Retuned Hymn: John Newton - Olney Hymn #66

Some of the work I am a part of at my local church includes leading others in worship through song, and some of it also includes collecting meaningful, gospel-centered songs + readings for others to share during the offering portion of the worship service. Recently I was introduced to this site, which houses the full collection of John Newton and William Cowper's Olney Hymnal.

The Olney Hymnal is a collection of songs written by Newton and Cowper for their small, rural church in the late 1700s. The songs were written with the people of the community in mind who were mostly poor, lower class, and uneducated. They wanted the songs to be accessible to the average person in their community (I love this by the way - they considered their people and wrote with them in mind!)

I dare not put myself in the same category as their work, but am simply giving myself the challenge of re-tuning a handful of the Olney Hymns over time. I have grown to LOVE what the people of Indelible Grace are doing in their hymn re-tuning.  Many of their hymns have become daily prayer-songs for me.

It is an honor to take music that was written by two of the Church's most well-known hymn-writers, and create a new melody for it.  These two men in particular have written songs with such depth of gospel knowledge, and yet with imagery and focus relating to every day living. I kept almost every word the same, but changed only a few to make it a touch more accessible for a modern congregation.  However, I didn't want to lose the beauty and strong imagery that was created with their original language - even if it feels archaic to some. I do think it's important to be stretched a little in our vocabulary when we sing, while still understanding what we are saying. 

I especially love that the Olney Hymns are based strongly on specific passages of Scripture. This particular one is based on Jeremiah 17. Our pastor is leading us through a sermon series on Jeremiah, so I went directly to the songs listed under Jeremiah in the Olney collection.

These song lyrics contain strong symbolism contrasting barren deserts with overflowing streams, and trusting the world with trusting the Lord, respectively. There is no refrain in this hymn, but it felt like the first stanza lyrics of each section kind of present the "problem" and the second stanza of each section presents the "answer", (see bold below). So I tried to reflect this idea by giving the two stanzas a different melody. I also wanted the overall melody to be up-tempo to keep the song moving, not dragging since there are a lot of words, (a given with hymns!).   

However, I also wanted to keep the melody and rhythm simple and straight forward enough for general congregational participation. I originally had the melody syncopated (cause this girl loves syncopation!), but felt the lyrics were awkward to spit out with he off beat rhythm. So, in thinking of how best to serve a congregation, which was the heart of Newton and Cowper in their writing the lyrics, I nixed the synco and kept it on the beat.

His Waters Cannot Fail
Lyrics by John Newton
Melody by Tawnya Smith

As parched in the barren sands,
Beneath a burning sky,
The worthless bramble with’ring stands,
And only grows to die

Such is the sinner’s awful case,
Who makes the world his trust;
And dares his confidence to place
In vanity and dust

A secret curse destroys his root,
And dries his moisture up;
He lives awhile, but bears no fruit,
Then dies without a hope

But happy he whose hopes depend
Upon the LORD alone;
The soul that trusts in such a friend,
Can ne’er be overthrown

Though all should wither, cisterns break,
And creature–comforts die;
No change his solid hope can shake,
Or stop his sure supply

So thrives and blooms the tree whose roots
By constant streams are fed;
Arrayed in green, and rich in fruits,
It rears its branching head

It thrives, though rain should be denied,
And drought around prevail;
It’s planted by a river’s side
Whose waters cannot fail

It’s planted by a river’s side
Whose waters cannot fail