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.

New website for early American sacred music

If you’re interested in early American sacred music (as I am), you might be interested in a new website being developed by Nym Cooke, a well known scholar and practitioner in the field. A friend forwarded me Cooke’s introductory email, which says in part:

“I invite you to explore a new website, Early American Sacred Music, at earlyamericansacredmusic.org. This constantly growing resource includes:
— a searchable database with extensive information on over 2,100 American printed and manuscript sources produced before 1821 (the complete holdings of 22 libraries), and over 10,000 manuscript music entries;
—600 pages of transcriptions from ca. 300 New England town and church histories, containing all that those sources have to say about early sacred music, and farmed out into 22 searchable subject files — with an index of the ca. 1,138 musicians those histories document….”

I’ll point out that this last item implies that anyone doing research on history of 18th century American congregations might find useful information on this website.

Also of interest to me was this statement: “Current inventorying plans include the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University; the Newberry Library in Chicago; the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; the Boston Public Library; the New York Public Library; and a number of town historical societies in New England.” Again, this could make the site a very useful resource for historians as well as musicologists.

Nine more copyright free hymns

Nine more copyright-free hymns. Yes, you can use these hymns online without having copyright trolls harass you. They’re in this Google Drive folder, along with 91 others — making a total of 100 copyright-free hymns in that folder.

Of interest in this batch of copyright-free hymns:

There are 3 hymn tunes by Thomas Commuck, the first Native American composer to publish his music. In two cases, I found texts in a current UU hymnal with copyright-protected music, and substituted one of Commucks’ tunes instead. In the third case, I found a lovely text by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the African American Unitarian poet from the mid-19th century, and paired it with a Commuck tune. These three hymns will be of interest if you’d like to include an Indigenous composer in your worship music.

For “Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name,” I found a 1923 arrangement by J. B. Herbert, based on melodies provided by Rev. Turner Henderson Wiseman (1881-1939). T. H. Wiseman was a charismatic African American minister of the early twentieth century. On Feb. 7, 1914, the Kansas City (Mo.) Sun called him “a brilliant young minister,” adding: “Perhaps there is no young man in the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who has made such an enviable reputation as Rev. T. H. Wiseman…. Rev. Wiseman is not only a pleasing and intellectual preacher of the Gospel, but is one of the most accomplished and sweetest singers of the race.” He made a number of recordings in the 1920s, many of which you can find online. His quartet’s recording of “Hush” is online at the Internet Archive, and is well worth listening to. In the notes to this hymn (see below), I discuss what Wiseman’s contribution to this song might have been.

(Researching these nine hymns was painful. My brain hurts. I need to take a break from this copyright-free hymn project.)

Notes to all nine new hymns below the fold.

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Still more copyright-free hymns

Five more copyright-free hymns added to this Google Drive folder. Full info about these newly added hymns below the fold. There are now 91 copyright-free hymns in the Google Drive folder.

66 of these are copyright-free versions (tune, text, and arrangement) of hymns from one of the two current Unitarian Universalist hymnals.

For the hymns not in the hymnals, I’ve tried to increase racial and gender diversity: 8 are from the African American tradition; 4 by women authors; 1 by a woman composer; and there’s 1 South African freedom song. I’ve also tried to add a little theological diversity: 1 Buddhist hymn; 1 Jewish hymn; 1 Neo-Pagan chant.

In the future, I’m planning to add tunes by Native composer Thomas Commuck, who was the first Native American to publish composed music. I’m also planning to add another 34 copyright-free versions of hymns from the current UU hymnals, bringing the total to 100 (plus the 25 hymns not from the current hymnals). Eventually, all these hymns will be gathered together on a static webpage. (But I don’t know when I’ll finish all these tasks, since we’re moving in a few weeks.)

Info for the newly-added hymns is below the fold.

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More ambiguous copyright status

Here’s yet another example of a hymn in a current UU hymnal, with an ambiguous copyright status.

The lyrics to “This Old World Is Full of Sorrow” — no. 315 in Singing the Living Tradition — apparently first appeared in print in 1983 in New American Songster, ed. Charles W. Darling (Univ. Press, 1983). Darling provides the following source for the lyrics:

“Howie Mitchell learned the words to ‘This Old World’ from Bernie Lourie while attending Cornell University. Its message is universal. Test: Golden Ring, Folk-Legacy FSJ-16 (used by permission of Folk-Legacy Records, Sharon, CT).”

The album Golden Ring was first released in 1964, and is still available from the Smithsonian Institute (which bought out Folkways Records). You can still purchase the individual track for “This Old World” on the Folkways website. I can’t find any earlier publication.

My guess is that these lyrics are a product of one or more anonymous authors during the Folk Revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Given the spirit of sharing during the Folk Revival, and given that they resemble other folk lyrics, the authors/redactors of the texts doubtless considered them to be in the public domain. From a legal standpoint, Folkways Records slapped a copyright on the recording, although they really didn’t have the right to do so. During the Folk Revival, this was standard practice: companies slapped copyright notices on public domain tunes and lyrics, often to prevent other companies from claiming copyright on public domain material. However it would be difficult to enforce any copyright claim, and it’s unlikely the Smithsonian Institute, current holder of the putative copyright, would even try.

Regardless, the attribution in Singing the Living Tradition should be changed. Instead of “Words: American folk tune, adapt.” (which doesn’t even make sense), a better attribution would be “Words: probably U.S. Folk Revival, 1945-1964.”

Here are the words as they appear in New American Songster:

This old world is full of sorrow,
Full of sickness, weak and sore.
If you love your neighbor truly,
Love will come to you the more.

We’re all children of one Father,
We’re all brothers and sisters too.
If you cherish one another
Love and pity will come to you.

This old world is full of sorrow,
Full of sickness, weak and sore.
If you love your neighbor truly,
Love will come to you the more.

So what about the other two verses printed in Singing the Living Tradition? It’s a good bet they were written by the compilers of the hymnal. (They certainly don’t sound like folk lyrics, or even composed lyrics from the Folk Revival.) So Unitarian Universalist congregations can safely use the last two verses in Singing the Living Tradition. But if you use them for any other purpose, assume they’re copyright-protected.

As for the music provide from hymn no. 315, it’s adapted from The Southern Harmony. There are enough changes in the arrangement that it may be protected by copyright. Again, it’s probably fine for Unitarian Universalist congregations to use, but for any other purpose assume that there’s a copyright.

Six more copyright free hymns

Clearing a backlog of copyright-free hymns from my music files.

I’ve just uploaded PDFs of 6 more copyright-free hymns to this Google Drive folder: “The Growing Light,” “A Hundred Years Hence,” “Peace, the Perfect Word,” “Prayer for This House,” “There Are Numerous Strings in Your Lute,” and “Turn Back.” Most of these hymns have appeared in UU hymnals.

Why copyright-free hymns? Because you don’t need a license, which smaller congregations may not be able to afford. Because you can do anything you want with them, including recording them, altering them, projecting lyrics and/or music, etc., etc. In this multiplatform age, we need more copyright-free hymns.

Of this batch of copyright-free hymns, you may be most interested in “There Are Numerous Strings in Your Lute.” Lovely words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize winning author who was associated with the Brahmo Samaj, a South Asian spiritual movement which both was influenced by Anglo-American Unitarianism, and which had a powerful influence on Anglo-American Unitarianism. The music supplied for this text in Singing the Living Tradition is pleasant, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever actually sung it in congregational worship — it comes across as more of a choir anthem. I found two 19th century shape-note tunes that fit Tagore’s text reasonably well. I hope these two easy-to-sing tunes make it more likely that this lovely text is actually sung in worship.

Of the other hymns included here, “A Hundred Years Hence” is a feminist hymn; and both “Peace, the Perfect Word” and “Turn Back” are peace songs. Full information about tunes and texts is below the fold.

Now online: 87 total hymns, including 61 from the two current UU hymnals.

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Five more copyright free hymns

I’ve just uploaded PDFs of 5 more copyright-free hymns to this Google Drive folder: “Come By Here” (a.k.a. “Kumbayah”), “Many Thousand Gone,” “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Siyahamba,” and “Transience.” All these hymns have appeared in UU hymnals.

Why copyright-free hymns? Because you don’t need a license, which smaller congregations may not be able to afford. Because you can do anything you want with them, including recording them, altering them, projecting lyrics and/or music, etc., etc. In this multiplatform age, we need more copyright-free hymns.

Of the hymns I just uploaded, you might be most interested in “Come By Here.” This is often assumed to be a copyrighted song composed by Marvin Frey. My research shows that this is, in fact, a public domain song. In addition, most of us are sick of the usual, sing-around-the-campfire “Kumbayah,” which can sound a bit dreary. I found alternate public domain tune and lyrics that are more lively, more fun to sing.

“Transience” is also worthy of your attention. It’s one of the songs that got dropped in the transition from the 1964 Songs for the Celebration of Life hymnal to the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition hymnal. The text is by South Asian poet Sarojini Naidu. Not only is it a pretty good poem, but we need more hymns by Asian and Asian American authors and composers.

Information for the five songs is below the fold.

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Two hymns not in the public domain

I believe the UUA’s “Copyright & Permissions for Hymn and Reading Use in UU Worship” may incorrectly lists two hymns as public domain or fair use.

Jubilate Deo, hymn #393 — words and music are stated to be “fair use or public domain.” The words clearly are in the public domain. However, the music is covered by copyright. Hymnary.org lists Jacques Berthier as arranger, and shows a scan of a page from a recent hymnal, Ritual Song (2016), that give the following copyright information: “Taizé Community, 1990, © 1978, 1990, Les Presses do Taizé, GIA Publications, Inc., agent.” I think it’s pretty clear that this song should not be used in recordings without permission from the Taizé community.

Rise Up O Flame, hymn #362 — words and music are stated to be “fair use or public domain.” The earliest reference I can find of this song is in the book Sing Together published by the Girl Scouts in the U.S. in 1936; there, the song is “used by permission” and credited to the Kent County Song Book from 1934, which was printed in England for the Girl Guides. Sing Together credits the music to Christoph Praetorius, and it’s quite possible the music is by Christoph Praetorius, or more likely was arranged by someone else from his work. However, the English-language words are surely a translation or adaptation, and may be protected by copyright.

Both these songs have been widely reprinted and recorded, including by major publishers, so you can probably get away with including them in recordings of your congregation’s worship services. But if you want to record “Jubilate Deo,” you really should get permission from the Taizé community. As for “Rise Up, O Flame,” it seems that it was copyrighted at one point, but it’s not clear if the copyright applied to the U.S., and if so, whether the copyright was renewed; proceed at your own risk. Besides, as an ehtical issue, we should respect the moral rights of composers and authors.

This shows that there are indeed errors in the UUA’s “Copyright & Permissions for Hymn and Reading Use in UU Worship.” You have been warned.