“One of the most beautiful of those old minors”

Jul 6, 2012 by

Columbia, from The Missouri Harmony, 1834 ed. Click for larger image.

In the early stages of working on The Shenandoah Harmony, we jokingly titled the project The Mostly Minor Melodeon because, try as we might, we couldn’t escape the fact that the songs we had chosen were overwhelmingly minor! The editions of The Kentucky Harmony and The Tennessee Harmony are roughly 60% minor; even the early editions of The Easy Instructor are over 50% minor. As our book has evolved, we’ve added songs from other sources; the finished book will have about 52% minor songs. For comparison, The Sacred Harp (1991) is only 28% minor, though I’ve heard that the actual balance of songs called in singings is less heavily skewed.

In addition to these statistics, there is plenty of evidence that minor songs were all the rage in the early nineteenth century. Here’s a voice from “beyond the bounds of time and space”… Searching for information on the text for ShH 432b COLUMBIA, I came upon this letter in The Advance, a weekly publication of the Congregational church, from March 5, 1903. “After Supper” is a regular column where “Mrs. Miner” answers readers’ letters.

Dear Mrs Miner:

 … I very much wish that some one could tell me where to find the rest of a song, the first verse of which I enclose. It was written during the Revolution by whom I do not know. The tune is one of the most beautiful of those old minors so fashionable a hundred years ago or less.

As down a lone valley with cedars o’erspread,
From war’s dread confusion I pensively strayed,
The gloom from the face of the heaven retired,
The winds hushed their murmurs, the thunders expired,
Perfume as of Eden flowed sweetly along,
A voice as of angels enchantingly sung,
Columbia, Columbia to glory arise!
The queen of the world and the child of the skies!

I learned this by hearing my mother sing it when I was a child. In the same way I learned the “Greedy fox” [a children’s song].

Peterson, Ia.      Mrs. H.J.P. MARTIN.

I couldn’t find out if Mrs. Martin ever received an answer to her letter, but the poem is Timothy Dwight’s, from 1777 (see the embedded text at the end of this post). The tune she refers to may be the one we have in our book, COLUMBIA, from The Tennessee Harmony (1818), shown at the top of this page. It’s the only minor setting I could find of these words. It really is beautiful!

UPDATE: I just listened to Edden Hammons’ haunting fiddle version, recorded in 1947 and titled QUEEN OF THE EARTH AND CHILD OF THE SKIES, on the Bankrupt Museum blog.  It’s recognizably the COLUMBIA melody from Tennessee Harmony, but in the major rather than minor mode (or perhaps closer to mixolydian).  There’s more information on the tune on the web site Fiddler’s Companion, where it’s identified as the Irish air THE BLACKBIRD, traditionally played at funerals.

From the 1908 History of American Music on Google books:

6 Comments

  1. Update: John Plunkett pointed out that the 1860 Sacred Harp has the minor song STAR OF COLUMBIA with some of these words, though it skips the beginning “as down a lone valley.” It’s familiar to me as the fiddle tune “Bonaparte Crossing the Rockies.”

  2. Wade Kotter

    Rachel, would you agree that the following figures complicate the major-minor picture in the early 19th century just a bit?

    Wyeth, “Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second” (1820 2nd ed.) – 36% minor
    Metcalf, “The Kentucky Harmonist” (1824 3rd. ed.) – 29% minor
    Funk, “A Collection of Genuine Church Music” (1832 1st ed.) – 28% minor

    • Not necessarily – those numbers are similar to the editions of the Easy Instructor from the 1820s, which hovers around 30% minor. The majority-minor books are a little earlier, though certainly there’s plenty of variation even in that time period. Compare, however a book like Kieffer’s Children of Zion (1891). I have yet to find a minor song (looked at the first 45 and then got bored!) I suspect that the picture is complicated by geography – and perhaps also by denomination. I’d like to do a bigger study of this once I’m not so preoccupied with the Shenandoah!

