“... the traditional Buddhist text the Heart Sutra, with the Providence Singers. This piece ends in a glorious burst of musical joy.”


Mack Wilberg (b. 1955)
Composer, arranger, conductor and, since March 28, 2008, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Mack Wilberg (arr.)

Eternal Father, Strong to Save  (2008)
Down to the River to Pray  (2010)

“The best we can do ... will convey but a faint shadow of the original. The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate; and the intonations and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper.”

— Editors’ introduction
Slave Songs of the United States (1867)

Whether in camp meetings, small-town clapboard churches, urban storefronts, or large, permanent houses of worship, American worshippers draw on a broad cross-section of American culture. There are many European standards and plenty of U.S. folk melodies, shaped-note singing, Gospel music, spirituals, call-and-response oral traditions, Appalachian tunes, and input from robust ethnic communities.

Like many American composers and arrangers from William Billings through Aaron Copland, Mack Wilberg has mined the rich and varied tradition of American sacred song. His many arrangements of standard hymns and less familiar melodies have kept the tradition in the nation’s ears. Wilberg is the 15th music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Two of his arrangements in these “Of Sea and Sky” concerts illustrate the breadth of American hymnody. The first, a mid-19th-century British standard, rapidly became widely known as the U.S. Navy Hymn and, with adjustments to the text, has been a part of many military ceremonies and state funerals. The second honors the deep roots of African-American folk and spiritual music, an oral tradition that was well-developed before Revolutionary War.

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

Hymns Ancient and Modern, a famous and durable British collection of 273 hymn tunes first published in 1861, consolidated and encouraged a tradition of hymn singing. It brought together a body of melodies and texts that has expanded over the decades and has remained widely known and shared, including “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”

Partly on the strength of the first verse’s final couplet (“Oh, hear us when we cry to thee/For those in peril on the sea”), that hymn quickly found a permanent and cherished home in the military services, including the Royal Navy and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, which used the original 1861 wording. The hymn’s meter and rhyme scheme (aabbcc) made it easily adaptable for dozens of organizations, military and otherwise: air forces (“Oh hear us when we lift our prayer/For those in peril in the air”), doctors and medical corps (“Bless those who give their healing care/That life and laughter all may share”), astronauts (“O hear us when we seek thy grace/For those who soar through outer space”), even the families of Arctic explorers (“As they Thy frozen wonders learn/Bless those who wait for their return.”)

The original hymn verses were not written for a military audience, however. The author, William Whiting, was headmaster of Britain’s Winchester College Choristers School. One of his students came to him, miserable and panicked by the prospect of a voyage to the United States. Whiting, who had had his own experience with a violent storm at sea and a near miss with shipwreck, created the hymn verses for that student, hoping to relieve anxiety and build courage.

Editorial work on Hymns Ancient and Modern was already underway in 1860 when Whiting wrote the verses, but not all the texts being considered for the hymnal had music. John Bacchus Dykes, an Anglican clergyman who composed more than 300 hymn tunes, had submitted several creations for consideration. One of them, titled “Melita,” was a perfect fit, both for its iambic meter (88.88.88) and for its inspiration. Melita is an archaic name for the ancient Mediterranean nation of Malta, site of a shipwreck involving the apostle Paul, recorded in Acts 27-28. (Dykes submitted six hymn tunes to the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern, including “Jesus lover of my soul”/Hollingside; “Nearer my God to Thee"/Horbury; and “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty”/Nicaea.)

Versions of the hymn text, several of which Whiting prepared for subsequent editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern, have been part of military and public ceremonies for more than 150 years, performed at funerals for presidents and other luminaries, and may have been the last hymn sung aboard the Titanic hours before it sank.

Down to the River to Pray

The Reconstruction Era in the American South saw a number of earnest efforts to gather and preserve the musical culture of African-Americans. Slave Songs of the United States (1867) included 136 spirituals, shouts, and other songs organized by region, most of them transcribed into musical notation by the editors directly from performance at worship services and social gatherings.

“Down to the River to Pray” appears in part three of Slave Songs as “The Good Old Way,” one of the song’s several titles. The editors listed it among works gathered from the inland slave states of Tennessee and Arkansas and along the Mississippi River. The origins of the piece are not clear; it has deep roots in several traditions, including folk tunes, Gospel songs, Appalachian melodies, and spirituals. Wikipedia notes that research now suggests it was created by an African-American slave.

The abolitionist author Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, noted that many slave songs had double meanings — journeying to the Land of Canaan as an expression for reaching the North, for example. “Down to the River to Pray” is among several songs associated with the Underground Railroad. Being down in the river, one theory suggests, could describe actual travel by foot in streams to elude bloodhounds; wearing the starry crown could be an allusion to celestial navigation by the North Star.

In their 1867 introduction to Slave Songs, the editors regret that more African-American music had not been gathered earlier: “The musical capacity of the negro race has been recognized for so many years that it is hard to explain why no systematic effort has hitherto been made to collect and preserve their melodies.” There had been some “spurious imitations, manufactured to suit the somewhat sentimental taste of our community,” the editors wrote, but “the public had well-nigh forgotten these genuine slave songs, and with them the creative power from which they sprung.”

In a footnote, the editors pointed out that some of these melodies had already been incorporated into the general history of American music: “It is not generally known that the beautiful air ‘Long time ago,’ or ‘Near the lake where drooped the willow,’ was borrowed from the negroes, by whom it was sung to words beginning, ‘Way down in Raccoon Hollow.’” Aaron Copland found that melody in the Harris Collection of the Brown University Library and composed a striking setting for his Old American Songs.

Eternal Father Strong to Save
Original text by William Whiting (1860, adapted)
Hymn tune: Melita by John Bacchus Dykes

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ, the Lord of hill and plain,
O’er which our traffic runs a-main,
By mountain pass or valley low,
wherever, Lord, Thy people go,
Protect them by Thy guiding hand,
From ev’ry peril on the land.

O Spirit, whom the Father sent,
To spread abroad the firmament;
O Wind of heaven, by Thy might,
Save all who dare the eagle’s flight,
And keep them by Thy watchful care,
From ev’ry peril in the air.

O Trinity of love and power,
Our children shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire, and foe,
Protect from wheresoe’er they go;
Thus, evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad praise from space, air, land, and sea.

Down in the River to Pray
Text by Alison Krauss

As I went down to the river to pray,
Studyin’ about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the starry crown.
Good Lord show me the way!

O, sisters, let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O, sisters, let’s go down,
Down to the river to pray.

As I went down to the river to pray,
Studyin’ about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the robe and crown.
Good Lord show me the way!

O, brothers, let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O, brothers, let’s go down,
Down to the river to pray.

O, fathers, let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O, mothers, let’s go down,
Down to the river to pray.

As I went down to the river to pray,
Studyin’ about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the robe and crown.
Good Lord show me the way!

O, sinners, let’s go down,
Come on down, come on down,
Don’t you wanna go down,
Down to the river to pray.