Out of the depths

Notes and commentary on the hymn Out of the depths.

In 1934, a major mining disaster struck Gresford colliery in North Wales. An underground explosion killed some outright, and was followed by further rock falls, choking asphyxiation and subsequent explosions. Some 266 people there were killed, including children as young as twelve, and including some who attempted the dangerous task of rescue. Compounding this, only eleven bodies were recovered; the families of the remainder were unable even to give their folk a decent burial.

Two years later, in 1936, and in direct response to this disaster, a Durham miner, Robert Saint, wrote a solemn, reflective tune Gresford. This was rapidly picked up across the mining communities of Britain, and played by colliery brass bands. The tune, although lacking words, became known as "The Miners' Hymn" and still resonates to this day with deep profundity in pit villages, in chapel, church, cathedral and community.

So with fear and trepidation (but with at least a little understanding based on my thirty-plus years in the heavily coal-mining region of County Durham) I offer this setting of a psalm of lament, Psalm 130. It attempts to be faithful to the text of the original psalm, faithful to the industrial context behind the writing of the tune and faithful to the communities who continue to own the tune and to treasure it.

PDF of text and tune
MP3 of tune

The seemingly large number (nine) of occurrences of "Lord" almost reflects that in the psalm itself (eight).

"out of the depths..." is perhaps one of the most well-known opening lines of a psalm. And it immediately resonates with those whose vocation was, and is, in the dangerous industry of coal extraction.
"sorrow and fear overwhelm and engulf me". The dangers of deep mining include poisonous gases and flood. So this line, although technically an addition to the original text, simply opens up the idea of the threatening depths already stated in the psalm.
The rising bass line helps convey the rising threat of mortal danger in the aftermath of the onset of an already terrifying situation, and its subsequent falling its clutching hold of us and dragging us down.
"...hear my cry" echoes the opening line.
"keep watch for every wrong": I understand that the Hebrew verb here translated as "watch" shares the same verbal stem as the later "dawn-watchers" (our verse 3).
"could raise their head in song": Different English translations use a variety of different metaphors ("could stand", "could hold up his head", etc.). The metaphor chosen in this sung version allows a return to the "song" at the close of the hymn itself.
The original psalm spends a long time, in a self-illustrative manner, talking about waiting, and waiting and still waiting. So the whole of verse three just spends time, in an already slow, solemn tune, simply waiting... and waiting...
The change of addressee from "the Lord" to "my soul" reflects an equivalent change in the original psalm.
"Though tower and temple fall" is adapted from a similar line in the hymn All my hope on God is founded. Of course, this also resonates with the physical dangers of mining. Other disasters, such as the Hartley Colliery disaster in Northumberland in 1862, literally saw towers fall, as overhead beams servicing lifts, ventilation, and water-pumping crashed down. And as the physical supports crash, so, too, can our faith.
"More than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawning". English translations tend to be more loquacious than the original, more terse Hebrew. In the psalm verse both Hebrew and its various English translations involve repetition. This particular compacted form of that repetition is suggested by Robert Alter's translation The Book of Psalms (ISBN 978-0393062267).
"...bleakest, darkest hours". The imagination is taken into the desperate situation of those who are trapped. And hooking into the previous "dawn" line, it picks up from an English saying "the darkest hour is just before dawn".
At this point the psalm, and so this hymn, changes structurally. Now it is no longer a personal "I cry", but the collected song of the community. And again this reflects the strong, almost tangible, bonds present in the working communities whose tune this is.
"out from the depths" picks up the opening line of the opening verse, but this time in hope (in the sense of trusting God, come what may).
This closing "Lord hear our cry..." echoes the similar line that had closed verse 1.
"...our deepest song": Both the "deep" and the "song" conclude thoughts raised earlier in this version of the hymn. There is no attempt to make that a song of praise; it may still be a song of despair. But we trust that God will at least hear it.