Another attribution problem

We’ve been singing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” with campers at our ecojustce day camp. But Tobi just pointed out that we may want to drop it next year. Why? Well, first of all there’s serious doubt whether it’s a traditional African American song. The most familiar form of the song (including the version found in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal) derives from the version recorded by the Weavers. This version is an arrangement by Lee Hays, first published in 1947 in “People’s Songs Bulletin”; let’s call this the Hays version. Compare the Hays version to the first published version, collected by amateur folklorist H. B. Parks between 1912 and 1918, which first appeared in print in 1928 in Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Number VII:

The 1928 Parks version, with 11 measures and four fermata, does not conform to the conventional structure of Anglo-American folk music. The 1947 Hays version, on the other hand, has 8 measures with no fermata and a more elaborate melody in measures 5-6. You can imagine Lee Hays regularizing and developing the melody so that it better conformed to the standards of an eight-bar chorus of the Folk Revival. The Parks version, with its “irregular” structure, feels more like something that could have been collected in the field from a singer who had no training in conventional Western music theory. (And I admit my personal preference: I like its lonesome sound much better than what I consider to be the sanitized sound of the Hays version.)

But what about Parks’s version? How authentic is it? Here’s how Parks describes first hearing this song (reprinted: H. B. Parks, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” The Best of Texas Folk and Folklore, 1916-1954, ed. Mody Coggin Boatright, Wilson Mathis Hudson, and Allen Maxwell [Univ. of North Texas Press / Texas Folklore Society, 1998], pp. 159-162):

“I was a resident of Hot Springs, North Carolina, during the year of 1912 and had charge of the agricultural work of a large industrial school. This school owned a considerable herd of cattle, which were kept in the meadues on the tops of the Big Rich Mountains on the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. One day while riding through the mountains looking after this stock, I heard the following stanza sung by a little Negro [sic] boy, who was picking up dry sticks of wood near a Negro cabin:

“‘Foller the drinkin’ gou’d,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;
No one know, the wise man say,
“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”‘

“It is very doubtful if this part of the song would have attracted anyone’s attention had not the old grandfather, who had been sitting on a block of wood in front of the cabin, slowly got up and, taking his cane, given the boy a sound lick across the back with the admonition not to sing that song again. This excited my curiosity and I asked the old man why he did not want the boy to sing the song. The only answer I could get was that it was bad luck.”

Then, according to Parks, “about a year later” (i.e., c. 1913) he happened to be passing through Louisville, Kentucky, he claims to have heard a fisherman singing the same words to the same tune. When Parks asked the man about the song, the man refused to talk with him about it. I note that Parks was not engaged in formal collecting of folklore or folk song on either or these occasions; he was not seeking out informants, sitting down with them and listening to their repertoires, while taking careful notes. In fact, he can’t even remember the exact date of the Louisville encounter. As a result, I’m quite skeptical about these two stories; I’m willing to believe that Parks encountered interesting songs on both occasions, but I’m equally willing to believe that his later recall of the words or music, or both, was inaccurate. It seems so unlikely that two singers, hundreds of miles apart, would be singing exactly the same words and exactly the same music; that’s not how folk music gets transmitted; each singer changes a song a little bit as they pass it to the next singer. If Parks had said he had heard a similar tune with similar words, I would be more willing to believe him.

Parks then describes a third encounter with the song:

“In 1918 I was standing on the platform of the depot at Waller, Texas, waiting for a train, when, much to my surprise, I heard the familiar tune being picked on a violin and banjo and two voices singing the following words:

“‘Foller the Risen Lawd,
Foller the Risen Lawd;
The bes’ thing the Wise Man say,
“Foller the Risen Lawd.”‘

“The singers proved to be two Negro boys about sixteen years of age. When they were asked as to where they learned the song, they gave the following explanation. They said that they were musicians traveling with a colored [sic] revivalist and that he had composed this song and that they played it and used it in their revival meetings.”

The next part of Parks’ story may be summarized like this: Curious about the song, he asked “an old Negro who had known a great many slaves in his boyhood days” about the song. Why yes, his informant said, he remembered the song, and he remembered that it was associated with a “peg-leg sailor” who was part of the Underground Railroad, and used the song to provide instructions to enslaved persons so they could escape to Canada. After hearing the story, Parks contacted older members of his family, white people from the North who had been part of the Underground Railroad, and they said there were indeed records from the Anti-Slavery Society documenting a Peg Leg Joe “who made a number of trips through the South and induced young Negroes to run away and escape.” Nothing more was known about this sailor, and nothing more was heard of him after about 1859, according to Parks’s relatives.

