U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alternate Tune, Alternate Lyrics

I am currently working on a “side project” — a little historical puzzle that I am trying to sort out related to evangelism, race relations, and 20th century protest movements.  In that connection, I need some help with a particular theoretical problem related to music studies and the cultural history of music, but also perhaps to the history of affect or the history of emotions.

I’m looking for some fruitful approaches to the phenomenon of familiarity and strangeness as it relates to the marriage of lyrics and melodies.

Let me give you an example…

If you grew up singing hymns in church, you have probably come across the phenomenon of the “alternate tune.”  Many classic hymn tunes are named — “Diademata,” “Hyfrydol,” “St. Catherine,””Beecher,” “Old 100th,” etc.  These and tunes like them offer a sort of musical, metrical template in which various hymn lyrics can fit, allowing for a kind of mix-and-match hymnody.

What is the standard tune for a hymn in some churches will be the alternate tune in others.  In my experience, this difference is sometimes regional, sometimes denominational, but sometimes quite local — an idiosyncrasy expressing itself at the congregational level.  In any case, if you grew up singing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” to the tune of “Nettleton,” it just sounds and feels off to sing it to “Warrenton,” or — God forbid — “Beecher.”  I’m serious — there’s nothing more disappointing than standing up to sing “Come, Thou Fount,” looking forward to that rich, rising melody line and the tight harmonies of those runs in “Nettleton” (the only tune worth singing it to), and then getting saddled with the soporific “Beecher.”  Ruins your whole day.

The Library of Congress hosts an online collection called “The National Jukebox,” which makes historical recordings available to the public free of charge.  Here’s a link to a Victor Victrola recording of “Come Thou Fount” from 1922, featuring Elsie Baker singing contralto.

That’s the tune that most people, I think, associate with “Come Thou Fount.” If that’s how you heard it growing up, and you sang it often, then those words and that melody “fit” — they go together in your memory and in your mind, and when you encounter one — either the lyrics or the tune — you “hear” the other.

I am interested in this phenomenon of a sense of “fit” between melody and lyrics, especially as it relates to the introduction of new words for an already familiar tune. This scenario could apply to the reception of Julia Ward Howe’s lyric “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” overlaying but perhaps not entirely replacing the less lofty improvisational profusion of verses for “John Brown’s Body.”  Of course, John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis have written the definitive historical study of this song, and I might find the methodological approach I am looking for in their book, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013). I have only skimmed the text in places and have perused the index — a close reading will have to wait.

Basically, I want to understand the significance of a sense of “fit” between melody and lyrics, and the significance of a sense of discomfiture when the new and the familiar are joined in music. What might contribute to easing that discomfiture?  Historically speaking, this is always contextual question. Nevertheless, I am wondering what kind of theoretical work musicologists or ethnologists have done in this area that might be of particular use to cultural and intellectual historians.

This is a tricky problem for this cultural and intellectual historian, because the “history of affect” or the “history of emotions,” as I understand them, seem to draw fairly heavily upon insights of cognitive psychology.  Basing a historical argument on cognitive psychology would seem tantamount to arguing from biology.  So I’m not altogether sure that such approaches would provide the evidentiary basis I need to make a sound argument from the vantage point of intellectual history.

However, I am happy to defer to the expertise of this community of writers and readers in the hopes of broadening my methodological horizons.  I know that several of you have made it your business to look at some aspect of the history of music in American life and culture, and I would appreciate any suggestions you can offer for reading that might shed some light on what it has meant — or what it might mean — when an old tune gets a new set of lyrics.  What if both songs — old tune, old lyrics and old tune, new lyrics –persist side by side in the culture?  How might I begin to read — or hear — that sort of historical palimpsest?

16 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’m already getting some great feedback / help in refining my problem via Twitter — many thanks to @tressiemcphd, @rmichaelthomas, and @HC_Richardson.

    One specific aspect of the sense of match/mismatch that I’m interested in is the possible persistence of old associations with new pairings.

