Recorded Novemberat Lindsay Chapel, Emmanuel Church, Boston, MA, 1991

Erato CD 2292-45818-2


Anne Azéma, soprano
Elisabeth Weigle, soprano
Elizabeth Anker, alto
John Fleagle, tenor
Daniel McCabe, baritone
Arizeder Urreiztieta, bass
Jesse Lepkoff, flute
Michael Collver, fluegelhorn
Steven Lundahl, baritone horn
Joel Cohen, guitar

assisted by:
L. Frederick Jodry, director

Jameson Marvin, conductor
Steven Thomas, preparation

Joel Cohen, director

Principal musical sources: The American Vocalist (Boston, 1849), collection of Joel Cohen;
The Revivalist (Troy, N.Y., 1868), collection of Barbara Owen

producer: Martine Guers
recording engineer: David Griesinger
production coordinator: Betty Alice Fowler

"Improvements makes straight roads, but the narrow roads without Improvement are the paths of genius." -- William Blake

This is a recording about a surprising phenomenon: The vigorous survival, in the Northern part of the United States, of folk-inspired religious hymnody.

It is well known that the "folk" element in American church music, after a start in eighteenth century New England, migrated South during the nineteenth century. In the South, shape-note hymn books like the Sacred Harp and the Southern Harmony, first published in mid-nineteenth century, have maintained, even into the present day, a style of folk-hymnody that was thought to have disappeared in the North. In the South, too, has flourished black people's congregational music, so powerful and compelling that the musical term "spiritual" has understandably but incorrectly come to mean "black religious music" for much of the general public. So the schema was supposed to be as follows: In the South, folk styles; in the North, politer church music that followed (or attempted to follow) the "rules."

What a surprise, then, to find authentic, idiomatic folk hymns and spirituals in song books complied and published in the North! For if it is mainly true that Northern hymbooks of the nineteenth century contain for the most part academic, watered-down Victoriana, a few prints show that the other, more vigorous tradition was indeed alive in the Northern states.

Two rare sources were of prime importance for this recorded program: The American Vocalist, an oblong hymn book in four-part harmony, compiled by the Rev. D.H. Mansfield, published in Boston in 1849 (and purchased by this writer 1986 at a secondhand bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire); and The Revivalist, a book of mostly single-line spirituals, published at Troy, New York in 1868.

Our main source, The American Vocalist, contains music of several sorts, including a large selection of earlier, eighteenth century pieces. Composed by intuitive, nonprofessional singer-musicians of the colonial and immediate post-independence period, these vigourous works contain frequent "mistakes" of partwriting and voiceleading; they often employ nonstandard gapped or modal scales derived from folk practice. Such seeming eccentricities were anathema to the succeeding, conservatory-minded generations of choirmasters that developed in nineteenth-century Boston and other Northern urban cities. The rugged compositions of Billings, Reed, and others, were, for the most part, either radically edulcorated for the genteel urban congregations, or banished altogether from fashionable hymnbooks. The fortunate survival of these older pieces, both in the American Vocalist and in the Southern shape-note books, seemed to depend on the spontaneous affection of the simpler folk who also embraced the folk-hymn ethos.

It seems clear from the other selections of the American Vocalist that the Mansfield, the compiler-editor, was aiming to reach a culturally conservative, presumably less-affluent public for whom folk idiom was still a vernacular style of expression. Many of the standard, nineteenth century hymns are present in this book; so, with modifications, are many of the tunes found as well in Southern collections like the Sacred Harp. A large number of gospel or revival-type melodies are included, as well as arrangements of numerous popular songs of the mid-nineteenth century day, transformed for the occasion into chansons spirituelles.

As in old New England and the Southern books, the American Vocalist's melodies are notated in the tenor rather than the soprano voice. But the harmonic treatment of these airs is unlike that of the Southern hymnbooks. Whereas the Southern style remains almost completely melodic in all voices, evoking the organal singing styles of the European middle ages, or of modern Corsica or Albania, the Boston collection treats the tunes in a simplified harmonic language. Root-position triads dominate; modulations are almost nonexistent. If the Southern shape-note hymns of the Sacred Harp school can at times remind the listener of Leonin or of Machaut, the American Vocalist settings may instead evoke the French Renaissance chanson or the Elizabethan partsong.

