A prophetic lullaby, a soothing balm before death

A prophetic lullaby, a soothing balm before death

Hymn #29 -- A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief

Text: James Montgomery (1771-1854)
Music: George Coles (1792-1858); altered

What does one think about, sitting in jail, falsely accused, knowing they are about to die?

Next week I will turn 38, the age of the Prophet Joseph Smith when he and his brother Hyrum were murdered. It's strange to compare one's life to such an incredible and pivotal figure as Joseph Smith. And it's very humbling. Considering how much he did in his short 38.5 years absolutely blows my mind. 

But I think I can glimpse a small part, maybe 0.01%, of the thoughts going through his mind. Especially the worry about his young family who he knew he was leaving behind. My 5 children are near the same ages as some of his children at the time he was killed. My 9 months of living away from my family while finished my education on a Fulbright in Poland gave me that sense of fatherly worry from a distance, being helpless to aid and support in my absence. 

Now throw in the whole restoration of the Church, the translations, the establishing of cities, the building of temples, the leading of a whole global religious movement, the revelations, the Heavenly visions, the responsibility he must have felt, the immensely heavy load of leadership. In other words, take my miniature feelings of angst from my Poland experience and multiply them by 10,000,000 and we might get a glimpse into how Joseph was feeling, sitting there, waiting to die in Carthage Jail.

To quote Marty McFly, "Whoa. This is heavy."

Hymn #29, "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief," played a special role in the Prophet's last few hours. I think, and I'm totally guessing here, that lying there in Carthage, Joseph may have thought to himself, "Did I do enough? Did I live up to what was expected of me? Did I provide the Christ-like example I was commanded to provide? Was I a true representative of the Lord?"

I think that the narrative quality of today's hymn is exactly what he might have been thinking about. In a way, he identified with the suffering and challenges Jesus experienced. But of course, Joseph was just a man trying to follow the example of a perfect Christ. The last lines of verse 7 really say it all and fulfill the great teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25, the "When saw we thee an hungered..." discussion. "Of me thou hast not been ashamed. / These deeds shall thy memorial be; / Fear not, thou didst them unto me."


Apart from this all-important narrative, the tune of this hymn is a perfect lullaby. The original melody was called DUANE STREET and was composed by the Rev. George Coles. But the version we have in our hymnal has been altered. I cannot figure out who altered it. Karen Davidson does not give any clues to this riddle in her book. Perhaps John Taylor, who sang the tune to the prophet and his brother just minutes before martyrdom is the one who should be given credit for the alteration of the tune. I'm not sure.

Here is a copy of the original. It's very clearly the same tune. Perhaps when Jame Montgomery put his text to this tune, he was the one who altered to fit his words. 

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The version we have in our hymnal is in the more rollicking meter of 6/8. And with the 6/8 feel comes many passing tones and neighbor tones to fill the gaps in the triple meter. These characteristics, combined with the lovely repetition and yearning upper register climaxes, give this hymn the real sense that it is a lullaby. And what better way to teach, especially a child, an all important message like this one, than setting it to a lullaby.

What's remarkable about the harmony is that it is the absolute, most basic possible harmony you can image short of having only 1 chord played for the whole piece. There are only 2 chords in the whole hymn. The 1 chord and the 5 chord. The soothing, rolling, pleading melody rocks back and forth between the 1 chord and 5 chord as if Mother Harmony herself had wrapped this narrative child in swaddling clothes, clung it to her breast, and soothed it to sleep.

And it seems that this is exactly the part it played in Joseph Smith's final hours. In this sense, it reminds me of the great statue of Michelangelo, the Pieta. Mother Mary is seen holding her lifeless adult son, Jesus the Christ, after He has been crucified. 


There's one element in the melody that keeps this hymn interesting and engaging and able to sustain a congregation for 7 somewhat long verses. It is the rise and fall of the scale on successive downbeats, like scaffolding. Look here at Phrase 3, "I had not pow'r..." The yearning 3rd phrase begins with a high motion to the high E-flat, it moves a bit, then hits the high D on the next downbeat, move about again then hits the high C on the next downbeat and the B-flat on the next. Then as Phrase 4 begins, the A-flat is emphasized, then up to the emphasized B-flat, then up to the C, the D-flat, and finally a last climactic plea on the high E-flat before resting down to the final Do, the A-flat. Very effective/affective.

