Hymnody was a long-term cultural practice among the Brothertown Indians. It neither began nor carried on in a void. Rather, like seeds in a field, Brothertown hymnody was planted, cultivated, and harvested; repeatedly. The fruits of these harvests are visible throughout our history as well as in modern times.
Hymn singing was something the Brotherton engaged in, generally at least weekly, and often, daily, since the very beginning. It should not be surprising then, to see these “seeds” bear fruit. Most often, fruits reaped were on an individual and private level and are no longer identifiable (i.e. not found in a book or among someone’s memoirs). At other times, such as with Wesson Gage Miller’s quote in Part Four of this series, one can witness a bit of this harvest in the form of praises lauded by those who heard the Brotherton sing. At still other times, harvests have been larger with a more easily identifiable connection to the well-cultivated, fertile soil of Brothertown’s rich and enduring practice of hymnody. Such is the case with Thomas Commuck and his Indian Melodies.
In 1845, seventy-one years after Samson Occom published his hymnal, Wisconsin Brotherton Thomas Commuck published a book of his own. Commuck’s book, unlike Occom’s, contained music notation in addition to text. Commuck wrote his own melodies but did not write the texts he joined to them. Like Occom, his publication rendered Commuck the honor of a Native American “first”. Thomas Commuck was the first Native American to publish his own tunes in “Euramerican” music notation (16) (contemporary notes on a music staff). Notably, Indian Melodies was also the first book in Wisconsin to be printed using shape notes. This is an interesting detail.
According to the mainshakers.com website, “Shape notes, [is] a form of musical notation that assigns geometric shapes to note heads… to simplify community a cappella [voice only] singing.” Shape note singing, for those who have never heard of it, is nothing like the refined sound of a choir. In fact, it is “not performance but participatory music…usually sung at full volume in an exuberant outpouring of sound and feeling.” “It has a distinctive sound… [and] unusual harmonies (17).” Harmonies are sung in three and four parts. All of this exactly matches what we know of Brothertown singing from the beginning. While the founders only used 3 part harmonies at Moor’s school, by Commuck’s time at least, the Brotherton were singing 4 parts.
In recent months, the musical planting and cultivating which our Brothertown ancestors labored at, has begun to sprout anew. In April of this year, independent scholar and shape note singer, Gabriel Kastelle, gave a presentation to our citizens on Brothertown hymnody. Kastelle’s talk is available to watch at https://youtu.be/ObynOmEWr88. Also in April, two students at Yale Divinity School gave a presentation on Thomas Commuck and his Indian Melodies. They are planning to do a similar presentation for Brothertown citizens via Zoom on June 4th at 8pm ET (please contact me for login info or check the BIN Facebook page). Finally, talks have been underway to both have Commuck’s tunes sung and recorded by shape-note singers and to have the singers travel to Brothertown, Wisconsin to help us “re-remember” this important part of our culture.
Thomas Commuck’s Indian Melodies was not randomly published in a musical void. It was the direct result of the long continuity and prominent place of hymnody in Brothertown. The seeds our ancestors planted have borne fruit for hundreds of years: from pre-Brothertown to Occom’s hymnal to Commuck’s Indian Melodies and beyond. With the recent renewed interest of individual scholars, the shape note community, and others, now is a good time to begin cultivating these ancestral fields once more. God willing, may this renewed interest in Commuck’s music yield a fruitful harvest for the Brothertown Indians, the shape note community and all those interested in Thomas Commuck, hymnody, and/or Native American culture.
(16) Levine, Victoria Lindsay. Writing American Indian Music: Historic Transcriptions, Notation, and Arrangements p. xxxvii.
(17) http://ncshapenote.org/what.shtml What is Shape Note Music?
While the early New England missionaries and Wheelock’s Moor’s Charity School did indeed teach three part singing to many of our Brothertown ancestors, the evidence shows that this was not the first time it had been used among our people. The evidence also shows that at least 125 years before the founding of Brothertown, Native American hymnody amongst our parent tribes in New England was not mere recitation of tunes but was ‘shaped’ by them: adapted, enlivened and sung in a unique manner; a manner one might correctly term “shape-note singing”, although the term itself had not yet been invented.
For the Brothertown people, hymnody has been a culturally expressive, enduring communal activity from generation to generation. Our ancestors carried this tradition with them from New England to Brothertown New York, and from New York to the shores of Lake Winnebago. Now it is our turn to plant and cultivate. Let us not dishonor our ancestors by laying Brothertown hymnody back on the bookshelf of history between the bookends of Occom’s Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs and Commuck’s Indian Melodies. Rather, let us do our part to commemorate and revitalize this important cultural practice of the Brothertown Indians. Familiarize yourself with the tunes, watch the video mentioned above, and/or order Gabriel Kastelle’s CD sampler of 9 Commuck tunes arranged for and played on the violin. Visit the fasola.org website to learn more about shape note singing and to see where you can take part in a singing in your area. Take your Brothertown friends and family along with you. Be ready next homecoming, picnic, or powwow to head up a little singing! Let’s remember and honor our Tribe and Ancestors by bringing hymnody back to its rightful place within our Brothertown culture.