Monday, February 27, 2006

A shape-note tradition in Decatur

Local Sacred Harp singers did something new Sunday at the end of a singing at Millikin University in Decatur. Well, it wasn't completely new -- instead, we revived and adapted an old tradition we'd been in danger of losing in this part of the country. We sang our usual closing song, Christian's Farewell (No. 347 in The Sacred Harp), but we took the parting hand as we sang it.

The parting hand is an old, old practice in Southern singings, as singers go around the room shaking hands during the last song or "closer." But it sort of fell by the wayside in Midwestern singings, at least the ones I've been to in downstate Illinois, when we stopped using the old William Walker song The Parting Hand (No. 62) as a closer. But as we sang Christian's Farewell, a couple of people started shaking hands around the hollow square. A few more of us joined in, and then more ... and the scene in Millikin's ultra-modern Pilling Chapel carried me back to singings in pine-plank country churches down home in Tennessee. It felt good to be doing it again, and in an adapted form that celebrates both the people I first learned the music from and the people I sing with now. And of course, that's how traditions survive. They adapt.

Sunday's singing (Feb. 26) at Millikin was about handing down traditions. Several members of the university's choir were on hand, and student organizer Ryan Henry said there's quite a bit of enthusiasm for the Sacred Harp tradition among music students on campus. "They've been hearing me talk about it since my first convention in '04," he said. Also instrumental in exposing students to the tradition has been choir director Bradley Holmes, who includes shape-note hymns in the choir's repertoire.

So the singing at Millikin took on some of the atmosphere of a singing school, as Terry Hogg of Decatur, Janet Fraembs and Peggy Brayfield of Charleston, and Berkley Moore of Springfield explained how to sing the shapes, how to lead a song and how to find the intervals in major and minor modes without a key signature.

"We sing in keys of convenience," said Peggy, to appreciative laughter from the music students. "If you have perfect pitch, this may drive you crazy. But don't think we're doing it wrong. We're doing it right [according to the tradition]."

A few minutes later, university choir member Dan Simpson said as far as he's concerned, the tradition does it right. Taking us through a choral arrangement of Windham by 18th-century tunesmith Daniel Read, he said, "This music has a sound that's unrivaled anywhere."

We didn't keep formal minutes, but I jotted down leaders (except a time or two when I got caught up in the music and forgot to take notes). The lesson included:
Terry Hogg 49t, Pete Ellertsen 49b, Janet Fraembs 155, Peggy Brayfield 128, Lori Graber 148, Conrad Wetzel 84, Terry Hogg 29, Terry Hogg joined by Dan Simpson 32t, Dan Simpson 38, Lori Graber 163b, Pete Ellertsen 312b, Peggy Brayfield joined by Megan Murray 284, Ryan Henry 282, Peggy Brayfield 335, Terry Hogg 299, Pete Ellertsen 510, Berkley Moore 99, Lamar Schlabach 48t, Peggy Brayfield 268, Janet Fraembs 385. The class was dismissed with prayer by Berkley Moore, and the closing song was 347.
In addition to the students from Millikin, 25 to 30 singers from the Charleston-Mattoon area, Champaign and Urbana, Delavan, Ashland, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Springfield were on hand. Decatur is a good central location, and it was wonderful to see so many college students taking an interest in our way of singing.

A footnote. While I remember closing with Walker's Parting Hand at singings in East Tennessee, considerable variation is customary within the various shape-note traditions. Here's a brief explanation from the notes to Jim Carnes' documentary Sweet is the Day about an important traditional singing family in North Alabama:
As is the custom at many Sacred Harp singings, they close with the song "Parting Hand," in this case following immediately with a verse from "Hallelujah" [another song, No. 146]. This parting ritual marks the dispersal of the singing family. It follows the closing prayer, a prayer which implores that singers arrive safely at their various residences. The end of a singing is a time of impending absence — from one's fellow singers and from the vivid spiritual presence that is Sacred Harp.
Sweet is the Day is available in VHS and DVD format from the Alabama Folklife Association in Montgomery.

Gospel music shrine burns in Chicago (reposted)

Editor's note. I'm transferring this from my other blog, "The Mackerel Wrapper," where it appeared Saturday, Jan. 7. It fits the subject matter here better, and if the SCI Curriculum Committee approves my proposal for Humanities 223 (roots music), students in that course in the fall will be able to find it by doing a keyword search on HUM 223 in this blog.

