“He Touched Me”

TITLE: "He Touched Me" ("Shackled by a Heavy Burden")
AUTHOR: Bill Gaither
TUNE: HE TOUCHED ME
COMPOSER: Bill Gaither
SOURCE: United Methodist Hymnal, no. 367
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 8:1-3; Mark 1:40-42; Luke 5:12-13
TOPIC: burden, healing, transformation, salvation, restoration, joy

Background

Singer and songwriter of southern gospel music Bill Gaither had written more than fifty songs, none of which became popular, when he wrote his first big hit, "He Touched Me," in 1963. Its first recording by Doug Oldham helped to make it famous. Elvis Presley heard the song and recorded it as the title song of his 1972 album that sold over one million copies and earned a Grammy Award. It began Presley's lifelong love for gospel music in general and Gaither songs in particular. Among the most popular and successful recordings of "He Touched Me" were those by The Imperials and the Speer Family. "He Touched Me" was first published in a hymnal in Hymns for the Family of God, 1976.

"He Touched Me" had become popular across denominational lines, including Evangelical United Brethren and Methodists. Following the United Methodist merger and the work of the Hymnal Revision Committee that resulted in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, the hymn had become one of the most requested new hymns to be included in that publication. Its inclusion was not without controversy, but it has proven a lasting favorite of United Methodists.

Words

The text of this hymn is inspired by the account of the cleansing of the leper by Jesus' touch in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The two stanzas contain a sequence of the story, not so much of the leper in the gospel, but of an individual's personal healing. Stanza one begins with the shackling of the soul beneath the burden of guilt and shame. The touch of Jesus and the resulting healing and forgiveness changes and transforms the sinner. Stanza two testifies to a new life of praise for having been saved, cleansed, and made whole. The refrain sings of the joy of having been made whole by the touch of Jesus.

Music

In this musical analysis, it will be helpful to number the measures of the hymn and to take note of the four eight-bar phrases. There are several ways of judging the quality of a hymn and a hymn writer, some based on personal opinion; others on a number of different objective factors. Here are some observations about this hymn's melodic, textual, and structural features that may lead to a new appreciation of "He Touched Me."

  1. The overall structure is 32 bars in four equal 8-bar phrases in ABCD form. Hymns are often composed in multiples of 8-bar phrases, most often 16 or 32 bars.

  2. The verse begins with the "shackled" motive (m.1) consisting of a descending then ascending step-wise motion of a dotted quarter and three eighth notes. The "shackled" motive also opens the second half of the first phrase (m.5), while it or a variant of it (m.9, 13) serves as the opening motive of each half-phrase (m. 1, 5, 9, 13), helping to give the verse a coherent and balanced structure.

  3. The second motive (m.2-3), "heavy burden," actually paints the text with a stressed (or heavier) half note that drops, falls, or sighs down into a quarter note ("heavy") with a lifting or rising on "burden." With only a slightly different melodic structure, the opening two motives are repeated (m.5-8), with the same "heavy burden" motive also used to paint the rather burdensome text of "guilt and shame." Many hymns use this parallel musical structure, but one indication of a well-composed hymn is when the parallel musical structure extends to similar qualities of text at the same time ("heavy burden" and "guilt and shame").

  4. As the text becomes more positive ("then the hand of Jesus"), the "shackled" motive changes, brightens, with a rise in pitch up to D, also making use of the brightest note of the chord, the third. It actually transforms the mood of that entire theme.

  5. The newly transformed "shackled" culminates in a new motive – the "touched me" motive – consisting of a quarter-half note rhythm (or an extended tie) of a descending third interval. Each time the words "touched me" appear, they are accompanied by this combination of rhythmic and melodic pattern (m.11, 19, 29) and a slightly larger interval of a descending fourth (m.17) to begin the refrain.

  6. The verse concludes (m.13-14) with a thoroughly transformed version of the opening "shackled" motive with the now more positive, promising and hopeful text, "now I am no longer the same." It is an ingenious musical depiction of what happens in the text: the touch of Jesus can lift us out of our shackled burdens and change or transform us.

  7. M.17's "he touched me" is quickly repeated at m.19, but it is made more urgent or more important by the use of the emotional intensifier "O" (m.18). Even the result of Jesus' touch ("the joy that floods my soul," m.22) is made more important and intense with the use of a second "O" (m.21).

  8. Just as "now I am no longer the same" (m.13-15) is a positive transformation of the "shackled" theme, so is "joy that floods my soul" (m.22-23). At every opportunity, the opening "shackled" and "neath a load of guilt and shame" motives are joyously transformed in the refrain as a result of the "touched me" motive.

  9. A new contrasting theme is introduced (m.25-28) consisting of a gradually rising melody, introducing tension as it rises and builds to the D (m.28, "know"). I have frequently observed that singers, soloists, and congregations will alter the preceding "I" (m.27) by augmenting the C to a C-sharp, making it even more intense and, hence, fulfilled in the resolution of the following D.

  10. The rising tension of m.25-28 is partially resolved on the subdominant harmony of "know" with the brightness of the third in the melody, although it is an incomplete resolution. It remains unfulfilled until one final statement of "he touched me" and its musical motive (m.28-29) and the resulting final statement of the transformed "shackled" theme (m.30-32) on the phrase "and made me whole." The emotional peak of the hymn – the musical and textual climax – all comes together in m.28, with a release of the tension and a resolution of the diminished and secondary dominant harmonies in that last phrase, finally ending in the last measure with "made me whole."
Is it merely coincidence that these musical, textual, and emotional features and relationships come together simultaneously? Is it a pleasant but unplanned serendipity that just occurs? Is it an accident that Gaither exploits the same human emotional tension and release of the "sighing" motive on "heavy burden" as is exploited by Monteverdi, Bach, Wagner and so many others? Absolutely not! Such things do not happen by accident. Bill Gaither has shown a mastery of these techniques in hymn after hymn and song after song. He knew exactly what he was doing when he put all of this together.

This rather technical description of these elements of mostly melody, rhythm, and text in "He Touched Me" is, of course, peculiar to this hymn. You can't name them here and then try to apply them to another hymn, or intentionally reproduce these technical accomplishments as you compose a new hymn. Nor can these techniques completely account for the wide popularity of this hymn among United Methodists and others, although certainly they help to contribute to that popularity. How these elements come together is a unique phenomenon of this hymn, the time, place, and circumstances in which it was composed as well as sung, and the unique genius of Bill Gaither.

Guitar Friendly Chords

Capo 3: || A7 | A7 | D | D| A7 | A7 | D | D |

| G | G | D | D| A7 | A7 | D | D |

| A7 | A7 | D | D7|G | D B7 | E7 | A7 |

| D | A7 | D7 | G | D B7 | E7 A7 | D | D ||

Sources

See more Hymn Studies.

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