In putting this paper on the World Wide Web, I have silently
corrected obvious errors of fact, cleaned up points of grammar
and deleted explanatory material in the endnotes that seemed merely
self-indulgent. At times, as John Hoffman of the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tactfully noted in his commentary
at the Conference on Illinois History, the paper takes on the
air of a "jeremiad" against Lowell Mason and other 19th-century
musical reformers; remembering how much I have enjoyed hymns by
Mason and his contemporaries at Old Harp sings in East Tennessee,
I would now write those sections with rather less wailing and
gnashing of teeth. But I am posting the paper to the Web substantially
as I presented it in October 2000. -- Peter Ellertsen
In December 1822 Christiana Tillson, who had just come to central
Illinois from Massachusetts, attended a church meeting near Hillsboro.
As she entered the log schoolhouse, a preacher was leading the
congregation in song. He raised the hymn by:
... reading the first two lines of the verse, and then with
an indescribable nasal twang, singing [with the congregation chiming
in] to the tune of 'Old Grimes,' the lines that had been repeated.
This was a favorite among them:
'When I can read my titul clare,
Tue mansheons in the skei,
I'll bid farewell to everie fear,
And wipe my weeping ye, yi, yi,
and wipe' &c.
The people were Southerners - largely Methodists, no doubt,
because a Methodist circuit rider was preaching that Sunday, but
probably also Baptists and Cumberland Presbyterians who attended
each other's services. By Tillson's reckoning, they most certainly
did not behave like the Methodists she had known back in New England.
For one thing, the women smoked, and the men chewed tobacco in
church. There were two preachers. One, Tillson conceded, was "somewhat
logical." The other, she said, "would 'get happy,' clap
his hands, froth at the mouth; the congregation responding, some
groaning, some crying loudly, 'Amen,' some calling "Glory,
glory, glory to God!'" (78-80). Nearly 50 years later she
told her grandchildren, "When I look back on these meetings
now, I can recollect but one impression that was left on my mind;
that of intense disgust."
Experiences like Tillson's marked the first phase of a Midwestern
cultural synthesis described in Richard Lloyd Power's Planting
Corn Belt Culture (115-20) and Daniel Elazar's Cities of
the Prairie (153-66, 191), and her attitude was typical of
the ill will between New Englanders and Southerners along the
Illinois frontier.  Galesburg historian Earnest Elmo Caulkins
catches its flavor nicely when he speaks of New Englanders who
scoffed at their neighbors from the upland South as "shouting
Methodists, slack farmers, slovenly housekeepers and irresponsible
squatters," on the one hand, and of Southerners who dismissed
New Englanders as "close, miserly, selfish, dishonest and
inhospitable," on the other ("Genesis" 45; They
Broke the Prairie 79). But Tillson's account of the meeting
was at best a caricature, and her stereotyping is not far removed
from a long-enduring popular image of Southerners as innately
musical but degenerate, tobacco-chawing, glory-shouting hillbillies
(see McWhiney 190-91; Hicks 6-7; Dunn xii-xiv, 198-200; Malone,
Country Music 40-42; Hemphill 115-17; Dawidoff 133-36).
Compare the picture of a typical "pioneer preacher"
in a Montgomery County history published in 1883:
He was no less devoted to his calling and served his day
and environments possibly as well as the academically and theologically
trained man of this day. He neither asked or received any salary.
He claimed no literary ability in the preparation of his sermons.
The Bible and the hymn book were his traveling companions. The
old leathern saddle bags, and a gentle 'nag' which was usually
borrowed, were his outfit. He preached the fear of 'hell fire,'
and the promise of the Almighty to 'the righteous' were the burdens
of much of his preaching. (2:666)
The difference here, of course, is mostly in tone. What Tillson
found disgusting, the county historian accepted, even celebrated.
Christiana Tillson may not have known, and almost certainly
would not have cared, that the manner of singing she heard in
Hillsboro dates from 17th-century England and Scotland, that the
hymn text was by 18th-century English evangelist Isaac Watts or
that the tune "Old Grimes is Dead" was a variant of
an ancient Scottish melody used to good effect by Robert Burns
in "Auld Lang Syne."  Nor, for that matter, is it
likely that others in the back-country congregation she visited
would have known many fine points of Scottish and English hymnody.
For all of that, it is fair to say there was more to the music
than met Tillson's jaundiced eye.
It is likely that Tillson, like other New Englanders, was simply
unable to appreciate her neighbors' music or their way of conducting
religious services. Martin Marty, emeritus professor of church
history at the University of Chicago, likes to speak of a "spiritual
ice-belt," an area of rationality and formalism in religion
that "stretches from west of Poland across Europe, Canada,
the northern United States, through Japan" (11). Certainly
Tillson hailed from within Marty's ice belt while her Montgomery
County neighbors did not. In time New Englanders from the "ice
belt" would suppress an indigenous tradition of sacred music
in Illinois, believing it to be barbaric, culturally inferior,
as they had suppressed their own indigenous musical tradition
back East a few years earlier.
During Illinois' frontier years, roughly from 1800 to 1850,
a uniquely American style of choral singing flourished that preserved
many points of the ancient musical tradition Christiana Tillson
heard in Montgomery County. Along with it flourished an eclectic
repertory of American folk hymns, 18th-century New England anthems,
ancient Scottish psalms and pieces composed for English congregational
worship. As a native New England hymnody was replaced in the Northeast
by the classical strictures of European art music around 1800,
old-fashioned singing masters moved south and west.  They flourished
in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and the Carolinas, as tunebook
compilers collected folk hymns out of the Anglo-Celtic oral tradition
and added them to the New England repertory they had inherited.
The music in their tunebooks was written in a unique notation,
with different shapes to represent the steps of the old fa-sol-la
scale -- a triangle for fa, an oval for sol, a rectangle for la
and a diamond for mi. The shapes, designed as an aid to sight-reading,
were also called patent notes and "buckwheat notes,"
the latter because the angular noteheads bore a fancied resemblance
to kernels of buckwheat. Out of this blending of musical styles
came beloved hymns like "Amazing Grace" and "How
Firm a Foundation" as well as joyful camp meeting songs with
visions of "Canaan's happy shore" and refrains that
literally shouted "glory, hallelujah!" It was by reading
shape notes in one of these tunebooks, The Missouri Harmony,
that a generation of Illinoisans learned to sing during frontier
days. Singing from another early shape-note tunebook, The Southern
Harmony, lasted into the 20th century in parts of southern Illinois
(Jackson, White Spirituals 68-69).
Preserved in the tunebooks was an older repertory that usually
was "lined out" in church according to a practice dating
to Puritan England. Social historian Jack Larkin says it was practically
universal away from the East Coast and the larger cities during
the early 1800s:
The actual 'practice of music' in most American churches
remained oral, and without instrumental accompaniment. Worshipers
sang a handful of tunes from memory, and fitted a wide variety
of psalm and hymn texts to the music. They memorized some of the
most familiar, often-sung words as well, but well into the nineteenth
century American congregations continued in the practice of 'lining
out' -- in which a leader, holding his hymn book, read a line
or two at a time to the congregation, who then sang it in response.
. . . Without instrumental accompaniment, the pace of singing
was very slow. Members of the congregation might sing the same
text to two or three different tunes. Some singers added their
own idiosyncratic quavers and trills on long notes. (Larkin 252-53)
Nearly 200 years later, in the 1990s, Jeff Todd Titon recorded
lined-out hymn singing in eastern Kentucky. Of it, he says, "Old
Regular Baptist singing ... is very slow and has no regular beat
to it. You can't tap your foot to it. The melodies are very elaborate,
and they come from the Anglo American folk music tradition, not
from classical music or from popular music written to make money"
(10). People lined out their hymns, I believe, not so much because
they didn't have hymn books, although books indeed were scarce
on the frontier. Nor did they line out their hymns because they
didn't know better. All indications are that they sang the way
they did because they liked to sing that way, and because their
practice was consistent with their beliefs.
