Centuries-old ‘Indian Melodies’ come to life through collaborative project

Mark Baldwin, a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation, had what he describes as a “transcendent experience” during a recent visit to Yale.

For the first time in his life, he heard hymnal music composed by one of his tribal ancestors and sung in the manner it was hundreds of years ago — in a form known as “shape note” singing. At the February event in Connecticut Hall, Yale affiliates, members of the Brothertown Indian Nation and other tribes, and local shape note singers gathered to bring to life the music of Brothertown Indian Thomas Commuck (1804-1855), whose 1845 tunebook, “Indian Melodies,” is thought to be the earliest musical publication by a Native American composer in Euroamerican notation. A copy of the tunebook is in the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

The event was part of an ongoing initiative by editors of Yale’s Indian Papers Project (YIPP) and students at the Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) to record some of the hymns in Commuck’s “Indian Melodies” to accompany digital images and commentary about the tunebook on a YIPP website.

At the Commuck project’s start about two years ago, Paul Grant-Costa, executive editor of the YIPP, and ISM director Martin Jean encouraged the students to lead the initiative, conducting research on Commuck and the tradition of shape note singing while also navigating the ethical complexity of singing from “Indian Melodies” for the purpose of a recording.

It’s been a wonderful educational experience for the students — a way to combine research with resources here at Yale (at the Beinecke Library and at the Indian Papers Project) and with learning the ethical and professional considerations of working with members of Native communities,” says Grant-Costa.

When the students consulted with Kelly Fayard, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Native American Cultural Center, about their goals, she impressed upon them the importance of engaging members of the Brothertown Indian Nation early in their planning. In addition to sharing Brothertown history, a few members of the Tribe joined the organizing committee for the February singing event, including Baldwin. The students also collaborated with A. Gabriel Kastelle, a Connecticut-based violinist, shape note singer, and scholar of Northeast Indian music history.

It was important for us to have Brothertown community members be vital partners in the project and for students to work with tribal leaders,” says Grant-Costa. He notes that YIPP and the Brothertown Tribal Council issued a Memorandum of Understanding in which the project agreed to make available to the Tribe copies of any musical recordings of Commuck’s pieces, as well as any other documents created in conjunction with the project, as part of the YIPP’s commitment to digital repatriation.

In Commuck’s day

The Brothertown Indian Nation was formed from the Christian members of seven eastern coastal nations. During the Great Awakening, many Native people affiliated with Christianity, among them Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Montauk, Tunxis, and Niantic Indians. After the American Revolution, a conglomeration of Christian Indians from these tribes who were struggling to survive in southern New England moved to Oneida land in what is now upstate New York, eventually taking on the name of the community founded — Eeyawquittoowauconnuck, which means “a town of brothers” or “brothertown.”

These Christian Indians shared a traditional practice of communal hymn singing, specifically shape note singing. Shape note — a common mode of sacred music singing in early America — is named for its distinctive musical notation: The heads of musical notes are in shapes, such as diamonds, rectangles, ovals, and triangles, to help singers keep track of their place on the scale. In the 19th century musical reformers deemed shape note singing “primitive” and advocated for a more “scientific” European aesthetic in sacred singing. It appears that shape note singing fell out of practice with the Brothertown Indians not long after, by the late 1800s. However, this style of singing continued in the South and Appalachia, and was “discovered” and revived in the 1950s and 1970s. Today, it is still practiced in shape note singing communities around the United States and the world.

Commuck was a Narragansett Indian from Charlestown, Rhode Island, who joined the Brothertown community in New York. In the early 1800s, he and the New York group of Brothertown Indians migrated under duress to what is now Wisconsin, taking their own version of the shape note singing style with them. Commuck became the first postmaster of Brothertown and served as a justice of the peace for the Tribe. When his “Indian Melodies” came out in 1845, it was published in both standard and shape notes. In his preface to the tunebook, Commuck acknowledges that he hoped to make “a little money” from its publication to provide for “the subsistence of his household.”

All of the tunes in the “Indian Melodies” were written by Commuck. Many of the hymns are named for Brothertown parent tribes, such as “Narragansett” or “Mohegan,” and some are named for famous Native Americans. Not long before he died in 1855, Commuck spoke of his fear of Native extinction: “Here we have taken our last stand, as it were, and are resolved to meet manfully, that overwhelming tide of fate, which seems destined, in a few short years, to sweep the Red Man from the face of existence.” For the members of the Brothertown Indian Nation who are getting reacquainted with the singing of Commuck’s music, it is especially poignant that the Tribe did not vanish as their ancestor feared, says first-year Divinity School student Seth Wenger.

A historic gathering

After considering different sites for the performance of Commuck’s music, the Yale students and other members of the organizing committee ultimately chose to host the event in Connecticut Hall on the Yale campus, which is on land once occupied by Quinnipiac Indians. One reason behind that decision was that a vibrant weekly gathering of local shape note singers (among them Yale students, faculty, and staff) already takes place on campus, and some of the singers, including Wenger, are involved in the project.

