Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Happy Land" -- an iconic early American hymn that got into an iconic early 20th-century American comic strip

"Happy Land" is one of two songs we played by ear at our last slow jam and tune learning session of the Clayville-Prairieland Strings. I can't find the other one, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," on line in a form we can use, but it's in Stephen Seifert's Join the Jam Gospel Edition, available on line at Steve's website at I plan to order a couple of extra copies, and Steve has it on his website at $13.80 for a digital download and $29.00 in hard copy with CD included. If the extras come on time, we can do "Swing Low" in October.

At a recent Clayville-Prairieland jam session, we got to playing "Happy Land" by ear, a 150-year-old gospel song that got into the shape-note hymn tradition and from there into a total of 534 hymnals, mostly in the 1800s and early 1900s. It has a bouncy Scots-Irish tune that practically sings itself, and it's been revived in Sacred Harp singings and Appalachian dulcimer jams. Lead sheets with dulcimer tab, notes and guitar chords available at

(If the link the the PDF file doesn't open, go to the tab directory, and scroll down to "Happy Land." We want the version with words, by Robert Sutton.)

We meet from 7 to 9 p.m. Thurssday, Sept. 15, at Peace Lutheran Church, 2800 West Jefferson, Springfield. ALSO COMING UP: Clayville Fall Festival, Saturday, Sept. 17, and Sunday, Sept. 18. We will have people playing informally on the grounds both afternoons.

Not only was it a favorite old-time gospel hymn, "Happy Land" won a place in "Krazy Kat," the iconic comic strip from the 1910s into the 1940s.

First, here's what it sounds like:

Dr. Bill's Mountain Music - Appalachian Dulcimer Demo's

"This channel provides demonstrations of music arranged for the Appalachian dulcimer: including detailed video of the dulcimer fingerboard to show fingerings," says Dr. Bill, of Huntsville, Alabama, on his YouTube channel. "The videos are rough, intended for instructional purposes -- to assist folks learning these songs from my own tablature. They're not really intended for entertainment; but if you find them entertaining ... you should probably get out more."

Well, yes, but Dr. Bill's learning video shows the tune at its best -- simple, unadorned on a dulcimer tuned to DAA. (Dulcimer players please note -- this D tuning brings out the darker sound of the mountain dulcimer on American folk hymns. Try it. You'll like it, and it will help you overcome the DAD lockstep.) With its Scots-Irish origins, it's also a fine jam tune. For video of a dulcimer jam, check out the links below.

"Happy Land's" origins are in the shape-note Sacred Harp tradition, and this clip records it as sung at one of the most authentic traditional singings in the Sand Mountain area of northern Alabama. The nonsense syllables they sing the first time through -- fa, sol, la -- represent degrees of the scale, and they them first to help set the melody in mind before they go on to the words.

Sacred Harp sing at Liberty Church in Henagar, Alabama

According to and the Sacred Harp resources at, the words were written in 1838 by Andrew Young, an educator of Edinburgh, Scotland, and the tune by Leonard Breedlove, a 19th-century singing master of rural Georgia. Some of the old songbooks say it's a "Hindoo melody," but I think it belongs to the same Anglo-Celtic tune stock as folk hymns like "Amazing Grace" and fiddle tunes like "Cripple Creek," to which it bears at least a passing resemblance.

In an unusually good brief account, Wikipedia notes that the song got around widely in the popular culture of the early to mid-1900s, including the movies "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "The King and I." Laura Ingalls Wilder's mother sings it in "Little House on the Prairie" and Mark Twain had a parody, "There Is a Boarding-House," in his novel "The American Claimant" as early as 1892.

And that's not all. We're about to get to one of my all-time favorite comic strips.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz, dreaming of angels in a rare moment of good will. (Wikipedia)

Adds Wikipedia, "It is also a favorite song of Krazy Kat, the main character from George Herriman's eponymous newspaper comic strip (1913-1944), where the song's opening verse is often willingly misspelled as 'There is a heppy lend fur fur away... [sic]'." Krazy Kat was a staple of the "Sunday funnies" through most of the 1910s, 20s, 30s and 40s, ending only with Herriman's death. It was, well, a little strange. But it was way ahead of its time, and an icon of popular culture.

Says the Publisher's Weekly review of a recent collection, titled Krazy & Ignatz 1925-1926: "There Is a Heppy Lend Fur Fur Awa-a-ay" (see screen shot of title page at right, with miniature of a forlorn Krazy Kat watching Ignatz stalk off in the distance).

"The premise couldn't be simpler: Krazy Kat loves Ignatz Mouse, who rejects the Kat's affections by throwing a brick at him? her? Krazy is both and neither whereupon Offisa Pupp arrests Ignatz. This was the plot of nearly every episode, but the beauty was in the variations Herriman could work on it and in his delirious sense of style. The primal comedy played out in thousands of ways, drawn with an incomparable design sense against a gorgeously stylized backdrop of the American Southwest and delivered with Herriman's hilarious dialogue half invented, half quasi-Joycean wordplay ..."

So Krazy Kat's happy land "fur fur away" is quasi-Joycean? Uh, OK. I'll leave the literary allusions to others, but know I like the story, and I see something of myself at times in Krazy Kat, at others in Ignatz the mouse throwing his brick.

None of which has very much to do with the song "Happy Land." Here are some YouTube clips that illustrate how far it's gotten.

  • As a mountain dulcimer jam tune after the Double Dulcimer Gathering workshops in 2010 at Madison, Alabama. Ron Zuckerman, whose dulcimer tab we have used, recorded the tune
  • A popular 19th-century American gospel hymn, as performed here by the Steve Petit Evangelistic Team, in their Irish Concert, 2009 (the singing begins at 1:30). In performance today, at least outside the shape-note tradition, it often has a wistful sound.
  • A Rastafari hymn of the Nyahbinghi Order, taken from Jerusalem School Room of The Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress Church of Salvation. More on the Nyahbinghi Order in the Wikipedia article on the Mansions of Rastafari (scroll down to Nyahbinghi Order).
  • An early swing band foxtrot recorded by Nat Shikret and the Victor Orchestra in New York, March 13, 1929. Nat Shilkret, director; Del Staigers and Mike Mosiello, trumpet; Chuck Campbell, tb; Andy Sannella and Sammy Feinstein, cl-as; Maurice Pierce-cl-ts, Lou Raderman and Murray Kellner-vn; Milt Rettenberg, piano John Cali or Dick Maffai, banjo, Jack Pierce, bb; and Joe Green, drums.

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