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.

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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?”

“There Is More Love Somwhere”

I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you like the hymn “There Is More Love Somewhere,” there’s another version you should know about.

This is not a widely-sung hymn; I can’t find it in in the vast collection of hymnals at the Hymnary.org Web site, and the only hymnal I’ve seen it in is the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. The version in Singing the Living Tradition closely follows the melody sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon on her 1986 album “River of Life,” and you can hear Reagon’s version on Youtube. In the booklet that goes with the CD, Reagon says that she learned the song from Bessie Jones. (The only other commercial recording I’ve been able to track down is one by Eileen McGann, a Canadian folk singer, on her 1997 ablum titled “Heritage.”)

Reagon might well have learned the song directly from Bessie Jones, but there’s also an Alan Lomax recording of Jones singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Now Bernice Johnson Reagon is a hugely talented singer, but I much prefer Bessie Jones’s rendition of the hymn. Reagon was making a commercial recording, and her performance is highly polished and meticulously crafted. Jones sings the tune in Alan Lomax’s living room, and her performance is by no means a commercially polished recording; yet I feel she gets deeper into the feeling and meaning of the song. Musically, Jones’s version is more direct; Reagon adds carefully articulated sixteenth notes (all of which are carefully reproduced in the Singing the Living Tradition version), where for her part, Jones varies and improvises on the melody, shades pitch and plays with the rhythm, and goes whither the Spirit leads her.

Lest there be any question, the lyrics Jones sings make it clear that this song comes from the African American Christian tradition. Her lyrics begin with “There is more love somewhere,” then go on to “more joy,” “happiness,” “Jesus,” “more peace,” and “heaven,” before reprising “more love” and “more joy.” (If you don’t like heavenly love and joy, you may not want to sing this song.) And as you’d expect from a song out of the African American Christian tradition, there is no pretence that we all have plenty of joy and happiness right here and now; joy, happiness, heaven are all theological ideals, the end towards which we direct our lives, with no guarantee that we will achieve that end now or in the immediate future — we can only hope to find them “somewhere.”

I should also note that Singing the Living Tradition names the tune “Biko,” but as much as I admire Stephen Biko I consider this to be a misleading name that doesn’t relate to the actual origins of the tune. Bessie Jones told Alan Lomax the song came from the Georgia Sea Islands, so “Sea Islands” would be a better name.

In any case — listen to the Bessie Jones version of this tune. Now that I have Jone’s version in my ear, any time I sing it I can’t help but remember that the song comes from the Gullah people of Georgia’s Sea Islands, people who managed to keep their direct cultural connections to Africa; that it’s a song of deepest spiritual longings and hope for the future; and that you don’t need to sing it like a commercially produced recording, you can sing it from the heart.

“This Little Light of Mine”

Is the famous song “This Little Light of Mine” an African American spiritual? Or was it composed by Harry Dixon Loes and Avis B. Christiansen around 1920?

Attributions to the African American tradition

Many hymnals and songbooks attribute “This Little Light of Mine” to “African American Spiritual,” or more generally to “Traditional.”

An influential source: Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal, ed. Horace Clarence Boyer (New York: Church Publishing, 1993), has the following attribution: “Words: Traditional. Music: Negro spiritual, adapt. William Farley Smith (b. 1941)”. The melody of this version resembles the melody collected in 1939 by Alan Lomax, as sung by Doris McMurray of Huntsville, Texas.; this recording is available online here.

An equally influential source is Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan (Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 1963/2007). The Carawans give a somewhat different melody, and attribute this as “Traditional song” (p. 21). They provide documentary evidence that indicates the song was included in the “Highlander Song Book” (p. 25), a songbook that would date from the 1930s. Incidentally, the Carawans provide a bridge that is not included in the hymnals I’ve consulted.

In addition to the audio recording by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1939 (see above), “Let hit shine” was collected by Ruby Pickens Tartt, and published in “Honey in the Rock”: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs from Sumter County, Alabama (Mercer University Press, 1991, p. 5; words only). Note that like the Lomax version, this version was probably collected in the 1930s. The editors do not provide any guidance as to when Tartt collected this particular song, but they provide the following editorial comment, without documentation: “Widely performed by choirs and gospel groups during the 1930s, a favorite on gospel radio shows, ‘Let hit shine’ is now also in white folk tradition.”

