|The Other Old Way|
|Contemporary shaped-note singers, if they do much reading about the history of the Good Old Way, eventually see references to the "Better Music Boys," Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings, in particular. Both men edited numerous oblong songbooks in the period between about 1815 and the 1860s, wrote or heavily arranged nearly 2,000 tunes between them, and had at least advisory duties on a large number of other tunebooks. At one time denominational hymnals contained healthy samples of both men's work, along with selected tunes by other composers like them. If there was an immeasurable Turkish army of shaped-note books, it was outnumbered by round-note oblongs.
But their day passed. Composers whose work seemed ubiquitous--even Mason and Hastings--began to thin out by the turn of the century, displaced by English composers like John Bacchus Dykes and other contributors to Hymns Ancient and Modern, Vaughn Williams and his colleagues, by American composers of post-Civil War generations, and most recently by world music set to English words. Even tunes once considered standard, like Mason's Bethany ("Nearer, my God, to thee,") have lost their place in Protestant hymnals.
And so what was once the majority culture's music of choice is now trailing behind the tunes and
the style of singing for many decades preserved only in conservative upland or deeply rural portions of the South. This is a shame. While much one encounters in the old oblongs turns out to be pretty ordinary--the same slurs in the same places, the same generic melodic styles, etc.--much of the sameness because so many of the books really were for beginners, put together by teachers who had lower expectations of their students than William Walker or Benjamin Franklin White or Joseph Funk had--every book I buy and begin to explore contains tunes well worth the singing which, like the shaped-note tunes, deserve revival and dissemination.
On October 13, 2002, a choir of about 12-14 singers at Cedar Falls Mennonite Church in Iowa sang "While thee I seek, protecting Power," set to Thomas Hastings tune Honolulu, which you can hear a MIDI of if you go to the pages here devoted to The Shawm. It turned out very well, even with singers who had to struggle to read an open score, skipping from music to words and back again. The tune is masterful, very lyrical, one of Hastings' best. But I would be surprised to learn it had been sung at all since perhaps 1880. And this is only one tune. As you listen to instrumental versions of selections from these old tunebooks, perhaps you'll hear something striking, too. Some of these transcriptions sound rather jejune, some rather hackneyed. But there are jewels, too, which deserve polishing and display.