Below are the words Parks says were sung by Peg Leg Joe. But Parks does not provide a specific informant for these words; he does not say from whom he collected them; he merely says these words “were held in the memory of the Negroes.” This vague attribution makes me doubt the authenticity of the lyrics — more on this below.

When the sun come back,
When the firs’ quail call,
Then the time is come
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

Chorus: Foller the drinkin’ gou’d,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;
For the old man say,
“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”

The riva’s bank am a very good road,
The dead trees show the way,
Lef’ foot, peg foot goin’ on,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.
[Note: Peg Leg Joe reportedly blazed a trail using the marks of a peg imprint and the imprint of a left foot]

The riva ends a-tween two hills,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d:
‘Nuther riva on the other side
Follers the drinkin’ gou’d.

Wha the little riva
Meet the grea’ big un,
The ole man waits —
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.
[Note: the last two verses reportedly describe a route following the Tombigee River in Alabama north, then across to the Tennessee River, and thence to the Ohio River.]

Personally, I suspect Parks did what so many elite white folklore collectors did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: he used a heavy editorial hand: he may have taken several “floating verses” and combined them; he may have filled out incomplete verses; he may have combined versions from several different parts of the country; he may have added lyrics that interested him to a tune he liked. I don’t doubt Parks’s honesty, but I do doubt his scholarship; while acceptable in his day, today his methodology would be considered slipshod.

Where does this leave us?

First of all, the tune as commonly sung (i.e., the version in the UU hymnal) should probably be attributed as “Music: probable traditional African American, arranged by Lee Hays.” Why say say the music is probably traditional? Because the 1928 Parks article raises the very real possibility that the tune that he recorded and remembered in 1928 was composed by an unknown African American revivalist. If those revivalists traveled widely, they may have spread their tune from North Carolina to Kentucky from 1912 to 1918, thus accounting for Parks hearing similar or identical tunes across six years and a wide geographical range. I don’t think it’s right to obscure the possibility of that revivalist, because if we obscure that possibility, then we erase yet another African American composer from history. I also feel it’s important to acknowledge that an elite white man altered the tune significantly, so the attribution should state that clearly.

Personally, I’d feel much better if the hymnal had the version of the melody published by Parks in 1928, rather than the sanitized version recorded by the (all-white) Weavers in 1947. That would also simplify the attribution to: “Music: probable traditional African American.”

As for the words, I don’t doubt that some of the Parks wrote down were actually sung by African Americans. I do have strong doubts as to whether the words Parks edited and published in 1928 were the exact words sung in the 1850s by African Americans. Assuming the song does in fact date back to the 1850s, what we know of the folk process makes it almost certain that the words changed over time. And what if the song does not date to the 1850s? It seems entirely possible to me that the words were composed by an unknown African American poet in the last decades 19th century, or the first decade of the 20th century. Those decades were a time of incredible innovation in African American music, with the ongoing growth of sacred music and the emergence of blues and jazz. Some of the early blues lyrics are some of the greatest poetry to come out of America. What about a talented African American poet looking back on the stories of his or her parents or grandparents, and creating a story of agency, escape, and freedom? Once again, I don’t want to erase yet another African American poet from history. So I’d suggest an attribution something like this: “Words: African American tradition.” Not “traditional” — but rather from the tradition of African American folk and composed lyrics.

Living in a sick world

Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon has released a new single in which he takes on pandemic deaths and grief. Listen to Haddon’s soaring, swooping gospel voice over a compelling trap backing track: “Sick World” by Dietrick Haddon.

What I especially like about this song is that Haddon gets the way grief is additive. All the grief we’ve experienced since the pandemic began gets added to all the grief we’ve experienced from COVID deaths and COVID-related deaths. Haddon specifically mentions Kobe Bryant’s death, and the official music video references the insurrectionists storming the Capitol building: these and many other events get added to the people we know who’ve died because of COVID. Here are some of the lyrics:

“We’ve got kids killing each other in Chicago,
Detroit just ain’t the same no more,
And it ain’t getting better on the West Coast —
Tell me why we treating each other so cold.
People would rather put faith in a vaccine
Than wearing a mask, keeping their hands clean,
And this will all go down in history
That thousands have died cause we cannot agree, yeah.
Living in a sick world, but I’m praying you are well,
We can’t stand to lose nobody else,
Can’t stand to lose nobody….”

I don’t listen to much gospel or hip hop any more, but the powerful lyrics and the high level of musicianship make this song worth a listen. And yes, I am praying that you are well.

