"Swing Low: Dwight Moody, an Original American Crossover Artist
Beginning in November, I'll be offering a program through Road Scholars, a speakers' bureau of the Illinois Humanities Council. My working title: "Swing Low: Dwight Moody, An Original American Crossover Artist." By explaining the origin of Moody's gospel hymns, playing the dulcimer and inviting my audience to sing along, my talk is designed to bring alive this deeply 19th-century American art form. While the roots of this music are in the past, its sound is still heard today, not only in gospel and Christian contemporary, but also secular genres including jazz, blues, country, rock and hip hop. Details on how to book a Road Scholar program and general information about the IHC speakers' bureau, including an FAQ page, are available at:
American music has always been a hybrid art form, and often it's been at its most vibrant when artists ranging from Stephen Foster, Ives and Gershwin to Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen have blended the sound of different cultural genres into something all their own and uniquely American. Chicago evangelist Dwight Moody and his music director Ira Sankey no doubt would be surprised to hear themselves described as crossover artists, but their revivals were an important musical crossing place, one of those intersections where the music crossed over its cultural boundaries.
"Swing Low" will focus on three occasions when music from America's camp meetings, slave quarters and log cabins crossed over to create gospel music as we have come to know it today ... and a fourth occasion several years later, when it was apparent how much a part of the American spirit the music had become:
- June 1870, Indianapolis. In town for a YMCA convention, Moody sets up a dry-goods box on a street corner and preaches while Sankey leads a Sunday school song typical of the camp meeting tradition. Sankey later recalled, "When he had spoken for some twenty-five minutes, he announced that the meeting would be continued at the Opera House, and invited the people to accompany us there. He asked me to lead the way, and with my friends sing some familiar hymn. This we did, singing as we marched down the street, 'Shall we gather at the river?' The men with their dinner-pails followed closely on our heels instead of going home, so completely were they carried away by the sermon from the store-box." It is the beginning of their long association.
- June and July 1862. Port Royal, S.C. Lucy McKim (Garrison), a 19-year-old Philadelphia abolitionist visiting the Union Army lines in South Carolina with her father, hears "Roll Jordan, Roll" sung by newly freed slaves and African American soldiers in the Union Army. "It swelled forth like a triumphant anthem," she says in an important article for Dwight's Journal of Music. "That same hymn was sung by thousands of [N]egroes on 4th of July last, when they marched in procession under the Stars and Stripes, cheering them for the first time as the 'flag of our country.' A friend writing from there said the chorus was indescribably grand; 'that the whole woods and world seemed joined in that rolling sound.'"
- November, 1873, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, on their first European tour, join forces with Moody and Sankey. Opening for a revival meeting, they sing the camp meeting song "There Are Angels Hovering 'Round" and their signature African American spiritual "Steal Away to Jesus." Blown away by the experience, an English cleric writes, "It was like a snatch of angelic song heard from the upper air as a band of celestials passed swiftly on an errand of mercy." He adds, "Nor are these all our obligations to our beloved friends. They have gone in and out the churches, Sunday-schools, and mission-rooms, singing for Jesus. Such services to souls and Christ have opened wide the people's hearts, and the Jubilees have just walked straight in, to be there enshrined for evermore."
- May 7, 1915, on an "L" platform in New York City. Composer Charles Ives is waiting for a train the day after the Lusitania was torpedoed, with the loss of 1,198 lives, when a busker plays "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" on the street below. "Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain," he recalled. "A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn't seem to be singing for fun. ..." Deeply moved by the experience, Ives incorporates it in his orchestral set From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose.
Like Sankey’s gospel hymns, the Jubilee Singers' spirituals xxx While there are clear differences between the Anglo-Celtic and African-American traditions, their pentatonic harmonies, syncopation and call-and-response choruses blended into an emerging style of accessible, emotional gospel hymn singing.
XXX Plans are to announce the Road Scholars lineup for 2013-2014 in August.
"The songs of the Civil War era were beautiful and formative, but they were also a sign of a chaotic time when a whole segment of the population was undervalued and stereotyped. That was the bittersweet theme of Peter Ellertsen's presentation at the Decatur Public Library. ... 'I want people to get a sense that this historical stuff is still with us,' Ellertsen said. 'Our history determines who we are.'" Decatur Herald & Review, March 8, 2010.
In addition to my latest Road Scholars gig, I give talks on various musical and historical subjects to schools, libraries and other community organizations for a negotiable fee. And I was on the Road Scholars roster once before, from 2001 to 2004. I like to get my audiences singing along, and I play the Appalachian dulcimer, related European/immigrant folk zithers and the psalmodikon, a monochord that Swedish pastors used to keep country church choirs singing on key in four-part harmony.
For more information on my talks, check out the following webpages:
- My resume lists talks on a variety of subjects I've tailored to the interests of different audiences over the years (click here and scroll down to "Presentations and articles").
- In June I spoke with Kevin Kelly of WILL-FM in Urbana about "creolized," or culturally blended, 19th-century American music on his "Live and Local" show (click here to listen).
- In 2010 the Herald & Review covered my talk "Years of Jubilee: Music from the Civil War Era" at the Decatur Public Library (click here for staff writer Kenneth Lowe's report).
- In 2001 correspondent Harriett Gustason of the Freeport Journal- Standard wrote up my Road Scholars talk on "Ballads, Bobby Burns and Fiddle Tunes" (click here to read it).
"Dr. Peter Ellertsen came from Springfield to tell the folks how the ethnically diverse settlers of northwest Illinois mixed and matched the music of their heritage with the native folk tunes, hymns and ballads on this side of the Atlantic. ... Pianos and organs were a little too bulky to transport in covered wagons, so the settlers had to devise their own methods of creating rhythm and melody. Ellertsen himself played a 'paint-bucket Stradivarius' to join [local musicians] in the toe-tapping hoedown of strummin', pickin' and pluckin' which preceded his easy-going talk. The improvised bass fiddle cost him $3.19 for a bucket, a broom handle and a stretch of plastic line. There was fun going on, both off stage and on. The musicians were giving it all they had, the speaker spiced his talk with humor and an attentive audience was appreciating it all." -- Freeport Journal-Standard, Nov. 4, 2001.