It seems as if everyone who knows the old Appalachian folk hymn ‘There Is a Fountain’ loves it, with its Civil War manner of simplicity and sentimentality. The refrain that repeats the last line of each verse for a lingering contemplative moment is a dear American musical statement.
I certainly join with the throngs who are endeared to this piece. And all my life I’ve heard it performed, at times as a beautifully quaint folksy instrumental, or as a formal congregational hymn, or a sweeping operatic showpiece, or a Bluegrass gospel number, or a jazz improv, or an Indie acoustic pop song, or a fundamentalist inspirational solo…
But in my own soul I’ve always longed for an instrumental approach that especially focuses on the impact of its stunning lyrics penned by the matchless eighteenth century English poet William Cowper --- the words from the soul of a man who was emerging from his first earthshaking trauma of major depression.
Cowper was a poetic pioneer of his age, combining the metaphysical images of the recent poetic past with experiential fervor, and he was a gifted master. He also was kindly watched over by another poet, his pastor John Newton, whom you may know most by his text ‘Amazing Grace.’
To express Cowper’s message on the hammered dulcimer I felt that I needed to bring myself into an epic experience of my own as I play it. So how did I go about that in making the solo hammered dulcimer arrangement?
1) I searched for a tempo and rhythm combination that would both propel the thought through a goodly length of time and provide temporal space for the full force of meaning to sink in --- and that groove came to take the form of a rolling contemporary feel.
2) I chose to use a lot of minor chords in this very major piece. Since it was to stay in the same key throughout the whole adventure, D, I shifted back and forth in emotional combinations of minor and major chords to swell one’s soul through phrase after phrase: for example, for the note G, perhaps instead of a G chord I would insert an Em chord or a Bm chord, and never stay long on any one chord.
3) A certain ‘schmaltzy’ effect in sweet tunes can be achieved by using the tonic b7 chord in its third inversion; translated, in the key of D that’s a D chord with a C natural in the bass. For a lot of tunes, I personally wouldn’t use that idea because it may seem overdone or clichéd --- but for this version of ‘There Is a Fountain’ it just seems to contribute just right to the flow of chord exchanges and phrasing, if played with care in an especially meaningful way.
4) I found ways to incorporate walk-downs. At the midpoint of each verse there’s a quick, syncopated one that serves as a sort of response to what’s just been said, thus leading into the repeating section; and at the end of the verse the last note of the melody becomes the first note of an extended walk-down over a four-chord series (G, D, Em, D) played twice, with an improvisational melody over it --- a melody that keeps itself centered on that last note of the tune (the tonic, D) in heartfelt contrast to the motion of the walk-down. This ending walk-down series almost feels like an extension of the repetitions of the refrain it follows. (One key to this working is that instead of playing a D chord for the last note of the verse as expected, I start the series with a G chord leading downward to eventually resolve on the D --- like a ‘Fourfold Amen.’)
5) But that tag at the end of each verse becomes the structural core of the whole arrangement! After the second verse I play it exactly the same as the first time, but then startle the listener with a dramatic high and intense third series leading to a pattern of melody that descends back down to the melody’s D. And then after the third verse… I repeat all four of those exactly, but move on to a whole new series of improvised lines that make the coda into eight walkdowns --- doubling the length from two to four to eight! There’s a powerful symmetry to this.
6) How to treat the playing of the melody three times without words to drive it: The second verse is similar to the first, but with various expressive changes such as volume change, some timing and melodic variances, etc., but all serving the overall arch of the arrangement’s progression. The third verse, though, following on the heels of a completely open (but carefully timed) pause, is rhythmic chording only but with all sorts of personal, emphatic ‘comments’ --- but only for the first half of the verse. The second half returns to the melody, but with...
7) ...an extreme plummeting into very slow, very quiet, awed meditation that continues with great noteless gaps of time to the verse’s end. As the eight-series coda begins, it continues this mood but with a long-growing return to the original thrust of speed and rhythm till as the final, new, four series are reached the intensity goes yet farther up --- and so does the range of the notes. And in the final passes through the walk-downs a thorough denouement brings everything down again to very slow near-silence.
8) And another contrast is the introduction to the entire piece: Since I play a very richly toned extended range dulcimer, the Dusty
Strings D600, I start with a drone in the lowest part, the notes D and A, to establish a semi-contemporary mood mixed with a hint of the old shape-note source of the tune, rising through an Appalachian Spring type of progression through drones --- then amid a ringing of that the much more harmonically rich main body of the arrangement begins.
9) As the performer, I consciously put myself into a mood that will ride this adventure from beginning to end, with the actual goal of physically and emotionally participating in Cowper’s heart-cries till at the end I am somehow a different person because of it.
10) I use the suede side of my hammers for their evocative tonal range as the vast dynamics occur.
11) I don’t play this music to the audience, but close myself into my own private world for the duration. (They understand!)
I’ve included three things you may find helpful if you want to consider these and other aspects of this arrangement:
1) A lead sheet in the more singable key of G with the basic melody, one version of the chords, and Cowper’s complete text: Cleansing-Fountain-in-G-F.pdf
3) An informal video of one performance of it (they’re all a bit different, as each experience is different):
Feel free to reapply any of these ideas to your own arranging! I hope you are newly inspired ---
That term again: ‘overall arch!’