Another look at sources of sacred song

Music geeks, this post is for you.

Jay Atkinson mentioned to me that he is tracking down errors in the attribution of some of the readings in the 1993 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and I told him that there are also misattributions in the music. He asked me to give him some examples, and with very little effort I came up with the following:


279, “By the Waters of Babylon,” with words taken from Psalm 137, is attributed to William Billings in Singing the Living Tradition. However, this tune does not appear in the definitive four volume Complete Works of William Billings; there is a tune titled “Lamentation over Boston” with the words “By the rivers of Watertown,” a Revolutionary War era parody of Psalm 137, but the tune is utterly different. The second edition (1998) of Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition makes a partial correction, stating “This tune is frequently attributed, erroneously, to William Billings.” On his 1971 album “American Pie,” pop singer Don McLean performs this tune almost precisely as given in Singing the Living Tradition, and attributes it to William Billings; wherever McLean got his misinformation, no doubt this once popular album has spread the misinformation far and wide.

Where, then, does the tune come from? The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) has the same tune, and The Presbyterian Hymnal Companionby LindaJo H. McKim (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 177), the equivalent to our Between the Lines, attributes the tune as follows: “traditional Jewish melody.” Other hymnals give the same attribution, e.g., Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship by John D. Witvliet, Martin Tel, and Joyce Borger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2012, p. 899). It certainly sounds vaguely like a Jewish melody, and Psalm 137 would be an appropriate topic for a Jewish tune.

A very similar tune appeared in print in Philip Hayes’ The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons (London: Harrison & Co., n.d. [c.1786], p. 105). The melodic line is very similar to the tune in Singing the Living Tradition, with a few changes in the rhythm and melody, slightly different words (and more melisma) and, most importantly, the addition of a fourth part to the canon. The title page specifically states that the music in The Muses Delight was “composed by Dr. Philip Hayes, Professor of Music in the University of Oxford.” Composers in those days sometimes borrowed earlier works, and further research may uncover an earlier publication. In the mean time, it seems safest to attribute the tune to “The Muses Delight, Philip Hayes, altered.”


18, “Wondrous Love,” is attributed in Singing the Living Tradition as follows: “Melody from The Southern Harmony, 1835.” However, this tune was not in the 1835 edition of William Walker’s The Southern Harmony; it was one of the added tunes found in the 1840 and later editions. Not only that, but William Walker attributes the tune to a specific composer. In the 1854 edition of The Southern Harmony, the tune is attributed to “Christopher” (link to a scan of the relevant page). Then in his 1867 Christian Harmony, Walker identifies the composer as “James Christopher of Spartanburg, N.C. S.C.”

It is also worth noting that both versions of the tune in Singing the Living Tradition have been altered from the tune as it appears in the The Southern Harmony — and altered for the worse. The first version is a dreadful modern harmonization that makes the tune sound like bland generic twentieth century church music. The second harmonization retains the harmony of the Southern Harmony version, but unnecessarily regularizes the rhythm. Both these versions lead musicians and congregations to sing this like a dirge. The original is wilder and more ecstatic, with its start-and-stop rhythm, parallel fifths, and chords that lack the third degree (and note that although the tune in The Southern Harmony appears to be in a minor key, or Aeolian mode, it would have been sung in Dorian mode; at least Singing the Living Tradition gets this right).

One final correction for this tune: while Singing the Living Tradition gives the meter as 12,9,12,12,9, this is misleading; if you were going to write new poetry for this tune, you would write it in the following meter: 12,9,6,6,12,9.


94, “Devotion,” is attributed to “A. C. Carden’s Missouri Harmony” in Singing the Living Tradition, while Between the Lines elaborates on that, giving credit to “Americk Hall.” This attribution confuses this with another tune. There were at least three tunes named “Devotion” circulating in the early 19th century American hymn tune repertoire: one by Daniel Read; one by Amariah Hall (surely “Americk” is a misreading of “Amariah”); and an otherwise unattributed tune in Alexander Johnson’s Tennessee Harmony (1818). A quick glance shows that the tune in Singing the Living Tradition is definitely not the tune by Amariah Hall, despite having the same name — this is an instance where Between the Lines adds an error that was not in Singing the Living Tradition.