In Sunday's early edition of The Chicago Tribune, there's a very good story by Howard Reich, the Trib's arts critic, on the burning of Pilgrim Baptist Church in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side. It was at Pilgrim Baptist that Thomas A. Dorsey was music director, and it was there that black gospel music got its start. Reich says the church was "sacred space" in more ways than one:

Cultural tourists from several continents routinely made pilgrimages to Pilgrim Baptist, to behold the place where a rousing, life-affirming music first came into its own. Celebrated in feature films such as 'The Blues Brothers' and in documentaries such as 'Say Amen, Somebody,' gospel has been as deeply stitched into the fabric of the South Side as jazz and blues, if not more so.

For though the origins of jazz can be traced to 19th Century New Orleans, and though scholars believe that elements of blues have echoed through African music since antiquity, one man and one church are widely considered the progenitors of modern gospel music.

That man, of course, was Dorsey. Best known as the author of "Precious Lord Take My Hand," his gift was to change black religious music from spirituals to gospel. He started his career as a blues player named "Georgia Tom," backing Ma Rainey, among others. But in the 1920s he turned to the church. He once told the Trib:

"Before that, they would sing 'Spiri-tu-al-fellow-ship-of-the-Jor-dan land.' Jubilee songs. Wasn't nothing to them.

"But then I turned those blues moans on, modified some of the stuff from way back in the jazz era, bashed it up and smoothed it in. It had that beat, that rhythm. And people were wild about it."

The fire was Friday afternoon, and authorities say the building is a total loss. It is a historic loss for Chicago, as well as for America's musical heritage, and the story in Sunday's Trib captures that sense of history.

Source: Howard Reich. "History Burns With Church." Chicago Tribune, online ed. 7 Jan. 2006.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Prairieland Dulcimer Strings

We'll hold our regular monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 2, at Atonement Lutheran Church, 2800 West Jefferson, just past Veterans Parkway on the south side of Ill. 97/125. We're a learning group, mostly novice to intermediate level players who are very open to having beginners join us. There's more information, links and a downloadable flier about the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings you can put up on the bulletin board(s) of your choice linked to my faculty page at Springfield College/Benedictine University.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Mike Anderson at Dickson Mounds

I'm republishing here the latest press release from Dickson Mounds state museum for members of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings and anyone else who wants to take advantage of Mike Anderson's workshops there. Mike is a valued mentor for all of us who play the Appalachian dulcimer in central Illinois, and one of the few noseflute virtuosos anywhere; read more at his website. Mike's workshops are a great opportunity to learn the basics for beginners, and a welcome refresher and invitation to expand our technique for those of us who have been playing for a while.


Lewistown, IL--Beginning and intermediate to advanced workshops on playing mountain dulcimers will be offered on Saturday, March 18, 2006 at the Dickson Mounds Museum.  Well-known folk musician, Mike Anderson of Jacksonville, IL will present two workshop sessions, one for beginners and one for intermediate/advanced players.
Beginners will learn basic strumming and songs in a session scheduled from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.  Morning session dulcimers should be tuned to Ionian tuning (DAA).  Intermediate and advanced players will meet from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.  Dulcimers should be tuned to the Mixolydian (DAD).  The workshop will include chording, picking, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.

There is a $15.00 registration fee for each workshop.  Registration should be made by March 13, 2006.  For a registration form and further information call Steven Endsley, Sr. at 309.668.2362.

The Dickson Mounds Branch of the Illinois State Museum is located between Lewistown and Havana off routes 78 and 97.  The museum is open free to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day.  Tours and special programs are available for groups with reservations.  For more information call 309.547.3721 or TDD 217.782.9175 or visit the museum’s web site. Here's a schedule for Mike's workshops at Dicskon Mounds for the rest of the year:
** Mountain Dulcimer Workshop dates for 2006 at Dickson Mounds Museum are:

March 18, 2006
May 20, 2006
September 2, 2006
November 11, 2006

** The museum coffeeshop no longer serves food.  There are vending machines with snacks and drinks.  Tables are available for sack lunches or Lewistown and/or Havana (each 10 minutes away) have a selection of restaurants (fast food or sit down).

