First published Native composer

Thomas Commuck (1805-1855) is probably the first Native American composer whose compositions were published. Commuck was a Narragansett Indian who became part of Brothertown Indian Nation — an alliance of Christian Native Americans from different “parent tribes” in southern New England (according to the Brothertown Indian Nation Web site).

Though he was born in Rhode Island in 1805, during the 1820s Commuck joined the exodus of New England Christian Indians to upstate New York, joining the Brothertown Indians near Deansboro, N.Y. Then in 1831, he joined the Brothertown Indians once more in leaving New York to settle in Wisconsin.

Commuck published his Indian Melodies, a hymn and tune book, in 1845. In the Preface, Commuck writes that in 1836 he began “trying to learn, scientifically, the art of singing” through self-study. For hymn texts, he mostly drew on a hymnbook of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the majority of the texts he set to music are by Charles Wesley. The book was published in New York under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The tunes, according to the Preface, are named with “the names of noted Indian chiefs, Indian females, Indian names of place, etc.” The tunebook was published in two edition: one with “patent notes,” what we now call shape notes; and the other with conventional round note heads. As was the custom in much of early nineteenth century American hymn tunes, the melody is in the tenor line.

Commuck had his tunes harmonized by Thomas Hastings. Hastings’ work was completed in less than a month: “For much of the rest of the month of April, Hastings’ attention was focused on readying for publication a collection of original hymn tunes by the Narragansett Indian, Thomas Commuck (1805-1855), for which he had been asked to supply the harmonizations. …an entry in Hastings’ diary on 24 April 1845 indicates that he finished his part of the editing process on that date” (Hermine Weigel Williams, Thomas Hastings: An introduction to His Life and Music [Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2005].p. 109-110). Why was Hastings chosen to do the harmonizations? No doubt in large part due to his reputation as a composer and musical reformer, who had by then published a number of well-known collections of sacred music. In addition, however, “Hastings had long had a fascination with music that was indigenous to the Americas, as evidenced by the fact that he was among the first in America to publish a few examples of ‘Indian airs'” (Williams, p. 110 n. 24).

Today, Hastings has a poor reputation as a composer who was a mere imitator of European musicians, while some of the earlier (white) American composers whom he had rejected are now considered favorably; William Billings, for example, is now considered the first serious American composer while Hastings is all but forgotten. Yet while some of Hastings’ arrangements of Commuck’s melodies are entirely forgettable, others come across as sensitive and non-intrusive arrangements. One example is Wabash, on page 27; Hastings’ harmonization supports but neither overwhelms nor distorts Commuck’s minor-key setting of the Isaac Watts paraphrase of Ps. 117 (I have digitally edited the version below to correct a typographical error):

Commuck’s tunes tend to be sunny and uplifting; even though the melody of Wabash is in G minor, the B section begins with a shift to the relative major, and the use of the raised seventh in the A section provides a lighter mood than strict Aeolian mode. Overall, the melody comes across as communicating the awe and power of the God of the Psalms, without an overwhelming sense of fear.

A group of scholars and students at Yale became interested in Commuck’s book, and reached out the the Brothertown Indians. With help from (mostly white) shape note singers and the Yale scholars, the Brothertown Indian Nation has been reviving the use of Indian Melodies. Calumet and Cross, an organization of Brothertown Indians, has published about half the tunes from Indian Melodies in an attractive spiral-bound edition, accompanied by essays about Commuck and the Brothertown Indians; this edition is available for sale via eBay. My one reservation about this book is that a couple of the tunes have been reharmonized to conform with current-day shape note musical tastes — I don’t see what is gained by having Commuck’s tunes reharmonized to conform with an overwhelmingly white musical subculture — but you don’t have to sing those two re-harmonizations.

I would like to see an edition that includes all of Commuck’s tunes. I’m working on creating a provisional version of such an edition, beginning with a digitally enhanced version of the scanned book, and adding additional underlaid verses for most of the tunes to facilitate easy singing. When I’ve done all I’m willing to do, I’ll release my cleaned-up up edition under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license so that other can improve on it further — watch this blog for more information. (Though it might be a bit of a wait: on average it takes me 15 -30 minutes per page to clean up scanning problems and then underlay text, even with my low standards.)

Update, March 14: I’m appending a PDF with two historical sketches, both written by Commuck, which give the early history of the Brothertown Indian Nation; some of Commuck’s own life story can be gotten from these sketches.

Update, March 14: Short bibliography of recent scholarly works that mention Commuck:

Cipolla, Craig N. Becoming Brothertown: Native American Ethnogenesis and Endurance in the Modern World. University of Arizona Press, 2013. Commuck as a historian, pp. 30-31.

Delucia, Christine M. Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast. Yale University Press, 2018. Commuck in the context of the Great Awakening, pp. 149-151.

Fisher, Linford D. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. Oxford Univ. Press USA, 2012. Brief analysis of Indian Melodies, pp. 207-208.

Steel, David Warren. Makers of the Sacred Harp. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2010. A paragraph biography of Commuck, p. 102.

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