A number of the American Vocalist's and The Revivalist's melodies are in the minor mode. In the South, these same tunes are invariably notated and sung with lowered leading-tones. The Northern books frequently "gentrify" the melodic lines by raising the leading tones (and sometimes creating hairraising problems of voiceleading in the process). Were the melodies actually sung in this more "harmonic" way, or were the added sharps a kind of Sunday suit, mainly for show on the page? There is no clear answer. In these performances, we have frequently ignored the Northern editors' "musica ficta" in order to simplify the voiceleading and to maintain the modal, preharmonic character of the original melodies.

All interpretations of historical music involve a blend of knowledge and intuition. Even with music as close to us as this, many questions about performance practice are unclear and must be decided anew in our own time. The still-vital Sacred Harp tradition, while enormously important to us, does not answer all our questions about how this music may have been sung over a century ago, in the North. Our performances here employ a variety of musical means: solo voices, chamber-size vocal ensembles, choral singing, and occasional instrumental accompaniments. We have attempted to make evident the links with earlier musical styles -- this repertoire, after all, has deep roots in older European music -- while maintaining an idiomatic, American approach.

The consistent richness and expressivity of these works is once again a testament to the intense musicality -- and the profound spirituality -- of America's peoples. And we are reminded once again that these most essential human qualities are often to be found and experienced away from the mass markets, independent of both the academy and the music industry, and outside the official culture of the United States.

Joel Cohen
spring, 1992

Notes on the Pieces

N.B. our source is The American Vocalist, unless noted otherwise

The Warning.
The tune (originally the tenor of a compostion called Bunker Hill) is by the eighteenth century Boston composer William Billings. With these new words about the Last Judgement, the melody is found in both The American Vocalist and the Revivalist.

One of the most popular and widely reprinted colonial pieces, by the Connecticut composer Daniel Reed. A prime example of early-American pessismism, Windham is still performed in our own time at Sacred Harp sings in the South . The last two strophes we give here are from The Revivalist. Here, as elsewhere on this recording, we mix octaves on soprano and tenor lines, conforming both to the advice of William Billings and to modern-day shape-note practice.

Judgement Day .
Source: The Revivalist. Songs about apocalypse and judgement are common in the revival repertoire -- some of these poems and tunes trace their ancestry back to the Middle Ages (see, for instance, the paired songs Judicii Signum -- The Great Day in the Boston Camerata's recording New Britain : The Roots of American Folksong, Erato CD #2292-45474-2). Judgement Day's eerie, unstable-to-modern-ears melody is built on a six-note scale.

Another eighteenth-century favorite by Daniel Read. This is a typical "fuguing tune": An opening, chordal phrase, followed by an imitative section giving each of the four parts an instant of prominence. Such works were considered more difficult, sophisticated, and "showy" than the strophic hymns.

Our source for this beautiful setting of a John Wesley poem is a mid-nineteenth century Methodist hymnal from the Barbara Owen collection. The hymnal gives a four-part harmonisation; we have extracted the melodic line and added a simple guitar accompaniment.

Canterbury New.
A fuguing tune attributed in The American Vocalist to "Smith."

A fuguing tune. The author is given as "West;" the poetry, contemplated anew, evokes the still-unspoiled (for how long?) rural areas of New England.

I shall be satisfied.
Source: The Revivalist; "as sung by Rev. G.C. Wells (George C. Wells, 1819-1873) -- arr. by Rev. A.C. Rose." An unusual, haunting two-part setting that treats -- as in medieval polyphony -- unisons, fifths, and octaves as consonances.

The "Stephenson" of the attribution is the English musician Joseph Stephenson (ca. 1770) This perky fuguing tune also appears in many colonial hymnbooks, and some Southern shape-note collections.

Bonnie Doone -- The Star of Bethlehem.
The instrumental setting of this very popular nineteenth century parlor song is from an midcentury anthology of dance tunes preserved at the Harvard Music Library. The first two vocal strophes of the Christmas contrafact are adapted to the instrumental harmonisation; the final strophe is from The American Vocalist.

O Come, Come Away.
Another popular piece in a harmonic, mid-nineteenth century style.

School Hymn.
Source: The Revivalist; "arr. by John Baker." The rhythms and scale patterns recall Scottish folksong.

The Gospel Feast.
The only attempt at a modulation you will hear on this entire recording occurs in measure four. This melody, like the one preceeding, once again contains some "Scottish snaps."

Go worship at Emmanuel's feet.
A harmonic, chord-based work not far in spirit from some tunes of Stephen Foster. This delightful song underscores the evolution in music and poetry from the often gloomy Calvinism of the eighteenth century to the cheerful optimism we tend to think of as typically "American."

John Anderson, my Jo.
From a midcentury Pennsylvania song book in the Owen collection comes this setting of a Robert Burns poem.

Go when the morning shineth.
A sacred song based on the preceding piece. The underlying harmonies, as is often the case in minor-mode tunes with roots in the British isles, recall the passamezzo antico, a sixteenth-century ground bass pattern.

Capt. Robert Kidd.
From a book of dance tunes published in Boston. This is an English folksong whose original text began "My name is Captain Kidd, and I sailed, and I sailed..."

How precious is the name.
"Captain Kidd" became this well-known folk hymn, found in several Southern songbooks as well. The famous "Wondrous Love" hymn has an identical strophic form, although the tune is different.

Roll Call.
Source: The Revivalist; attributed to J. Baker. The solo-and-response format is quintessentially revivalist. The military imagery reminds us that many of these pieces were sung and published, North and South, just before, during, and immediately after the Civil War.

Glad Tidings.
The dancey rhythms and short phrases are typical of the gospel-revival style. There are versions of this piece in both The Revivalist and The American Vocalist.

Deal gently with thy servants.
Several texts are associated with this beautiful, widely-diffused melody. This poem manages to speak of death with an openness and simplicity absent from many modern-day hymnbooks.

Shall we gather?
Source: The Revivalist, but widely reprinted elsewhere; by Robert Lowry (1826-1899), a prominent composer and compiler of revival songs. A moving vision of Paradise, one of the best known revival hymns. Charles Ives treated it as an art song, and included it in his fourth sonata for violin and piano. Shall we gather? also appears in the soundtrack of John Ford's 1946 film "My Darling Clementine," one of the greatest and most deeply resonant American artworks of this century.

Happy Land.
A very popular revival tune, both North and South. This setting, in idiomatic shape-note style, is from the Georgia songbook, The Social Harp..

Burst, ye emerald gates. The melodic and harmonic language are Victorian; but the hymn is found in the folk-oriented section of the American Vocalist, and in southern hymnals as well. The vigour of the tune and the happily apocalyptic nature of the poem must have appealed to the camp-meeting folk as much as it does to us.

These notes are © by Joel Cohen

  • I. The Warning: The Warning; Windham; The Judgement Day; Greenwich
  • II. Great Comforter, descend: Wrestle; Canterbury New;Edom;I shall be satisfied
  • III. The Star of Bethlehem: Milford; Star in the East; Bonnie Doone; The Star of Bethlehem
  • IV. The Gospel Feast: O Come, Come Away; School Hymn; The Gospel Feast; Go worship at Emmanuel's Feet; John Anderson, my Jo; Go when the morning shineth; Capt. Robert Kidd; How precious is the name; Roll Call; Glad tidings
  • V. At the River: Deal gently with thy servants; Shall we gather?; Happy Land; Burst, ye emerald gates

some press clippings from the Camerata archives Review of "The American Vocalist"
from Le Monde de la Musique (Paris), December 1992"LE CHOC" (highest, exceptional category)

The spirit of discovery animates most of the Boston Camerata's anthologies, and especially this one, which leads us to the heart of an unknown or forgotten America -- that of traditional hymnody in the North, sung by small congregations in New England, vanished in the wake of modern-day marketing imagery. This repertoire is as unusual as it is little known. Only two (Northern) collections, of which one has lent its title to this recording, have conserved the written record of popular choral song, which was much more deeply rooted in the South (the famous spirituals). In the large urban centers of the North, this tradition gave way to the faded, sugary harmonies of the Victorian style. Joel Cohen's earlier American recording, New Britain, illustrated in the best didactic fashion the invisible threads linking up European music with the American folksong. The idea here is similar, but this time the time period is synchronomous. It is astonishing to discover, in a program so restricted in its time frame (1850-1870) and its geography, such a variety of styles. These evoke, from this (European) side of the Atlantic, the harsh lyricism of the Calvinist psalms, the characteristic turns of Scottish folksong, and hymn writing of the late eigteenth century. Throughout, musical writing full of archaicisms "deranges" the academic manner. The interpretation is perfect in its rightness of tone and its unadorned generosity. Through this simplicity and this natural attitude, the performers, with clear and attractive voices, have succeeding in simultaneously avoiding the traps of a pseudo-naive restitution, on the one hand, and an exaggeradedly emphatic manner, on the other. The gift of spontaneity that these musicians (expert in performing by heart) possess, here reveals itself as priceless. We are thus brought still closer the secret song of an America that, as Joel Cohen rightly points out is "far from the official culture of the United States." Marc Desmet

Review of "The American Vocalist"
from Diapason (Paris), December 1992 Integrated, documented, produced by scholarship wedded to warm human commitment, this new recording by Joel Cohen is a sparkling mix of education and entertainment. In a salient and lucid essay on his methods, the Boston Camerata's director invites us to contemplate "the vigorous survival, in the North of the United States, of folk-inspired religious hymnody." A specialized treatment of such a narrow topic carries with it some serious risks of hermeticism. Just as it was with his earlier "panoramas" -- French noëls and American folksongs -- Joel Cohen avoids the trap of a rigidly "scientific" approach, or the archival document. Although musicological discipline has guided the researcher, it is above all in order to aid the expressive inventivity of the performer. Resurrected from rare collections -- The American Vocalist and The Revivalist -- published during the last century, these songs are presented neither in strictly chronological nor aesthetic sequence; rather, they are grouped around a very effective thematic progression (The Warning, Great Comforter Descend, The Star of Bethlehem, The Gospel Feast, At the River). No trace of monotony within each group, since the musical discourse (monodic or polyphonic in varying degrees) and the performing forces utilised (ensemble of soloists, a capella and instrumentally-accompanied ensembles, small and large choral forces) evoke different solutions with every piece. Recalling the Middle Ages of Léonin and Machaut, or French and Elizabethan partsongs, these hymns put us ill at ease in only one respect -- their surprising, misleading dates, 1850-1870! Pierre Gervasoni

Review of "The American Vocalist" (Erato)
from Repertoire (Paris), November 1992 score: 9 (out of possible 10)Here is a recording that is precious both by the rarity of its repertoire and the quality of its production. Joel Cohen has gone scratching beneath the surface of comfortable clichés. It is well known that in the American South of the nineteenth century, black musical practice developed a melodic art known now as the "spiritual." In the North, music, more imbued with a European ethos, seemed at the nineteenth century's end more remote from its popular essence. Joel Cohen shows us, by recording pieces from two hymn collections published in Boston and New York circa 1850, that the more traditional roots of vocal music did indeed exist in the North at that time. We discover with intense pleasure these works -- concise, absolutely delightful in their harmonic simplicity, whose stylistic model, often quite perceptible, goes back to Renaissance part song. The recorded format proposed by Joel Cohen is admirable in every way: To avoid any effect of monotony, there are alternating performing forces (from one to thirty singers) and highly varied expressive modes; and a subtle instrumentarium of very high quality, avoiding false sophistication or over-emphasis... a very beautiful recording. Christophe Huss