So what is the correct attribution? A 2010 scholarly work by ethnomusicologist Warren Steele attributes the tune to Alexander Johnson’s Tennessee Harmony (1818); this is the safest attribution.


66, “Holy Manna” is attributed to the 1855 edition of William Walker’s The Southern Harmony. In that tunebook, Walker attributes “Holy Manna” to “Baptist Harmony” (link to a scan of the relevant page in The Southern Harmony). Marion J. Hatchett, in Companion to the New Harp of Columbia, states: “The pentatonic tune Holy Manna was claimed as original in Columbian Harmony (Cincinnati, 1825), a four shape-note tune book complied by William Moore…. The tune was revised somewhat by William Walker in his Southern Harmony.”

So a possible brief attribution, for use on the sheet music, would be something like “William Moore, altered.” Then a companion book like Between the Lines could add the additional information found in Hatchett.


There are other errors in the attributions of tunes taken from 19th century American sources; suffice it to say that there is a robust scholarly literature in 19th century American hymn tunes, and it would be wise to refer to that literature rather than accepting the attribution given in whatever hymnal the editors borrow the tune from (for I suspect that’s mostly where the attributions in Singing the Living Tradition come from).

Finally, why is it important to correct these errors?

First, it affects the way we think about singing and performing the tunes. We have learned a great deal from both the early music movement and from folklorists: musical practices change over time, and vary from place to place. Thus, knowing that “By the Waters of Babylon” comes from an 18th century Oxford professor of music, we will be less likely to sing it in the style of Jewish cantors, and perhaps less likely to sing it the way Don McLean recorded it, with the over-simplified rhythm and harmony. On the other hand, given that it came from a popular book, we might also think about singing it in the style of West Gallery music, i.e., more like a pub song than like a bel canto song.

Second, we have come to find out that we are more likely to give correct attributions to mainstream composers (whether they compose pop music or “classical” music), while we are less likely to correctly attribute music to composers who come from the margins. “Wondrous Love” didn’t just appear from nowhere, to be collected by William Walker into a tunebook; it was composed by a composer who was not trained in an elite institution, and who lived far from the urban elite composers of popular and classical music. The fact that we don’t bother to take the time to correctly identify non-elite composers tells us something about our musical blinders; the fact that we feel compelled to “correct” their rhythm and harmony tells us even more about ourselves and our prejudices.

Thus, if we look at where our tunes really come from, we discover that both sides in the congregational battles between “classical” music (which means 19th century Western concert music and “contemporary” music (which mostly means late twentieth century pop music) are ignoring the real diversity of sacred song that is available to us. The composed music from the rural South and Western frontier fits into neither the “classical” nor “contemporary” music formats. Nor do African American spirituals, or gospel music, or tunes from the Anglo-American or Hispanic folk traditions, or jazz, or 21st century classical music, or world music, etc. So correcting these errors may help us to remove our musical blinders, and discover whole new worlds of sacred song.

8 thoughts on “Another look at sources of sacred song”

  1. Wow. Thanks Dan. I’m seeing music history scholarship with a new understanding of its cultural importance/legacy.

  2. I know that William Walker lived within 30 miles of Spartanburg, South Carolina for all of his life. So did he really say that John Christopher was from a Spartanburg North Carolina? (There is a Spartan, NC, but I’ve not heard of a Spartanburg, NC).
    (I note that B.F.King – of Sacred Harp – and William Walker were both born near Cross Keys, SC – which is 26 miles SE of Spartanburg.)

  3. 152, Follow the Drinking Gourd, which was written by Lee Hays in 1947 has one of the wildest claims. Certainly no one claims to have heard it during the 19th century. Indeed many of the gray hymnal’s “African-American traditional” hymns have no written pre-war documentation. Most of them were written by white abolitionist ministers who were hoping that groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers could use them to win favor, and money, in the North.

