Saturday, May 26, 2018

Yale has a Thomas Commuck Indian Melodies Initiative project, Commuck being a Brothertown Indian who published a Christian hymnal considered the first musical work published by a Native American in the US

The author of the following original tunes wished to get some person better educated than himself to write a preface or introduction to his little work ; but on reflection it occurred to him that he could tell the pubic all about it as well as any one else ; so he concluded to make the attempt. He is, however, fully aware of the difficulties attendant upon an attempt to appear successfully as an author before a scrutinizing and discerning public, especially when unaided by the influence of wealth, or a long list of influential friends ; and whatever may be the fate of this production, he feels that he must stem the current of public opinion alone.

Add to this the circumstance of having been born, not only in obscurity, but being descended from that unfortunate and proscribed people, the Indians, with whose name a considerable portion of the enlightened American people are unwilling to associate even the shadow of anything like talent, virtue, or genius, and as being wholly incapable of any improvement, either moral, mental, or physical, and the wonder will cease to be a wonder.

In view of all these disadvantages, it is not without great diffidence that he attempts to appear at the bar of public opinion, not knowing but Judge Prejudice may preside, and condemn his work to the deep and silent shades of everlasting oblivion, without even a hearing. Should this be its fate with the generality of the public, still he thinks he has a claim upon a certain portion of the Christian public, he means his brethren of the Methodist Episcopal Church : for if there be any meaning in that clause of our excellent Discipline which recommends the " employing of members in preference to others ; helping each other in business, &c," the author feels that he has a claim upon them, and he humbly trusts, judging from Christian feelings, that that claim will not be wholly disregarded.  ...

[paragraphing added]

from Thomas Commuck, Preface to Indian Melodies, 1845
melodies by Thomas Commuck, harmonized by Thomas Hastings

Earlier this year Paul Grant-Costa wrote:

One of the items that will be appearing in the Indian Papers Collection is a copy of Thomas Commuck’s Indian Melodies that Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library owns.  Published in 1845, the work is possibly the earliest musical publication by a Native American composer.

Commuck was a Narragansett from Charlestown, Rhode Island, who joined the Brothertown community in New York and then removed with his Eastern Pequot wife to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he became the tribe’s postmaster, justice of the peace, and historian.  In 1844, the Wisconsin Whig Party had nominated him as their candidate for the Territory’s House of Representatives.


With a very happy hat tip to guitarist Daniel Corr I learned about this just a day or so ago.


The Brothertown Indian Nation was formed from the Christian members of seven eastern coastal nations. During the Great Awakening, many Native people affiliated with Christianity, among them Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Montauk, Tunxis, and Niantic Indians. After the American Revolution, a conglomeration of Christian Indians from these tribes who were struggling to survive in southern New England moved to Oneida land in what is now upstate New York, eventually taking on the name of the community founded — Eeyawquittoowauconnuck, which means “a town of brothers” or “brothertown.”

These Christian Indians shared a traditional practice of communal hymn singing, specifically shape note singing. Shape note — a common mode of sacred music singing in early America — is named for its distinctive musical notation: The heads of musical notes are in shapes, such as diamonds, rectangles, ovals, and triangles, to help singers keep track of their place on the scale. In the 19th century musical reformers deemed shape note singing “primitive” and advocated for a more “scientific” European aesthetic in sacred singing. It appears that shape note singing fell out of practice with the Brothertown Indians not long after, by the late 1800s. However, this style of singing continued in the South and Appalachia, and was “discovered” and revived in the 1950s and 1970s. Today, it is still practiced in shape note singing communities around the United States and the world.

Commuck was a Narragansett Indian from Charlestown, Rhode Island, who joined the Brothertown community in New York. In the early 1800s, he and the New York group of Brothertown Indians migrated under duress to what is now Wisconsin, taking their own version of the shape note singing style with them. Commuck became the first postmaster of Brothertown and served as a justice of the peace for the Tribe. When his “Indian Melodies” came out in 1845, it was published in both standard and shape notes. In his preface to the tunebook, Commuck acknowledges that he hoped to make “a little money” from its publication to provide for “the subsistence of his household.”

All of the tunes in the “Indian Melodies” were written by Commuck. Many of the hymns are named for Brothertown parent tribes, such as “Narragansett” or “Mohegan,” and some are named for famous Native Americans. Not long before he died in 1855, Commuck spoke of his fear of Native extinction: “Here we have taken our last stand, as it were, and are resolved to meet manfully, that overwhelming tide of fate, which seems destined, in a few short years, to sweep the Red Man from the face of existence.” For the members of the Brothertown Indian Nation who are getting reacquainted with the singing of Commuck’s music, it is especially poignant that the Tribe did not vanish as their ancestor feared, says first-year Divinity School student Seth Wenger.

The participants have hopes that their collaboration will lead to future communal gatherings for shape-note singing of Commuck’s music, repatriating the music in the east among the Indian communities from where it originated, and bringing it out west to a larger audience of Brothertown. The group will host a similar singing event this summer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 28. Wenger has applied for funding to continue to record and videotape the shape note singing of Commuck’s music as part of his public humanities project. [emphasis added]

Acknowledging that there is a “deep division” within the Brothertown Indian Nation between citizens who identify as Christian and those who now pursue “more traditional lifeways,” Baldwin says that a revival of the shape note singing tradition and interest in Commuck’s musical contribution “has the potential to heal some of the divisions citizens feel.”