Using Jamulus to sing online in real time

The Bay Area Sacred Harp (BASH) singing community has been using Jamulus to sing together online, in four part harmony, in real time. The big problem with trying to sing online together is that the Internet has built-in “latency,” or lag time. Jamulus is free open source software that minimizes latency to allow people to make music together in real time.

Last night, we had eight singers logged in to our Jamulus server, including two singers from Southern California. And it finally felt like we’re getting the hang of how to do this.

We started experimenting with Jamulus back in June, and since mid-August we’ve been singing twice a month, so this is our seventh regular meeting. Singing online requires several adjustments on the part of singers. First you have to get used to the Jamulus platform, including watching your volume level, adjusting the volume levels of other singers, etc.

Beyond the technical learning curve, there’s also a musical learning curve. You have to get used to the fact that you have no visual cues, so instead of watching someone beating time you have to maintain a very sure sense of the tempo. You also have to get used to the fact that there’s more lag time than when singing in person; in person, you can rely on another singer by listening to them and following a split second behind, but singing online has just enough lag time that you have to be exactly on the beat (or even the tiniest bit ahead). In short, you have to be very confident of your part.

No, it’s not as good as singing in person. But because of the pandemic, singing in person simply isn’t possible. This is the best alternative; and really, given how good it feels to be able to sing with others, it’s a pretty good alternative.

I’ll continue after the jump with more technical details.

Continue reading “Using Jamulus to sing online in real time”

The wild diversity of Christianity, part two

This second video in the two part series explores Christian diversity in the U.S. through Christian music, touching on everything from Christian K-pop to Primitive Baptist hymns to Mainline Protestant choral music to an AME Zion hymn choir — and more. The people who write, perform, and listen to this Christian music come from widely divergent religious perspectives, and very different cultures and ethnicities, and the musical diversity covered in this video should challenge anyone who thinks Christianity is a monolith.

(A disclaimer that will be obvious to my Unitarian Universalist readers: I’m looking at Christianity from the outside; Unitarian Universalism can no longer be considered a Christian religion, it is now quite firmly post-Christian — and whatever that means, it definitely isn’t Christian, though it is related historically.)

Click on the image above to go to the video on Youtube.

Below is the text I was looking at while making the video (but I deviated from the script more than once). The videos from the associated Youtube playlist are embedded below.

Questions that are implicit in the video: How do you define the boundaries of a religious tradition? What makes a piece of music Christian — Christian text, Christian performers, Christian context, Christian intent behind the music, Christian musical genre, or more than one of the above, or all of the above? What are the boundaries between culture and religion? — or are culture and religion somehow intertwined? How can we listen across religious and cultural boundaries? — what do we have in common, and how do we get past what we don’t have in common?

Continue reading “The wild diversity of Christianity, part two”

The wild diversity of Christianity

A short (5 min.) talk for an adult class in which I talk about some stereotypes of Christians, and then suggest listening to the wild diversity of Christian music as a way to get past the stereotypes to begin to understand something of the wild diversity of the Christian religion….

Click on the image above to take you to the video.

Below is the uncorrected text that I was reading from (I diverged from the text a bit, but this is most of it):

Continue reading “The wild diversity of Christianity”

“I Don’t Want To Wear a Mask”

Just in time for Independence Day, here’s a song about how nobody tells me what to do:

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

1. I went out to buy some food,
They wouldn’t let me in the store,
Said I had to wear a mask,
I shook my fist, I cursed and swore:
I don’t want to wear a mask,
I don’t want to look a fool,
Makes me feel uncomfortable,
No one tells me what to do.

2. I went to the park today
And started hanging out with friends,
They all stayed six feet away,
I said our friendship’s at an end:
Don’t you social distance me,
COVID’s no worse than the flu,
Six feet is too far away,
No one tells me what to do.

3. I’m a free American,
Don’t trample on my civil rights,
If you make me wear a mask,
I’ll get a gun, I’ll start a fight:
Masks are unamerican,
They are not red, white, and blue,
I am like my President,
No one tells me what to do.

4. I began to cough a bit,
My temperature hit 102,
Had a tracheotomy,
And now I’m in the I. C. U.:
Now I never wear a mask,
I don’t have to look a fool,
They say I may not make it, but
No one tells me what to do.

Update July 8: Revised music and lyrics.

The mystery of the misattributed hymn

One of my favorite hymns about peace begins:

Years are coming — speed them onward!
When the sword shall gather rust,
And the helmet, lance, and falchion,
Sleep at last in silent dust!

