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.

Mouthbow

After reading a biography of Buffy Saint-Marie, I got curious about one of the instruments she played: a mouthbow. After listening to listening to several Youtube clips of mouthbows, I decided to make my own. I went out and found a fairly straight twig about as thick as my little finger; and took the bark off and shaved the butt end down with pocketknife and block plane so it would bend evenly across its length. I used a 010 loop-end steel banjo string I happened to have, attached the loop end to a copper tack in one end of the stick, and tied the straight end of the string through a 1/64″ hole I drilled in the other end of the stick. It looks like this:

When you play the mouthbow, the fundamental note of the string sounds as a drone throughout, while changing the mouth cavity brings out overtones to produce the melody — that combination of melody and drone sounds to me a little like a mountain dulcimer. While I make no claims to mouthbow virtuosity, here’s an audio recording of the instrument I made today:

Since your mouth cavity acts as the resonator, you can hear the mouthbow louder yourself than anyone around you can hear it. So I’m thinking this might be a good instrument to make with children: fairly easy to make, fun to play, quiet enough that it won’t drive everyone else crazy. However, if I do make it with kids, I won’t use a steel string: it’s too easy to hurt yourself if a steel string breaks; and something like nylon monofilament or linen thread would make for a quieter instrument.

Mouthbows were used by Indigenous peoples in North America, including California Indians: “Southern Yokuts men sometimes played the musical bow after settling themselves in bed; the Chukchansi in mourning the dead. These may be but two expreissions of one employment. Modern forms of the instrument have a peg key for adjusting the tension…. In old days a true shooting bow, or a separate instrument made on the model of a bow, was used. Mawu or mawuwi, was its name. One end was held in the mouth, while the lone string was tapped, not plucked, with the nail of the index finger; the melody, audible to himself only, was produced by changes in the size of the resonance chamber formed by the player’s oral cavity.” Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, p. 542. Elsewhere, Kroeber says, “The musical bow is a device definitely reported from the Maidu and Yokuts, but probably shared by these groups with a number of others…. [It] was tapped or plucked….” p. 419. Kroeber also reports the musical bow being used by the Pomo and other tribes.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is probably the best-known contemporary player of the mouthbow, mostly because she played mouthbow on several television shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “Sesame Street,” and the folk-music showcase “Rainbow Quest.” Sainte-Marie makes her own mouthbows; while they may look primitive at first glance, they are tuneable, and she writes: “I like to tune my bow precisely and work with other instruments, so I favor a geared peg, like the Grover peg in the picture.” Sainte-Marie’s blog post on making and playing mouthbows is excellent. Here’s Sainte-Marie playing the instrument on Sesame Street:

Notice that she holds the mouthbow at the end farthest from her mouth; that way, she can control the tension of the string, and thus adjust the pitch as she’s playing. By contrast, traditional Appalachian mouthbow player Carlox Stutsberry does not flex the tension of the bow to alter the tone:

Both Stutsberry and Sainte-Marie pluck the mouthbow with a pick; however, the mouthbow can also be tapped (like the strings of a hammered dulcimer), or bowed. South African jazz musician Pops Mohamed plays mouthbow using a bow:

If you search Youtube for “mouth bow,” you can find quite a few modern practitioners of the instrument. But only a few of them are worth listening to, including Pops Mohamed, Carlox Stutsberry, and Buffy Sainte-Marie; clicking on the photos above will take you to videos by those three.

Radio

In high school, I became enamored of broadcast radio. Since I grew up near Boston, along Route 128 — then a high-tech corridor not unlike Silicon Valley — some high-tech company donated a ten watt broadcast station to my public high school. I got my third class radiotelephone license with broadcast endorsement, and became a once-a-week DJ. We lived four miles from the transmitter, and on a good day my parents could sometimes listen to me broadcasting. I don’t remember what music I played on the air, but during my teen years I listened to everything from Renaissance motets to Top 40 rock.