Friday, February 17, 2006

HUM 221: Another term paper topic

If you're taking Humanities 221 (Native American cultures), this blog's for you --

As ideas for term paper topics come to me, I'll be posting them to the blog. You can find them by scrolling down and looking for the course prefix in the title line, or clicking on the "SEARCH THIS BLOG" icon and doing a keyword search on "HUM 221." For starters, I posted 8-10 suggestions at the beginning of the week.

Here's another idea some of my students have found valuable in the past. If you have Native heritage, or if you have stories in your family that a great-grandmother or grandfather was an American Indian, you can try to find out more about it and write a paper on that research. Obviously, how you do it would vary from family to family. Many people have only vague stories and maybe an old black-and-white picture or two. Not uncommonly, even the name of their ancestor's tribe is uncertain. But whatever you have is enough to start with. You can ask living relatives what they've heard, who else in the family might have information. Then you can background the family stories with library and internet research. In southern and central Illinois, a lot of people have Cherokee ancestry because so many of the early white settlers in our part of the state came from Cherokee country in the southern Appalachians. And my African American students over the years have done papers on Cherokee or Seminole Indians in their families. For those who have that family heritage, just finding out more about it is a valuable research endeavor.

As always, when I suggest topics ... keep in mind my suggestions are only suggestions. You can, and should, modify them to suit your own interests and circumstances.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Gospel according to Mick Jagger?

This morning's Chicago Tribune had an unusual theology lesson in a story about Fr. Bob Barron, who will lead a series of talks for the Archdiocese of Chicago patterned after Protestant revival services.

A Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan fan who teaches systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Fr. Barron has "an ability to translate serious theological scholarship into lessons everyone can understand," according to Tribune religion reporter Margaret Ramirez. She cited an interview she had with him recently at the residence of Cardinal Francis George:

"Did you catch the Super Bowl?" Barron asked excitedly. "The Rolling Stones seemed to be singing what it's all about, right there. `I can't get no satisfaction.' It's something we're all feeling. It's a deep Augustinian impulse."
The theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived from 354 to 430 A.D., said, among other things, we seek God when we feel our secular lives are empty.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How'd that get here?

 Posted by Picasa Trying to learn how to import pictures into the blog ... sliding up (and down!) the learning curve ... so, anyway, I'm following the steps one by one, monkey-see monkey-do ... and I click on an icon that says "publish to blog" or something like that ... and I look up, and here it is!

Nice picture, anyway. The drawing is by W.J. Duncan, who may have been a staff artist for Harper's. It appeared in an article by William Aspenwall Bradley titled "Song-Ballets and Devil's Ditties," Harper's 130 (May 1915): 908.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

At Springfield's first public hanging

Editor's note. Shortly after New Year's I wrote this story for The Prairie Picayune, the volunteer newsletter at New Salem State Historic Site. It came out in the March 2006 issue, with the headline below and a nice graphic of shape notes on a staff, set off by a hangman's noose around a G clef. Also an editor's note by Picayune editor Carol Jenkins Shafer at the end.


When the New Salem Shape Note Singers performed at Springfield’s First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve, baritone Terry Hogg told a story that’s worth sharing. It’s about a man from Athens with “a most excellent voice,” a tune that Robert Burns didn’t much care for and the first public hanging in Springfield.

It was a good story for New Year’s Eve because the melody is what we now know as “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a very old Scottish melody, and in frontier days in Illinois it was commonly sung to Isaac Watts’ hymn text, “Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound / Doth attend mine ear.” As we ended our last set at Springfield’s new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, we sang Isaac Watts’ text and invited the audience to join us in “Auld Lang Syne.”

According to the Rev. R.D. Miller’s Past and Present of Menard County (1905), the first person to be executed in Springfield was a Nathaniel Van Noy of Athens, convicted on charges of murder in 1826. The hanging was Nov. 26 in “the hollow just east of the new [in 1905] capitol in Springfield,” and Miller said it drew “the largest gathering that, up to that time, had ever met in central Illinois.”

Here’s the story, as Rev. Miller told it.

On the scaffold the murderer, who was a most excellent singer, asked permission of the sheriff to sing. Being granted the privilege, he stood on the platform, or cart, and sang in full, round tones that old hymn, composed by Dr. Watts, the first verso of which is:

‘Hark from the tombs a doleful sound
My ears attend the cry;
Ye living men come view the ground,
Where you must shortly lie.’

