Friday, July 10, 2015

"Come ye sinners, poor and needy" and BEACH SPRING -- a shape-note folk hymn and Anglo-Celtic pentatonic tune for this week's Prairieland Strings session

Last week Jim Harris, who facilitated the Prairieland Strings when we met on the Springfield College-Ursuline Academy campus, dropped by our session and taught us -- playing by ear, no less! -- a shape-note melody called BEACH SPRING. It's one of those haunting pentatonic Anglo-American melodies, and it's been around since 1844, when Benjamin Franklin White included it in the first edition of his Sacred Harp with a hymn text that begins "Come ye sinners, poor and needy." White is regarded as the composer of the tune, although he probably heard it in oral tradition.

(Tangent: I'm not shouting when I capitalize the name of the tune, by the way. It's a convention that people sometimes use when writing about hymns -- names of tunes go in caps, like BEACH SPRING, and names of hymn texts or first lines go in quotation marks, like "Come ye sinners ..." I'm going to follow the convention here because the tune shows up with so many different texts.)

The tune

According to, BEACH SPRING has been published in 113 different hymnals. For a long time, we closed our sessions at Ursula Hall playing a copyrighted version of it called the "Servant Song."

So I went home and Googled it. Turns out I found a lead sheet with chords and dulcimer tablature on Tull Glazner's website. Glazner notes that BEACH SPRING appeared in several shape-note tunebooks of the early 1800s:

The most well known of these from "The Sacred Harp" is called "Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy", whose lyrics were written by Joseph Hart in 1759. A related hymn is called "Jesus is Willing". Over the years, many other hymns have been set to this melody, including "Jesus At Your Holy Table", "Come All Christians Be Committed", "Lord Whose Love in Humble Service", and "Healing River of the Spirit". The tune was featured as the theme song for the Ken Burns 1997 PBS documentary about the Lewis and Clark expedition.

And he links to two YouTube videos: (1) of a montage of shape note singing photos set to a background track of "Come Ye Sinners" from the 1991 edition of the Sacred Harp recorded at a shape-note singing convention held in Flora, Ind.; and (2) another version of BEACH SPRING being played on mandola with perfect tempo and dynamics.

A couple of others:

  • Beech Spring (The Corps of Discovery), Soundtrack to Lewis & Clark TV series.

  • Mountain dulcimer duet by Doc Gardner and Carolyn Marlett

  • Beach Spring Hymn tune played on guitar by Brad Sondahl

The text

In its most common form (although not in the Sacred Harp), the hymn text is a composite of a religious text written in 1759 by a Calvinist minister in England named Joseph Hart and an unrelated "floating verse" from American folk tradition.

Hart's verse is:

Come ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow'r.

And the floating verse, which is treated like a chorus, is:

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Somehow it all fits together. Lyrics a composite from

PLEASE NOTE: There is another American folk hymn melody to which Hart's text is often sung together with the camp meeting chorus. It is a minor-key (or Aeolian modal) tune called RESTORATION, and it was collected -- or composed -- by B.F. White's brother-in-law William Walker in Southern Harmony. Here it is, as sung by the Galkin Evangelistic Team:

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