During the 1980-81 academic year, I took a year off from college and went to work in a lumberyard, my first full-time job. There were a few of us who were under 25, and we all listened to WBCN, the freeform rock music station in Boston. Rich, who worked in paint, tried to time his morning coffee break so he could listen to Mattress Mishegas, the strange call-in quiz show kind of thing run by DJ Charles Laquidara, and if he was working up in the paint stockroom, where no one could hear him, he’d listen to ‘BCN. I worked out in the yard so I didn’t get to listen to the radio much. But I heard Laquidara promoting the big protest at Seabrook nuclear power plant over Memorial Day weekend in 1981, and my old youth group buddy John and I drove up and camped out in the woods next to the power plant and watched people we knew committing civil disobedience. Laquidara made no bones about his liberal-left politics.

That was radio at its best: not just playing new music from well-known bands, not just giving airplay to unknown local bands, but connecting listeners with what was going on. And at WBCN, Laquidara and his listeners all talked with Boston accents. You knew you were listening to people like you, people who lived near you; it was local. After the corporatization of broadcast radio in the mid-1990s, radio became less and less local: you could hear Howard Stern anywhere in the country.

The Web does most of what broadcast radio used to do, and does it better. If I want to get involved in social action, I check the Web. I love exploring new music on online sources, and broadcast radio would never have played lots of the music I now listen to online. And there were lots of things that sucked about broadcast radio: stupid commercials, songs that you hated that got played over and over, lots of boring moments. (Although increasingly Youtube.com is overrun with stupid commercials and bad music and too many boring videos.)

I’m not feeling nostalgic about broadcast radio. But what strikes me is the way I think differently now. Broadcast radio was a communal experience; most of the people I knew my age listened to WBCN, we all knew about the local bands they played. The Web is a fragmented, even tribal experience; you can become part of a small tribal music community.

What it looks like when people are really singing

You are unlikely to see people looking like this when they sing hymns at a Unitarian Universalist church:

I took this photo at today’s Sacred Harp singing in Davis, California. Everybody, even the people who are new to this kind of singing, are in full voice, not holding back, letting the song carry them away even if they disagree with the lyrics.

Unitarian Universalists, by contrast, tend to be of three types: Trained Singers, Overly-polite Singers, and Timid Singers. Many of the Trained Signers will be in the choir, and the rest of the congregation defers to them because they have at least some training. The Overly-polite Singers are the inheritors of Lowell Mason’s Better Music Movement, which swept both Unitarians and Universalists in the mid-nineteenth century: this movement expunged American composers and singing styles and replaced them European composers and bel canto singing. The Timid Singers, usually the majority of people at any given Unitarian Unviersalist worship service, having been cowed by the Trained Singers and the Overly-polite Singers, assume they can’t sing.

Sacred Harp singers don’t fit into any of these categories. Sacred Harp singing is an American tradition (there are both black and white versions, but they’re closely related) that does not sound like bel canto singing. Sacred Harp singers may get carried away with the music. Sacred Harp singers know that they should sing as well as they can for every song, even if they don’t like it, so that everyone else sings along on their favorites. Sacred Harp singing is a distinctly egalitarian tradition that says everyone can sing. And Sacred Harp singers let themselves be carried away with the music, as in the photo above.

(There might also be a fourth type of singer in some Unitarian Universalist congregations: the Popular-music Singer. These are the folks who sing along to various types of popular music. They may not read music, but once they hear a song they can generally sing it. They tend to be more egalitarian than the other three types of singer, and they tend to be more passionate singers. However, they are generally outnumbered by the Better Music Movement Singers.)

I wish more Unitarian Universalist congregations sang as if they were being carried away with the music. I wish we were less polite singers. But I suspect that music feels a little too uncontrolled, too irrational: we want to keep it carefully under control.

Below are some videos of faith communities that let their singing get ecstatic. Probably the majority of Unitarian Universalists will find these recordings unpleasant, and disturbingly passionate. Besides, we don’t want to look funny while we sing. That’s who we are; we don’t want to sing like our lives depended on it.

