Even more copyright free hymns

I found four more copyright-free hymns that I’d been meaning to upload: “Yielding and Simple,” a Shaker song; “Trouble in Mind,” the blues and jazz standard; “Hold On,” also known at “Keep Your Hands on the Plow”; and “Rise Up O Flame,” which I once thought might be protected by copyright but am now convinced in public domain.

You can find them on this webpage. Descriptions below the jump.

That webpage is static HTML, by the way, which I code by hand in the text editor Atom. Thank goodness this is the last of the hymns I have which are ready to post. Writing static HTML takes up too much time, time that I’d rather spend creating content (e.g., writing actual posts for this blog). This bout of hand-coding proved to be especially time-consuming because Filezilla, free open-source software which I use to upload the HTML to the server, suddenly stopped talking to the server. I spent half a day troubleshooting, until I finally gave up and purchased Transmit, another FTP application. However, static HTML is more resistant to attacks by malicious hackers, and requires less energy consumption to render — so I suppose writing static HTML is worth it in the long run.

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More copyright-free hymns

This week someone contacted me about the copyright-free hymns I’ve posted online. This prompted me to look in my files, where I discovered I had another ten hymns ready to upload. Those ten new hymns are now online here. I’ll include info about these hymns below the jump.

Four of the newly-uploaded hymns are patriotic hymns. Unitarian Universalist hymnals used to include patriotic songs, but that ended with the 1993 gray hymnal. This was a short-sighted policy. Today, U.S. religious conservatives wrap themselves in the mantle of patriotism and maintain that theirs is the only patriotism. Well, Unitarians and Universalists were key players in the founding of the United States, and we need to reclaim that part of our heritage so that we can inject our own religious vies into contemporary political discourse — our views being that the U.S. is a democracy (not an autocracy) and is not a Christian country; that our country is founded on the separation of religion and the state; and that the revolution continues through our ongoing efforts to make sure all persons are treated as equals. With the approach of the 250th anniversary of the singing of the Declaration of Independence, it’s time for us to show our patriotism again. I’ve uploaded America, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and The New Patriot, all taken from pre-1993 UU hymnals. I also uploaded Chester, a patriotic song actually written during the Revolution — it’s of limited use, but can be useful for Massachusetts congregations that recognize Patriots Day.

The other six hymns include African American spirituals, a hymn allegedly by Rabindranath Tagore, a South African song, etc. After you read the descriptions below, look for the songs on my music website.

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Singing after COVID

The annual Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp singing convention is being held this weekend. The organizers are requiring a same-day COVID test for all singers, and with that public health protocol in place I decided I felt safe going to sing today (but not Sunday when I have to be at church).

These Sacred Harp conventions are a bit of an endurance test. The singing starts at 9:30 or 10, and continues to 3:30 or 4 with an hour for lunch. It’s a whole-body immersive experience.

Before COVID, the Western Massachusetts convention reportedly got as many as 400 singers. COVID seems to have reduced the numbers somewhat. Today, I did a rough count and came up with about 175 singers in the room at one time.

Only about a dozen of us were wearing masks. I had my N-95 mask on the whole time. I skipped the potluck lunch because it would have meant sitting at close quarters with more than a hundred other people for most of an hour with my mask off. The post-COVID world is all about calculating the odds, and determining what risk you’re willing to tolerate.

I enjoyed singing in the morning. But after lunch, I realized to my surprise that I was beginning to feel a little bit anxious. It was no problem to control my anxiety. But after about an hour I had a further realization: controlling my anxiety was taking enough of my attention that it wasn’t as much fun to sing.

So I left early.

A panoramic view of the singing, with over 150 people visible in the photo.
What it looked like from the back row of the bass section

Seiji Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa, long-time music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), has died.

From 184 to 1987, I had subscription tickets to the BSO — Thursday nights, the so-called “jump seat” in the second balcony, one of the cheapest seats in the house. I remember several transcendent experiences with Ozawa on the conductor’s podium.