Behind the practice, as was true for so much of 19th-century
American religion, lay the theology of John Calvin. Like other
first-generation Protestants, Calvin was deeply distrustful of
ecclesiastical music. He prohibited the use of musical instruments
in services and limited worshippers to metrical paraphrases of
the Psalms of David. Citing St. Paul, he insisted that “spiritual
songs cannot be well sung save from the heart” and subordinated
artistic considerations to the plain sense of the words, saying
“the heart requires the intelligence.” To that end,
English Calvinists of the 1640s developed the practice of lining
out psalms, that is, of repeating the words line by line so the
congregation could join in. The practice was used almost universally
in pioneer Illinois, at least outside the cities, and all indications
are that it aided worshippers in making a “pure offering
of praise to the throne of the Most High,” as an early historian
in Fulton County put it.
In time the old way of singing the old songs, in Illinois as
elsewhere, was replaced by a more "scientifically correct"
hymnody that gave prominence to hymns of Victorian composition
accompanied by organ. The old-timers missed the songs of their
youth, however, and some evidence allows us to speculate that
the old way of singing was better suited to congregational worship
than the more stylish music that replaced it. Certainly, the values
of the old music penetrated deeply into the emerging Midwestern
culture. And Illinois writers like Carl Sandburg and Edgar Masters
wrote compellingly of the old songs and the old values.
Our sources for studying 19th-century folk hymnody are scattered
and fragmentary. It is widely agreed that music was an integral,
even pervasive part of life among Southern highlanders like those
who settled Illinois, with their dance tunes, airs and ballads
reaching centuries back into Anglo-Celtic oral tradition. Writing
of a slightly earlier frontier, in the Cumberland River country
of Tennessee and Kentucky, Harriette Simpson Arnow says of the
hymns of evangelists like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley:
They were for the religious a form of devotion, but even
the unbeliever could join in the simple tunes of 'How firm a foundation,
yet saints of the Lord; have faith, oh have faith in his excellent
word,' or 'Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch
like me.' They were sung to put the baby to sleep, 'lined out'
in the poorer churches where hymnbooks were few, taught in singing
school, but mostly one suspects sung in the home and at work for
no reason at all save they satisfied the singer. (396)
But musical practice, like the music itself, only rarely was
set down in writing. "Given the universality of singing in
the white rural South," says C. Bill Malone of Tulane University,
"it is remarkable that travelers and other observers of the
region had so little to say about the art." He suggests that
scholars therefore are compelled to listen to early 20th-century
recordings, compare them to the scant written records and "assume,
perhaps rightly, that the styles and songs heard there are survivals
of a much earlier period, and that they have remained basically
unchanged" (Singing Cowboys 26-27). For religious music of
the period, at least in Illinois, we have slightly more to go
In Illinois the reminiscences of old-timers at Old Settlers'
Association gatherings and in county histories sometimes touched
on memories of camp meetings, church services and singing schools.
Some of these recollections weren't written down until well into
the 20th century, however. Obviously, the use of late sources
presents us with problems of accuracy. But, as James E. Davis
suggests, even the written sources for early Illinois history
are incomplete and anything but free from bias ("Settlers"
13). I believe the benefits of using the old settler's accounts
outweigh the dangers. As Tracy E. K'Meyer suggests in an article
on sources for religious history, judicious use of the personal
narratives collected by oral historians can give us a window into
the spiritual life of ordinary people. And personal narratives
allow us to explore the "role of religion not only in the
individual life story but also in the broader historical narrative"
in a way that written histories, often preoccupied with doctrine
and denominational politics, usually do not (725-26, 728). Old
settlers' reminiscences can give us access to much the same kind
of information, although they pose similar problems. In a review
of 20th-century trends in oral history, Allistair Thompson suggests
"the so-called unreliability of memory might be a resource,
rather than a problem, for historical interpretation and reconstructions"
(585). I think he has a point. And I think David Thelen of the
Journal of American History has a point when he speaks
of how people resist "rapid, alien, and imposed change by
creating memories of a past that was unchanging, incorruptible,
and harmonious" (1125). At any rate, when old-timers got
together at the turn of the 19th century, they spoke as if something
vital went out of their spiritual lives as the culture grew more
urban and "civilized." I believe there was more than
nostalgia to their complaints.
Even when the reminiscences come to us through the writing
of the children and grandchildren of early settlers, I am inclined
to trust them in much the same way I trust folk tales. Their details
may be embroidered, or improvised in the telling as happens in
oral performance, but their main outlines give a coherent, recognizable
picture (see Stadter). With tongue in cheek, folklorist Roger
L. Welsch says we would surely be corrected if we told the story
of "Goldilocks and the Two Bears" or scrambled
a family story of "how Uncle Ruf drove his first Model T
right through the back of the farm shed, yelling, 'Whoa! Whoa!
Whoa, you miserable damned beast!' The story must be told 'right!'"
(72). In another context, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan
suggests the process of oral transmission preserves a recoverable
"matrix or core structure" of stories handed down over
time (85-89). Obviously, care must be exercised in interpreting
historical sources that were recorded long after the events they
relate. And great care must be taken when we use them to interpret
practice in faith traditions other than our own, as Patrick B.
Mullin suggests in a recent article in the Journal of American
Folklore, lest we marginalize or romanticize them (139). But
there are procedures we can borrow from the oral historians to
minimize the risk of getting our facts wrong. Oral historian Paul
Thompson recommends evaluating our sources for internal consistence,
cross-checking them and evaluating them in a wider context (239-41).
Accordingly, I have given greatest weight to old settlers' stories
when they square with broad trends discussed in secondary authorities
like Nicholas Temperley or Gilbert Chase, with descriptions of
Southern upland culture like Harriett Arnow's or with practices
and attitudes handed down in contemporary traditions of a cappella
congregational singing related to those that flourished in 19th-century
Most Illinoisans of the year 2000, if they could be taken back
to the rural church Christiana Tillson attended near Hillsboro,
would find the singing very strange. We can be almost certain
that Tillson, who came to Illinois from an area where the old
music had been thoroughly repressed and was described by her contemporaries
as a "woman of rare culture and refinement" (Quaife
xviii), would have found it equally strange. Yet it answered a
legitimate liturgical purpose, one that a similar practice of
singing still answers among Primitive Baptist congregations and
others who choose the old ways. It is solidly grounded in a Calvinist
hymnody -- psalmody, rather, to use the precise word for it --
that emphasizes the meaning of the spoken word as much as or more
than it does purely musical qualities. Nicholas Temperley characterizes
it as a basic Calvinist belief that "[a]ll that mattered"
in congregational singing was "that each person sing the
songs of the Bible, with understanding and from the heart"
("Old Way" 513-14). It goes all the way back to Calvin,
and before him to St. Paul's counsel of "teaching and admonishing
one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with
grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col 3:16). Thus, singing
from the heart was of central importance.
The theology of the old spiritual songs is basically Calvinist,
in the broad sense of Calvinist or Reformed doctrine as interpreted
and modified by generations of Puritan thinkers and preachers
in America. As John B. Boles says so eloquently in his study of
revivalism in America, belief in "divine omnipotence"
was softened by "a near universal trust in providential deliverance"
(118). Hymn after hymn speaks in terms of the awesome majesty
of God, the wretched state of sinners facing judgment, the infinite
mercy shown by God's gift of grace, and the inexpressible joy
of sinners who find salvation (Bruce 96-122). The Isaac Watts
hymn that Tillson ridiculed, for example, assures converts that
they now can claim ownership of "mansions in the sky."
 It concludes:
There shall I bathe my weary soul
In seas of heav'nly rest.
And not a wave, and not a wave
And not a wave of trouble roll
Across my sleeping breast.
With the repetition of "not a wave," Watts, who often
is given due credit as a poet, underscores the idea of being buffeted
by repeated troubles. He also speaks to the rigors faced by a
Should earth against my soul engage,
And fiery darts be hurled,
Then I can smile at Satan's rage,
And face a frowning world. (Sacred Harp 36b)
Theological points here are generalized enough that Protestants
of varying doctrinal hues could sing of mansions in the sky and
Satan's rage without violating their beliefs. Indeed, the tunesmiths
who complied shape-note tunebooks for use in singing schools were
careful not to split doctrinal hairs. William Walker's Southern
Harmony, for example, advertises on its front cover that it includes
tunes, hymns, psalms, odes and anthems "well adapted to Christian
Churches of Every Denomination, Singing Schools, and Private Societies."
