Friday, March 23, 2012

New Salem: "Song catching," finding songs and transposing them for the dulcimer in open modal tunings ** UPDATED 04-05 **

"Songcatcher" is a catch phrase for someone who goes out in the field, not the studio, and records music wherever he or she finds it. It all started with Edison, of course, and his invention of the phonograph. ... Since then there have been many, many songcatchers working at the far corners of the Earth.
-- Mickey Hart, author and percussionist, Grateful Dead. Qtd. National Geographic News.
For our last off-season workshop on period music in open, modal lap dulcimer tunings, we'll look at a couple of songs that were sung at camp meetings near New Salem - at Rock Creek - and a Robert Burns song that raised eyebrows when a church musician sneaked it into a worship service down in Springfield. Since they're available on line in Appalachian dulcimer tab for DAA and DAD tunings, as well as their original keys of G and B-flat, they give us a good opportunity to learn how to transpose a song from the original to "D for dulcimer." Don't worry: It's easier to do than it is to talk about it!

And once we can do that, we can be our own song-catchers. We may be finding our songs in books like John Lair's "Songs Lincoln Loved" or David McIntosh's "Folk Songs and Singing Games of the Illinois Ozarks", but as far as I'm concerned we're still catching songs. I think we almost have to do that, since the ones that have the strongest connection to New Salem aren't always tabbed out for the dulcimer.

In my research for my paper on folk hymns, articles in The Picayune and dulcimer workshops at New Salem, I have identified a half dozen songs that are attested in New Salem and the surrounding rural communities during frontier days and perhaps another dozen that are attested in Springfield and elsewhere in what we now consider downstate Illinois.

On Saturday, April 7, we'll learn three of these songs we can share with visitors:
  • "How Firm a Foundation." Sung in camp meetings at Rock Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church (see below). Text by "K---," in John Rippon's Selection of Hymns (London, 1787). American folk melody collected by Joseph Funk (1832) and William Walker (1835). This hymn was said to be Andrew Jackson's favorite and still appears in denominational hymnals.
  • "There is a Fountain Filled With Blood." Text by English poet William Cowper (1779), American folk melody arranged by Lowell Mason (18--). Although it has fallen out of favor, this was also one of the most popular hymns of the 19th century.
  • "The Banks of Doon" (Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon"). Text and melody by Robert Burns (1783). According to the thread on the Mudcat Cafe online discussion group, the published melody had widespread Scots and Irish antecedents. Very popular, and attested in Springfield (see below) in the 1830s or 1840s.
And I will hand out copies of North Carolina traditional dulcimer player Don Pedi's tuning chart of different keys at (to make your own copy, scroll down to it -- it's the first item on the page -- and right-click on it, click on "Save picture as ..." to save the JPEG file to your hard drive. You can print it out from there. Check out Don's tab, too. He has some wonderful fiddle tunes.

The three hymns were popular camp meeting spirituals. In a 1922 history of Rock Creek Presbyterian Church Alice Keach Bone, the daughter of old settlers in Menard County, described the singing when she was a girl:
Prominent among the preachers on the platform [set up outside the church building at camp meetings] 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, Rock Creek Church: A Retrospect of One Hundred Years.)
Last month we learned "On Jordan's stormy banks ..." (also known as "The Promised Land"), and in April we'll learn the other two that Alice Keach Bone remembered. When I sang with the New Salem Shape Note Singers, we could see the vistors perk up and listen when we told them we were singing a hymn from the early days at Rock Creek just a few miles down the road.

Another song we'll take up April 7 is secular, "The Bonny Doon" by Robert Burns. but its melody was played in church. Springfield's First Presbyterian Church, in fact, in the 1830s or 40s before it had an organ. According to a story that was told years later, an accompanist started playing the popular Robert Burns melody instead of another tune in the same hymnal:
Mr. Rague was ... leader of the choir. The tune book was Mason's Missouri Harmony with patent notes [shape 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 Thy 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 Anniversary of the Organization of First Presbyterian Church, Springfield, Illinois, January 29-February 1, 1903.).
Was this an accident, or a little tomfoolery in the choir loft? We don't know. But we do know the story was still being told 70 years later (even if some of the details got confused in the retelling). At any rate, Robert Burns was popular in Illinois.

When William Herndon was collecting material for his life of Abraham Lincoln, he interviewed his mother, Rebecca Herndon. She recalled "my sisters & myself learned Burns by heart 0 Sang his Songs - Such as 'Bonny Doon-' 'Highland Mary ' Soldiers return." (That third song is obscure. Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis, who edited Herndon's letters and interviews, guess it might be "When the Wild War's Deadly Blast Was Blawn." The other two were well known.) And Lincoln's fondness for Burns' poetry is well attested.

Some YouTube clips of the songs follow, along with a citation to the paper where I discuss the folk hymns that were sung on the Illinois frontier:

"How Firm A Foundation" played by David Summerford on mountain dulcimer

"There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood" by Grace Chu

-- Southern gospel singer David Phelps

-- UAB Gospel Choir , Univ of Alabama at Birminghan

"Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon" - Singer-songwriter Holly Tomas of Edinburgh

Tony McManus teaches "Ye Banks and Braes." McManus plays Celtic fingerstyle in dropped D tuning, talks about arranging the song, ornamentation, etc. (10:32)

Digital Tradition (in G);ttBNKSBRAE.html


* Detailed citations in my paper "American Folk Hymnody in Illinois, 1800-1850" (Conference on Illinois History, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Springfield, Oct. 14, 2000)

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