Psalm 126, 13 Dec 20

Following the blues last Sunday about exile, reflecting many peoples suffering displacement and persecution of one sort or another in this world, here we celebrate hopeful restoration. This short but ringing song recalls the joy of people returning home, restored after years of separation and suppression.

When God restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream, our mouths filled with laughter and joy.

Verses 1 and 2
Sower with setting sun, Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.

Funny, but by verse 4 the psalmist is already imploring God once more to ‘restore our fortunes’. So either fortunes don’t last long, or there are a few other kinds of fortune to be restored.

Whichever way you read it — and it will touch different chords in different hearts at different times — the song promises that hope is alive for those who stay the course in adversity:

Those who go out weeping bearing the seed for sowing shall come home with shouts of joy carrying their sheaves.

V. 6

For more comments, including references by Jesus, and some musical offerings, see the main page on Psalm 126.


Online recorded services in splendid isolation rather take the shine off my ‘policy’ that responsorial psalm settings are winners — you know, antiphonal traditions, call and response, repetition and reflection, people identify and get involved, bonding, feels good, blah blah. So when a nice song comes up, but there’s no refrain in sight, well … preferred previously powerful policy pull precipitately pales.

So, remembering the introduction about restoration after the blues of exile, the suggestion in Psalms for All Seasons 126A is definitely attractive. It offers a setting of the psalm to a traditional American spiritual known as Wayfaring stranger.

This old song of course recalls not only Gospel metaphors for the Christian life, but also those suffering loneliness, separation and exile, including people from tribal homes in Africa to a rootless disenfranchised life of hard labour in the New World:

 I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger, 
traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger 
in that bright land to which I go
 I'm going there to see my Father, 
and all my loved ones who've gone on
I'm just going over Jordan;    
I'm just going over home.

PFAS has a bunch of interesting performance notes hidden in pages starting way back at page 1077-92. Yes, a lot of pages, many notes, a long way back and in fine print: but there are some good comments there if only you can find them. [PFAS is a great book but what were they thinking tucking performance notes away separately like that?] Anyway, the note for 126A suggests a soloist sings a verse of the old spiritual, shown above, before the psalm. At South Woden we shall hear just the psalm paraphrase, ‘When God first brought us back from exile’, to this old tune.

Finally, a note for those who relish the harmony and chord progressions. The spirituals are usually good solid, but nonetheless enjoyable and satisfying, excursions around the circle of harmony. Wayfaring stranger is really no different; but listen for the colour in the first line (and in fact the A section in AABA), popped in the middle of a standard minor progression in Cm, i-II7-i-I7-iv (minor in lower case). That fourth chord is the nice touch — after the C minor on an Eb bass in chord 3 comes a C dominant seventh on an E bass to progress to the sub-dominant on F. Not rocket science, but for the musical wayfarer these little touches are a delight.

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