Walker's inclusive attitude sold tunebooks, as well as serving
diverse institutions, and it was one he shared with musicians
like John Wyeth of Pennsylvania, who compiled an important tunebook
called Wyeth's Repository of Sacred Music in the 1810s (Lowens
138-55; Steel, "Wyeth"). But the music most often heard
in Illinois, as elsewhere in early 19th-century America, was broadly
Calvinist in its origins and theology.  And it was thoroughly
Calvinist in practice.
In his preface to an early psalter, John Calvin writes, "singing
has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men
to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal."
But he swiftly adds, "[c]are must always be taken that a
song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and
majesty." Since music appeals to the emotions, inflames the
heart, it was all the more important to Calvin that religious
music be carefully subordinated to liturgical and didactic ends:
... it is necessary to remember that which St. Paul hath
said, the spiritual songs cannot be well sung save from the heart.
But the heart requires the intelligence. And in that (says St.
Augustine) lies the difference between the singing of men and
that of birds. For a linnet, a nightingale, a parrot may sing
well; but it will be without understanding. But the unique gift
of man is to sing knowing that which he sings. After the intelligence,
must follow the heart and the affection, a thing which is unable
to be except if we have the hymn imprinted on our memory, in order
never to cease from singing.
As a result, the Reformed churches have tended history to subordinate
musical to textual considerations and exalt what Primitive Baptist
Elder Zack Guess calls "the most spiritual of all earthly
instruments, the living, human heart and voice."
In Puritan England, an Assembly of Divines sitting at Westminster
in 1644 ruled that, "In singing of psalmes, the voice is
to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care just be,
to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making
melody unto the Lord" (qtd. in Temperley, "Psalms,"
New Grove Dictionary 365). To this day Old Regular Baptist
and Primitive Baptist congregations in Appalachia, heavily influenced
by Calvinist theology, maintain that "worship is not so much
in the strains of music as it is in the truth of the words sung"
and "the sound of the worship causes [a worshipper's] heart
to feel complete" (Drummond 22-23; Cornet 1). The Directory
for the Publique Worship of God Throughout the Three Kingdoms
of England, Scotland, and Ireland adopted by the Westminster Assembly
That the whole Congregation may joyne herein, every one
that can reade is to have a psalme book, and all others not disabled
by age, or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to reade. But
for the present, where many in the Congregation cannot read, it
is convenient that the Minister, or some other fit person appointed
by him and the other Ruling Officers, do reade the Psalme, line
by line, before the singing thereof. (qtd. in Temperley, "Old
In practice the parish clerk would intone a line from the psalter
and the congregation would sing after him, slowly and with improvised
ornamentation. Tunes were switched about freely, because Calvinist
practice was to paraphrase the psalms in strict meter as an aid
to congregational singing. The Old Way became the standard not
only in the Church of England but also in Scotland and the dissenting
English churches. In fact, often it was known as the Common Way
or the Usual Way.
Temperley argues convincingly that the practice had its beginnings
very early in the Protestant Reformation, and that "the English,
like the Germans and French before they began their psalmody by
making use of folk tunes already well known to the people"
(515-19). Musicians complained bitterly about the Old Way, which
made it impossible for the congregation to carry a sustained melody
and resulted in what one called "a confused Noise, made up
of Reading, Speaking, and Grumbling." But, as music historian
Gilbert Chase suggests, "what is considered bad taste or
'a confused noise' by conventional standards may be regarded as
a sign of musicianship and a source of pride in the folk tradition"
(33-34). This seems to have been the case in 18th-century New
England and frontier Illinois alike.
Musical histories tend to imply that people lined out their
hymns because they had to, citing the Directory of Publique Worship
and citing low literacy rates. That well may have been the case
initially, but I believe it makes more sense to assume people
clung to the Usual Way in spite of all efforts at reform for more
than a hundred years because it satisfied their spiritual needs.
Among them were the Primitive Baptists, or Old Baptists, who broke
away from other Baptist associations during the 1830s. In Illinois
they were known -- by others -- as 'hard-shell" Baptists
and often are referred to by that name in the old histories. John
Bealle, a scholar of shape-note traditions, says disagreement
about "the nature of authentic Christian worship" lay
behind their opposition not only to Sunday schools and missions
but also to choirs and musical instruments in church. And their
words-only hymn books found a "place among those who believed
worship music was a direct and unmediated encounter with the Holy
Spirit" (Benjamin Lloyd's Hymn Book 2-3). Some congregations
to this day practice lining out, as do Old Regular Baptist congregations
North Carolina folklorist Beverly Bush Patterson reports that
Primitive Baptists, who still maintain a tradition of unaccompanied
congregational singing closely derived from the Old Way, "recognize
in the sound of their singing a complex religious identity."
Often they call it the "joyful sound," although many
of their tunes "are based on minor sounding melodies that
have what some singers call an old 'lonesome' sound." Patterson
... they hear a certain sound as representative of the Primitive
Baptists. More than that, however, they interpret that sound as
evidence of being a child of grace, and they further interpret
the sound as a representation of the true church; which they believe
transcends time and place. ("Forging" 25-26).
Paul Drummond in a history of Primitive Baptist music says
the emphasis is on on "spirituality, understanding, and truth"
(27). He quotes a late 19th-century church elder who said the
essence of worship is not in "correct singing in time, and
tune and the melody of voices" but in the truth and spirit
of a song. "No form of worship, however beautiful or imposing
it may be, can be acceptable to God, unless the heart be in it"
(22-23). The affinities with Calvin are clear. And, as we shall
see, old settlers in Illinois spoke of the sacred music of their
youth in markedly similar terms.
We can say with some assurance that outside the cities, the
practice of lining out hymns was almost universally followed in
Illinois until about 1840. According to old settlers' accounts,
congregations entered into it wholeheartedly. In Springfield,
one of them later recalled, "At meeting the men always sat
on one side of the house (or aisle) and the women on the other;
the minister lined out the hymns, and the congregation sang with
right good will, and delighted thereafter to hear an hour and
a half sermon" (Historical Encyclopedia, Sangamon
2:633). In a florid but telling description of an indoor service
in Canton, a mid-19th century historian of that west central Illinois
town characterizes a service conducted by an old-time circuit
rider like this:
The old men meet the preacher, and in low tones ask after
his health; if he had much trouble in crossing the creek, and
how he found the roads. He answers their questions with few words
and passes in, shaking hands with some of the older mothers in
Israel, and as he hands his hat on a projecting pin, and takes
out from his capacious coat-tail pockets his well-worn Bible and
hymn-book. Taking his stand in the open doorway, he gravely reads,
or rather recites, that old hymn --
'Come let us anew our journey pursue.'
It is sung by every man and woman present, sung with voices clear
and loud. No operatic quavers, no voluntary, no pretension. The
voices are all blending in a harmony born of devotion and which
goes up a pure offering of praise to the throne of the Most High.
(Historical Encyclopedia, Fulton 663)
Addressing the first meeting of the Sangamon County Old Settlers'
Society in 1859, James Matheny of Springfield contrasted the simplicity
of early church meetings with the pomp and ostentation of "one
of our modern fashionable churches" (History of Sangamon
435-36). For his audience, he painted a word picture of a meeting
of the 1820s:
... See the humble preacher rise from his seat, hear him
line out the grand old hymn:
'God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform,
He plants his foot upon the sea,
And rides upon the storm.'
With one accord, they rise to their feet and pour forth the untaught
melody of grateful hearts.
While there is no doubt a generous portion of nostalgia in
accounts like these, there is more than a distant echo of the
Calvinist belief that what matters is that the congregation sing
with grace and understanding in their hearts.
