John Wyeth and the Development
of Southern Folk Hymnody

by David Warren Steel

The following article is published in Music from the Middle Ages Through the 20th Century: Essays in Honor of Gwynn McPeek, Carmelo P. Comberiati and Matthew C. Steel, eds. (London: Gordon & Breach, 1988), pp. 357-374. It is based on a graduate paper written for Richard Crawford at the University of Michigan, and incorporates his corrections and suggestions. The present version, which does not include the musical examples, is placed online for those who do not have access to the McPeek Festschrift. This article is Copyright © 1988 D.W. Steel; all rights reserved.

The tunebooks of John Wyeth stand at an important threshold in American psalmody. They mark the end of the age of New England composer-compilers (1770-1810) and the beginning of the age of southern collector-compilers (1816-1860). Their contents, like their dates and place of publication, illustrate the transition, and the essential continuity, between these two schools of psalmody. Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813) has been shown to be an important source for an influential body of folk hymns appearing in later collections.[1] Wyeth’s original Repository (1810) has been cited chiefly for its derivative character.[2] The present paper deals with the first edition of the Repository, the sources of its music, and its influence on later tunebooks. The significance of both Repositories will be considered in the light of the varying musical and religious preferences of Wyeth’s day.

There is little in the biography of John Wyeth (1770-1858)[3] to suggest that his interest in psalmody was any more than that of an amateur. As a boy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he may have attended a singing-school during the 1780s, an important decade in the growth of native psalmody. As a printer’s apprentice, he may have been aware of current developments in music printing, including the introduction of movable type for musical notation, an innovation from which he would later profit considerably.[4] Wyeth’s printing career led him to the West Indies, then briefly to Philadelphia, and ultimately to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where in 1792 he took over the publication of a newspaper which he renamed The Oracle of Dauphin. No indication of musical activity can be found until 22 September 1810, when Wyeth advertised in The Oracle of Dauphin that he would shortly issue in the office of the clerk of the district of Pennsylvania

a new work, entitled “the Harrisburgh Repository of Sacred Music,” which will contain (besides all the tunes of merit in Smith and Little’s collection) many additional tunes, selected from the most eminent and approved authors. . . . [5]

By time the copyright was registered on 11 October and the work was announced as “just published, and for sale” on 24 November, the collection had been retitled Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music.

In the preface to this work, Wyeth claims three qualifications as a compiler of sacred music: (1) “many years attention to the charms of church music,” (2) “an extensive acquaintance with the taste of teachers of the first eminence in the United States,” and (3) “the possession of some thousand pages of selected music to cull from.” To these credentials, Irving Lowens adds a fourth, an “adventurous opportunism” which recognized the financial rewards to be gained from the publication of a popular tunebook.[6] The first two suggest some early musical training in the Boston area, where Wyeth indeed may have known “teachers of the first eminence” or studied their taste indirectly through books such as The Worcester Collection (1786). Wyeth’s “thousand pages of selected music” represent a choral library that may be defined with some precision on the basis of the music contained in the Repository. The significance of Wyeth’s “adventurous opportunism” is that, not being a musician himself, he chose the contents of his book chiefly for non-musical considerations, including the popularity of a tune in earlier collections and the suitability of a text or poetic meter to established traditions of denominational psalmody and hymnody.[7] An analysis of the format and contents of Wyeth’s Repository may demonstrate how well Wyeth catered to the taste of his public.

The appearance and format of Wyeth’s Repository were shared by numerous earlier collections of sacred music. The oblong shape, the open score with the melody in the tenor, and the pedagogical introduction were all solidly within the tradition to which Wyeth was contributing. In only one aspect of Wyeth’s presentation was there any element of novelty or risk: the employment of a system of four character notes, or shape notes. This system, introduced in William Little and William Smith’s Easy Instructor (Philadelphia, 1801), uses four differently-shaped note heads to indicate the four singing syllables fa (right triangle), sol (oval), la (rectangle), and mi (diamond).[8] This system was but one of several notational experiments that appeared in America during the first decade of the Nineteenth Century.[9] That it prevailed in the South and West during the following decades was at least partly due to Wyeth’s efforts.