    The most offensive mistake in the gray hymnal is the attribution of “the Great Learning”, entry 602, to Lao-Tse. The Great Learning is considered the most key text in all of Confucianism, especially since the Neo-Confucian synthesis. Attributing it to Lao-Tse is not a common error. It is a UU original, reflecting the contempt UUs feel for Confucius. It reminds one of Sophia Fahs’s nasty Confucious birth myth story which continues to mar UU Christmas pageants.

  4. Steven, thanks for the (very polite) correction. South Carolina is correct. That was a typo on my part, and I have corrected it in the post.

  5. Tom, according to the Roud Folk Song Index, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” was collected in Texas in 1918 by H. B. Parks, and published in 1928 in Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 7 (1928), pp. 81-84; the Roud number is 15532. I would commend the Roud Folk Song Index to anyone researching the origins of folk songs; it’s grounded in serious scholarship, and it’s freely available online here.

    I do agree with you that many of the attributions to “African American traditional” are questionable. However, I would not hold up pre-Civil War publication as the gold standard. The first systematic collection of African American folk song that I’m aware of was Slave Songs of the United States, which was published right after the Civil War, in 1867; it’s also worth remembering that the African American tradition continued to evolve and to produce new songs after slavery ended.

    And attributions in the realm of folk song are always challenging. I’ve had a number of conversations on this topic with a friend who has a degree in folklore and has done quite a bit of research into 19th century American sacred song; from her, I’ve learned that it’s extremely difficult to come up with firm attributions for many folk songs, whether African American or Anglo American. Not only that, but the scholarship is still evolving in this area. I guess I’m willing to cut the hymnal compilers some slack on this one — they probably di as well as they could based on what we knew in 1993.

    As for the Fahs story about the birth of Confucius — Fahs didn’t make it up, she based it on Chinese sources (remember that she grew up in China, and was exposed to the culture as a child). Confucianism in China was (and to the extent that it still exists under the Communists, still is) a mix of Confucian philosophy and folk religious traditions. While Confucianism has been somewhat sanitized in the West, removing all the cultic elements (Tu Weiming of Harvard has led the movement within academia to consider Confucianism divorced from its cultic aspects), in China there were (and to a certain extent, still are) Confucian temples and rituals.

    Fahs did combine several sources in her narrative, and she seems to have tweaked some details to fit her naturalistic theology. However, her story stands up to scrutiny pretty well. For some sources which corroborate Fahs’s version of the story, see the following:
    Confucius, the Great Teacher: A Study, by George Gardiner Alexander. pp. 33 ff.
    The Chinese Classics: Life and teachings of Confucius, vol. 2, trans. James Legge, p. 58.
    Confucius: His Life and Thought, by Shigeki Kaizuka (Dover reprint, 1956/2002), pp. 42-44.
    Sages and filial sons: mythology and archaeology in ancient China, by Julia Ching and R. W. L. Guisso (Chinese University Press, 1991), p. 143.
    The dragon, image, and demon, or, The three religions of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, by Hampden C. DuBose (New York: A.C. Armstrong, 1887), pp. 91-92.

    All these things demonstrate the difficulty of coming up with good, accurate, concise attributions that are based in good scholarship. Perhaps the main sin of hymnal compilers everywhere is that they focus their efforts on collecting material that will work well in worship services, and that they borrow from other hymnal compilers without checking too closely on where the material really comes from. For my part, I’m willing to forgive their errors as long as they come up with good materials, and then I’ll be one of the ones who comes along and corrects their mistakes in attributions.

  6. James Christopher (May 21, 1815 – October 9, 1844)
    buried in the Sharon Methodist Church Cemetery, Reidville, South Carolina is generally credited with being the James Christopher of Southern Harmony and “What Wondrous Love”.
    This would be 15 miles east of Singing Billy’s home church.
    (and I see no one remarked that in my asking about Spartanburg NC, I turned James into John).

  7. Steven, thanks so much for this info. Even if J. Christopher did nothing else in life, writing “Wondrous Love” would be a major achievement — if for no other reason than those lovely descending parallel fifths between the bass and tenor (lead) lines — a major American composition, if you ask me!

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