In nearby Menard County, Laura Isabell Osburn Nance, the daughter
of old settlers, recalled how stirring the music was at Rock Creek
Cumberland Presbyterian Church:
The old church would ring with the old hymns of my youth.
They fairly resound from the walls -- 'How Firm a Foundation,'
'Old Hundred,' and the 'Doxology' at the end of each service.
Sweet voices could ring out
'Oh, the Lord is with us
And He has been with us
And He says that He'll go with us
To the end.'
'We've fathers gone to view that Land
To view that Land, to view that Land
We've fathers gone to view that Land
Oh, Halle, Hallelujah.
We've mothers gone to view that Land
We've sisters gone to view that Land' etc.
The Dodds family, Thomas Bone, and Brother William Bone usually
provided the music. When William White came from Tallula, we were
assured a musical treat. Sunday after Sunday, certain old patriarchs
occupied seats in the sanctuary, sometimes lightly called 'the
Amen Corner.' I recall Elihu Bone, always dignified and solemn
and Grandmother Bone, so gentle and kind. Elihu presided with
such dignity and the saintly life of Grandma made a deep impression
upon the lives of our community. (Nance 9-10)
Here in a nutshell we have an example of how music, worship
and the lives of members of a congregation intersected in one
rural community. It is a late reminiscence, written in 1922, but
it squares well with John Mack Faragher's account in Sugar
Creek of how Calvinist doctrine, the music of The Missouri
Harmony and local churches intersected with each other to
"regulate the moral behavior of the community" and identify
its members as "moral descendents of the Puritans, pioneers
on another North American frontier two centuries before"
(165-69). The songs that Laura Nance quoted, it is worth pointing
out, were floating tag lines heard at camp meetings.
Much has been written about camp meetings, and they were controversial
even in their day. Even the Rev. Peter Cartwright, an acknowledged
master of camp meeting pyrotechnics, admitted that "some
of our members ran wild, and indulged in some extravagancies that
were hard to control" (43, 45-47). Yet the impression left
by first-person accounts often has a certain majesty. James Leaton's
History of Methodism in Illinois describes a meeting held
in 1807 at Shiloh campground near Belleville:
On Friday morning the meeting commenced by the sounding
of a horn, as a signal to rise; then, at the second sounding,
they were to assemble at the altar for prayer before breakfast.
Having assembled, a hymn was first lined, and then sung. Whilst
singing, they suddenly heard the sound of voices at a distance,
as if also engaged in singing. It was the elder [Presiding Elder
William McKendree], who rode up in company with several preachers;
and the singing was continued amidst hearty hand-shakings, tears,
and smiles, and shoutings of hosannas, which lasted fifteen or
twenty minutes before the preachers could get off their horses.
All too often, the role that music played in these gatherings
goes unmentioned. Yet it was prominent in Laura Nance's memories
of old days in Menard County. "On the slope of the hill just
west of Rock Creek Church, a large shed with seating capacity
for several hundred people was erected," she said. "From
this center, the heavenly sound of some pioneer preacher's voice
could be heard for a radius of half a mile." One of them,
the Rev. Guthrie White, had a voice that was especially "deep
and mellow and when he sang, it was clear as a bugle" (10).
Alice Keach Bone describes the singing at Rock Creek campground
Prominent among the preachers on the platform was Rev. John
M. Berry. He 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.
'On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,' and 'How firm a foundation,
ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent
word' were favorites. These were frequently followed by
'There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.'
Then came an earnest, heartfelt prayer and, sometimes, another
song. After this he announced the text and began to preach. He
did not time his sermons, neither did the people turn uneasy glances
toward their camps. (Bone 31-32)
Another veteran of Menard County camp meetings, T.G. Onstot,
in 1902 recalled somewhat tartly that old-timers would set the
pitch themselves: "There was good singing. The preacher would
read the hymn in a loud voice and then would 'line' it and everybody
would sing. Music boxes hadn't been invented then" 126-27).
By the time Onstot wrote, new practices had come in, and he didn't
much care for them.
In the up-and-coming town of Springfield, First Presbyterian
Church by the 1830s had a brick building, a belfry and a choir
supported by musical instruments. Its pastor was from New Jersey,
it was the church favored by settlers from the Northeast and its
musical practice was that of New England and large cities of the
day. According to an anniversary sermon preached in 1903 by the
Rev. T.D. Logan, a musician took advantage of the interchangeable
nature of hymn texts and tunes in a way that might prove tempting
to choir members of any historical period:
Mr. Rague was ... leader of the choir. The tune book was
Mason's Missouri Harmony with patent notes. Edward Jones was the
accompanist on the flute, and Henry E. Dummer on the violin. It
is said that one night when the hymn 'Sweet Is Thy Works, My God,
My King, To Praise They Name, Give Thanks and Sing,' was announced,
before Rague could pitch his pipe of 'Kingsbury' [the tune] to
which it was set, Dummer started it to 'Ye Banks and Braes of
Bonny Doon.' (Seventy-Fifth 12-13).
Not all of the details check out, which is hardly surprising
for a story that must have been retold for years before it found
its way into a printed sermon. The Missouri Harmony was
edited by a Tennessean named Allen Carden, not Lowell Mason, and
the hymn cited in the story does not appear in it.  But both
the text and the tune are in common meter, and it might be argued
that it is in the nature of amateur musicians to barge ahead with
a melody of their own choosing. Moreover, the violin and flute
of the story are typical of the instruments commonly used in church
music before organs came to the Midwest during the Victorian era.
The story handed down at First Presbyterian rings true.
Elsewhere, the Old Way held on. Witness this account of the
use of a shape-note tunebook during services in early Coles County:
There were not song-books to hand around to the congregation,
but the leader would arise with his old 'Missouri Harmony,' containing
the music written in 'buckwheat' notes, and announce some familiar
hymn. He would then read in solemn, monotonous tones the first
two lines and lead the congregation in singing them. Then the
next two lines would be read followed by singing, and so on until
the hymn was finished. And the leader did not announce, as ministers
so often do now , that the 'first, second and last stanzas'
would be sung. But they sung it all, no matter how many stanzas
there were. (Historical Encyclopedia, Coles 627)
Clearly in Coles County, as in Calvin's Geneva, the word was
still paramount, no matter how many stanzas of it there were.
But shape-note tunebooks like the Missouri Harmony were
harbingers of musical reform. They had their origins, it will
be remembered, in an effort to reform the Usual Way. In 1720 the
Rev. Thomas Symmes of Boston, who is credited with being the father
of the 18th-century singing school movement, justified reading
music, or "singing by note," in precisely those terms:
Now singing by note is giving every note its proper pitch,
and turning the voice in its proper place, and giving to every
note its true length and sound. Whereas, the usual way varies
much from this. In it, some notes are sung too high, others too
low, and most too long, and many turnings or flourishings with
the voice (as they call them) are made where they should not be,
and some are wanting where they should have been. (qtd. in Chase
Before long, singing schools spread throughout America, and
they were influential - in a word, they set the repertory. In
the cities of the Eastern seaboard, they brought in classical
European music. But in rural New England and almost everywhere
else in America, they prompted the development of an indigenous
Singing schools usually lasted a week or two, and often they
were held in the winter and at night when youngsters were not
taken up with other duties. Often they were conducted by singing
masters who went from town to town soliciting subscriptions, although
by the time they got to Illinois they seem to have been conducted
mostly by people living in the same community. Laura Nance in
Menard County remembered them largely as social occasions:
One of the most interesting features in early times and
during my girlhood was singing school, which ... came along with
the winter months. Young people came from miles around, usually
on horseback in small groups. They loosened up their vocal chords
with a little harmonizing as they rode along the country lanes
to a home or schoolhouse or church where they spent the evening
singing, for the most part, sacred songs. Uncle Tommy Mosteller,
grandfather of Mrs. Frackelton, taught a number of singing schools
in the Rock Creek neighborhood. He was a good instructor. William
White of Tallula had a beautiful voice and also taught at Rock
Creek. (Nance 31)
Pupils brought their own candles and tunebooks, while the singing
master brought little more than a strong voice, a tuning fork
and "a cloth chart with musical staffs on which he placed
the musical characters needed as his course progressed" (Lowens
281-83; Allen 188-89). Often he would bring a supply of tunebooks
he could sell to his pupils. The pedagogy changed little from
18th-century New England through the 19th century in Illinois.