Before John Wyeth began printing music in 1810, only two tunebooks had appeared in the Little and Smith notation: The Easy Instructor itself, printed in several editions from 1805 to 1809 by an Albany, New York firm, and William Smith’s Easy Instructor, Part II, issued in 1803 and 1806. Although Little and Smith claimed exclusive rights to their shape-note system,[10] this claim was challenged by Andrew Law, who had printed tunebooks in a similar notation.[11] Other compilers of shape-note tunebooks chose variant shapes, either to avoid infringing on another’s claims,[12] or perhaps to enable themselves to claim proprietary right to their own system if it proved popular. By 1810, however, Wyeth, evidently sensing that such claims would not prove legally binding, acquired a font of music type in Little and Smith’s notation. Wyeth’s choice of notational system was probably based on the established popularity of The Easy Instructor among the audience for which he wished to compete.[13]

The music in Wyeth’s Repository consists of New England compositions, together with a variety of pieces of foreign origin: in short, a distillation of the New England taste in sacred music during the years 1770-1810. New England singing-masters and tunebook compilers had found Pennsylvania a fertile field for their activities since the 1780s. As early as 1783, Andrew Law of Connecticut had taught singing-schools and sold tunebooks in Philadelphia.[14] Compositions by William Billings of Boston had been performed in concert and favorably reviewed in the Philadelphia press during the years 1786-1788.[15] New Englanders had published popular tunebooks in Philadelphia: Andrew Adgate’s Philadelphia Harmony (1789) went through some nine editions, the last as late as 1808, while Nehemiah Shumway’s American Harmony (1793) introduced several new tunes by New England composers. Interest in New England psalmody was not confined to Philadelphia: a manuscript copy-book in the Bucks County Historical Society shows that a sizable number of New England tunes were copied and sung in rural Pennsylvania within a few years of their first publication.[16]

The sources for the music in Wyeth’s Repository were eclectic collections which included both American and British tunes.[17] Foremost among these was The Easy Instructor, which was Wyeth’s primary model, also the source of his notation. Wyeth evidently preferred to copy tunes out of The Easy Instructor where possible: the Repository reproduces several errors and misattributions otherwise found only in The Easy Instructor.[18] Another shape-note source used by Wyeth was William Smith’s Easy Instructor, Part II, from which Wyeth took at least one tune, Montville, not found in any other printed source before 1810. Of 129 compositions in the 1810 Repository, no fewer than sixty-four had previously appeared in The Easy Instructor. Five more had appeared in Part II. Thus, sixty-nine tunes in Wyeth’s collection had been published in shape notes before 1810.

Of the pieces in Wyeth’s Repository not previously published in shape notes, most can be found in various editions of two popular New England anthologies. The Worcester Collection (eight editions, 1786-1803) and The Village Harmony (ten editions, 1795-1810, with further editions to 1821) were among the most successful tunebooks of their time.[19] The Worcester Collection is the likely source of the eight tunes attributed to Oliver Holden, The Village Harmony for several tunes by rural composers from northern New England. Both were printed from movable type in relatively large editions, whose frequent revisions were sensitive to changes in taste.[20] A rough measure of this sensitivity is the Core Repertory, comprising the 101 sacred compositions most frequently printed in America to 1810, as defined by Richard Crawford.[21] More than one third of the pieces in The Worcester Collection (1786) belong to the Core Repertory; the proportion rises to one half in the second edition of 1788. Of the 129 compositions in Wyeth’s Repository, sixty come from the Core Repertory, among the greatest number in any tunebook of the period.

The printer-compilers of the popular eclectic tunebooks like The Worcester Collection and The Village Harmony drew most heavily on tunes of established popularity: they typically included few, if any, previously unpublished tunes. Only six pieces saw print for the first time in the pages of Wyeth’s Repository.[22] Three of these, New Jubilee, Pastoral Elegy and Penitence, are attributed to composers who are otherwise unknown. The three unattributed tunes, Supplication, Communion and Wesley, will be discussed later.

The choice of hymns texts for Wyeth’s Repository, and for other eclectic tunebooks, may be more significant than previously thought. James C. Downey has distinguished three doctrinal streams within American Protestantism in the late eighteenth century, and suggested distinctive types of religious poetry favored by each.[23] (1) The “Old Side” Congregationalists, who had opposed the evangelical movements of the 1740s, had by 1800 become either Unitarians or Episcopalians. They were largely confined to the urban upper classes, their clergy were educated at Harvard, and they tended to use Brady and Tate’s New Version of the Psalms.[24] (2) The “New Side” or moderate evangelicals had largely inherited the Congregational and Presbyterian structures of New England and the Middle States following the “Great Awakening” of the 1740s. Their clergy were trained at Yale, Nassau Hall (Princeton) and Rhode Island College (Brown), as well as in less formal “log academies.” They overwhelmingly favored the Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, supplemented by the hymns of other English evangelical poets.[25] Most of the New England composers of the period 1770-1810 were at least nominally associated with this party. (3) Radical evangelicals, often called Separatists, frequently joined Baptist and Methodist groups, especially on the frontier, where a continuing revival movement developed. Their preachers were mostly uneducated, but by 1800 they had produced a distinctive body of devotional poetry in a popular style.[26] According to Downey, “early folk song, inspired by revivalistic religion, was at its greatest vigor in the period 1780 to 1830 among the Baptists.”

