Singing was a long-standing, communal tradition amongst our ancestors and was one area where they had excelled, even over their white European neighbors. While the tone, range of voice and meter in which they sang were unique and pleasing, there was a fourth element to this Indian hymnody which was just as important; its depth of feeling. Brothertown hymnody centered on Christ and, couched within the edifying bonds of their community, also became a way to express the strong clash of emotions that swirled around their Native American heritage. These strong emotions, coupled with their technical abilities, elicited strong superlative responses from those who heard the Brotherton Indians sing.
For a song to be truly beautiful and touch the heart of a listener it must first touch the heart of the singer; it must be rooted in conviction, feeling and emotion. In the preface to his 1774 hymnal, Samson Occom claimed that there were 2 parts to singing: the “outward form” and the “inward part”. He said, “To sing without the spirit, (though with good method) is like the sound of a musical instrument without life.” For Occom and the Christian Indians, singing was first, a way to express their strong belief in and love of God and to worship and praise Him. While they were called and responded to Christ as individuals they also responded to Him as a community. As members of the same Brothertown Tribe they had a long history together. They had suffered, moved, travelled, rebuilt lives and homesteads, and endured many things. Assured of the love of their God and within these familial bonds of community they became free to express the Native American angst that touched them so deeply.
Despite the inculcation of the strong and persistent centuries old anti-Indian stance of society, the Brotherton always held a very deep love for their kinsmen and had a great longing to see their Tribe, and all Native Americans, endure and prosper. This is very clear in an 1854 letter of Thomas Commuck to the Wisconsin Historical Society. He wrote a brief “Sketch of the Brothertown Indians” and told of the sorrows and trials of our ancestors and of how he feared the loss of their memory as he contemplated, what seemed to him, the extinction of Brothertown “in a generation or so.” Toward the end of this letter he said, “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. The thought is a sad and gloomy one, but the fiat seems to have gone forth, and we must submit (14).” That he loved his Tribe and people is without question. Not only is it apparent in this letter, but also in the tune book he published in 1845 in which nearly every title bears the name of a Native American tribe or individual.
That their singing was unique and superior to others we can understand from the several superlative critiques that have survived. One of these comes from an itinerant preacher who journeyed to Brothertown in 1844 and noted in his diary, “I was not a stranger to good singing, for my surroundings had always been fortunate in this particular, but, I am free to say, that, up to that hour, my ears had never been so thrilled by Christian melody. The tones were not as mellow as those of the African, but they were more deep and thrilling. Inclined rather to a high key, and disposed to be sharp and piercing, yet the voices of the vast congregation swept through every note of the gamut with equal freedom. I was thoroughly entranced…. The singing, however, was the principal feature, both in quantity and quality, for this highly susceptible people had given this part of the services, in all their meetings, a leading place. Among the most noted leading voices were those of mine host, Alonzo D. Dick, Jeremiah Johnson, Orrin Johnson, and Thomas Cummock (15).”
The depth of feeling that the Brothertons poured into their music was both a praise of God and an outlet through which they could safely express their personal and Native American hopes, joys, sorrows, fears, and angst. The strength of these feelings both released a beauty into their singing and also became the very thing that caused hymnody to remain a vital and enduring part of the Brothertown community.
……………….to be continued
(14)Commuck, Thomas. “Sketch of the Brothertown Indians.” Wisconsin Historical Collections 4.
(15)Miller, Wesson Gage. Thirty Years in the Itinerancy p36-37.