Irving Lowens suggests that "many marriages must have
grown out of singing-meetings," but more importantly a truly
American music grew out of the demand they created for new music.
By the 1760s and 70s, Yankee tunesmiths were beginning to write
choral settings for English hymns, or texts, in four-part a cappella
When it was composed, this music was experienced rather
than heard because it was not written for an audience's appreciation
or to tickle an ear -- it was written to be experienced in performance
by performers. How it 'sounded' to a non-participant was of very
little importance. This is no novel concept; it is one of the
essential pre-conditions of genuine church song. ... To my mind,
this identification of the music with the performers rather than
the listener, this inwardness, this lack of self-consciousness,
is a fundamental though generally overlooked characteristic which
early American church song shares with authentic church song of
all times and all places. (83-84)
The tunesmiths typically had other pursuits. William Billings,
for example, was a tanner. And Justin Morgan lent his name to
a breed of quarter horses. Most of them were aware of the music
being written for country parish choirs at the time in England,
but their knowledge of European musical theory was not deep. It
is better, perhaps, that it wasn't. Continental theory on harmony
put the melody in the highest part, called soprano rather than
treble, and required the harmony parts to sing chords enhancing
the one part. The tunesmiths put all four parts in contention
with each other, especially in canon-like "fuging tunes"
with staggered entrances for the four parts. Billings liked it
like that. In his introduction to a tunebook called Continental
Harmony, he writes:
... while each part is thus mutually striving for mastery,
and sweetly contending for victory, the audience are most luxuriously
entertained, and exceedingly delighted; in the mean time, their
minds are surprizingly agitated, and extremely fluctuated; sometimes
declaring in favour of one part, and sometimes another. -- Now
the solemn bass demands their attention, now the manly tenor,
now the loftily counter, now the volatile treble, now here, now
there, now here again. -- O inchanting! O ecstatic! (qtd. in Hamm
But the heyday of the New England tunesmiths soon was over.
Around 1800, a new generation of reformers came along, and European
art music came into vogue. By the 1810s, the center of indigenous
American music publishing shifted to Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah
Valley of Virginia. In the 1820s and 1830s, it followed the frontier
to South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and the Ohio Valley.
As the singing masters moved south, they found sacred texts
sung to the melodies of the old ballads and other Anglo-Celtic
songs in the back country of the South.  Very little record
has been left of the origin of this body of music, since it came
out of the same oral tradition as the ballads and fiddle tunes
brought to America by Scots-Irish settlers who took to the Appalachian
back country before the American Revolution. "In bringing
jigs, country dances, and old love songs and ballads into hymnody,
these folk were not merely religious radicals, they were religious
revolutionaries as well," writes Charles W. Joyner of South
Carolina. "This showed no lack of respect for religion; on
the contrary, the upcountry folk brought one of their most loved
and treasured possessions -- their musical heritage -- and laid
it on on the altar of their faith" (64). Many of the tunes
are modal, sung in the haunting minor keys of the southern Appalachians
(Horn, 17-18; Jackson, White Spirituals 158-63)). So when
the tunebook collectors reached the Southern hill country, they
found a distinguished body of music to work with.
By 1820, shape-note hymnody was flourishing in the old South
and West. It came to Illinois with the first settlers. Particularly
popular in Illinois was The Missouri Harmony, printed in
Cincinnati and published by a Tennessean staying in St. Louis
(see Krohn, "Check List" 201). Also attested in Illinois
are songs from Wyeth's Repository, published in 1803 and
1810 in Pennsylvania, and The Southern Harmony, published
in 1835 by William Walker of Spartanburg, S.C. William Black,
a Georgian by birth who followed the frontier through Tennessee
and Kentucky to western Illinois during the 1820s, hand-copied
a number of shape-note tunes into a copybook now preserved in
the Illinois State Historical Library (Historical Encyclopedia,
Cass 2: 853). His copybook, which he began in 1818 and appears
to have added to over the following decade, records Southern folk
hymns but many more New England compositions, most likely copied
from Missouri Harmony and Wyeth's Repository, Among
them is Sherburne, which sets Nahum Tate's text "While shepherds
watch'd their flocks by night," written in 1700 and the first
text that was not a metrical psalm to be widely sung in Britain,
to a 1783 fuging tune by Daniel Read, a prolific song writer who
also manufactured horn combs (Lowens 159-77). Black also copied
Greenwich, an Isaac Watts text set to another fuging tune by Read,
and Billings' Easter Anthem.
Two songs preserved in Southern Harmony and another
popular Southern tunebook, The Sacred Harp published by
Georgian B.F. White in 1844, are associated at least in legend
with Peter Cartwright, although he made no mention of them - or
any other songs - in his 1856 autobiography (Christ-Janer 1:307-08;
2:202, 2:271). Each is a rousing Southern folk hymn. The version
of Hebrew Children in Southern Harmony has a verse in typical
By and by we'll go and meet them,
By and by we'll go and meet them,
Safe in the promised land:
There we'll sing and shout together,
There we'll sing and shout hosanna,
There we'll sing and shout forever,
Safe in the promised land. (266)
In his note to the song the 1911 edition and later revisions
of the Original Sacred Harp, editor Joe James said Cartwright
"was a minister of the gospel, and used this tune in his
camp meetings long before it was ever placed in notation. It is
one of the old melodies of America, and has a long time been quite
a favorite of many of the older people in their younger days who
are now living" (133). The other song attributed to Cartwright,
The Saints Bound for Heaven or "Our Bondage It Shall End,"
is sung to a melody belonging to the same tune family as "Rye
Whiskey" and "Jack o' Diamonds."  It is tempting
to imagine Cartwright raising the tune when the drunks got out
of hand at a camp meeting, but we have no evidence to support
With some of the early singing masters, we are on firmer ground.
Among the Illinois settlers who taught shape-note singing was
James Miller of White County, whose sister married James Rutledge
and had a copy of Missouri Harmony at New Salem in the
1830s (Bergvin 180; History of Wayne and Clay Counties 211, 225).
This is the tunebook that young Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge
sang from in the 1830s, at least according to legend. While shape-note
tunebooks were used occasionally in worship services, they were
primarily associated in Illinois as they had been in the East
with singing schools.
An anonymous historian, who wrote for an 1883 history of White
County published by Inter-State Publishing Co. of Chicago, recalled
the singing schools like this:
The old-time method of conducting singing-school was . .
. somewhat different from that of modern times. It was more plodding
and heavy, the attention being kept upon the simplest rudiments,
as the names of the notes on the staff, and their pitch, and beating
time, while comparatively little attention was given to expression
and light, gleeful music. The very earliest scale introduced in
the West was from the South, and the notes, from their peculiar
shapes, were denominated 'patent' or 'buckwheat' notes. They were
four, of which the round one was always called sol, the square
one la, the triangular one fa, and the 'diamond-shaped' one mi.
. . . The 'old' 'Missouri Harmony' and Mason's 'Sacred Harp' were
the principal books used with this style of musical notation.
Other old settlers remembered not so much the music as the
socializing that went with singing school. M.C. Wadsworth of Auburn
said on the South Fork of the Sangamon, "young folk flocked
in for miles around, crowding the houses where they were held,"
belting out rousing tunes like Ninety-Fifth (another setting of
the "When I can read my title clear" text that so irritated
Christiana Tillson in Hillsboro) and Jefferson loudly enough to
"waken the echoes" (Sangamon 176). Ninety-Fifth is typical
of the songs that singing school students delighted in. The text
was a favorite; Christiana Tillson may have been one of the few
people in Illinois who ever complained about it. We know it was
a favorite of Sarah Bush Lincoln's (Herndon 48-49). It was a floating
text, sung to Ninety-Fifth in the Missouri Harmony (48)
and Southern Harmony (27), and to an old folk hymn known
as Pisgah in Wyeth's Repository.  The tune was first
printed in 1813 in Cincinnati, a center of shape-note publishing,
for a Pittsburgh bookseller named Robert Patterson. We cannot
be sure who composed it, but it is in the style of the old New
England fuging tunes with staggered entrances - bass, tenor, treble
and alto coming in separately and tossing the melody back and
forth in the second part of the song. The youngsters in singing
school would have loved it.
