Feb 272011
 

The Song

Behind the Song

Isaac Watts (1647-1748) is known as the “Father of English Hymnody” for very good reason. If he wasn’t the very first to ever write a hymn in English, he was the one who showed the rest of us how it was done. A precocious youngster with an inborn knack for rhyme, one day he complained to his father (a deacon in his Nonconformist church) about the low quality of poetry in the metric psalms they sang. In young Isaac’s defense, the stanza that set off his gripe was something like—

Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your maker’s praises spout,
Up from the sands ye codlings peep
And wag your tails about.

—which is ghastly and I promise I won’t ever complain about modern worship choruses again for the next two hours. To the elder Watts’s everlasting credit, his response was a challenge: maybe before Isaac complained about poems being bad, he ought to try writing a better one.

The rest is history, or perhaps hymnology. If you know any hymns at all, odds are very good that at least one of them is by Isaac Watts. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” “Joy to the World.” “Jesus Shall Reign.” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” In all, he wrote well over 700 original hymn texts, including paraphrases of nearly all the psalms, and, in a significant departure for church music of that time, hymns that were based on doctrine and devotion as much as on Scripture. (Yes, this caused Worship Wars. “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy,” railed one critic. Some things never change.)

To write a good hymn in English, you have to find a way to combine exalted and lofty thoughts with down-to-earth and accessible language. Watts found it, and pretty much every hymnwriter after him has imitated his example. His hymns are vigorous yet nuanced, simple yet elegant. This particular hymn, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?”, is a splendid example of his devotional writing.

Though not a direct paraphrase of Scripture, the text reflects on the passion and death of Christ, making it painfully personal: “Was it for crimes that I have done / He hung upon the tree?” (Yes, it was.) While fully embracing the emotional impact of Christ’s death in our place, Watts refuses to succumb to maudlin sentimentality: “But drops of grief can ne’er repay / the debt of love I owe.” Instead, the appropriate response is for me to “give myself away,” living in sacrificial love as Jesus did.

Musically, the melody in my arrangement is taken from a haunting early American Sacred Harp tune called “Consolation” (a.k.a. “Morning Song”). Early American hymnody adored Watts, though as far as I know my arrangement is the first to put this tune and text together, where they clearly belong. The lead vocal is sung with great sensitivity by Carrie Pazdziora, whose music you should explore here on her website. This also marks the first appearance on the album of my Norwegian friend, concert violinist Øystein Torp. If you’re half as impressed with his playing as I am, you’ll be blown away.

 

The Lyrics

Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed?
Lyrics: Isaac Watts (Public Domain) Tune: American Folk Hymn “Morning Song” (Public Domain)
Arrangement Copyright © 1998 Eric M. Pazdziora

Alas!  And did my savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For sinners such as I?

Was it for crimes that I have done
He hung upon the tree?
Amazing pity!  Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree.

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glory in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
When His dear cross appears:
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe.
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.

Get the Song

Buy the MP3 on iTunes:

Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed - New Creation: Hymns of Wonder, Love, and Praise

Buy the album on CDbaby:

 

Chord Charts

Click here to get chord charts and lead sheets for the entire album.

If you would like this song in another arrangement, feel free to contact the composer. I’m always open to new commissions, projects, and ideas.

If you use this song in your worship or other performance and make a recording, I’d love to see a copy!

Music Copyright © 2010 Eric M. Pazdziora. All Rights Reserved.

  • Stephanie Jones

    Coming across your site from your xanga post. (I’m camdenjoneses, by the way.) You are right, this tune is magnificently suited for the text. But I wanted to add, I am partial to the first verse lyrics that read “for such a worm as I” rather than “for sinners such as I.” Besides the worm description being so much more gritty – it’s in the singular tense, as is the rest of the hymn.

    • Fair point, Stephanie. I actually mulled over both versions for a while before recording, but finally settled on this one because most hymnals have had it that way since the 1800s. Also, the bluntness of Watt’s self-abnegation tends to draw more attention to itself than to the main point these days– the singer should think not “I’m a worm” but “Jesus died for this worm.” Still, you’re very right that most attempts to “improve” Watts wind up introducing their own problems. Of course, you’re welcome to sing it however suits you best when you use it!

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad some of my Xanga readers are still around!

      • And I totally didn’t mean “suits you best” to sound like some passive-aggressive roundabout way of calling you a worm! 😮

  • I like Worm better too still. There is too much focus on the self in our minds, but also not enough focus on our state of need. I don’t think people are too self-loathing these days- but too self-justifying. If they focus on “i’m a worm” on that line, I’m OK with it. They have more verses to evolve their focus.

    also on the verse that tears of grief cannot repay the debt should point to the fact that the debt can never be repaid – that is that a response of giving oneself away can never repay the debt either. I think the theological insight here is response not payment – which Watts doesn’t put together in this particular verse. The tears of grief should come naturally as we feel the weight of the glory of the cross – but they should not be focused on to be manufactured as some kind of work or payment. Similarly, our response of giving ourselves away is all that is left to do when there is nothing to save to be paid back to the one who saved us. All of our resources can be spent out because they need not be saved to pay a debt – a debt that we could not pay, and one that has been entirely paid.

    • Good thoughts, Nic. I think how one views “worm” might depend on their perspective. For instance, I’ve come across a lot of people with intense self-loathing brought on by too-introspective takes on religion (i.e. legalism); I doubt that “worm” would be especially edifying for them. On the other hand, some of us self-important folks could certainly stand to be taken down a peg or two.

      Your thoughts on “repayment” are spot on. Watts says that it’s “all that I can do,” but not that it’s actually sufficient for anything– not that it needs to be sufficient anyway, since Christ is our sufficiency.

      Thanks so much for your comment and tweet!

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  • Eric, thank you for your wonderful works. You can inject the new spirit into the old classic melody. I’d learn this song until I know then I can introuce it to others.

  • Eric, I like your arrangement. You really inject a new and modern spirit into the classic text. I’ll learn this song well and introduce to others. Thank you very much.

    • Thanks for your encouraging words, Eva! Good luck with the song.

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