He sang the entire hymn and then the cart was drawn from under him.”

I guess I’d sing the entire hymn, too. And I wouldn’t rush the tempo, either.

Hymns and tunes got switched around pretty freely in the early 1800s. But it’s a pretty good guess it would have been sung to the “Auld Lang Syne” tune because both The Missouri Harmony and Southern Harmony print Watts’ hymn to that melody, which they call “Plenary.” Those are the two tunebooks that were most used in Illinois.

The melody itself is an old one. Maurice Lindsay in the online “Burns Encyclopedia” says it was very popular, and his discussion suggests it may go back to a 17th-century strathspey, a kind of stately dance tune, related to “Coming Thro’ the Rye.” When he polished up the words of “Auld Lang Syne” for publication, Burns recommended another melody. He said different things about the song to different people at different times, so it’s hard to sort out. But at one point he told a publisher the tune we now know as “Auld Lang Syne” was “a common Scots country dance” that wasn’t “worth your attention.”

Burns had it right, in a way. His tune is much livelier. But the publishers printed his words to the old country dance tune. They had it right, too. With words and music together, “Auld Lang Syne” is beloved worldwide. And the online encyclopedia Wikipedia notes it isn't just at New Year’s. It is played at funerals in Taiwan and military parades in India, and the Korean national anthem was once sung to its melody.

The tune was certainly common in frontier Illinois. Not only did it appear in the shape-note tunebooks under the name “Plenary.” It was sung with the words of the nursery rhyme “Old Grimes is dead, that good old man; / We ne’er shall see him more.” And in her reminiscences published as A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois, Mrs. Christiana Tillson heard a hymn by Charles Wesley, “When I shall read my title clear, to mansions in the sky,” sung to the same tune in the 1820s near Hillsboro.

What of the story of Van Noy singing at his hanging? I’m inclined to trust it, at least as a good example of a typical reminiscence of the 1800s. Miller’s early Menard County history is as reliable as any of the county histories and old settlers’ accounts (Athens was still in Sangamon County in 1826, and that’s why the hanging was in Springfield). The “old hymn composed by Dr. Watts” is certainly edifying enough in the context, and it was not uncommon to hear stories of people making music at a hanging in the 19th century.

Traditional fiddle tunes like “Hangman’s Reel” and “Coleman’s March” often picked up the motif. Even the folksong “Tom Dooley” has an “old violin” in it (at least in the version picked up by Doc Watson and the Grateful Dead). And Tom Dula (whose name was pronounced like “Dooley”)* actually lived. He “played for the local square dances and was a very popular young man around the community,” according to the Wilkes County (N.C.) Chamber of Commerce. He may have been a little too popular. He got involved in a love triangle, and eventually he was hanged upon conviction of murdering “poor Laurie Foster.” Just because a story turns up later in a song, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

For dulcimer: Music and text of "Plenary” are available online in The Southern Harmony on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. I haven’t tabbed it out since I play by ear, but I play it in DAA with the tonic on the third fret. You could also play it in DAD, if you don’t mind losing the drone by playing low notes on the A string, with the tonic on the open D string.

Editor's note (by Carol Jenkins): This pronunciation would have been common in some parts of the country. Even in the mid-20th century, my Southern Illinois grandfather pronounced virtually all names ending in "A" as though they ended in "Y." "Clara" bdcame "Clary," "Alma" became "Almy," "Noah" was even "Noey."

HUM 221: Suggested term paper topics

Students in Humanities 221 (Native American cultural studies) please note --

While I was reading up on the Cherokee National Youth Choir this week, it reminded me I haven't said much about term paper topics yet ... and it's time to do something about that. The youth choir would make a good topic -- Gen Ed students could write about the choir itself, or Cherokee gospel singing (or at least a dozen good related topics you can discover for yourself), and education students would use the choir as an entry point into a paper on what the Cherokee people (or many other tribes) are doing to preserve their languages and pass them on to young people. One site I kept coming across is Cherokee Heritage Trails, which has a lot of information on traditional cultural resources in North Carolina. You could get a couple of dozen more ideas there, too. Anyway, it all got me to thinking about topics you can get started on even though research papers aren't due till April.

