“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”: Three tunes and multiple stylings

Jesus, Savior, pilot me,
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me!

As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will
When Thou say’st to them, “Be still!”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea,
Jesus, Savior, pilot me!

When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
’Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me,
“Fear not, I will pilot thee!”

The hymn text “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” was written in 1871 by Edward Hopper (1818–1888), pastor of the Church of Sea and Land in New York Harbor. Hopper ministered to sailors coming and going, many of whom became lost at sea; his was thus a transient congregation, and one well acquainted with grief and uncertainty.

This is the only hymn of Hopper’s to have survived. It uses nautical imagery to speak of how Christ guides us through life’s stormy waters, all the way safe to the other shore, heaven. It is a petitionary hymn that beseeches Jesus to be present and active, but it is also a hymn of consolation.

Though it has been published in a number of hymnals, I first encountered “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” through the Bifrost Arts retune released on the collective’s first album in 2008. In fact, several artists have composed new melodies for the hymn or revamped it since it was first set to music by John E. Gould a few months after the publication of Hopper’s text, and it continues to live on even in nonmaritime contexts.

I’m really interested in how hymns evolve. How one text can inspire a variety of musical settings and arrangements—and how they move around the globe into different languages and cultural contexts! The original tune of “Jesus, Savior” doesn’t particularly resonate with me, but the creative arrangements of it, and some of the modern retunes, do.  

1. Music by John E. Gould, 1871

I found a straightforward choral rendition of Gould that was performed in 2012 by a choir from Salt Lake University, but it’s very bland.

So for an introduction to the hymn’s original tune, as reproduced in hymnals, I actually recommend this video by Siviwe Mhlomi and friends, who sing the hymn a cappella in four-part harmony in the Bantu language of Xhosa:

The Xhosa title is “Yesu Nkosi Ndiqhube,” and it’s widely popular in South Africa.

Xhosa uses the Roman alphabet, but the letters c, x, and q are pronounced with clicks that linguists call dental, lateral, and alveolar, respectively—so that’s why you hear some clicking speech sounds in the song.

>> Gospel

Mahalia Jackson recorded a slower, gospelized rendition with lush orchestral accompaniment in 1960:

The original tune is more difficult to recognize in the heavily stylized arrangement by the Roberta Martin Singers from 1968, which features Delois Barrett-Campbell on lead—but Gould was still used as the basis:

>> Country/Bluegrass

The hymn has been performed in a bluegrass idiom since at least the fifties. I don’t know who first arranged it in this style, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded it with their band the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1951 (see them perform the song at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1961 in the video below). In addition to using bluegrass instrumentation, their arrangement changes the traditional 3/4 meter (with dotted eighth notes) to 4/4 and adds more space between phrases. The Stanley Brothers recording from Hymns of the Cross (1964) follows this arrangement pretty closely—and Ralph Stanley later revisited the song with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1977.

I first encountered the bluegrass version through the album A Hymn Revival, volume 1 by the sacred music collective The Lower Lights. They perform the song live in the following video, with Sarah Sample and Ryan Tanner on vocals (their singing style is more “indie folk” than bluegrass):

Other artists have sung “Jesus, Savior” with the 4/4 time signature popularized by Flatt & Scruggs, including Rumbi Lee, self-accompanied on ukulele:

(Lee puts out lots of hymn-sing videos on her YouTube channel.)

2. Music by Robbie Seay, 2004

Here’s CCM artist Robbie Seay in 2020 performing his retuned version of the hymn, which churches can license through CCLI:

It does a good job drawing out the emotion of the lyrics, especially the aspect of mournful yearning.

For an album recording, see Aaron Hale’s Lenten Hymns, volume 1 (2011)—or watch Hale lead the song from his living room for a virtual worship service in 2020.

3. Music by Isaac Wardell and Joseph Pensak, 2008

Like I said, although I grew up in church, I never heard of “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” until Bifrost Arts released it with a fresh tune in 2008. It was written by the cofounders of the collective, Isaac Wardell (a worship leader who now heads up The Porter’s Gate) and Joseph Pensak (a pastor from Vermont who ran a community art gallery for eight years and whose latest musical album, from 2019, is Hallowell). Laura Gibson is the vocalist on the recording, and Matthew Kay created this charming little stop-motion animation video for it:

Since its premiere, this tune has also been recorded by Pacific Gold (formerly Wayfarer) (2012) and Door of Hope (2012), among others.

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