    I think of it as the “Bugs Bunny” problem: I cannot listen to or watch a performance of “The Barber of Seville” without thinking of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Same for Wagner — no matter what I might hear or what I might see on the stage, “What’s Opera, Doc?” is playing somewhere on my mental screen. I’m sure this would be true whether I were sitting at home listening to the radio or sitting in the audience at the Met or La Scala, because my first exposure to that music was via Warner Brothers cartoons.

    More generally, when a melody is lifted from one setting and used in a different setting — either with the same words or with different words — how much hitches a ride on that musical score? “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is of course a great example — Methodist camp-meeting song turned wartime march turned imperial anthem turned familiar church hymn turned protest song. Does that tune necessarily bring the battlefield into the church, the camp-meeting into the national celebration — or vice versa? How might that work (or not) for those who know the song from more than one of these settings?

    As I said, this will always be a particular, contextual question for historians. But I think it is also a more abstract, theoretical question. However, if someone differs on that point, I’d be glad to hear those thoughts as well.

  2. The in-house staff at the summer church camp I attended as a kid was fond of singing “Amazing Grace” to the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” tacking on this chorus at the end of each verse:

    I’ve got a peaceful, easy feeling
    And I know He won’t let me down
    ‘Cause I’m already standing
    On solid ground

    I think it was another ten years before I actually heard the original Eagles song — until then, I had no idea that this “alternate tune” for Amazing Grace had an independent (and prior!) existence in the wider world of music.

    In both cases — “House of the Rising Sun” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” — the adaptation builds on a song dealing with the perils and promises (or vice versa) of good old fashioned carnal love. This bizarre effort at sublimation was lost on me as a kid because I didn’t know the cultural context of the alternate tune. But it was probably not lost on the earnest hip young guys “on fire for the Lord” standing up at the front of the room strumming their acoustic guitars, trying to swap out the grace of God for “what a woman can do to your soul.” Indeed, I suppose that was probably the whole point of the alternate tune.

  3. The associations can be physical, as well–The first time I heard Prince’s “I Would Die For You” was when I learned it as a color guard routine. I occasionally hear it on the radio now, decades (!) later, and I can feel my body responding, muscles tensing up, like it’s trying to move through the routine regardless of whether I’m standing in a elevator or driving my car. Surely this also has to do with building those mental channels so effectively, listening to the song over and over and over and performing the same movements each time; I’m sure many dancers and performers have similar experiences.

    Primacy also seems to matter. When & where did we learn the song first? Perhaps our brain pathways are forged by those early listening experiences, and hearing the first few notes sets off a mental chain reaction that is very difficult to stop or redirect.

    In contrast to LD, I heard the original Eagles’s version of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” before any other. The first time I heard the “church camp” version of it, the cognative dissonance was so strong that I couldn’t bring myself to sing along. I remember feeling not that the tune was morally wrong or “carnal,” but rather that the Christianized version was something of an affront to the Eagles, one of my favorite bands.

    Speaking of “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” my current congregation has changed the lyric I learned as “Here I raise my Ebenezer, /Hither by Thy help I’ve come, /And I hope by Thy good pleasure /Safely to arrive at home” to “Hitherto Thy love has blessed me, / Thou hast brought me to this place, / And I know Thy hand will lead me /Safely home by Thy good grace.” The changes keep as many Thy’s and Thou’s, but seem to be engineered to get rid of the Ebenezer, which to me now stands, invisible, as a marker of what is lost from the (presumably?) newer version of the verse. My brain, of course, sings the old line every time, even when I force my mouth to conform.

    • I’ve oft heard preachers explain the meaning of “Ebenezer”, and once learned one seems to draw significance from it’s use. I shun any attempts to replace it with a newer (better?) lyric, considering the foreign word is sufficiently explained immediately after its use.

  4. Perhaps not surprisingly, I would just sing the original lyrics — partly because I never look at the lyrics for hymns I know, and partly out of protest over the knocking down of Ebenezers. So it’s probably good that I don’t go to church.