In preparing a tunebook “for the use of Christian churches of every denomination,” a compiler had first to provide at least one tune for each of the meters used in church psalmody and hymnody. In English-speaking churches, the meters most frequently used were the iambic 8686, 8888 and 6686, known as Common Meter, Long Meter and Short Meter respectively.[27] Together, these meters account for 99 of the 122 texts in Wyeth’s Repository. The remaining texts provide a scattering of other psalm and hymn meters such as 6666.4444, 668.668, six 10s, four 10s, 7777, 8787, and amphibrachic 8888, all known collectively as Particular Meter; also two set pieces of fluctuating meter, and five prose anthems.

John Wyeth, though himself a Unitarian, clearly prepared his Repository with the needs of moderate evangelicals in mind. At least 79 of the 122 texts can be traced to Isaac Watts; 53 of these are psalm paraphrases. Only ten texts come from Brady and Tate’s New Version, sanctioned by the Protestant Episcopal Church. Of the remainder of the metrical texts that have been identified, most come from British poets such as Charles Wesley, Thomas Flatman, Anne Steele and Joseph Addison, all represented in John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, a well-known supplement to Watts.[28] The subjects of the hymns are drawn from a wide range of evangelical themes; however, Wyeth, like other tunebook compilers, avoided texts that treated controversial or sectarian doctrines, such as strict predestination, total sanctification, or specific modes of baptism.

In addition to providing tunes for Protestant worship, Wyeth’s Repository was intended to meet the needs of “singing schools and private societies.” As Richard Crawford has pointed out, the existence of groups of musically literate singers in America created a demand for more varied and complex forms of music, a demand which would strain the bounds of traditional congregational psalmody.[29] The fuging-tune, with its strong rhythmic momentum and overlapping vocal entries, appealed to many in singing-schools and churches alike, but came under increasing attack by educated clerics and musicians after 1790.[30] That Wyeth’s Repository contains no fewer than forty fuging-tunes suggests an effort to maintain the interest of singing-school pupils, and perhaps implies that condemnation of this form had not yet reached Wyeth’s rural audience.

Another way in which Wyeth catered to needs not strictly liturgical was his inclusion of many compositions whose texts, though taken from Watts’s Psalms, represented stanzas other than the first of a given psalm or section, and had evidently been chosen for their vivid imagery or their suitability to the American scene. Among these are Virginia, Ocean and Pool, all taken from the “nautical” section of Psalm 107, with appropriate musical illustration:

At thy command the winds arise,
And swell the towering waves.
The men astonish’d mount the skies,
And sink in gaping graves. (Ocean, p. 30)

The evocative text of Winter comes from Psalm 147:

His hoary frost, his fleecy snow
Descend and clothe the ground;
The liquid streams forbear to flow,
In icy fetters bound. (P. 28)

The verses of Whitestown, from Psalm 107, must have reminded Americans of their own history as well as that of the ancient Hebrews:

Where nothing dwelt but beasts of prey,
Or men as fierce and wild as they,
He bids th’opprest and poor repair,
And build them towns and cities there. (P. 39)

The factional struggles of the young republic found themselves mirrored in Russia, with its text from Psalm 62:

False are the men of high degree,
The baser sort are vanity;
Laid in the balance both appear
Light as a puff of empty air. (P. 34)

The success of Wyeth’s Repository may be judged by its public reception, and by its influence on later collections. Reissued four times in its first decade, the Repository was available as late as 1834 in a stereotyped edition. The total circulation is reported to have reached 120,000.[31] In 1813, Wyeth, noting the “very flattering manner” with which his Repository had been greeted by the public, brought out a new tunebook entitled Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second.