(Just to be clear, on some songs we sing like we mean it out in my own congregation in Palo Alto; we may not have quite the urgency of Sacred Harp singers in full cry, but we’re not too bad!)

Bay Area Sacred Harp

Some Stanford University undergraduates made a brief documentary on the Bay Area Sacred Harp singing community. The students were in an ethnomusicology class, and their goal was to document a local musical community. Given their time constraints, I think they give a pretty good sense of how music and community are woven together in Sacred Harp.

Notes: No one is identified in the video, but this is who you’ll hear from, in order of appearance: Pat Coghlan, Gridley, Calif.; Lena Strayhorn, San Francisco; Jeannette Ralston, Half Moon Bay; Terry Moore, Palo Alto. (Jeannette is the senior singer who was interviewed; she has been singing Sacred Harp in the Bay Area since the 1970s.) The local singings shown are Berkeley (in the church with pews); Palo Alto (in the children’s art room); and San Francisco (in the living room). You’ll hear the Palo Alto singers on Nehemiah Shumway’s Ballstown (begins 0:05; cont. 0:27 and William Billings’s Easter Anthem (begins 1:58).

Talking Proselytizer Blues

Here’s an old talking blues I found in my files, cleaned up a bit, and added chords to. It might be hard to figure out the rhythm in places, so I’ve italicized the main beats. And here’s a link to a PDF of the lyrics with the main beats underlined.

Walking down the street one fine summer day
A young man stopped me ’cause he had something to say:
“If you want to get to heaven when you up and die,
“You better come to my church, going to tell you why:
“You’re an old man… Time to turn to Jesus…
“We’ll help save you… Make you right with God.”

I said to him, “Kid, you might be right,
“But I think that you and I are fighting different fights:
“I’m fighting to save the world and I’m fighting to save the land;
“Your kind of saving I don’t really understand.
“But God and me go way back… Jesus too…
“And who you calling old… Young whippersnapper…”

“You’ll be damned,” he said mournfully,
“If you don’t stop your sinful ways and follow me!”
That’s all he could say. I feel kind of bad,
But I laughed at him, and he walked away mad.
I let him go… Sad kind of fellow…
Never smiled once… Depressed…

Now that poor fellow, when he up and dies,
He’s going to get one hell of a surprise,
Saint Peter’s going to ask him, “Kid, what did you do?
“Did you fight for peace and justice, the environment, too?
“Say what?… Mostly proselytized?
“Gee, that’s too bad… Say hi to Lucifer for me…”

As for me, when I up and die,
Saint Peter’s going to be the one who gets a surprise,
I’ll march right past him, headed straight on down,
Fight for peace and justice there under the ground.
Organize the damned… Unionize the devils…
Roll the bosses over… Turn hell into heaven…

If we want to get to heaven, here’s what we’re going to do:
Going to fight for peace and justice, maybe sing about it too;
Going to stop climate change so we don’t get barbecued;
And if folks need to eat then we’re going to get them food.
That’s the path to heaven… Clean air and water…
Social justice… And plenty of food…

D – G – /
A7 – D – /
D – G – /
A7 – D7 – /
G7 – – – /
A7 – – – //

(c) 2018 Dan Harper (with thanks to Ted Schade and the New Bedford Folk Choir, 2009)

Too much Old Time Religion

29 parody verses of Old Time Religion, plus the traditional last verse (traditional, that is, if you’re a filker). Collected from many different places on the Web (maybe I made a few of them up), edited (both for style and for a vague correspondence to the religion that is parodied), and neatly assembled so that it can be printed (double-sided) on a single sheet of paper. One verse per religion, so you don’t have to sing endless verses based on, e.g., deities from Ancient Greek religions. And guitar chords. I’ll be bringing this to our local song circle, but you’re welcome to print it out and use it for the cat box.