So here are some other ideas I've scribbled down on legal pads, napkins and other scraps of paper, in no apparent logical order. Think about them, try them out. Please feel free to modify them. An idea of mine might click with something you saw in a video or read in the textbook and trigger a new idea. If so, we're both doing something right. Be sure to clear your topics with me as soon as possible, though. Here are some suggested topics:

  • Cherokee gospel singing/hymns on the Trail of Tears.
  • Traditional Cherokee religion (and stomp dancing).
  • The United Keetowah Band and traditional religion.
  • Sequoyah's alphabet (syllabary) and literacy in the Cherokee language
  • Cherokee crafts and tourism.
  • The Iroquois Confederation, Ben Frankin and the U.S. federal system of government.
  • Women in Haudenosaunee/Iroquos governance and/or society.
  • Masks. Lots of ways to go here. The role of masks in religious ceremonies and healing. The Haudensaunee ban on using masks except in ceremonies. Masks in other Native cultures.
  • Dance. How does dance fit into religion? Healing? Social dancing?
  • Casino gambling. You can narrow this in different ways, too, from the Jack Abramoff scandal to how different tribes use it to finance education, local government and cultural activities.

Members of the baseball team might want to use their abundant spare time next month in Arizona to visit Pueblo Grande (an ancient village now within sight of the Phoenix international airport) and find out about the Hohokam people. And those who stay home over spring break might take the oppportunity to visit the Mississippian site at Cahokia, Dixon Mounds or other Native American cultural sites in the Midwest to get inspiration.

Basically, this list of ideas to get you started thinking ahead and brainstorming now so you can choose a good topic and look into it in some depth. As always, I will expect your papers to make a point or state a thesis about Native American cultural expression and support that thesis with factual evidence. I also expect you to do original research, in other words to say something about your topic that nobody else has ever said before. You will need to clear your topic with me, and I will be happy to help you narrow it.

Hymns help preserve Cherokee language

While many Cherokee Indians practice the traditional religion and have revived it in recent decades, hymns and gospel music are also deeply ingrained in Cherokee culture. Perhaps ironically, the hymns help keep the Cherokee language alive. When linguistic and cultural anthropologist Margaret Bender studied the use of Sequoyah's alphabet (syllabary) by the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina for her 2002 book Signs of Cherokee Culture, she found "the Cherokee songbook or hymnal, a pocket-sized, all-syllabary book [was] carried around faithfully by most of the elderly Cherokees I knew."

Nor is it limited to old folks. Both the Eastern Band and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma actively use hymn singing to help younger adults and children learn the language. Bender explains how it helps them read the syllabary in language classes:
The hymns can be sung properly by those not fluent in Cherokee, because the song structure removes the pressure to produce accurate intonation and vowel length. ... But more important, for many hymn singers the words to the hymns have been familiar all their lives. Thus, although the hymnal is usually held and looked at, the songs do not really have to be read at all by most singers.
The Cherokee Nation also promotes hymn singing, and at the National Holiday celebration at Tallequah, Okla., in 2000 gave away CDs of Cherokee gospel singing. The CDs are still available in MP3 format on the official website.

Two cuts are by the Cherokee National Youth Choir, a group of 13- to 18-year-olds who sing a mixture of Cherokee traditional songs, gospel and Christmas songs. One of the purposes of the choir is to help the kids learn Cherokee, and an article in Canku Ota, a Native American newsletter, makes it clear adults and kids alike think gospel singing is a natural means to that end. A correspondent who attended the National Holiday sing in 2000 wrote:
Choir director Jan Ballou thinks that singing helps the kids become bilingual. "Really, this is a great way of preserving the language because it’s easier for them to learn through music," said Ballew.

Haley Noe, a ten year old from Leach, is one of the choir members who is mastering the music and the language simultaneously. "I’m having to learn the words as we go along," Noe said. "That’s why I like Beautiful Home [a gospel standard on the CD]. It doesn’t have as many words for me to learn."

Tawni Keys, an eleven year old from Tahlequah doesn’t have that problem. "I used to only get to sing Cherokee at church," she said. "Now I get to do it here, too."
A a prolile of the Youth Choir and its role in helping preserve the language is posted to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development website at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. And information on their CDs is available on the A Cappella online recording catalog.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Appalachian dulcimer 1830s-style

Editor's note -- This post is as good an introduction to playing the Appalachian dulcimer in an 1830s living history village as I'll ever write. (For the record: It's based on a story I wrote for The Prairie Picayune, the volunteer newsletter at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, in September 2000. I first posted it Jan. 19, 2006, to my other blog, The Mackerel Wrapper, and moved it here when I created a music blog.) I'll add links below as I write more on the subject.