This hymn has mostly been reprinted in Universalist and Unitarian Universalist hymnals, and it is usually attributed to the Universalist minister Adin Ballou, who founded the utopian Hopedale community in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1842. Ballou and the members of the Hopedale community were believers in women’s rights and abolition and temperance and education and pacifism. Recently, while I was researching family history, I discovered that my mother’s great-grandparents Nathan Chapman and Hepzibah Whipple left the utopian Rogerenes of Ledyard, Conn., to join the nearby utopian Hopedale community in Massachusetts; and their daughter Jeannette was married in Hopedale to her husband Richard Congdon by none other than Rev. Adin Ballou; and though by the time of this marriage the Hopedale community had gone bankrupt, the spirit of the community lived on in the Hopedale Unitarian church of which Ballou was the minister.

Not only did this family history help explain why I’m a feminist, pacifist, educator, and utopian dreamer, but I decided it must explain why I like this hymn so much.

Except that Adin Ballou didn’t write this hymn.

Continue reading “The mystery of the misattributed hymn”

Copyright free hymns

For me, the biggest stumbling block for livestreaming worship services has always been copyright issues.

Especially troublesome are hymns.

Many of the most popular hymn tunes are protected by copyright. Even if a tune is in the public domain, the arrangement may be copyrighted (and it can be difficult to find out if the arrangement is, in fact, copyrighted). Even if the arrangement is copyrighted, some people will claim copyright for their typesetting of the hymn. If a hymn is protected in any way under copyright, you’re not supposed to photocopy or project or electronically disseminate the printed version of the hymn; if any part of the music is protected under copyright, you’re not supposed to broadcast audio of it. No, not even if you own hymnals with the hymn: owning a hymnal just allows you to use the hymn in an in-person event such as an in-person worship service.

The solution to this problem: copyright free hymns.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting copyright free hymns and spiritual songs. I have huge disorganized files (both electronic and hard copy) of public domain tunes and texts and arrangements. I’ve pulled many songs from the great early African American collections, including Slave Songs of the U.S. (1868), the Fisk Jubilee Singers songbook (1873), and Cabin and Plantation Songs, assembled by the Hampton Institute (1901). Although most of the hymns I’ve found are Christian, I’ve also found some good hymns and songs with Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, Ethical Culture, or secular content. All the hymns I’ve found would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service; indeed, many of them are public domain versions of hymns in our current hymnal that are protected by copyright in some way.

I’ve just put 24 of these copyright free hymns and spiritual songs in a Google Drive folder here.

I’ll put a list of the songs currently in the folder below the fold. And I’ll be adding more copyright free hymns and spiritual songs as I find time to produce fair copies of the versions I have.

A thumbnail view of a copyright free hymn
Continue reading “Copyright free hymns”

A Glee at Christmas

A little-known song for Christmas by Henry Lawes. This song, published in 1669, is a Christmas party song, with absolutely no religious content except the word “Christmas.”

’Tis Christmas now, ’tis Christmas now,
When Cato’s self would laugh,
And smoothing forth his wrinkled brow,
Gives liberty to Quaff,
To Dance, to Sing, to Sport and Play,
For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.

And for the Twelve days, let them pass
In mirth and jollity:
The Time doth call each Lad and Lass
That will be blithe and merry
Then Dance, and Sing, and Sport, and Play,
For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.

And from the Rising of the Sun
To th’Setting, cast off Cares;
’Tis time enough when Twelve is done
To think of our Affairs.
Then Dance, and Sing, and Sport, and Play,
For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.

Click on the image below for a PDF of sheet music for this song. The melody in the sheet music is Lawes’ melody; Lawes outlined a bass line to be played on theorbo or bass-viol, and I changed the rhythms of this slightly to fit the lyrics so bass voices could sing this part.

Tymbnail of sheet music for "A Glee at Christmas"

Classical gender equality

The Daffodil Project aims to “champion gender equality in classical music.” In a blog post, Elizabeth de Brito writes:

“Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances…. Add the next 4 most played composers — Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky — and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers, but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!”

De Brito produces an online gender-balanced classical music program which in its first year had “409 composers including 204 female composers, 155 living composers, and 40 BAME composers/composers of colour.” The most played composer? — Florence Price.

And De Brito has hit on one of the main reasons why I don’t bother going to hear classical music concerts much any more — I’m so bored by hearing the same composers over and over again. I like “classical” music just fine, but I don’t want to hear Beethoven and Mozart again and again, I want to hear living composers, women composers, non-white composers….

Which brings me to Unitarian Universalist services that use mostly classical music: what would happen if half the music in our worship services was composed by women? or if we programmed more composers of African descent? and how about a Mexican composer? Life would be a lot more interesting.