    It’s interesting to note what lyrics stick in the craw of which congregations/denominations. For instance, there are alternate versions of a verse of “Crown Him With Many Crowns” floating around. This verse:

    Crown him the Lord of love
    Behold His hands and side
    Rich wounds yet visible above
    In beauty glorified
    No angel in the sky
    Can safely bear that sight
    But downward bends his wond’ring eye
    At mysteries so bright

    Many (most?) Baptist/”Bible” congregations ditch the part about the angels (for our non Bible-marinated readers, it’s an allusion to 1 Pet. 1:12). I’m not sure why — may have to do with the poetic liberties taken with that text, or may just be a reflection of a general nervousness that comes from singing of angels or departed saints or other such popish folderol. Or the angel-aversion could go along with the insistence that “legitimate” glossolalia died out with the apostles — angels are “historical,” and belong at the nativity, not in hymns about the present. The next thing you know people will be succumbing to Enthusiasms of various kinds.

  5. LD,

    I would dispute your claim that the “‘history of affect’ or the ‘history of emotions,’ as I understand them, seem to draw fairly heavily upon insights of cognitive psychology.” I think those lines of inquiry draw upon psychoanalysis, philosophy, and cultural theory far more. Most of all, they strike me as far more interested in confounding the line between mind and body, between intellect and sensation, whereas cognitive psychology has a strange, reductionist obsession with asserting that all is body, including the mind: we’re all just a bundle of nerves. History of affect and the history of emotions wants to catch how meaning and power operate at levels that move beyond the narrowly semantic to include sensation, “shocks” to the system, that get worked into our muscles as well as our minds, that reach us (hail us, if you’re Althusser) at subconscious levels that careful scrutiny and thinking might bring to the surface of the mind. History of affect and history of emotions wants to privilege mind in the end while honoring how the body matters in shaping mind. Cog psy dreams of losing your mind entirely or at least just turning it to a pipe system for serotonin.

    I’d say that what you are asking here, if I am understanding correctly, is far more about issues of composition, improvisation, and performance and “performativity.” Which is to say it is about the way musical traditions get reworked to serve new ends. It’s about how music, grounded in the pleasures of repetition and pattern, creates a medium for playing with expectations to create pleasing (or for some displeasing) tensions between surprise and familiarity. So taking one set of lyric with all their associations and repositioning them in a different composition becomes a way to say something.

    I think the best work on this has been by scholars of African-American expressive traditions of signifying: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. but also many before him who noticed the vibrant traditions of appropriation and pulling multiple meanings out of words by saying them in different ways or relocating them to different musical contexts. Sort of like the deep history of the mashup here or remix culture’s deep roots. In ethnomusicology, Charles Keil has some great stuff on this. In history, parts of Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture, Black Consciousness are attuned to this. Also: Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, Alan Lomax, Ingrid Monson, Paul Berliner, and many others who I am forgetting on the fly right now, but need including here.

    My examples are far more secular (and raunchy) than yours, but if you are ever in New Orleans, go see Big Al Carson perform at the tourist trap (but a damn good one) called the Funky Pirate in the French Quarter. It’s a church of its own sort I suppose, though that might border on blasphemy for some. Anyways, he performs nursery rhymes. Only they start to take on rather, well, new and increasingly lascivious meanings the more he gets going with them. You will never listen to Mary Had a Little Lamb the same way again. I think it is that kind of reconfiguration of lyrics to new meanings, settings, contexts that you are talking about here. And part of it has to do not just with semantic meaning but with tone, insinuation, suggestion, all the para-semantic levels of communicating meaning that history of affect and emotion try to access and notice and explicate.

    Hope I met the challenge here and sang the right lyric for the tune you requested!


  6. Michael,

    Exactly the kind of riff I was hoping for!

    I’ll take your endorsement of the history of affect under advisement. You would think, given my earlier interventions on behalf of the materiality of ideas, that I would be hospitable to such an approach — especially for its promise of a way to think about ideas in “incarnational” terms. But I’m still a little cautious about the whole business. How does one access “affect”? The closest we can get via historical inquiry, it seems, is representations of / reflections upon affect — and that’s plain old history of thought (which is, arguably, neither plain nor old).