Dulcimer: Home-made Southern upland music

NEW SALEM -- When Appalachian dulcimer players tune up their instruments during a festival at New Salem, they’re playing in a tradition that’s always been part of the Southern highland culture the settlers brought here.

While the instrument itself dates only from about the same time as New Salem [the 1830s], playing the dulcimer is a home-made way of making music as old-fashioned as beating time with a kitchen spoon and as up-to-date as the washtub bass in a down-home bluegrass band. It’s easy to play the dulcimer, too, the old-time way.

Sometimes I’ll tell visitors in New Salem village this is what you did before radio and CDs -- if you wanted music, you made your own. Most of the time, kids will react with the pained tolerance kids usually show when they hear that kind of stuff from adults. But now and then, they’ll nod their heads and say something like, “Cool.”

When I play a dulcimer in the village, I like to use it to interpret the culture brought to New Salem by people like Mentor Graham and the Onstotts of Kentucky, James Rutledge of up-country South Carolina and, of course, Abraham Lincoln. I play the old ballads, fiddle tunes and folk hymns of the Southern mountains, and I talk about Anglo-Celtic musical traditions.

First, a little background.

Technically, the dulcimer is a three-string “fretted zither.” That means it’s played by pressing strings against a fretboard mounted on the body of the instrument. Old-timers used a rod or stick, called a noter, to produce each note on a melody string while they strummed across all three. It’s as easy as picking out a tune on the white keys of a piano.

The mountain dulcimer appears to have evolved in the early 1800s out of a Pennsylvania German zither called the scheitholt. As Germans moved down the hills and up the Wilderness Road in the late 1700s and early 1800s, their scheitholts were adapted to playing fiddle tunes and other Anglo-Celtic music. Out of that adaptation came the dulcimer.

In 1913 a writer for Harper's magazine named William Aspinwall Bradley said a typical Kentucky dulcimer player would note it “by pressing the string nearest him with a bit of reed held in his left hand, while his right hand sweeps all three with a quill or a piece of not too flexible leather. The two strings that are not pressed form a sort of bourdonnement, or drone-bass accompaniment, like a bagpipe. The tonal quality is very light -- a ghostly, disembodied sort of music ...” Most accounts suggest the dulcimer was a solo instrument, kept around home to play hymns, ballads and fiddle tunes.

“Dad always used the old turkey-quill pick,” says Jean Ritchie, who grew up in eastern Kentucky during the 1930s, “and he never seemed to hurry or get excited, even on fast hoe-down pieces, but the music would set even the most religious feet to tapping. ... He used to get the dulcimer down on rainy days when we couldn’t work in the cornfields, or on the soft moonlit evenings out on the porch, after supper, or on long snowy nights around the fireplace, in winter.”

So when I play dulcimer in New Salem village, I like to sit on the steps of my station and use a pick and noter to play fiddle tunes, ballads and old shape-note hymn tunes. When visitors come up, I’ll set the dulcimer aside and interpret the building. If they ask what I’m playing, I’ll explain it’s like the home-made instruments Southern highlanders would have brought into New Salem and played on rainy days or after supper.

If they want to hear more, I’ll tell how the Scots-Irish developed the dulcimer out of the scheitholt. I’ll play a few bars of “Ach du lieber Augustine” and segue into a folk hymn like “Amazing Grace” or a modal fiddle tune like “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” I’ll ask if they hear a drone that sounds a little bit like bagpipes, and I’ll say the music is an expression of the culture of Scots-Irish settlers from the Southern highlands.

Sometimes when older kids look really interested, I’ll ask if they already play an instrument. If they say yes and I think they’ll be careful with mine, I’ll show them how easy it is to play a scale and let them pick out a tune on my dulcimer. “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” maybe, or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” And when they hear what they’re playing on a new instrument after only a minute, their eyes light up.

Cool. Yeah, I think it’s cool.


Link here for the original of this article on my faculty website, complete with links and Works Cited.

Link here to go to my "Pick and Noter Pages" on historical styles of playing the dulcimer and its predecessor instruments in Germany.

Link below for other posts on my web log about playing folk hymns and other traditional music on the dulcimer in an 1830s living history environment:

For Dulcimer: Gospel Hits of 1830s?