The Mahler symphonies; as I recall I heard the second, third, fifth, seventh, and the ninth. Although I can no longer remember the specifics — I have a terrible musical memory — I remember the emotional and spiritual effect Ozawa’s Mahler symphonies had on me.

Three Tableaux from Messiaen’s opera “St. Francis of Assisi,” complete with bird song written into the score, had a tremendous effect on me as well. I hadn’t realized that music could do that — could draw directly on the natural world, could bring the non-human world directly into the concert hall. Messiaen was in the audience that night, which added to the magic.

I mostly remember Ozawa conducting twentieth century music. I had little interest in music from the Baroque, Classical, or Romantic eras. But that’s what Boston audiences wanted: Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, over and over again. I still remember attending one of the Friday afternoon concerts (I must have gotten a day off from work), and watching as the rich old blue-haired ladies deliberately stood up and pushed their way out of their seats five minutes into some piece of new music, their nasty way of stating to the whole world that They Did Not Approve. And the hell with the concert-goers whose toes they crushed on the way out.

The self-proclaimed cognoscenti in Boston were exactly like the rich old blue-haired ladies in that they never approved of Ozawa. Take Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe — he seemed to hate Ozawa, and never missed a chance to badmouth him. Sometimes my father and I would attend the same concert, and we’d read Dyer’s review and wonder if he went to the same concert as we did. Even after Ozawa’s death, Dyer couldn’t resist taking potshots at him in the obituary he wrote for today’s Globe — if you only read Dyer’s obit, you’d wonder why in hell the BSO kept such an incompetent socially awkward idiot as their music director for so many years. (I wish I hadn’t read Dyer’s obit; it only served to sully the memory of a brilliant, charismatic, dynamic musician.) Why did the Boston cognoscenti hate him so much? Probably because he was dashing, charismatic, exciting, innovative — all of which are character traits which Boston has historically despised. Plus he wasn’t White. I still say Boston is the most racist city I’ve ever lived in, and hating on Ozawa seems to me to be yet another manifestation of that racism. God knows why Ozawa put up with it for so long, but I’m grateful that he did.

I’ll end with a brief memory of the most memorable concert I ever experienced.

It was Thursday night, November 29. On the program: one of the greatest of all symphonies, Mahler’s Ninth. I took my seat at the back of the second balcony in Symphony Hall, excited to hear the Ninth live for the very first time in my life. The orchestra was much larger than usual, filling the entire stage. Ozawa entered to the usual applause.

The first movement was mind-blowing — I just didn’t realize how huge the sound of a Mahler orchestra was, and I didn’t realize how deeply moving Mahler’s music got towards the end of his career. Looking back, I think my brain was being rewired by what Mahler was saying. The movement ended, and Ozawa stepped off the stage. And we waited. And waited. For nearly twenty minutes. Ozawa’s brother Katsumi had died of a stroke the day before, at age 56, and Ozawa must have been crippled with grief. But he came back on stage. He finished conducting the Ninth, and somehow all the emotion and grief and feelings of love for his brother came through. No doubt Richard Dyer wrote a scoffing review of the performance, but it remains one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. Ozawa had created music with the deepest feeling possible.

Ozawa wasn’t able to conduct the performances of the Ninth on Friday or Saturday; the BSO had to bring in a substitute. We who were there on that Thursday were the only ones to hear music from Ozawa’s deepest soul; at what cost to him I cannot imagine. But I’m eternally grateful to him for that gift he gave us that night; I’ve never forgotten it; it change me and made me a better person. What more can we ask of the arts?

An unusual Christmas carol

Back in 1845, Thomas Commuck published a book of sacred songs titled “Indian Melodies.” Commuck called his book that because he was a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation. In the introduction, referring to himself in the third person, he tells why his published his book: “his object is to make a little money.” To increase sales, he managed to convince Thomas Hastings, then a well-known composer of sacred music, to harmonize Commuck’s melodies. Commuck then named most of the tunes after Indian tribes.