From its contents, Part Second appears to have been designed, as Irving Lowens put it, “to supply the musical needs of the vast market created by the revivals and camp-meetings prevalent in Pennsylvania at the time.”[32] Compared to the Repository, it contains far fewer texts by Isaac Watts, and a greater number of revivalistic texts. It contains examples of two styles of composition known to have been favored by Methodists and Baptists: florid hymns and set pieces derived from the British theatrical tradition, and folk hymns, that is, melodies drawn from or resembling secular ballads or dance tunes, harmonized in a native idiom giving equal weight to all parts. For twenty-five hymns (largely those not found in Watts and other moderate evangelical hymnbooks) additional stanzas are supplied, making the book equally suitable for singing-school, church service and revival meeting.[33] Both the original Repository and Part Second contain instructional rudiments; the repertories in the two books do not overlap. Hence, the books are mutually complementary: the Repository for the evangelical mainstream, and Part Second for Separatists and radical evangelicals who expressed their piety in fervent and frequent revivals.

Figure 1. Western Music Printing Centers, 1810-1825. Dashed lines indicate routes of settlement and tunebook diffusion.

From his base in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, John Wyeth was well situated to take advantages of new developments in psalmody on the American frontier. The dissemination of New England music westward and southward took place along two major routes of settlement. The first proceeded east of the Alleghenies, from Harrisburg into the Valley of Virginia; the second, west of the Alleghenies, went from Pittsburgh down the Ohio Valley and into Kentucky and Tennessee. These routes are shown in Figure 1. During the period 1810-1825 a sizable number of sacred tunebooks, all in shape notes, was compiled and published along both these routes; a list of these collections is given in Table 1.[34] Of the seven Harrisburg imprints, all but the last were products of Wyeth’s press; many others show the influence of his two collections.

The publications of Ananias Davisson (1780-1857) have long been recognized for their role in transmitting the New England repertory, as well as folk hymns, to points further south.[35] Like Wyeth, Davisson printed two major collections with similar titles. Kentucky Harmony (1816), like Wyeth’s Repository, contains mostly New England tunes, also a selection of folk hymns, many claimed by Davisson himself. Of the 137 texts in the first edition, fully 124 have been traced to Isaac Watts or to Rippon’s Selection,[36] showing that Davisson, a Presbyterian, intended his collection for moderate evangelicals. Of the tunes printed in the various editions of Kentucky Harmony, 73 had appeared in Wyeth’s Repository. In his preface, Davisson acknowledged the work of past compilers, including Little, Smith, Wyeth, Billings, Holyoke, Adgate, Atwell and Peck.[37]

The Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1820) is an entirely distinct tunebook, compiled so “that his Methodist friends may be furnished with a suitable and proper arrangement of such pieces as may seem best to animate the zealous Christian in his acts of devotion.”[38] Only a small proportion of the 144 texts are the work of Isaac Watts; nearly half of the texts are unidentified.[39] Not only, then, was Davisson familiar with Wyeth’s tunebooks, not only did he borrow extensively from their repertory, but his very plan of providing two independent though mutually complementary tunebooks for different sectarian groups was essentially the same as Wyeth’s plan, and may have been inspired by it.

The influence of Wyeth’s tunebooks was not confined to compilers east of the mountains. Within a few years of Wyeth’s publication, western compilers were making use of their music and their pedagogical introductions. Alexander Johnson in Tennessee Harmony (1818) and Allen D. Carden in The Missouri Harmony (1820) both acknowledge a debt to “Mr. ‘Wyeth’s Repository—part second’ for many of the rules and remarks contained in his introduction.”[40] The contents of both collections shows their compilers to be familiar with both of Wyeth’s tunebooks. Johnson’s book, with 100 tunes, contains 39 tunes from Wyeth’s Repository and 28 from Part Second. Carden’s larger collection of 185 pieces had 61 from the Repository and 38 from Part Second. The influence of Davisson’s work upon Carden has been cited,[41] but is not sufficient to account for many of the correspondences between The Missouri Harmony and Wyeth’s tunebooks.

Of the six tunes which made their first appearance in Wyeth’s Repository, five were reprinted in later collections. Penitence by Crawford was printed in Robert Patterson’s Church Music (Cincinnati, 1813) and in Freeman Lewis’s Beauties of Harmony (Pittsburgh, 1814). Pastoral Elegy by Knapp appears in Davisson’s Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony and in Carden’s Missouri Harmony (both 1820). Supplication, Communion and Wesley are unattributed in Wyeth’s Repository. Their reprintings show anomalies whose investigation may help demonstrate the relationship of southern compilers to their sources.