From the November 2005 issue of The Prairie Picayune, the interpreters' newsletter at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic SIte, Route 1, Petersburg, Illinois.

The first time I sang with the New Salem Shape Note Singers in the historic village nearly 10 years ago, we sang a tune attributed to the Rev. Peter Cartwright [a 19th-century circuit rider from nearby Pleasant Plains, Illinois]. We were strolling in front of Sam Hill’s grocery store, where Cartwright used to hang out, and it was like hearing something ancient and unbridled brought back to life.

The song is called “Hebrew Children,”and it goes like this:
Where are the Hebrew children? (repeat twice)
Safe in the promised land.
Tho’ the furnace flamed around them,
God while in their troubles found them,
He with love and mercy bound them,
Safe in the promised land.
It’s an old camp meeting song, anonymous words set to a modal Anglo-Celtic melody in the same tune family, as New Salem singer Berkley Moore likes to remind us, as the sea shanty “What will we do with the drunken sailor.” It isn’t quite in a minor key, and it isn’t quite major. But it’s clearly one of the haunting old modal tunes that got handed around in southern Appalachian oral tradition.

“It is one of the old melodies of America, and has a long time been a favorite of many of the older people in their younger days who are now living,” said Joe S. James, editor of the 1911 edition of The Sacred Harp. “Peter Cartwright was a minister of the gospel, and used this song in his camp meetings long before it was ever placed in notation.”

James was an old-fashioned country lawyer with a love of history, and his 1911 footnotes preserve a great deal of musical lore that otherwise would be lost to us. So I’m convinced Cartwright really led “Hebrew Children” in his camp meetings, and James heard about it from an oral tradition.

In November the New Salem singers will join Sacred Harp singers from Charleston and the nearby Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site in a singing at the fall conference of the Midwest Outdoor Museums Coordinating Council. I’ll be presenting a paper there, too, and working on the paper got me to thinking about our music at New Salem. [The paper was later made available on line in my faculty website at Springfield College/Benedictine University.]

Several of our songs have strong local connections. We like to mention those connections to visitors when we sing them, and I thought they might interest readers of The Prairie Picayune as well.

In her 1922 history of Rock Creek Presbyterian Church, Alice Keach Bone describes how at camp meetings the Rev. John M. Berry “would give out the hymn, read it, line it, and, in a strong voice, lead the singing himself, the people joining in one after another.” She recalled singing “On Jordan's stormy banks I stand” and “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,” both favorite 19th-century hymns, and she quotes at length from “There is a fountain filled with blood.”

Laura Isabell Osburn Nance, also a daughter of old settlers, recalled singing “How firm a foundation” at Rock Creek, along with several camp meeting songs with floating verses and “Old Hundred,” probably ending with the Doxology “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.” Edgar Lee Masters, the poet, recalled “There is a fountain” and “I will arise and go to Jesus” at Concord Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the late 1800s.

There’s one more song I’ve got to mention! At Springfield’s first public hanging in 1826 the defendant, who was from Athens, sang all the verses of a text by Isaac Watts that begins, “Hark! From the tombs a doleful sound, / Mine ears attend the cry.” We sing it in The Sacred Harp to the same tune as “Auld Lang Syne.”

So from this can we reconstruct a playlist? Chart the top gospel hits of the 1830s? Not really. Our sources are too fragmentary for that. But when we sing the old songs, often we’ll notice visitors joining in with us. Songs like “How firm a foundation” and “There is a fountain” were favorites then, and they’re still favorites now.

Music for “Hebrew Children” is available on line in copyright-free GIF files in the online Southern Harmony (facsimile of the 1853 edition) maintained by the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. It’s in three-part harmony with the melody in the tenor (middle) line. To play it on a dulcimer, tune to DAA or DAC (I prefer DAA but DAC brings out the modal sound) and start playing on the fifth fret. I’ve tabbed it out. Contact me by e-mail if you want a copy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"Amazing Grace" has deep Cherokee ties

In Ron Ruehl's 1998 documentary The Principal People: Eastern Cherokee History and Culture, the old hymn "Amazing Grace" is sung as background music to scenes of the Trail of Tears. That is historically accurate. It is one of several hymns associated with the forced removal of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma in 1838, and the song is considered an unofficial Cherokee anthem.