There are American Indians who regard the entire Christian legacy as terrible and as the white man's religion that was used to subjugate and conquer.  There are American Indians who are Christians and regard Christ as risen and Lord, and that's my lineage on one side of my family background.  So for me, as I've read about some of the history of the Pacific Northwest tribes I can't read Christianity as a white man's enslaving religion because I know that the PNW tribes basically all practiced slavery and this without any recourse to a "white man's religion" or even a more general appeal to Abrahamic religion in general.  As popular as it is for some to imagine that the Bible condoned slavery (and it permitted it) as if it were terrible for that, slavery still exists aplenty but has been commuted to other labels such as debt--a good deal of slavery was an economic practice.  The ownership of humans based on a skin color ideology may be uniquely pernicious within European-American legacy but it's a matter of practices and application.  One of my friends is of Chinese descent and he discovered in his visits to the mainland that ... well ... any sufficiently monolithic culture can tend to be virulently racist without realizing it. 

If there's a concern about new left or sjw narratives for me at this point it's that ejecting a master narrative doesn't mean we won't get a new one in its place.  I don't think it's fair or honest to say that all white people do is steal other people's cultures because they have no ideas of their own any more than it's fair or honest to say that they alone constitute "civilization". 

It's not surprising to read there's "deep division" within the Brothertown Indian Nation between those who identify as Christian and those who are pursuing "more traditional lifeways".  I frankly doubt that a revival of the shape note singing tradition or an interest in Commuck's musical contribution has the potential to heal some of the divisions if there are people who consider Christianity to be the oppressor's religion.  That's a master narrative no less pernicious than the one it understandably opposes.  Not all the traditional lifeways have things we should necessarily go back to.  The Pacific Northwest tribes don't need to bring back slavery to observe traditional ways, for instance. 

We also live in a moment where, as a reader of blue state, left or progressive writing alongside conservative writing there's a danger on both sides for whites to scapegoat each other for what is ultimately a shared legacy of virulent and vindictive racism.  Conservatives hammer away at how eugenics was a darling of progressives a century ago.  Sure, it was.  But pinning the blame for the racism of whites on a red or blue demographic is just that, pinning the blame.  It isn't as though a blue state Star Trek style missionary program to make the world like a progressive Anglo-American vision isn't a form of cultural imperialism.  I didn't think about that so much when I was younger because I loved watching Star Trek as a kid but here, fifty years after the show began to air, the Federation was a stand in for a kind of United States that saw itself as kindly and enlightened but still had all the power of phasers and torpedoes to wage war if it didn't get its way. 

Even if I have doubts that reviving Commuck's music or, perhaps more accurately, giving his music a chance to be heard at all for the first time, will ultimately not ameliorate the deep divisions it is still fun to report of this development.  I hope there are some kind of recordings down the road to make it easier for people to hear the music.  Better, perhaps, would be that those who are musically literate can bring Commuck's melodies to congregations.  Indian Melodies was published in 1845, after all, and so is public domain.

There's also some biographical detail at the Princeton blog

and for those who may be curious to see the 1845 publication it is available at

and also at

Commuck's self-written forward is in an indirect literary style that is common for a mid-19th century forward.  All the same, it was touching to read.  I've been reading through the score in the last day or so and since it's in the shape-note idiom you know you can't just look at the treble line in a conventional SATB hymnal for the foundational melody, which is generally nestled in the tenor part in an SATB score or in the "alto" in an SAT.  That the Thomas Hasting harmonizations are SATB indicates a more "modern" approach to shape-note as best I can recall, since earlier shape-note compilations have three-voiced textures.  The thing about those three-voiced textures is that in shape-note singing anyone from any vocal range could take up whichever of the three lines they want and this creates a ton of voice-crossing that would be "bad" in the Palestrina idiom, but it sounds robust and vigorous to have so much voice-crossing because it creates a kind of double-choir within the choir effect or a kind of quasi-heterophonic vibe that you're more likely to hear in central and eastern European choral/vocal idioms than in a more Anglo or Latin derived idiom. 

I've been reading through the hymnal in the last day and to be direct about it, even if a good number of the melodies can seem a bit clunky there are some gems in the hymn melodies in this compilation that I probably won't be able to resist making the basis for a new guitar sonata. 


brad/futuristguy said...

A fascinating post at the intersection of so many topics of interest. I check out the linked article and online images, really interesting backstory, music, and lyrics. Thanks for sharing this!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I don't remember if you're a score-reading type, brad, but if you are, download the PDF and go find the hymn with the tune "Flathead" early in the hymnal. Tune is in the tenor, and it's gorgeous!

It really is a tricky hymnal for anyone who doesn't already have experience with the genre. The initial incipit presupposes that you'll know the relevant Wesleyan texts, for instance. I'm looking forward to the possibility that Commuck's melodies with Hastings' realizations can get recorded in a few years. I'm also most certainly going to be working on a new set of preludes and fugues in which Commuck's melodies will have a prominent role.