Note that “This Little Light” is NOT found in the following influential nineteenth century collections of African American songs: Slave Songs of the United States ed. William Francis Allen et al.; The Story of the Jubilee Singers; with their Songs (6th ed., 1872); Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students (1876).

Attributions to composer Harry Dixon Loes

The words to “This Little Light” are collected by Steven Gould Axelrod, Camille Roman, and Thomas J. Travisano, in their book The New Anthology of American Poetry: Modernisms, 1900-1950 (Rutgers University Press, 2005), on p. 605. The editors add the following editorial comment: “Harry Dixon Loes (1892-1965) wrote and composed this song with Avis B. Christiansen (b. 1895). The pair also wrote the hymns ‘Blessed Redeemer’ and ‘Love Found a Way’.” This attribution, coming as it does from a well-regarded university press, carries some weight; however, the attribution is not documented.

Typical of the stories told about the song is that told by Ace Collins, in his book Music for Your Heart: Reflections from Your Favorite Songs (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), p. 191: “During his studies [at the Moody Bible Institute], Loes was struck by the significance of three different references to light in the New Testament…. Using light as an inspiration and coupling it to a melody that carried the feel of a spiritual, Loes wrote ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Yet the song, which is today almost universally known, took a while to take off. Although written in 1920, it would be in the days just before World War II that churches began to adopt ‘This Little Light of Mine’ as a part of Sunday school programs. Within a decade, Loes’s song was translated into scores of languages and sung all over the globe.” Collins provides no documentation whatsoever for any of these assertions.

Although the song was supposedly composed c. 1920, I was unable to find a reference to it in the Catalog for Copyright Entries for the years 1920 and 1921; however, Loes might have copyrighted the song later than 1920.

Hymnary.org shows no publications in hymnals prior to about the late 1930s; see graph here. However, Hymnary.org does not include every single U.S. hymnal from the twentieth century.

Wikipedia attributes the song to Loes, but does not document the source for this attribution. The Wikipedia page was created July 26, 2007, and many online sources (and probably many print sources) unquestioningly accept the Wikipedia attribution in spite of the lack of documentation; therefore, be wary of any source published 2007 and later that attributes the song to Loes.

The Web site Hymntime.com does NOT list “This Little Light” as one of Loes’s compositions. Note that Hymntime.com gives Loes’s dates as October 20, 1892 to February 9, 1965; the birth year is different from the birth year given by Wikipedia.

Conclusion and questions

The fact that folklorists collected the song after Dixon’s purported composition date of circa 1920 indicates that the song could have passed quickly into the folk repertoire soon after composition. However, assuming Loes did indeed write the song (or if Loes co-wrote it with Christiansen), where and when was it first published?

If Loes wrote the melody, what was his original version? Similarly, if the melody is an African American spiritual, what is the earliest recorded version of the melody?

Loes was white, so if he wrote the song, how did it become associated with the African American tradition?

In the absence of firm answers to these and other questions about the origins of this tune, the most careful attribution for this song would be “Unknown.”

No one sings in church any more

On the Sacred Harp Friends page on Facebook, Katie posted a link to a blog post by Thom Schulz, titled “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore.” Schulz’s reasons why people don’t sing in church: too often services are spectator events; church music is dominated by professionals, to the point of squeezing us amateurs out; sometimes the volume gets cranked up so high people just stop singing; the hymns are unfamiliar or hard to sing.

Katie then noted that Sacred Harp singers do sing, and we sing fervently — because there are no spectators, there are no professionals, it’s loud but not deafening, and Sacred harp singers have been singing pretty much the same tunes for a century and a half.

Actually, in my church people do sing. Amy, the senior minister, and I made a pact some years ago that the first hymn would mostly get chosen from a pool of ten or so hymns; that way, the kids can memorize ten or so hymns and know them by heart. And indeed the kids (and the adults) do memorize those hymns, and they do sing with fervor and gusto. In one recent service, I watched as one of our more cynical upper elementary kids stood on a chair, hung on to dad, and sang with utter abandon; cynicism gone, this child was completely lost in the hymn.