Old Time Religion (parody version), PDF

For Web-based reference, the text of the PDF appears below the fold… Continue reading “Too much Old Time Religion”

Who gets to make a hymnal?

While working on a sabbatical project, I discovered that Louis F. Benson, in his book The English hymn: its development and use in worship (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, George H. Doran Co., 1915), lists nineteen U.S. Unitarian hymnals published in the thirty-four year period from 1830 to 1864. Nor does Benson claim this is an exhaustive list; indeed, he focuses almost exclusively on hymnals published in and near Boston (you can read this list below).

None of these hymnals was published by the American Unitarian Association (AUA). In some cases a large congregation compiled their own hymnal, which other congregations then adopted; more often, an individual editor or group of editors compiled a hymnal as a speculative venture, hoping that congregations would purchase it. In fact, the AUA didn’t publish its first hymnal until 1868.

In the twentieth century, the vast majority of Unitarian (and later Unitarian Universalist) hymnals were published by the AUA, and then from 1937 on by the Unitarians and Universalists together. In the post-World War II era, I’m only aware of two hymnals that were not published under denominational auspices (excluding one-author or one-composer hymn/song collections, such as those by Rick Masten).

So the vast majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations today use a denominationally-produced hymnal. Why is this? Partly I think it’s because copyright law has become much more strict in the past century; anything published after 1922 is probably covered by copyright, and it can be difficult and expensive to track down copyright owners and buy permission to reprint their text or music; it’s going to take a large-ish organization to have enough resources to deal with copyright challenges. But also I believe we have all bought into the notion that the only “real” hymnal is one published by the denomination.

What if one of the large Unitarian Universalist congregations put together a new hymnal? The hymnbook compilers would face significant challenges posed by copyright issues. To balance those challenges, the ease of self-publishing and the rise of print-on-demand would make layout, printing, and distribution extraordinarily easy. Technical and legal issues aside, wouldn’t it be nice if Unitarian Universalist congregations had a choice of hymnals? — at the very least, we could expand the number of our song choices.

———

And for those who are interested, I’ll append a very incomplete list of Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist hymnals, so you can get a sense of the great variety of hymnals that were once available. (I apologize for not researching Universalist hymnals, but this has been too much of a distraction from my sabbatical project as it is; I can’t justify procrastinating any longer.) Continue reading “Who gets to make a hymnal?”

Singing

The 6th annual Palo Alto All Day Sacred Harp Singing… singers came from all over California, and from Oregon, Louisiana, and Vermont. The temperature in the room went over 90 degrees, so we ended a half an hour early to make sure no one passed out. Here’s what we looked like in full cry, with fans going full blast:

Trebles (L-R, F-B): Rebecca, Inder, Arnold; Greg, Leah, Ruth; ???, Terry
Tenors (L-R, F-B): Steve, Mark, Yuka; Pat, Gerardo, Paul, Erica, Mary
Basses (L-R, F-B): Ed, Bob, Alex; Peter
Altos (L-R, F-B): Erika, Leigh; Janet, Marsha, Lena, Lorraine
(More than a dozen singers are not visible in this photo.)

“Buddha’s Hymn of Victory”

For this American sacred song, I’ve paired a classic eighteenth century psalm tune with an ancient Pali text translated by Charles Lanman, the great American scholar of Sanskrit. This is what Buddhas was supposed to have said when he at last acheived enlightenment, and was no longer bound to the endless cycle of rebirth. As a sort of extra bonus, the third verse is a translation by Paul Carus, a German immigrant to the United States, and a pioneering figure in the study of comparative religion (though today his scholarship seems quite dated).

Buddha’s Hymn of Victory (PDF) 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in., for use as an order of service insert.

The music is “Windham” by Daniel Read, one of the greatest of eighteenth century hymn tunes. This composition is usually paired with a text by Isaac Watts that begins “Broad is the road that leads to death…,” and tells how mortals can get to heaven. Even though the Christian path to heaven and the Buddhist path to nirvana are very different, the mood of the music seems to match both texts equally well.