Mack Wilberg (b. 1955)
Composer, arranger, conductor and, since March 28, 2008, music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Mack Wilberg (arr.)
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
“Most of our American musical heritage is based on European models, but the folk hymns and spirituals are one of the most fertile and unique of our American musical traditions.”
— Mack Wilberg
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, spirituals, and less familiar folk melodies have kept the tradition in the nation’s ears. Deep River is among the best-known and best-loved African-American spirituals, first published in 1876. Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing is the fourth in Wilberg’s Four American Folk Hymns.
Deep River, like most African-American spirituals, already had a strong oral tradition when it first appeared in print — in J.B.T. Marsh’s 1876 The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs.
The Jubilee Singers was a nine-member SATB student group organized to raise desperately needed funds for Fisk University. Their 18-month tour began in October 1871 and included performances from Ohio to New England (including a stop in Rhode Island) and south to Washington, D.C., at a time when spirituals were unfamiliar to many audiences. The Jubilee Singers, most of them children of former slaves, was instrumental in establishing spirituals as a significant offering in the concert hall. After a shaky start the original tour netted $40,000 for Fisk. More tours followed, including one to Europe, and performances for dignitaries from Ulysses S. Grant to Queen Victoria.
“[Those songs] were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship and shouted over them,” according to Ella Sheppard, an original member of the Jubilee Singers. “It was only after many months that gradually our hearts were opened to the influence of these friends and we began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of our songs.”
Deep River had become a popular concert piece by 1917, when H.T. Burleigh published his arrangement. It has appeared in several motion pictures, including a performance by Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940), and was one of five spirituals in Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (1944).
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Although it is a staple in many American hymnals, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing has an uncertain history. The text was written by Robert Robinson (1735-1790), an English minister, scholar, hymn writer, and dissenter from the Church of England. He was 22 years old when he wrote the original five verses, which have been adapted and reworked many times, often to avoid areas of doctrinal controversy. Mack Wilberg’s arrangement begins with Robinson’s original first verse in its entirety and concludes with Robinson’s fourth verse. The middle two verses use parts of other verses and share a refrain — “Prone to wander ...” — drawn from Robinson’s fourth verse.
Robinson’s text has been sung to different hymn tunes, but most frequently to “Nettleton,” which appeared for the first time in John Wyeth’s 1813 Repository of Sacred Music as “Hallelujah.” The tune’s name refers to the evangelist and hymn compiler Asahel Nettleton, although there is no evidence that Nettleton composed it. Some sources note that “Nettleton” is one of several older American folk melodies related to the folk tune “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” It has been quoted frequently, including by Charles Ives in his First String Quartet.
A word about raising an Ebenezer (second verse): The Biblical phrase, from the first book of Samuel, suggests a thank offering for a divinely mediated rescue from danger. Israel had fought major battles with the Philistines, including a battle in which the Ark of the Covenant fell into enemy hands for a time. But Israel also scored a decisive victory at the same site, which led the prophet Samuel to raise a stone monument and name the place Ebenezer — eḇen hā-‘ezer, “the stone of help.”
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us. (I Samuel 7:12)