thou fount” text: by Kate Campbell, David Crowder Band, Chris Rice, Jars of Clay, N’Harmony, Phil Wickham, Sufjan Stevens, London Festival Orchestra / Cumberland Choir, Bluegrass Worship Band, David Huntsinger, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Saint Paul’s Chamber Choir, Everett Brown (The Steeple on the Common, vol. 2).

Back in the Sacred Harp (which gives 1758 as the date of Robinson’s words), in addition to Restoration #312b, there’s Olney #135, Warrenton #145t, and Family Circle #333. Of the five tunes (these four plus Nettleton), Restoration is the only one in a minor key, indeed a pentatonic minor (remember that in this tradition the melody line is in the tenor, the third line down):

Olney and Warrenton  are in mostly pentatonic major keys (with occasional 4th and 7th notes serving as passing tones):

Family Circle is in a straightforward (heptatonic) major key, and (like Warrenton) breaks out into a shouting-song chorus:

I have three recordings of Restoration (First), one of Olney, four of Warrenton, and none at all of Family Circle.

Nettleton appears in early shapenote collections (starting with Wyeth’s Repository of 1813), but is absent from the current collections. On the other hand, the tune appears in William Walker’s 1873 Christian Harmony — but under the name The Good Shepherd, and with a text different from “Come thou fount”:

Let thy kingdom, blessed Saviour,
Come and bid our jarrings cease;
Come, oh come! and reign forever,
God of Love and Prince of peace;
Visit now poor bleeding Zion,
Hear the people mourn and weep;
Day and night thy lambs are crying,
Come, good Shephed, feed thy sheep.

Mix and match, that’s the ticket.

(Meanwhile, I’m listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.)

6 Responses to “Come Thou Fount”

  1. nbmandel Says:

    That B section of NETTLETON is the same as the chorus of #335 _Return Again_, isn’t it?

    Opal clearly has good taste. 312b’s a great song.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The beginning of the B section of Nettleton has exactly the same figure as the beginning of the chorus of Return Again, but then they diverge. So, more than a family resemblance.

  2. nbmandel Says:

    Yes, thanks. The way I’d view it is that NETTLETON goes back to its A music after the two phrases on the “Return again” tune. Oh, I see that this (D.C.) is how it’s written out in its Christian Harmony appearance as “The Good Shepherd” (p. 509 in the 2010 edition). You may have seen all this for yourself, but thanks for leading me to explore it.

    Do we assume that the phrase was borrowed from NETTLETON for “Return Again”? Maybe I’ll ask the hymn-tune experts on the Fasola discussions list.

    Next time you are in New York, you’ll come and sing with us, won’t you?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Do we assume that the phrase was borrowed from Nettleton for “Return Again”? That would be my guess, but it all depends on the history of the tunes — and for that we need the knowledge of hymn-tune experts.

  3. half the Beast, the neighbor of the Beast | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Some are decidedly odd, but one was an old friend, Family Circle (the music is included in my posting on “Come Thou Fount”; “And rejoice, O my mother” is in the chorus). Family […]

  4. Two mother songs | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Some are decidedly odd, but one was an old friend, Family Circle (the music is included in my posting on “Come Thou Fount”; “And rejoice, O my mother” is in the […]

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