From All That Dwell Below the Skies, Sacred Harp, and SSS

I have a condition. It’s not an officially diagnosable, documented, or serious condition, but I have one just the same. I like to call it Song Stickiness Syndrome, or SSS for short (just wait for the DSM-VI, there are dozens of us!). The symptoms include perpetually singing a song in my head (most of the time in full or partial harmony), waking up with a song in my head (which is why it is particularly important to have a good alarm in the morning – currently Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”), learning melodies (and often harmonies) of songs with just one or two listens, and a penchant for whistling and humming.

SSS is both a blessing and a curse. Mostly blessing. It enriches my life since chances are strong that a given song in my head is a hymn or psalm, given the nature of my ongoing hymn- and psalm-related service for my church and denomination. The mere mention of a song or hymn title lodges that song in my head for at least an hour. The curse nature of SSS comes when my wife plays cruel tricks on me. Once in a while, she’ll sing a bar or two of a terrible Methodist or Baptist “hymn,” knowing that I will carry that burden far longer than one person should bear. For example, we were at a concert at an area megachurch recently, paging through their hymnal (The Celebration Hymnal, a popular Baptist hymnal) pointing out particularly egregious songs. She playfully decided to sing a few bars of “There’s Something About That Name” on the way home. The schmaltzy-ness – oh, the humanity. I also have difficulty shopping, since most of the background these days drives me to the brink of madness. Fortunately our local supermarket plays mostly alternative and classic rock, making it an SSS safe zone (or SSSSZ for short).

All this to say, I’ve had a song stuck in my head for days that falls under the “blessing” category, and I thought I’d share. Thus the long, me-focused introduction. Isaac Watts wrote a loose paraphrase of Psalm 117 titled “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” in 1719. This text has been paired with various tunes throughout the years, including DUKE STREET and LASST UNS ERFREUEN. Each of these are sturdy, appropriate, singable tunes for this text, but neither compare with its Sacred Harp match, called SCHENECTADY. I learned this tune thanks to the fantastic collection of early American sacred music called Goostly Psalmes or Early American Choral Music, volume 2 by His Majestie’s Clerkes, conducted by Paul Hillier.

To learn more about Sacred Harp singing, I’ll point you to a post on Sacred Harp singing I wrote last year. Hillier’s version of “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” is professional and polished, though one of the mesmerizing characteristics of Sacred Harp gatherings is that they are neither professional nor polished. I’ll leave you with two videos of this song, one from an Irish Sacred Harp sing, and another more raucous version from a Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention. And please don’t take advantage of my now-public SSS vulnerability by playing cruel tricks on me.

Irish:

Massachusetts:

2 thoughts on “From All That Dwell Below the Skies, Sacred Harp, and SSS

  1. Joel,I think you inherited a good chunk of your SSS from me,although my tolerance for the stuff that bugs you is probably higher,and my knowledge of new and Indie music is much lower. Except I probably know and like more country music,,,,,Mom

  2. These are good things to know about one’s son-in-law. I loved listening to both versions of the song that you provided, and especially the second one where I could follow my part in the music while listening. Thanks for sharing it.

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