The melodies of Supplication and Communion share traits consistently linked to folk hymns.[42] Both exhibit gapped modal scales: the sixth degree of the natural minor mode occurs not at all (Communion) or only in unaccented position (Supplication). In later printings the tunes appear in varying melodic and harmonic versions; their titles and texts likewise vary. Unlike northern psalm-tunes, which were reprinted as complete polyphonic compositions, these tunes must have circulated in oral tradition or in manuscript as bare melodies, perhaps with an underlying bass part or a persistent title. Each arranger or compiler felt free to notate the tunes as he remembered them, and add his own harmonies and preferred text.

Supplication first appeared in Wyeth’s Repository in a setting for three voices. In 1813, Robert Patterson printed a four-voice setting of the same melody as The Seasons. Ananias Davisson brought out a new four-voiced setting in 1816, with an attribution to “Chapin”; this version was reprinted by Carden in 1820. Alexander Johnson (1818) of Tennessee and William Walker (1835) of South Carolina printed yet other settings of the tune.

Communion, like Supplication, first appeared in Wyeth’s Repository in a setting for three voices. Under the title Liberty-Hall, the tune was included in a small untitled pamphlet printed in 1812 by Andrew Law for John Logan, a Virginia singing-master, in Law’s staffless shape notation.[43] The new setting, in four voices, was attributed to L[ucius] Chapin. Further printings by Patterson (1813), Lewis (1814) and Davisson (1816) continue the new designation. The four-voiced versions in Logan, Patterson and Davisson vary from one another in harmonic details, most frequently in the upper two voices. Wyeth’s setting was not forgotten, however: Johnson (1818) printed the tune as Communion in the original three-voiced setting.

If later printings of Supplication and Communion exhibit variations that suggest oral transmission, the treatment of Wesley shows conscious remodeling of an entire composition. As printed in Wyeth’s Repository, Wesley is a fuging-tune in Common Meter. Its four voice-parts are the work of a composer unknown to Wyeth.[44] In 1835 William Walker, in The Southern Harmony, reprinted the tune without change. Yet, in the same collection, Walker published an original adaptation of Wesley under the title Jerusalem.[45] Jerusalem (2k MIDI) is a “revival spiritual song” with a fuging refrain, for three voices. The homophonic opening section is sung twice, to accommodate a full quatrain of John Cennick’s Long Meter text, requiring the omission of the slur in the third measure. The fuging section follows, also with a busier text and slurs omitted. The new text is not drawn from Cennick’s poem, but is a rollicking revival chorus repeated after each stanza. The part-writing of Wesley is retained with little change other than a reduction in texture in the third measure of the fuge.

Though not a musician, John Wyeth played a major role in the musical development of the American frontier. Following the example of earlier New England printer-compilers like Isaiah Thomas, Wyeth established a flourishing musical press at a strategic location on an important migration route to the south and west. Sensitive to variations in musical and religious tastes, he defined distinct markets for tunebooks, and sought to provide tailor-made products for each. While his Repository summed up the New England tradition of psalmody, his publication of folk hymns in both collections suggests an enterprising and original effort to keep abreast of changes in religious practice and musical taste. The continued reprinting of pieces from Wyeth’s tunebooks demonstrates his influence on later compilers on both sides of the mountains. At the same time, the variations in tunes like Supplication, Communion and Wesley suggest new rôles for Wyeth’s successors: not merely as anthologizers, nor yet as original composers, but as collectors, adapters and reworkers of material from diverse oral and written sources. It was in this area that Ananias Davisson and William Walker excelled during the years 1816-1860, and here also that they differed from their New England predecessors.

On 29 June 1815 Conrad Speece of Staunton, Virginia, writing in The Republican Farmer, complained of the music being taught in singing-schools in the Valley region. He singled out two styles of music for condemnation: fuging-tunes like Ocean, Montgomery and Sherburne, and “ballad tunes, vamped up with accompanying parts, and applied as the vehicles of religious sentiment.” He acknowledged, however, that “angular notes” were effective agents of musical learning, despite their uncouth appearance.[46] The juxtaposition of New England favorites and folk hymns, printed in shape notes, was precisely the synthesis that Wyeth pioneered in his two Repositories. It would become the norm in more than thirty tunebooks compiled by Southerners in the decades up to the Civil War.

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