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?