In Memory of John Bayer, Jr.
by Kelly Macklin
John Bayer, Jr. passed away on December 8, 2016 just over a year after the death of his wife, Loraine. They are survived by their children, Regina, Hans, and Jubal, and four grandchildren.
I first met John Bayer in September 1990 at the United Convention in Chicago (held for the first time out of the South!) My husband, John, and I were new singers and this was one of our first conventions. John Bayer was also a fairly new shape note singer, but I never realized that until much later, as he was a strong, vibrant and enthusiastic singer who seemed as though he had sung this music all his life. He was a bear of a man, with a beautiful, clear tenor who could be heard even in a crowd. He often slapped his book in time to encourage the class to sing out or pick up the tempo!
The family were Anabaptist attending Old German Baptist Brethren Church. John was a man of strong faith and conviction. He held a belief in the frailty of people and their propensity to sin. I believe he wrestled with his dark side mightily. He expresses this in his compositions. He had strong opinions which he was not averse to share, but he also realized his sharp tongue could wound, for which he would humbly apologize. One might think we would have little in common, but in fact we did. We had long and enriching conversations about religion, philosophy, history, and morality, as well as music.
He composed numerous songs, in the shape note genre; eight (plus one arrangement) appear in The Shenandoah Harmony (2013) (the most of any modern composer) and twelve in The Missouri Harmony (2005). Judy Hauff frequently collaborated with John. She co-authored four of the nine tunes in The Shenandoah Harmony; she says in the 1990’s he flooded her with songs to harmonize or critique. He loved minor music and weighty themes. His compositions are unique and compelling, and highly singable. He found words which do not appear in other shape note books that I have used, and which are potent, arresting and well married to the music. He had an impressive knowledge of tunes, a hefty collection of songbooks and and was an invaluable source of information and advice to us when we were compiling of The Shenandoah Harmony.
The songs display an amazing diversity. “Heck” is a paean to the farmer’s plight; any gardener will sympathize. “Okefenokee” is a lilting song with a powerful theme of good and evil. The very popular “Bowen” has a rousing chorus about family which always inspires a class. “Hymn of the Dunkers” is a sober, but vibrant call to prayer and praise. “Marcia” has lovely harmonies and extols the city of Jerusalem. “Harper’s Lament or Runie’s Farewell” is particularly poignant; it was written for a beloved, and warmly welcoming, elderly Southern singer who passed away. “Madness” is almost shocking in its theme, yet relevant today, though the verse was written by Isaac Watts in 1707. “Night of the Grave” is a haunting setting of James Beattie’s poem “The Hermit” (1780), which contrasts the temporary gloom of night or winter with the permanency of death. John also transcribed the powerful two-part “Symyadda” from the Sand Mountain oral tradition.
John and his family travelled to singings whenever they could get away from the duties and demands of their melon farm in Ohio. He managed to come to one of our early Northern Shenandoah Valley all day singings, a James River Convention in Richmond VA and the Keystone in Lancaster PA in 2013, in addition to many travels south and to Chicago and the Midwest. However, we often would find a way to visit John and his family at home in Ohio. My favorite memories are sitting with them all at the table and singing. All three of his children were enthusiastic and talented singers and to hear them together with familial blending was unbelievably satisfying. When The Shenandoah Harmony came out, we sang through it with them as they voiced their approval, critiqued or demanded more verses!
We will miss him mightily. He was a wonderful friend. I will think of him whenever we sing his songs, especially this; “Take your companion by the hand, and all your children in a band, and give them up at Jesus’ call to pardon, bless, and save them all.”
Here is a playlist of John’s songs.