Most of Commuck’s tunes are delightful, and Hastings’s harmonizations tastefully support the melodies without overwhelming them. The tune “Uncas” is simple but very singable, with a fun arrangement by Hastings. And the words are a classic Christmas text, “Shepherds rejoice, lift up your eyes….”

So here, for your Christmas pleasure, is Thomas Commuck’s Uncas. Commuck and Hastings put the melody in the tenor line (as was common in early American sacred song); I’ve switched their soprano and tenor lines, so that the melody is now in the soprano.

Sheet music for Uncas.
Click the image above for a PDF of the sheet music.

New online resource

Back in 2020, in the depths of the pandemic, I began assembling a collection of copyright-free hymns. (Remember when we were all figuring out navigate copyright laws with online worship services?) I uploaded PDFs of the hymns to Google Drive, and made the folder publicly accessible. It was clumsy, and probably very few people actually used those hymns.

I finally moved all those hymns off Google drive and onto one of my own websites. You can find them here — with a much-improved navigation system.

Another problematic hymn

“The Earth Is My Mother,” no. 1073 in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Journey, turns out to be one of those problematic songs.

The first problem is — who wrote it? In Singing the Journey, it’s attributed to “Native American, from Songs for Earthlings, ed. Julie Forest Middleton, copyright 1998 Emerald Earth Publishing.” Let’s look first at whether it’s truly a Native chant, and second, who might own the copyright.

On the “Rise Up and Sing” website, Annie Patterson and Peter Blood note: “It has been suggested that this chant is based on a Lakota (Plains) chant and elsewhere as coming from the Hupa tribe of Northern California.” But, as they point out, it’s almost impossible to evaluate such claims. Patterson and Blood also write: “We urge people to consider carefully issues of cultural and religious appropriation in utilizing material like this. At the very minimum acknowledge the issues involved when you utilize songs of this kind.” To put it more bluntly: if it’s really a sacred chant from a specific indigenous tradition, then you probably shouldn’t be singing it unless you know the actual social context from which the chant comes, and whether it’s a chant that has a specific cultural meaning that you should respect. And if it’s not actually a sacred chant from a specific indigenous tradition, then if you sing it you look like you’re “playing Indian.”

Next, let’s think about who owns the copyright. If it is in fact a chant from an indigenous tradition, then either the copyright should be held by a person from that indigenous tradition who composed it, or it’s from a folk tradition in which case it’s in the public domain.

There’s a third possibility, one which I believe is the most likely: the chant came out of the New Age community and/or the environmental activist community. These two communities overlapped a good deal, and both generated a lot of creative ferment in the late twentieth century. A quick search of documents on Google Books leads me to believe this third possibility is likely. Prior to 1990, I found a couple of definite references to this chant being used by environmental activists.

In the earliest appearance I can find, the lyrics to this chant were printed in The International Permaculture Seed Yearbook, 1983, along with the notation, “The Earth Chant is based on a Native American chant with the portions starting ‘the moon’ added by Dawn Seed. Reproduction and singing of the chant is encouraged,” i.e., the publishers were not claiming copyright. (The moon portion goes like this: “The moon is our grandmother, we must take care of her….”) Then a few years later, the lyrics of the song appeared as part of the testimony given by environmental activist Robin Gould of Santa Fe, New Mexico, during a public hearing held by the U.S. Department of Energy for an Environmental Impact Statement for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Project, held on 17 June 1989 in Santa Fe (see p. 46 of the transcript, lines 3-22). Gould apparently sang the song during the public hearing.

So I’m guessing that this chant was in wide circulation among (White) environmentalists and (White) New Agers at least as early as 1983, maybe going back to the 1970s. Note that the phrase “the earth is our mother” dates back even further. For example, the phrase “The Sky is our father, the Earth is our mother” appears in anthropologist James George Frazer’s book The Worship of Nature: The Worship of the Earth, the Sky, and the Sun (London: Macmillan & Co., 1926). Interestingly, Frazer attributes the phrase, not to indigenous North Americans, but to the Lo-lo p’o people of China. And many others in the West have used the phrase “the earth is our mother” — not just anthropologists, but also socialists, spiritualists, Christians, etc., going back twenty-five hundred years to Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder ancient Rome.

Thus the lyrics to the verses predate Julie Forest Middleton’s 1998 publication of them. Mind you, I don’t fault Middleton for copyrighting the version she printed in her song collection. It’s fine to copyright typesetting and arrangements. But the lyrics predate her 1998 publication by at least a decade, and the long history of the phrase “the earth is our mother” means the lyrics of the verses are almost certainly in the public domain.

As for the non-lexical vocables of the chorus — usually rendered as “Hey, yunga, ho, yunga…” or as “Hey, yanna, ho yanna…” — their origins are obscure. These vocables are somewhat consistent with some Native American music. David McAllester, in an article titled “New Perspectives in Native American Music,” notes: “In traditional Native American music, many songs may be entirely vocabalic and a majority are largely so with only a line or two of translatable text. The vocables are part of a Native American view that a song does not need many, or even any, lexical words to communicate its meanings” (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 20, no. 1/2, Autumn, 1981 – Summer, 1982, p. 434). It would be very difficult to determine if the lyrics to the chorus are actual Native vocables (which could be cultural misappropriation), or vocables designed to sound like Native vocables (which would be “playing Indian”).

As for the melody, it could be a traditional Native American melody, borrowed from somewhere. Or it could have been based on someone’s hazy recollection of a Native American chant. Or it could have been composed by non-Native singers (and it does sound a lot like many of the chants that were emerging in Neo-Pagan and New Age circles in the late twentieth century). Maybe someday someone will figure out where this melody came from, but for now I have to conclude that we just don’t know.

So should we sing this chant, or not? Even if it’s in the public domain, the criticism leveled by Annie Patterson and Peter Blood remains — singing this chant could be cultural misappropriation, or it could be “playing Indian.” Either way, I don’t think we should be singing it.

Updated and substantially rewritten 1 Oct. 2023, based on additional research.

“Self Made Man”

Back in the 1960s, a young John Hartford recorded a fragment of a song called “Self Made Man” (it was released in 2019 in a posthumous album). Then in 1971, Hartford made a nice arrangement for it and recorded the song on his album “Radio John.” It’s a witty satire of those rich men who think they are self-made, though really their rise to financial success has come at the expense of others: “How many fingers must he step on, to do the best he can… Have you seen the bones his closet holds, Do you watch hi when he sharpens his knife?” It was a pretty good song, even though it was really just a fragment of a song.

Fast forward to 2022. Rachel Baiman, a young country and old-timey musician based in Nashville, decided to fill out Hartford’s song. She added another verse, for the women in the lives of “self-made men,” which manages to duplicate some of Hartford’s wit and sparkle:

Do you think you want to sit around and play a part
In the corner of his self made life
Stand by his side patiently
And try to be his perfect little wife?
Will you tell him that he’s done everything right
And that he should never take the blame
For the people cast off and trampled on,
Just because they got in his way?
How many men do you think it takes to make a self made man….

Huh. Reminds me of certain billionaires who are in the news right now.

Then Baiman added another melody for the chorus, which Hartford had just sung to the same melody as the verses. She has turned the song into an infectious sing-along song that challenges the prevailing mythos of the current economic order. (You won’t be surprised to learn that Baiman was raised by parents who belonged to the Democratic Socialist party.)

Worth listening to, and worth singing along to.

Screen shot of a video of Baiman performing the song in a sound studio.
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Choral music resource

A musician friend just told me about Amidon Community Music, which offers a wide selection of SATB music. Many look suitable for use in UU congregations, and the website has testimonials from UU congregations. Prices are reasonable: US$5.00 for five copies. Of interest to congregations with a limited music budget, they also offers free sheet music downloads.

You have to enter your name, address, and email to access the free downloads; I haven’t yet taken the time to do that. But I’ve seen one of their arrangements, “Love Call Me Home” by Peggy Seeger, and it looks pretty good. My musician friend recommends everything they produce.