Occom's Carol: at Sally Maminash's Grave

Filmed by Anja Eriksen

I found this remarkable song just about thirty years ago, and have been singing it ever since. I'm still waiting for it to catch on. I was doing some work for Dr. Nicholas Temperley, whose Hymn Tune Index sought to document every hymn tune with an English text published up to 1820, and the PVMA library in Deerfield, MA had the only known copy of several issues of a magazine published locally ca. 1800-1803. The librarian David Proper wouldn't let them be photocopied (this was before cell phones obviously) so my job was to transcribe it all, with the help of Cath Tyler who I'd met a year or so before when she came to see my band at CBGB. Cath took to shape notes really quickly, and before too long managed to use them to figure out how to play bass just in time for our first European tour. I have long believed this text was Samson Occom's but must say now that I'm not certain without further research, and I may have been the original source for its general attribution to him. I'll keep you posted!

The American Musical Magazine was, I believe, the third music magazine in the US. It was published periodically by the Hampshire Musical Society in Northampton, printed at the Bridge Street shop of Andrew and Daniel Wright, a couple of blocks from where this was filmed. The known members were all men including First Church music director Elias Mann (who lived over by South Street) and a man named Alanson Anderson from out in West Chesterfield, a tunebook compiler who has so far escaped the history books, and whose Schoolmaster's Assistant I have yet to find a complete copy of. A number of the pieces in the A.M.M. are unattributed, including the fuging tune from which I remembered this bit as my tune. Another little mystery.

In about 2000 I was teaching at Dartmouth College, which has a fascinating and uncomfortable connection to Mohegan Presbyterian preacher Samson Occom (1723-92) and I found this text in the Dartmouth special collections' copy of Occom's 1774 hymbook, the first published by a Native American. His most enduring text is probably Awaked by Sinai's Awful Sound, sung locally to the tune Ganges, and still sung by friends in the Hoboken Georgia area to the tune Nashville (like Garden Hymn). Not long after that I was in Oxford England, where Dave Townsend showed me a photocopy of a manuscript with this text noted as something like "sent to me by a gentleman," and the music attributed to the famous English composer William Knapp, a huge influence on William Billings et al. It wasn't this tune though. I later found in Knapp's 1761 edition of "New Church Melody" evidence of an interesting correspondence going back to 1753. Knapp doesn't name him, but someone had sent him some texts, asking him to set them to music. Knapp quotes a letter received with the text "O Sight of Anguish." "

Sir, I take the liberty, tho- unknown, of troubling you with another Carol which I beg you will do me the Honour of Setting to Music. If this performance as I fear it will, should prove less animated than the occasion requires, your candor must ascribe it, in some measure, to an illness under which I have long labour'd and which has greatly depressed my Spirits and likewise to the frequency of my attempts upon the same subject this before you being the fifth Composition of the kind, you will see here too many Symptoms of a Sickly Music. And yet I expect that Music which works wonders, and is known to be Sovereign in some diseases will at least give her a more sprightly Air, if not totally relieve her." Etc.

Occom seems to have been burdened with depression and drink, if you believe what you read, and read a little between the lines. But his "sickly muse" has some things to say. "Man, the worst brute, no pity shows... Thous boundless Mind our hearts inflame...Vain is mere joy, let actions bless this prodigy of Love..." Different from Watts, but substantial and apparently deeply felt work. (See Brooks, Joanna 2006 for a challenge to Occom's authorship). Knapp clearly got it, and eventually got to meet Occom when he traveled to England to raise money for what became Dartmouth College. (It was supposed to be a charity school for Native people in CT, but that's another story). I sang this earlier today at the grave of Occom's sister's daughter Sally Maminash, on Bridge Street in Northampton, whose memory is caught up in the "last Indian" myth. I don't subscribe to necromancy or spiritualism, but I thought it might be appropriate to sing this for her. I'll try to make a better version when it's less cold out. Dr. Margaret Bruchac has documented about all that's known about Sally Maminash