Reading list

Original words to 117, “Babylon Is Fallen”

The 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp has no attribution for the words of 117 “Babylon Is Fallen.” But according to Warren Steele in Makers of the Sacred Harp, the original words, the words originally appeared in a Shaker hymn book, Millennial Praises, Containing a Collection of Gospel Hymns …Adapted to the Day of Christ’s Second Appearing, which was printed in Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1813. More detail on the origina of the words is offered on a post by “Burke” in this thread on the Mudcat Web site:

…The rest of this [post] is will be summary of the article:
G. W. Williams, “Babylon is Fallen: The Story of a North American Hymn,” The Hymn, Volume 44, April 1993, pp 31-35….

There is no author listed in Millennial Praises. The attribution of the hymn to Richard McNemar appears to be from an article by Daniel W. Patterson in Shaker Quarterly, v.18.

The first stanza of the text appears in a manuscript of tunes from the Enfield, Conn. [Shaker] community and may date to as early as 1810. The original 6 verses are clearly refering to images in Revelation 17-19. “It is clear … that McNemar knew the Revelation passage thoroughly and was closely following its pattern and its precepts.” The text was reprinted in an 1833 Shaker hymnal, but not in later ones.

It was reprinted in non-Shaker books, usually with variations on words, from the 1820’s on. The first verse always remains substantially the same, except for the reference to “the distant coasts of Shinar.” Shinar did not mean much more in the 19th cent. than it does to us today. It means “Babylon in its fullest extent” and is used in the Old Testament to refer to Babylon. [See this article in the online Jewish Encyclopedia for more info. — ed.] Always associated with impiety in some way, the substitution of “courts of Zion” or “our Shiloh” substantially changes the meaning of the second part of the verse. It transforms “cries of despair from the citizens of the ravished city to shouts of triumph from God’s favored people.”

The third verse from the Sacred Harp version was first published in William Houser’s The Olive Leaf in 1878. This was also the book where Chute’s tune was first published so the version most well know now traces most directly to it. Either Houser or Chute may have written the third verse; there’s not really any way to know. This new verse changes the tone of the hymn to emphasizing rejoicing in triumph rather than the desolation in destruction of the original.

Before 1878 at least 2 different tunes were paired with the words in different publications. All apparently suffered from the problem that the chorus does not follow the same 8,7 meter of the verses. The 12,10 of the chorus were somehow forced into the 8,7 pattern of the tunes used.

William Houser first published a six verse version with one of these problem tunes in The Hesperian Harp, 1852. When Houser published it in The Olive Leaf in 1878 with the now familiar tune he headed the entry with the attribution: “Prof. Wm. E. Chute, of Ontario. Prof. Chute composed this tune out of an old theme, and is too modest to claim any originality, but I do it for him.–W.H.” The “old theme” may be Sons of Sorrow [link to words and score of this song].

For completists, here are the Shaker words:

Reading list

Bylaws and tradition

We’ve been working on setting up Bay Area Sacred Harp as an unincorporated association; up until now, money for conventions and all-day singings got ran through checking accounts of an individual member of BASH, which is not an ideal situation for anyone. California state law allows for unincorporated associations — an easy and cheap way to set up a group entity that legally can have a bank account.

I was one of the people who helped draft the bylaws. We tried to balance the traditions of Sacred Harp singings against the need for fiscal and organizational protection. So, for example, most Sacred Harp business meetings take place during an all-day singing or convention, and everyone present is automatically a member. But what do you do if the organization needs to hold a special business meeting in between annual conventions? — an unlikely occurrence, but a possibility that should be allowed for. And how can you provide at least some protection from the possibility that unscrupulous people could take over control of the organization? — also unlikely but such takeovers have happened to other too-trusting nonprofits. I’m not sure we got the balance just right, but I do feel that managed to favor tradition to some extent over other considerations.

(Draft bylaws are online at the BASH Web site.)

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Why people went to early singing schools

Noted without comment:

The singing-school’s enormous popularity during the 18th century was obviously due to more than a great love for music or for learning. Here was a rare chance for approved social intercourse between boys and girls. No doubt the youngsters welcomed the break in routine provided by the chance to learn to read music, but they also used the singing-school as a place where they could make new friends, exchange notes, flirt, walk home together after lessons, and, in general, enjoy themselves. As an example of what went on, one might cite a letter, written in an unguarded moment, from a Yale undergraduate to his friend Simeon Baldwin (later a distinguished New Haven attorney) in 1782:

“…at present I have no Inclination for anything, for I am almost sick of the World & were it not for the Hopes of going to singing-meeting tonight & indulging myself a little in some of the carnal Delights of the Flesh, such as kissing, squeezing &c. &c. I should willingly leave it now, before 10 o’clock & exchange it for a better.”

It is easy to see that many marriages must have grown out of singing-meetings, and the old tune-books show plenty of handwritten evidence of incipient love-affairs of long ago.

from “The American Tradition of Church Song,” by Irving Lowens, in Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 282-283.

Reading list

Reading list: Sacred Song in America

I had a committee meeting tonight and could not attend the weekly Berkeley singing. Instead, a short reflection on an essay by Stephen Marini about Sacred Harp singing:

When he was writing Sacred Song in America, Stephen A. Marini spent seven years traveling across the United States finding out about American sacred song traditions. He participated in and listened to many different kinds of sacred singing, and he interviewed notable composers and performers of sacred song. Since he is a historian by trade, of course his book talks about the history of sacred song in the United States. The third chapter in the book, “Sacred Harp Singing,” is devoted entirely to the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Marini has been singing Sacred Harp since the mid-1970s, and he is a central figure in the New England branch of the Northern revival. He not only has an intimate and first-person knowledge of key moments in the history of the Northern revival, he also knows a fair number of the most influential traditional Southern signers.

In “Sacred Harp Singing,” Marini tells us how Sacred Harp singing is a form of sacred song, although the way in which it is sacred may differ for Northern and Southern singers. He interviewed several prominent traditional Southern singers, and they told him that they explicitly consider Sacred Harp singing to be a form of sacred song. However, many Northern singers don’t talk about Sacred Harp music as being a form of sacred song and, says Marini, “the cultural divide between northern and southern singers could hardly be greater.” Many northern singers do say that they find something implicitly “sacred” in Sacred Harp singing, and some Northerners even talk about it as being sacred song. Yet even then, Northern notions of the sacredness of the music are typically different from, and less unified than, traditional southern notions. We could say that while traditional Southern singers are modernists, Northern revival singers are postmodernists.