Given my experience, I’m with Thom Schulz: congregational singing does not need spectators, over-professionalism, blare, or crappy songs. Congregational singing can aim towards joy, towards ecstatic union with the universe through song. Congregational singing can be — should be — cynical kids belting out a favorite hymn at the tops of their voices, completely lost in the moment.

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Time, like the tide, sweeps over the new year

The following poem appears in A Collection of Hymns on the Most Important Subjects of the Gospel, edited by Thomas Humphrys (Bristol, England: Biggs & Cottle, 1798), pp. 14-15, as a meditation on the new year:

My days, my weeks, my months, my years,
Fly rapid like the whirling spheres
Around the steady pole;
Time, like the tide, its motion keeps,
Till I shall launch those boundless deeps
Where endless ages roll.

The grave is near the cradle seen,
How swift the moments pass between
And whisper as they fly;
“Unthinking man remember this,
“Thou midst thy sublunary bliss
“Most groan, and gasp, and die.”

Eternal bliss, eternal woe,
Hangs on this inch of time below,
On this precarious breath:
The God of nature only knows,
Whether another year shall close,
Ere I expire in death.

Long ere the sun shall run its round,
I may be buried under ground,
And there in silence rot;
Alas! one hour may close the scene,
And ere twelve months shall roll between,
My name be quite forgot….

These late-eighteenth century sentiments probably soundm foreign to most early-twenty-first century American minds. Contemporary American culture insists we be optimistic about the future, so this poem may strike you as morbid. Certainly I do not agree with the theology of the poem, which the poet goes on to wonder whether he or she will go to heaven or hell after death, and in the concluding verse prays: “Help me to choose that better way” that will lead to heaven.

Yet though I do not agree with the theology, it’s not a bad idea to remember that death is just around the corner. We needn’t think obsessively about death and dying, but it can be freeing to realize that many small things that loom large in daily life are not that important. What is important is striving to be the best person possible, which in turn should help us realize that self-reflection and self-knowledge take priority over striving to buy consumer goods or striving to get a promotion at work or striving to get your children into Ivy League schools. In this realization lies freedom.

I don’t know who wrote the poem originally. Humphrys does not attribute this poem to a specific author. Another version of this poem was printed in The Poetical Monitor: consisting of pieces select and original for the improvement of the young in virtue and piety: intended to succeed Dr. Watts’ Divine and moral songs, etc., edited by Elizabeth Hill (London: Shakespear’s-Walk Female Charity School, 1796), pp. 64-65. The poem appears under the tile “On the Eve of the New Year,” and Hill lists the author as “Green.” Perhaps an astute reader can track down the author. Continue reading “Time, like the tide, sweeps over the new year”

Caroling

Jenni suggested the Ferry Building in San Francisco, so that’s where Ray, Tara, and I met her a little after three this afternoon. Both our tenors were ill, but we figured no one would notice that both Ray and I were singing bass. We started out just inside the main entrance, but between the traffic along Embarcadero and the crowds in the building, it was too noisy. So we went down to the south entrance, and set up there. “What should we start with?” “Deck the Hall, page 11.” Jenni counted us in, and we began to sing.

Once we got in the groove of singing, I could relax a little and look at the people who were listening to us. Everyone was smiling. Except two small children, who stood listenly raptly, their mouths slightly open. We decided to take a break, and the woman who was with the two children thanked us. “My kids are just enthralled,” she said. “Oh, then we’ll sing something else for you,” said Jenni. The kids wanted to hear “Frosty the Snowman,” but we didn’t have the music for it, so we settled on “Jingle Bells.”

Later we sang at the north end of the Ferry Building, and people had the same reactions: the adults all smiled, and the children just stood and listened. We all hear a lot of Christmas music in December — the endless Christmas carols played as background music in stores, the songs you hear on the radio — but it’s much better when you hear live music, even when it’s performed by people who are not professional musicians. Live music is not neatly packaged by corporate bean counters; it is not controlled by the touch of your finger on a touch screen; it is not performed in some acoustically perfect recording studio somewhere. Unlike recorded music, it is imperfect and alive and a little bit wild.

We sang until we got tired. We sang several of the carols several times over, but they never got boring, because people were smiling, and one little girl started dancing. Finally we had to stop singing. We were all smiling, too.

Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

A little before ten this morning, Carol dropped me off at Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. The church has been engulfed by upscale suburban sprawl — office parks, gated communities, tasteful shopping malls, impeccably maintained four-lane roads — but once you get on the church grounds, you enter into a different cultural landscape. The church, a plain and attractive brick building, is surrounded on two sides by moss-covered gravel parking areas shaded by trees; quite a few cars were already nestled in shady parking spots. Behind the church was a cemetery with quite a few older gravestones, and some gravestones that looked very new.

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Above: Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

Inside, the church was quite plain, as you’d expect in a Primitive Baptist Church: little ornamentation, plain white walls, simple but attractive pews — and no musical instruments. Fifty or so singers were gathered up at the front of the church. I went to sit in the bass section, and noticed that in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews were hymnals, Bibles, and fans in case it got too hot. I opened up my copy of The Sacred Harp, and got ready to sing.

The singing, the 146th session of the annual Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention, belonged to this other cultural landscape, removed from the gated communities and office parks. It’s music that’s meant to be performed and shared, not consumed; it’s a democratic musical tradition where everyone sings, and anyone can lead a tune if they want to. The singing rose up into that plain white sun-washed church, loud and triumphant. It had that old-time lonesome sound that lets you know that in spite of all the sorrow and troubles we face, God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

Above: View from the bass section, 146th session of the Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A seven year old girl got up to lead “Africa,” an old Isaac Watts hymn — a hymn seems to me to express a Universalist theology of hope and assurance — set to music by William Billings in the late eighteenth century. Between the words to the hymn and that self-possessed girl leading the other singers so well, I got a little choked up and couldn’t sing for a bit, and maybe there were some tears running down my cheeks.

Lunch was served in the time-honored custom of dinner-on-the-grounds. There was a small kitchen building behind the church. Extending from that was a long table, perhaps fifty feet long, built on concrete blocks. Everyone who had brought food to share laid it out on this long table. Over the table was a roof to keep the sun and rain showers off, and between the posts holding up the roof were boards set at a height where you could put your plate while you stood and ate and talked with everyone around you. The woods stood near at hand, and some people from the church instructed us to through any food that was left on our plates out to the varmints in the woods.

Carol had come to the singing by now, and we got our dinners: ham, pulled pork, collard greens, fried okra, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, broccoli casserole, and some of the best layer cake I’ve ever eaten. We stood and ate and talked. I talked with Henry from Alabama, with whom I talked universalist theology. I talked with Nathan, an art historian who’s moving to North Dakota, who specializes in spiritual painters in the southwestern U.S. in the early 20th century. We talked with Shawn and Natalie, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and who sing Sacred harp there. I can’t remember who all we talked with.

The singing was just as good in the afternoon session, if not a little better. During the afternoon break, I got involved in a brief and somewhat technical discussion with a couple of fourth- or fifth- or maybe sixth-generation Sacred Harp singers on the proper tempo for “David’s Lamentation,” a William Billings composition. The piece has become a standard in the repertoire of college choirs, where it is often sung at a slow tempo, and apparently some people have tried leading it slowly at Sacred Harp singings. But the three of us all agreed it should be led at a fast pace (not that my opinion counts), which is both the traditional way to sing it in the South (and not coincidentally, the way Billings clearly preferred it to be sung).

The singing ended. Jeff offered to give me a ride back to the motel. We pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a cultural landscape devoted to shared experience, democratic traditions, and matters of the spirit, and re-entered a cultural landscape dominated by consumption and competition.

In vain

Old Isaac Watts has a poor reputation among religious liberals. He’s old-fashioned. He writes those four-square hymns we love to hate. He’s rooted in the Bible and talks about God as male. Bad hymnodist!

Yet here’s an Isaac Watts hymn that would be a very nice addition to today’s liberal religious hymnody:

In vain the wealthy mortals toil,
And heap their shining dust in vain;
Look down and scorn the humble poor,
And boast their lofty hills of gain.

Their golden cordials cannot ease
Their pained hearts or aching heads,
Nor fright nor bribe approaching death
From glitt’ring roofs and downy beds.

Thence they are huddled to the grave,
Where kings and slaves have equal thrones;
Their bones without distinction lie
Amongst the heap of meaner bones.

“The Rich Sinner Dying,” Hymn 1:24 from Hymns and Spiritual Songs by Isaac Watts.