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: