Singing the Songs of Zion
Soldiers' Hymn Collections and Hymn Singing
in the American Civil War

Mark D. Rhoads

"Every night the holy songs of Zion go up on this balmy spring air, a sweet incense, I think,
to the throne of the Eternal.
" Rev. William Hauser, chaplain of the 48th Georgia

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Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book | About the Author

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Page 3: The Reenactor's Hymn and Tune Book, Preface

There are a number of reports of regimental brass bands accompanying hymn singing in frequently outdoor camp church services. There is one report of a piano in the parlor of a home taken over by the army being used to accompany informal hymn singing (Smith, 1869, p. 412). A suitable accompanying instrument, like a melodeon (small reed organ), hauled in from a nearby community, was more likely available in longer encampments. Some regiments formed choirs that practiced regularly when possible and which performed anthems when scores were available or led soldier-congregations in singing. But these men had no need of accompaniment. Because of circumstances unaccompanied singing was the norm; and part singing is often reported.

There is no evidence that guitar, banjo, or fiddle were used in camp church services. These were instruments of the minstrel show or for the accompaniment of parlor songs. I am, however, of the belief that if there was an instrument, someone probably played a hymn tune on it. In fact I found a report of hymns being played "quite competently" by a fiddle player and another of hymns being played by a string band. These were informal situations, not organized prayer meetings or church services. If a reenactor feels inspired to use guitar or banjo to play a hymn tune, he or she should be aware that mid-19th century instruments were constructed differently and played differently than their modern counterparts.

Any of the methods of leading hymns described should be used by reenactors including organ (melodeon or piano) accompaniment as available, "raising the tune", or lining out.

Vocal Tone

Reports of singing in 18th and early 19th century America indicate a preference for what was sometimes described as harsh, sometimes as nasal. To reformers in the first half of the 19th century this kind of vocal tone was considered "uncultivated" and instruction in proper singing tone often appeared in singing-school tune books of the day.

A good example of the differences between those who favored cultivated vocal style and those who didn't care can be seen in the experience of Christiana Tillson, a Massachusetts Congregationalist who in 1822 attended a church service in the frontier town of Hillsboro, Illinois . As she entered, a preacher was leading the congregation in song. He raised the hymn “When I Can Read My Title Clear” by “reading the first two lines of the verse . . . with an indescribable nasal twang” Then the congregation sang the hymn to the tune 'Old Grimes' [or “Auld Lang Syne”]. In looking back on these meeting she recalled one impression: “that of intense disgust.” (Allen, 1963)

Lowell Mason suggested that nasal singing should not exclude anyone from singing with the congregation. But with a bit of condescension he says that the presence of a nasal singer might "call for forbearance," and that it may be the duty of some to "do whatever circumstances allow for the removal of the cause of offense by suitable attempts at cultivation." (Mason, 1860, preface.) That singing with a nasal tone was common among white Protestants is seen in the report of William Allen, a musicologist who studied slave songs, when he says that singing among black people had changed and that it was "closely imitated from the white people, which is solemn, dull and nasal." (Allen, 1867, preface)

Despite attempts to eradicate nasal tone in the singing of congregational hymns, it appears to have been common practice, especially in rural area where most people lived in the mid 19th century. A Congregationalist soldier from Boston, whose church had long ago turned to "cultivated" singing, would no doubt have found himself in a prayer meeting with some Ohio Baptists who sang with a nasal twang, and may have reacted with "intense disgust." I'm going to guess, however, that nasal singers outnumbered singers who sang with a cultivated tone among Civil War soldiers especially in the South.

Tempo

Mid-19th century Americans sang hymns slowly by 21st century standards. In the preface to his Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book (Mason, 1860), Lowell Mason recommends that the tune OLD HUNDREDTH, the tune we use for the "Doxology," should take between 40 and 50 seconds to sing. This seems slow to me, as we would most likely sing this tune in the space of about 25 to 30 seconds. Lowell Mason is trying to speed things up. Unbelievably, he reports that "Old Hundredth has been often sung so slowly as to occupy a minute and a half, or even more, in its performance. (emphasis mine)" Try this for your own amazement. Some soldier's would have been used to singing hymns very slowly. Others may have come from congregations that had sped them up a bit. In general reenactors should consider taking hymns more slowly than in modern practice; maybe a lot slower.

Bibliography

Abel, E. Lawrence. Singing the New Nation: How Music Shaped the Confederacy, 1861-1865. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000.

Allen, John W. Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 78-80, quoted in Peter Ellertsen, “American Folk Hymnody in Illinois, 1800- 1850.” Conference on Illinois History, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Springfield, October 14, 2000, p. 1.).

Allen, William. Slave Song of the United States. New York: A. Simpson & Co, 1867.

Bennett, William Wallace. A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1877.

Dadmun, John. The Melodeon: a collection of hymns and tunes original and selected, adapted to all occasions of social worship, 1863.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

               Hymns for the use of The Methodist Episcopal Church with tunes for congregational worship (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857.

Jones, Rev. J. William. Christ in the Camp or Religion in Lee’s Army. Richmond, VA: B. F. Johnson & Co., 1887.

Mason, Lowell, The National Psalmist, Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1848.

Mason Lowell, et. al. The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book, New York: Mason Brothers, 1860.

               The New York Times 1860-1865

Smith, Rev. Edward P. Incidents of the United States Christian Commission. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1869.

Smith, Hampton, ed. Brother of Mine: The Civil War Letters of Thomas and William Christie. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 2011.

Walker, William. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwaite and Co., 1854.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank.  New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1951.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943.

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Preface

Hymns

A charge to keep I have
All hail the power of Jesus' name
Am I a soldier of the cross
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
Come thou fount of every blessing
Come we that love the Lord
Gently Lord O gently lead us
Guide me O thou great Jehovah
How firm a foundation
I would not live always
I'm a pilgrim and I'm a stranger
Jesus lover of my soul
Just as I am without one plea
Mid scenes of confusion
My days are gliding swiftly by
Nearer my God to thee
O happy day that fixed my choice
O sing to me of heaven
Rock of ages cleft for me
Say brothers will you meet us
There is a happy land
There is a fountain filled with blood
There is land of pure delight
When I can read my title clear
When I survey the wondrous cross
Why should we start and fear to die