In Menard County, "[y]oung people came from miles around,
usually on horseback in small groups," said Laura Isabell
Osburn Nance. "They loosened up their vocal chords with a
little harmonizing as they rode along the country lanes to a home
or schoolhouse or church where they spent the evening singing,
for the most part, sacred songs" (31). But by mid-century
styles changed in Illinois as they had elsewhere. The Inter-State
Publishing Co.'s historian in White County caught the moment in
About 1850 the 'round-note' system began to come around,
being introduced by the Yankee singing-master. The Carmina Sacra
was the pioneer round-note book, in which the tunes partook more
of the German or Puritan character, and were generally regarded
by the old folks as being far more spiritless than the old 'Pisgah,'
'Fiducia,' 'Tender Thought,' 'New Durham,' 'Windsor,' 'Mount Sion,'
'Devotion,' etc., of the old Missouri Harmony and tradition. (72)
The tunes here, as is usual in shape-note collections, show
varied origins. Whatever its antecedents, Pisgah is almost certainly
a folk hymn. Fiducia is a modal tune related to the Appalachian
carol "Star in the East" (Down-East 188-89). New Durham
is a fuging tune, and Windsor is an old Scottish psalm setting
that goes back to the Bay Psalm Book and beyond (Missouri
Harmony 75, 66; Chase 20). What they have in common is that
youngsters would enjoy singing them. If the method of instruction
was plodding, the singing was spirited. In this regard, it was
like the singing at camp meetings across the state.
Times were changing by the 1840s, however, as Lowell Mason
and others from the East brought European pedagogy and European
theories of harmony to a wider public. Mason's own hymn tunes
are mostly pallid exercises in conventional piety. "Spiritless,"
the White County historian's term, would be a good word indeed
for them. But Mason's influence could not have been greater. After
a stint in banking as a young man, he introduced music as a subject
in the Boston public schools, using the latest European pedagogy,
and designed teacher education curricula for the Massachusetts
State Board of Education as well as busily writing hymns, tunes,
tracts and other religious works (Chase 151-61). At the same time,
the indigenous American hymnody of the shape-note books was coming
under heavy attack outside New England.
George Pullen Jackson, an early 20th-century shape-note music
scholar, lumped Mason and the other critics together as the "Better
Music boys" and rued their influence as they moved west in
the 1830s and 40s (White Spirituals 16-19). Among them was Thomas
Hastings, an editor and hymn writer of upstate New York, rwho
eferred to shape-note music as "dunce notes" and said
he feared the popularity of shape-note tunebooks in the Mississippi
Valley would "hold back the progress of musical improvement
in that region for half a century to come" (qtd. in Bealle,
Public Worship 43). In Cincinnati, a Miss Augusta Brown
railed against the old-fashioned singing schools:
Hundreds of country idlers, too lazy or too stupid for farmers
or mechanics, 'go to singing school for a spell,' get diplomas
from others scarcely better qualified than themselves, and then
with their brethren, the far famed 'Yankee Peddlars,' itinerate
to all parts of the land, to corrupt the taste and pervert the
judgment of the unfortunate people who, for want of better, have
to put up with them. We have heard of one of these cute geniuses,
who 'set up' in a town way down east as a cobbler! ... Cobbling
and music! We just ask how any musical nerve can stand that? (qtd.
in Jackson, White Spirituals 19-20)
In Cincinnati Timothy Mason, Lowell's brother, came out with
a tunebook called the Ohio Sacred Harp that set popular
religious songs, including folk hymns, to more correct harmonies
and bristled with admonishments. One was that people learn to
use the new do-re-mi scale. Another was that the melody "is
always to be sung by female voices, and by them alone." The
book proved to be popular, and a shape-note edition even came
out -- although over Mason's objection. He also introduced an
organ in his Presbyterian church in Cincinnati, which, in Jackson's
words, drowned out "the hard-learned and dearly loved harmonic
vocalism of the singing school folk and relieved the church-going
masses of the necessity of doing much more than following the
organ's lead and singing the melody part" (16). By the 1840s,
reform came to Illinois as well. In time, the earlier shape-note
singing schools would be all but forgotten.
As New Englanders moved west in increasing numbers, they brought
with them not only the schools, churches and other institutions
of their regional culture. They also brought an inability to see
much value in any cultural institutions other than their own,
and an attitude that Richard Lyle Power has aptly described as
"Yankee cultural imperialism." So it was that New England
singing masters, taught to follow the latest methods prescribed
by the "Better Music boys," repressed the shape-note
singing schools much as their predecessors had repressed the fuging
tunes and anthems of native composers like Billings and Justin
Morgan. In this they were entirely successful. In a 1931 article
on "Early Music and Musicians in Illinois," for example,
the president of the Madison County Historical Society baldly
asserted that, "The singing school was a New England institution,
originated by Lowell Mason, the father of American Church music,
and his associates." He also praised the District Singing
School Masters, many of them graduates of normal schools who had
learned Mason's curricula, who "made their yearly visits
from the eastern states, bringing with them not only musical culture,
but educational and literary ideals which made lasting impressions"
(Armstrong 31). It was as if nothing and no one had gone before
the Better Music boys.
But change did not come without a fight. Gov. Thomas Ford's
Illinois history has an extended account that rings true. He says,
plausibly enough, that singers in the days before the Better Music
came to Illinois learned to value the kind of singing they heard
at camp meetings:
The public exercises in religion were greatly aided by the
loud and wild music made by the singing of untutored voices. He
was considered the best singer, who could wake up the echoes to
his voice from the greatest distance, in the deep woods around;
so that in process of time, when the New England singing masters
began to establish singing schools, many people looked upon their
scientific and chastened performances with perfect scorn.
Consequently, at least one Yankee singing master of the day
was practically howled down by his pupils:
One of these itinerant teachers of music called his scholars
together, they being large, loud-voiced young men and women, trained
to sing at camp meetings. As he stood out in their midst, and
began a tune in a low, melodious voice, sawing the air with his
hand, to beat the time, sliding gracefully about the room, after
the fashion of a singing master, his scholars lifted up their
loud voices, and struck into the tune before him, overwhelming
him with a horrible din of sound, such as he had never heard before,
drowning his feeble voice and fine music, both together. The scholars
were vastly pleased with their own performance, and held that
of their teacher in utter contempt. Whereupon, they all concluded
with one accord, that each one of them was already far superior
to his teacher, and the school broke up. (40-41)
But in time the "scientific and chastened" practice
of the Better Music won out.
In 1889 John Moses, a former aide to Gov. Richard Yates who
later served as secretary of the Chicago Historical Society, came
up with a fairly balanced assessment, for his day, of the missionaries
who came out from New England:
Their methods were not popular with Western people, who
approved neither their precise manners, their correct mode of
speaking, their wearing fine clothes, their extreme anti-slavery
sentiments, nor, least of all, their persistent and ever-recurring
Sunday collections. The people were accustomed to an animated,
even boisterous style of preaching, and craved spiritual excitement.