      • Wade Kotter

        I agree that geography is probably one of the complications, and denomination, especially in Funk’s case. I think personal preferences of the compiler along with their perceptions of the purpose of the book and the needs of their intended audiences also played a role (denomination is part of this, of course). The impact of date is not so clear. The first edition of Wyeth’s Part Second is dated 1813 and, according to Irving Lowens in the preface to the Da Capo press reprint of the 1820 2nd edition, has the same tune content as the 1820 2nd edition. Thus it predates both the Kentucky Harmony and the Tennessee Harmony. Also, according to both Irving Lowens and Warren Steele, the Kentucky Harmony was heavily influenced by Wyeth’s Part Second. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the Tennessee Harmony was also influenced by Wyeth’s collection. So date can’t explain the difference in percentage of minor tunes between Wyeth’s Part Second and these two later tune books. As far as I know, Wyeth did not intend his book for a specific denomination, although both Lowens and Steele argue that he was targeting the evangelical market.

        And since you brought up Kieffer’s collection, here are some additional percentages to consider:

        A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1825 ed.): 48% minor
        Southern Harmony (1835 1st ed.): 50% minor
        Sacred Harp (1844 1st ed.): 35% minor
        Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist (1846): 27% minor
        Sacred Harp (1850 2nd ed.): 35% minor
        Southern Harmony (1854 Revised ed.): 31% minor
        Social Harp (1855): 33% minor
        Sacred Harp (1859/60 3rd ed.): 34% minor
        Sacred Harp (1869/70 4th ed.): 29% minor
        Original Sacred Harp (1911 James ed.): 28% minor
        Original Sacred Harp (1936 Denson revision): 30% minor

        These figures pretty clearly show a decline in popularity of minor tunes, which is certainly true of more mainstream Christian hymnody during the same period. What is more interesting to me is that the 1991 ed. at 28% is almost identical to the 1869/70 4th edition at 29% despite all the changes that have taken place. As Robert Vaughn has noted in another context, what may be more interesting than the decline in percentage of minor tunes in shape-note tune books in the 19th century is that the Sacred Harp has retained so many minor tunes in comparison to more mainstream hymnals where in many cases they have all but disappeared.

      • Wade Kotter

        The tune contents of the 1820 2nd edition of Wyeth’s Part Second are identical to those of the 1813 first edition, which predates both the Kentucky Harmony and the Tennessee Harmony. And we know that Wyeth’s Part Second was one of Davisson’s sources for the Kentucky Harmony. So not all the majority-minor books are earlier than Wyeth’s majority-major collection. In this case, geography may be part of the answer, but both Irving Lowens and Warren Steele argue convincingly that Wyeth’s Part Second was targeted at evangelical groups. In contrast, the more mainstream orientation of Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, the first edition (1810) of which was also a majority-major collection with 41% minor tunes, somewhat below many other tune books of the period. Also, the first edition of Metcalf’s Kentucky Harmonist (1818) is a majority-major collection with only 38% minor tunes. And the reason I included Funk’s 1832 collection is that it was published in the Shenandoah Valley and, I believe, influenced to some extent by the Kentucky Harmony; in this case, the Mennonite connection probably played a part as well as a more general trend away from minor tunes. Interestingly, the 1835 Southern Harmony seems to reverse the trend; it had 50% minor tunes. So really what I was trying to point out is pretty well stated by your comment that “certainly there’s plenty of variation even in that period.” While I understand your focus on the majority-minor collections because of your work on the Shenandoah, I find myself more interested in the variation.

        • Wade Kotter

          Oops. I thought the response that I posted on August 6 had disappeared into the bit bucket because it never appeared until recently; that’s why I posted much of the same information on August 7. And, just for fun, here are some figures for various editions of the Easy Instructor that I calculated using Temperley’s hymn tune index:

          1801 – 52% Minor
          1805-1808 printings – 52% Minor
          1809 – 51% Minor
          1810 – 51% Minor
          1811 – 48% Minor
          1812 – 46% Minor
          1813 [Lowens k] – 46% Minor
          1813 [Lowens l] – 43% Minor
          1814 – 41% Minor
          1815 – 38% Minor
          1816 – 38% Minor
          1817 – 37% Minor

          So, if my calculations are correct, by 1815 the “Easy Instructor” was definitely a majority-major book in contrast to the “Kentucky Harmony” and the “Tennessee Harmony” I believe the decline from 52% minor in 1801 to 38% minor in 1815 in part reflects the shift away from New England composers that others have noted for the “Easy Instructor.” Again, I find myself more interested in the variation.