While Cherokee religious practices varied -- and still do -- a number of them had converted to Christianity by the time of removal. They were known as enthusiastic hymn singers, and one missionary who visited Georgia and Tennessee in 1837 said the Cherokee sang "with far more correctness, as regards time, enunciation and effect than what is found among white congregations" (Robinson 48). William G. McLoughlin, in a study of missionaries to the Cherokee before removal, cites a contemporary Baptist publication that counted more than 500 Baptists alone on the Trail of Tears and says "throughout the long trip they held regular services and sang their hymns in Cherokee to keep up their spirits" (326). One of those hymns, according to oral tradition, was "Amazing Grace."

One of the first books translated into Cherokee in Sequoyah's new alphabet, in fact, was a hymnal first published between 1828 and 1835 and still used today. Its version of "Amazing Grace" is a free translation, and it has been translated back into English like this:
God's son
paid for us,
then to heaven He went,
after paying for us.

But He said,
when He rose,
"I'll come again,"
He said when He spoke.

All the earth will end
when He comes.
All will see Him
All over the earth.

All the good people living
He will come after.
Heaven always,
in peace they will live. (Robinson 5-6)
For more information: The text of "Amazing Grace" is also available in English, Cherokee transliteration and Sequoyah's syllabary on a website put up by a group of people of Cherokee heritage from California. The late Will Wiley Rogers, who wrote a guest workshop on the hymn for the website, has more information and links. One of the links will take you to the official Cherokee Nation website, which has downloadable MP3 files of "Amazing Grace" and other gospel songs from a CD cut in commemoration of the Cherokee National Holiday in 2000. It's worth a listen. The best all-around source is Willena Robinson, Cherokee Hymns: History and Hymns (Tulsa: Cherokee Language and Literature, n.d.). McLoughlin's book is Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

What’s a hog fiddle? Why this blog?

The first question is easy to answer. The second took me longer, and I’m not sure I have a good answer to it yet. A “hog fiddle” is simply another name for the Appalachian dulcimer or mountain dulcimer. The name comes from West Virginia, where the instrument has been played traditionally since at least the 1880s. I don’t know its etymology, but I can guess: Think of a hog trying to play the fiddle! A dulcimer, let’s face it, is limited musically. But it has its aficionados, and I’m one of them. Hence the name. And hence this blog.

Hogfiddle will focus on the Appalachian dulcimer from its origins in 19th-century Virginia to the folk music revival of the 1960s and 70s, Anglo-Celtic folk hymns, ballads, fiddle tunes and other traditional music. At school and at home, my desks are aswirl with scraps of paper, half-completed outlines, photocopied articles, printouts of old stories downloaded from newspaper websites and other ephemera somehow related to music. I’ve also have published several articles in low-circulation outlets like the Prairie Picayune, the volunteer newsletter at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, where I’m a volunteer interpreter. And I have several “Pick-and-Noter Pages” on my faculty website that deal with dulcimer history. Blogging seems like a way of organizing and archiving some of this clutter on the World Wide Web in a forum that doesn’t necessarily require the extensive documentation and endless fine-tuning so often associated with scholarly publication. I was inspired to try it when I saw a writer’s journal kept by Joy Harjo. A Creek/Muskogee poet and musician, Harjo fronts a “song-chant-jazz-tribal fusion” band called Poetic Justice and plays tenor and soprano saxophone in addition to writing poetry.

Since Hogfiddle will highlight songs that few people remember and an instrument practically nobody has ever heard of, I don’t expect it to be a high-intensity, heavy-traffic website. Besides, I’m a full-time teacher (mass communications, English and an interdisciplinary humanities course in Native American cultures at Springfield College in Illinois/Benedictine University. If my Curriculum Committee OKs it, I hope to add another cultural studies course in blues and roots music fall semester). About the only writing I do now is to scribble comments on student papers, mostly “What’s your thesis?” and “Be specific.” So I don’t have the time to take on a major writing project. But I admired the way Joy Harjo can use her blog to work through tentative ideas and share them in a not-yet- polished version. I don't have a fan base to maintain, and I've been assured I never will! But trying out this new medium of blogging on a musical research and writing journal appeals to my inner geek and inner mass-com instructor. Who knows? It may serve a useful purpose. And even if it doesn’t, it’ll get some of those scraps of paper up off my desk.