They believed in a demonstrative religion, induced by the stirring
of the feelings to their very depths; and were but little interested
in, or affected by, a sermon read from manuscript, in a low tone
of voice. Still these devoted missionaries, preserved, under great
Moses credited the New Englanders with allowing families to
sit together, with an increased emphasis on "an intellectual
over an emotional religion" and with an "improvement
in church music" as singing masters were imported from the
The old patent-note singing-books, with their tunes generally
in minor keys, were exchanged for the better and more modern collections
of Lowell Mason and others; and men began to see that for the
production of harmonic effects in the mingling of voices, something
more was required than mere noise. (397)
In a parallel development, organs and other musical instruments
came into use in local churches throughout Illinois. This development
was more controversial than replacing the fa-sol-la with the do-re-mi
scale, since many 19th-century Illinoisans believed that musical
instruments had no legitimate place in church. This belief they
based not on the tendency of organ music to drown out congregational
singing but on an interpretation of scripture that went back at
least to Calvin and is still stoutly maintained by Primitive Baptists
and other conservative Protestants to this day. A musical instrument,
explains Elder Zack Guess, "is incapable of doing anything
required by music in Christian worship except make melody, and
it does not do that in the right place - the human heart."
Thus, according to a history of the Methodist Church in Athens
north of Springfield, controversy arose when an early pillar of
the church donated a melodeon or reed organ, and "Some of
the older members strenuously objected to having a musical instrument
in the church saying that they did not believe in trying to Serve
the Lord by machinery." They conceded a violin would have
been even worse, though, since "it was supposed to be an
instrument of Satan fit only for the much tabooed dance hall"
(Menard 14). Out in Iowa, a Methodist circuit rider named
Michael See was wholly unambiguous. He was an old-time preacher
in the mold of Peter Cartwright, and it was said of him that,
"When Michael See whispered, he could be heard for one-fourth
of a mile. When he talked out loud or sang, he could be heard
for two miles" (Nye 94). Russell G. Nye, the grandson of
another circuit rider, tells the story:
There was one church building on the circuit. He came to
this place one day, having been away several months. During his
absence, a small reed organ had been placed in the sanctuary.
Horrors! A wooden devil. He rolled the organ out to the wood shed
and broke it up with an ax. When the people came to the service
that evening, no mention was made of the organ. The service was
opened by his 'lining out' the hymns as usual. (149)
In time, however, those who approved of musical instruments
won out. Cartwright had some experience with them in 1852, when
he attended a General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church
in Boston. He was lionized as "the old pioneer of the West,"
and he found the New Englanders to be devout, generous, hospitable
people. But he was concerned by such practices as allowing men
and women to sit together, instrumental music during worship and
the use of choirs:
The choir practice destroys congregational singing almost
entirely, and has introduced the awkward and irreverent practice
among congregations of turning their backs on the sacred desk,
and facing about to the choir, and this whole system has a tendency
to destroy the humble practice of kneeling in time of prayer,
and contributes largely to the Church-dishonoring practice of
sitting while the prayers of the Church are offered up to God.
Speaking to the Sangamon County Old Settlers' Society in 1879,
Judge Milton Hay said "[o]ld habits and old industries"
that "disappeared on the appearance of the locomotive"
in the mid-1840s. Along with public schools, servants and a market-oriented
agricultural economy, he recalled the introduction of choirs,
"fiddles" and sermons "The [much shorter] 'forty-minute'
sermon began to be preached,' he said, as "men and women
no longer divided off on each side of the church; the minister
ceased to line off the hymn for the congregation, and the congregation
quit singing:" (464) Further comment on how the 'Better Music'
affected congregational singing would be superfluous.
In the meantime, nostalgia for the old songs found its way
not only into Old Settlers' addresses and county histories but
also the work of such Illinois literary figures as Carl Sandburg
and Edgar Lee Masters. Sandburg's accounts of Abraham Lincoln
and Ann Rutledge are heavily embroidered, and his assessment of
the Missouri Harmony belongs as much to the realm of fiction as
history. "Young Abraham Lincoln and his sweetheart, Ann Rutledge,
sang from this book in the Rutledge tavern at New Salem, according
to old settlers there," he says in his American Songbag.
"It was used at camp meetings of Peter Cartwright and other
circuit riding evangelists, and was highly thought of by many
church members in the Mississippi Valley" (152). Also heavily
embroidered were versions of the Ann Rutledge legend that circulated
in Menard County, for example Josephine Craven Chandler's allusion
to "stories of Sunday evenings when the family sang in unison
and he turned for her by fire and candle light the worn pages
of the 'Missouri Harmony Songbook'; and, it is told, she sang
for him alone sometimes in her clear, strong, girlish voice"
(43). It is more likely that Lincoln, who had an awful singing
voice, parodied the Missouri Harmony instead. Robert Rutledge,
Ann's brother, recalled that he would "tip back his chair
and roar it out at the top of his voice, over and over again,
just for fun." The noise was loud enough to scare the youngest
Rutledge daughter (Hertz 314; Walsh 42-43, 45; Gallaher 17: Hammand).
But the old stories have an honorable place in legend, if not
in uncontroverted historical fact. For one thing, Sandburg had
a poet's feel for the old songs: "A dark and moving poetry
and music from the religion of the people of Europe three hundred
years back reached out to take the hearts of the pioneers in the
long-cabin tavern, singing by candlelight there in New Salem"
(Prairie Years 1:182). Whatever the truth of Lincoln's
relationship with the Rutledge family, he and the Rutledges alike
were formed by the essentially Calvinistic attitudes of 19th-century
America in general, and the Illinois frontier and Missouri Harmony
For his part, Masters writes eloquently of the old songs. In
The Sangamon, his contribution to the Rivers of America
series but more of an elegy than a history, he speaks of a folk
hymn called "I Will Arise and Go to Jesus" and of the
men and women who sang the old songs at Menard County's old Concord
Cumberland Presbyterian Church during his youth:
If there was a culture, a spiritual flowering and growth
in the Sangamon River country, it was among these Cumberland Presbyterians,
these humble, generous souls, who in the days of Andrew Jackson
followed him faithfully as their salvation from the evil plots
of cities, from the schemes of selfish money-changers. They read
the Psalms and the poetry of the Bible, and they sang the hymns
of Watts and the Wesleys. Like primitive Christians they stood
for moral virtue, good will, as the means of accomplishing what
they regarded as the supreme object of life, the eternal salvation
of the soul. Truthtelling, honest dealing, neighborly kindness
were their religion. (124)
While there is a lot of Masters' own political and economic
theorizing reflected in his musings on rural Menard County, it
is clear that the old songs had penetrated deep into his appreciation
of central Illinois culture.
In his liner notes to a recording of early New England psalmody,
musicologist Richard Crawford sketches in a commonly received
myth about early American music, which he says "offers a
strong cultural symbol and a useful musical perspective"
("Mainstreams" 2-4). His myth, in its essential details,
is the same account that George Pullen Jackson and Gilbert Chase
present of the rise and fall of the indigenous American hymnody.
Crawford says it is mythical "not in the sense of something
untrue but rather in the sense of a coherent, believable tale"
of New England tunesmiths who "forged a music quite unlike
any other." But "the word went out from new arbiters
of taste that the Yankees' music couldn't hold a candle to the
new 'approv'd' tunes of the Europeans." So in time, the native
tradition died out, although "it continued to flourish in
outlying areas to the west and south." Then, during the 20th
century, the old music came back in light of a "fresh interest
in American vernacular traditions" coupled with a growing
distrust of most claims of scientific progress. "The myth,"
says Crawford, "is powerful, useful, and mostly accurate."
Certainly it is accurate in Illinois.
When I began to research the sacred music of the early 19th
century, as a shape-note singer in the Sacred Harp tradition and
an interpreter at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, I didn't
expect to find Crawford's myth replicated in so many of its details
in Illinois. I knew the folk hymns and other songs characteristic
of the Appalachian culture that so many of Illinois' first settlers
had absorbed on earlier frontiers in the Carolinas, Tennessee
and Kentucky. And of course I was aware of the legend that Abe
Lincoln and Ann Rutledge sang from the Missouri Harmony, at New
Salem. But I didn't expect to find anything like an early settler
hand-copying New England fuging tunes in shape notes as he followed
the frontier from Georgia through Tennessee and Kentucky to a
farm in Cass County. As I read the old settlers' reminiscences,
however, it was increasingly clear to me that the struggle between
indigenous New England tunesmiths and New England reformers carried
over into Illinois, as New England missionaries and singing masters
came west to stamp out not only a Southern upland tradition of
shape-note singing but the rough-hewn fugues and anthems of their
own predecessors as well.