    Some of my Twitter interlocutors also suggested that the richest resource for this inquiry would be the history of African-American music/culture/”signifying.” So that’s where I will go next.

    As far as blasphemy goes — don’t worry about it. As the great Mae West put it, “To err is human, but it feels divine.”

  7. LD– I am embarrassed to be writing in such a fog, having just spent many hours at panels on Lacan and Freud.

    I would recommend Jeff Titon’s classic study Early Downhome Blues as a great source on this phenomenon. Bill Malone and Russell Peterson on country, too.

    To my mind, the classic example of this is “The Great Speckled Bird”; “Honky Tonk Angels” form; the familiar What a Friend We Have in Jesus melody has many iterations as well.

    Part of what you are describing is an intellectual-historical tradition that began with Frances James Child on English ballads and was powerfully influenced by Alfred Lord’s The Singer of Tales on the epic tradition. The notion of mobile verse fragments and melodic frames then became a big part of 1960s folklore and ethnomusicology. Paredes’s With a Pistol In His Hand is very relevant, on the corrido tradition, as is some of the literature on music and the Communist Party. I always recommend Ben Filene’s book on folk music and authenticity, which I think is great.

    Hope this helps even a little.

  8. In the song “American Tune”, Paul Simon borrows the music of “Oh Sacred Head now Surrounded” an old catholic hymn and substitutes his lyrics. The Simon song begins with the line:
    “Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken, and many times confused
    Yes and I’ve often felt forsaken, and certainly misused”
    The song gives an American twist to what was originally the begun with:
    “O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
    Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
    How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
    How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!”

    The Passion becomes American Tune.

  9. Regarding affect studies, I would recommend taking a look at Sara Ahmed’s work. Ahmed brings the tools of cultural anthropology to understand emotions as site and historically specific cultural practices. Also check out William Reddy’s research, which concentrates on feelings in post-Revolutionary France (he does have a dialogue with cognitive psychology but has a historical understanding of feelings). About the fascinating question of music reception and its relationship to affect, I believe Alexandra Vazquez’s Listening in Detail might be useful; she works mostly on Cuban and Cuban American music cultures. The act of listening is something sound and music scholars have been attending to a lot lately.

  10. Kahlil, I was waiting for you to weigh in! Thank you very much for the excellent reading suggestions (and my thanks to Kurt and Michael as well).

    What I will need to do next is some archival work to trace the performance history of this particular song, as well as this particular tune, in (white) evangelical and African-American churches/church traditions. I will need to address a bleg to our colleagues working on U.S. religious history for some suggestions on how best to go about that aspect of my quest. Some repositories of church bulletins as well as minutes/programs from various regional/national denominational conventions would probably be a good place to begin.

    In the meantime, thanks again to all for these great reading suggestions. If you think of additional titles that might be of use, please post them here. I will type all the suggestions up as a bibliography later this week and post the list on my blog.

  11. While running away from the Blank Page of my dissertation chapter — which is, for the moment at least, All Kinds of Awful — I ran across this passage from Benedict Anderson that seems useful for illuminating the above discussion.

    From Imagined Communities (p. 145):

    There is a special kind of contemporaneous community which language alone suggests — above all in the form of poetry and songs. Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance. Singing the Marseillaise, Waltzing Matilda, and Indonesia Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for that echoed physical realization of the imagined community. (So does listening to [and maybe silently chiming in with] the recitation of ceremonial poetry, such as sections of The Book of Common Prayer. How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound.

    I guess “unisonance” might be the word — if not the experience — I’m looking for.

  12. Wonderful catch from Imagined Communities. If this is the kind of thing you are looking for more on, George Lipsitz’s work on music and space, and that of Josh Kun in Audiotopia, is absolutely indispensable. (I would point out the productive potentials of Deleuze’s notion of the “refrain,” but I don’t know if you like his crowd very much :))

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