Altogether about 88 singers from nine states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and representing eight Native communities (Brothertown, Lumbdee, Nehantic, Pequot, Schaghticoke, Ohkay Owingeh, Wirrarika, and Yaqui) gathered in Connecticut Hall, Yale’s oldest building, to sing Commuck’s shape note hymns and to share knowledge about their history.

I had never been to New Haven before or visited Quinnipiac land. As a member of a non-recognized tribe [the Brothertown community is still fighting to achieve tribal recognition from the federal government] that has been dispossessed of its land, I understand the profound sense of loss Natives feel when they return to their ancestral home,” says Baldwin. “As difficult as it may be to fathom, even though I had encountered Commuck’s work nearly 40 years ago, I had never heard it performed. I had heard Gabriel Kastelle’s violin version of ‘Old Indian Hymn,’ but never had I heard the tune sung by shape-note singers. The power of the raised voices, the words, and Commuck’s music combined to created a transcendent experience. While I stood in the square as ‘Old Indian Hymn’ was sung, I was bombarded by harmonies from all directions, making it easy to imagine what the congregation in the Methodist Church behind Commuck’s house would have sounded like in the 1850s. This singing is an integral part of the Brothertowns’ heritage, and nothing can compare to hearing it live.”

Megan Fulopp, a Brothertown Indian and historical researcher who also served on the organizing committee, says that the gathering held great cultural meaning for her community and for herself personally.

I don’t think it’s any secret that since the Colonial ‘founding’ of North America, Native tribes have suffered huge casualties in terms of both our people and our culture,” says Fulopp, who could not attend the concert but provided historical background on Commuck and the Brothertown Indians in a booklet produced for the event, which also included the hymns that were sung.

 “[I]t has been a long time since these tunes were sung in the manner that our people would have customarily sung them in,” she continues. “… This project, I feel, is helping us to reclaim a bit of our culture.”

Creating community

Wenger says that his interest in the “Indian Melodies” project actually led him to decide to study at Yale for a Master of Arts in Religion. He is currently working with the Brothertown Indian Nation to document their efforts to re-embody Commuck’s music as a public humanities and master’s thesis project.

I’m inspired by the fact that Commuck, although he was entirely self-taught musically — was writing these hymns while at the same time helping to move an entire tribe across the country,” says Wenger.

Wenger says that in Commuck’s day and today, “shape note singing gatherings are about community.”  He adds: “They are non-hierarchical, in that everybody gets to lead a song. It’s a safe place for anyone who really wants to sing with other people because it’s not about singing well or singing correctly. It’s loud and raucous and beautiful and cacophonous.”

For Fayard, a highlight of the event was when she was called to stand in the middle of the singers by Divinity student and shape-note singer Anthony Trujillo ’19, as he led a song. Trujillo is an Okhay Owingeh Pueblo who has been involved in the Indian Melodies project since its start.

I had no familiarity with shape note music before this performance, so the impact of being present as the community was singing has stayed with me,” Fayard says, adding that
“having members of the Brothertown community present is the only way this could have been done the right way.”

In addition to Wenger and Trujillo, other Yale students (some now alumni) who served on the Indian Melodies organizing committee are Liesl Spitz DIV/ISM ’17, Christopher Keady, Yale School of Music/ISM ’17, Oana Sanziana Marian, DIV/ISM ’17, David McNeil, Yale School of Music ’22/ISM ’18, Zachary Fletcher, Yale Divinity School/ISM ’18, and graduate student Angharad Davis, Department of Music ’18. In addition to Baldwin, Fulopp, and Kastelle, other organizers included Professor Ian Quinn of the Department of Music, Rehanna Kheshgi, a fellow at the ISM during the 2016-2017 academic year, Tobias Glaza, a YIPP editor, and Courtney Cottrell, a Brothertown Indian and tribal historic preservation officer.

The participants have hopes that their collaboration will lead to future communal gatherings for shape-note singing of Commuck’s music, repatriating the music in the east among the Indian communities from where it originated, and bringing it out west to a larger audience of Brothertown. The group will host a similar singing event this summer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 28. Wenger has applied for funding to continue to record and videotape the shape note singing of Commuck’s music as part of his public humanities project.

Acknowledging that there is a “deep division” within the Brothertown Indian Nation between citizens who identify as Christian and those who now pursue “more traditional lifeways,” Baldwin says that a revival of the shape note singing tradition and interest in Commuck’s musical contribution “has the potential to heal some of the divisions citizens feel.”

Yale’s leadership helped give the project gravitas and I am hopeful that the friendships we have formed with staff, students, and faculty will continue and blossom in the months and years ahead,” he adds.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,