Nor did I expect to find lined-out psalmody to be as prevalent
as it was in Illinois. I had associated it mostly with English
Puritans, the Kirk of Scotland, the Bay Psalm Book and deeply
conservative Old Regular Baptist congregations in Appalachia.
But it was quickly apparent, as Jack Larkin suggests, that the
practice was nigh universal in rural Illinois as it was almost
everywhere else in early 19th-century America. And it was abundantly
clear the old settlers who grew up with lined-out-hymns found
something important to be lacking in later religious services,
and they associated their loss with the choirs and musical instruments
that came in with the Better Music reforms. I could appreciate
what they were saying, because I sing sacred music a cappella
myself, and I have experienced the power and beauty of group singing
without an organ blaring away at close range. I have tried to
keep my own experience from unduly coloring my observations, but
I did catch myself wishing Lowell Mason had stayed in the banking
business and exercised his zeal for reform on regulating wildcat
currency or lending practices at state-chartered banks - on anything
Irving Lowens, a noted historian of early American music, says
the old New England compositions succeeded artistically because
they accomplished what is essentially a liturgical purpose:
Clearly, a basic function of congregational song within
the service should be to enable members of the congregation to
participate actively in worship through music. ... Thus, congregational
music must make its impact felt not through the hearing experience,
as with choir music, but through the performing experience. To
my mind, this identification of the music with the performer,
this inwardness, this lack of self-consciousness, is a fundamentally
though generally overlooked characteristic which early American
church song shares with authentic church song of all times and
all places. (283-84)
The same can be said of the Southern folk hymns. I believe
both the lined-out hymnody that early settlers brought with them
from the southern Appalachians and the shape-note singing school
tradition allowed the kind of participation that Lowens speaks
of, and they encouraged an emphasis on "singing from the
heart," in Calvin's words, or "the untaught melody of
grateful hearts," in James Matheney's words at an Old Settlers'
Day picnic some 30 years later.
Shape-note singing never died out entirely. It survives in
unbroken tradition in the foothills of southern Appalachia, where
it flourished at non-denominational singing conventions, descended
from the old singing schools, and a Southern church institution
known as an all-day singing with dinner on the ground (Dunn 154-56;
Cobb, "Sand Mountain" 40-42; Kimzey 56-61). "Some
branches of the American shape-note tradition are represented
today only in history books," notes Buell Cobb, a historian
of the Sacred Harp, the largest surviving shape-note tradition.
"But the Sacred Harp does not yet exist in the abstract alone.
It is a living thing, re-created anew by the singers who ... tune
their voices to its ancient chords" (Sacred Harp 40).
From the 1930s onward, people like George Pullen Jackson and folk
song collector Alan Lomax brought the shape-note songs to the
attention of a wider public, including folk musicians who heard
them on field recordings by Lomax and other collectors (Cantwell,
When We Were Good 215), and the old vernacular singing
got to be part of the folk revival.
During the 1980s, a group from Chicago's Old Town School of
Folk Music began a series of singings from the Sacred Harp that
has spread a traditional Georgia and Alabama style of singing
to other Midwestern cities (Bealle, Public Worship 200-02,
209-11). Singers in downstate Charleston revived Sacred Harp singing
in the 80s, and interpreters at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic
Site have been singing it since 1995.
Nor did the sound of lined-out psalmody die out. Songs in both
the shape-note and Primitive Baptist traditions, as Beverly Patterson
points out in Sound of the Dove, are related in complex ways as
they are handed down in oral tradition. And traditional Sacred
Harp singers in the South to this day observe points of ornamentation
and intonation that seem to predate the written tunebooks (see
Cobb 40-47). Robert Cantwell hears antecedents of the "high
lonesome" of vintage bluegrass in it:
In the Old Regular Baptist and other folk churches of Appalachia
hymns are still 'lined out;' the deacon chants one or two lines,
usually dropping by two or three steps from a fifth to its tonic,
with which he gently calls the congregation to himself; they gather
closely together in the tonality he has given them. ascending
and descending the simple altar of the melody in an imperfect
unison, which at its point of highest intensity glows with an
unmistakably blue radiance. (Bluegrass Breakdown 134)
More indirectly, the sound got into Southern gospel music by
way of singing conventions using a modified form of shape-note
notation (Malone, Country 21-22). And it lives on in the throaty,
wavering ornamentation of country singers like Hank Williams Sr.
and Loretta Lynn (Patterson 234-42, 245). Something of the Old
Way got into African-American musical traditions, too, combined
with: the call-and-response pattern of African music, and lives
on in "Doctor Watts" singing among other forms (Chase
78-83; 232-58; Cauthen 30-39). Something of the spirit of the
old camp meetings may live on, in however attenuated a fashion,
in the redemption stories of Nashville musicians like Johnny Cash
or the evangelical tone of Dolly Parton's songs about her roots
in the Tennessee hills (see Ellison 128-30). In the world of art
music, 20th-century arrangements of shape-note songs by Alice
Parker and Robert Shaw, and by Virgil Thomson have gained the
old songs an audience among people who once might have thought
them barbaric and unscientific. Mainline denominational hymnals
and missals reprint folk hymns from the shape-note traditions
in increasing numbers.
Lowens in 1964 suggested early American music could serve as
a "source from which our congregational song may perhaps
draw inspiration, strength, and vigor," largely because it
"was born of the cultural traditions of our own land, and
because it somehow reflects, in microcosm, our world, the New
World, and its development" (285-86). Certainly modern Illinoisans
who sing the old music find in it a strength and vigor often lacking
in other forms of congregational song. "People sing their
hearts out," says Sacred Harp singer Elizabeth Hoffman in
Liturgy 90, a publication of the Catholic archdiocese of
Chicago. "The singers and the sound will lift your spirit,
and you may get a new insight on what 'full, active and conscious
participation' is about," she adds, echoing the liturgical
reforms of Vatican II (8-9). "I love it," says Eric
Zorn, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune. "I love
the unfamiliar, haunting harmonies, the full-throated vigor of
the singers and the passion and poetry of the antique lyrics."
But Zorn's column stops short of predicting a national renaissance
of shape-note singing. "My wife finds it harsh," he
acknowledges, "occasionally discordant and, lyrically, a
As American composer Virgil Thomson noted in 1941, the shape-note
songs in the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony are
"older than America itself, that is the musical basis of
almost everything we make, of Negro spirituals, of cowboy songs,
of popular ballads, of blues, of hymns, of doggerel ditties, of
all our operas and symphonies" (216). Charles Ives, whose
father was a municipal band leader in Connecticut after the Civil
War, thought the old camp meeting songs sounded best when sung
like they had been in his father's day. "I've heard the same
hymns played by nice celebrated organists and sung by highly-known
singers in beautifully upholstered churches," he said in
a notebook entry, "and in the process everything in the music
was emasculated -- precise (usually too fast) even time -- 'ta
ta' down-left-right -- pretty voices, etc." (133). Is there
an echo here of the slow, rhythmically irregular singing of lined-out
psalmody? At any rate, Ives' heart was lifted by the singing he
heard as "great waves of sound used to come through the trees"
at the camp meetings of his youth.
Father, who led the singing, sometimes with his cornet or his
voice, sometimes with both voice and arms, and sometimes in the
quieter hymns with a French horn or violin, would always encourage
the people to sing their own way. Most of them knew the words
and music (theirs) by heart, and sang it that way. If they threw
the poet or the composer around a bit, so much the better for
the poetry and the music. There was power and exaltation in these
great conclaves of sound from humanity. (132-33)
That, of course, is the sound that Ives captured in his Third
Symphony and the Concord Sonata. It is good to know
it could be heard in Danbury, Conn., years after the Better Music
advocates had thoroughly put their mark on music in New England.
It is good to know it also flourished in Illinois. It is American
in a way that no longer knows regional boundaries, and in time
its revival may give us a coherent, believable story of indigenous
American hymnody with a happy ending.
[First of two posts. Next: Notes and Works Cited.]