In an odd unfolding of Psalmic fate, my top choice settings for two Psalms in the last month were both set to the same tune: SALVATION. In My Distress I Called to God (Psalm 120) and When God Restored Our Common Life (Psalm 126). The tune had not previously gained my attention, though its common enough that I have probably have used it before. Its from Kentucky Harmony, and like all great early American tunes it is rugged as the Appalachian mountains, yet as balanced a melody as Gregorian chant.
Shape note hymn tunes sound perfect in their original settings, with raw, static harmonies, sung with open-throated energy. However, they can sound like fish out of water when theyre set with more modern harmonies. Thats how I felt about the harmonization in the Psalter Hymnal. (Sorry Kenneth…) It wasnt bad, but it just didnt bring out the melodys charms.
Heres what I like about my reharmonization: It puts a big fat accent on the pickup note to each phrase; to my ear thats one of the keys to the tunes character. It uses big block chords, with no harmonic fussiness distracting from the tunes earthy modality. The broad harmonic movement is from D minor (i) in the first two phrases to Am (v) in the last two, which gives the melody a sense of movement. Finally, the deceptive cadence and short interlude gives the congregation a quick chance to breath before diving into the next verse.