Of the handful of LDS hymn arrangements I've written, my arrangement of this hymn is one of my favorites. I wrote it originally for violin and piano. Here's a recording of the first verse. It's available in the collection "Principal Player, Vol. 2" from Jackman Music. It's also available for Woodwind Instrument and Piano or Brass Instrument and Piano in the collection called "Sacred Airs." Click the images below if you're interested in getting sheet music. Or, click here and choose your instrument of choice, LDS Music.

Now, I think the hymn would work a little better down a half step in G major. So many high E-flats is quite a lot for a congregation. But there is something warm and soothing and velvety about the key of A-flat major. G major has a bit of a brighter hue to it. But not so much that this hymn wouldn't still maintain it's reverent feel.

But this brings up another question. Is this really a hymn? Or is it a song? 

I think it's a song that has been turned into a hymn. Now, while I wholeheartedly believe it deserves a place in our hymnal, it brings up this question for the first time in our deep dive into the LDS Hymnal. What is the difference between a hymn and a song? We won't get into this today, but I wanted to bring it up to plant a seed for future discussion. We have many "songs" in our hymnal. I'm not sure they all belong. But, we'll get to this discussion later.

For now, I hope you have a great day! And I hope you'll join me on my 1st LIVE hymn critique later this morning. At 10am, and in the new Facebook group I've setup called "Dr. Pew's LDS Music Reviews." I hope you'll join us. Click this button here and it will send you to the Facebook group.

Have a good one!


P.S. Click the button below to download my complete harmonic analysis of this hymn. 

P.P.S. Are you ready to take your hymn writing to the next level? Apply for a hymn critique and I'll help you make that leap! Click below to apply.

Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

I can understand the rationale for including this text and tune in our hymnal, especially so close to the hymns of the restoration generally and the Prophet Joseph specifically, but it has never appealed to me or felt like it worked very well congregationally, especially since we never sing all of the verses to any hymn with text outside the music, thus cutting the narrative of this text short. Even if you sing the last verse after the first three, it still doesn’t work. All of the verses are needed to transmit the message of the hymn, yet we refuse to do so. The tune does work very well in tandem with the text. Having said all this, this to me is much more of a song than it is a hymn. But since it is in our book, we can discuss playing it.

It is important to feelt the big pulse in two. If something is made of each eighth note, it becomes slow and laborious. The dotted quarter note should be at about 44-48 beats per minute (that would be about eighth note equal to between 132-144). This gives the song a nice lilt and allows it to be sung without becoming a dirge. Because the melody is so important here, this is another great spot to practice soloing out the melody. Here again are some recommendations:

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, Viola 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Registrations for soloing on the Swell:
Great: Principal 8’ (Flute 8’ ?) -or- Flute 8’ 4’,Viola 8’ -or- Viola 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Flute (16’ ?) 8’, 4’, 2’ -or- Flute 8’, Hautbois 8’ -or- Bourdon 16’, Bassoon 16’, Flute 8’ (played up the octave) -or- Flute 8’, 4’, 2 ⅔’, (2’, 1 ⅗’ ? adding these makes a ‘cornet’)
Pedal: Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’

Possible Registrations for soloing on the Great:
Great: Principal 8’ (Flute 8’ ?) -or- Flute 8’, Clarinet 8’ (Krummhorn 8’) -or- Flute 16’, 8’, 4’, 2’
Swell: Flute 8’ 4’, Viola 8’ -or- Flute 8’, Viola 8’ Celeste 8’ (only in some cases, perhaps this particular song isn’t the best place for use of the celeste in congregational singing?) -or- Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Pedal: Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Bourdon 16’, Principal 4’
Swell: Flute 2’, (if you had a particularly low-pitched mixture, it could be added with the box more closed…)
Pedal: Bassoon 16’, 32’ Flue