And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
My mate Bob, a man of many and varied musical enthusiasms, recently contacted me with the following:
I was knocked sideways by the unexpected sound of Shirley Collins’ voice on a recent Freak Zone, Stuart Maconie’s late night celebration of the exotic, esoteric and the little heard end of the popular music spectrum. And yes, much of it is little heard for very good reason.
She was singing a Methodist hymn called Idumea on an album called Black Ships Ate the Sky by an experimental music group called Current 93, the creative vehicle of a man called David Tibet since the 80’s.
Black Ships Ate the Sky features several versions of Idumea, each with a different vocalist but Collins’ version is the pick… It is clearly not the voice of a young woman but she holds the tune effortlessly and, more importantly, delivers a huge emotional hit. In this regard, I was reminded of the first time I heard the aged Johnny Cash singing Hurt.
I’ve had a listen to most of the album on Spotify, and I have to confess that Bob was spot on when he predicted that much of it would not be to my taste. But I can well understand how David Tibet (or indeed anyone) would be very taken with this powerful hymn.
I have a facsimile of an 1860 printing of The Sacred Harp where the source of the words is given as the Methodist Hymn Book p231. More modern editions of The Sacred Harp credit the author of the words, the great English non-conformist poet and hymn-writer Charles Wesley. You will find the full words as printed in The Sacred Harp at http://fasola.org/indexes/1991/?p=47b but Wesley wrote more than four verses – you can see a further two four-line verses under Hymn LIX in Wesley’s Hymns for Children, 1763 (Hymns for Children! with an opening line “And am I born to die” – they didn’t pussyfoot around with children in those days!) while the version printed in the Wesleyan Hymn Book of 1779 has six eight-line stanzas.
And Am I Born to Die? Hymn 41 in the Wesleyan Hymn Book. From the Internet Archive.
The composer of the tune is given as Ananias Davisson, 1816 (Although it’s possible he just harmonised a traditional tune – and it’s worth pointing out that in the nineteenth hymn books the arrangement of this song, as with many others, has only three harmony parts: the alto was added in the twentieth century). The index of composers at http://fasola.org/indexes/1991/?v=composer suggests that this is the only Ananias Davisson composition in The Sacred Harp, although there are others, no doubt, in the Kentucky Harmony, which he compiled.
Idumea, from The Sacred Harp.
I think I first heard Idumea on the Watersons’ LP Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, then a little later on the Young Tradition’s Galleries Revisited. Unlike the Watersons, the YT sing the proper harmonies (i.e. those in the book), but they don’t get the rhythm quite right. These days, of course, you can find countless versions of Idumea on the web. Here it is in its natural habitat, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1982 at Holly Springs, Georgia.
Note how many of the participants are clearly suffering somewhat in the sweltering Georgia heat, but the man in the suit and tie in the front row seems impervious to everything but the singing.
Elsewhere on YouTube, there’s a less impressive vocal performance, but with the added benefit of Lego:
(Thanks to Adrian Russell for alerting me to that one)
Clearly there are many ways this song can be interpreted. Here’s Cordelia’s Dad, live at Sidmouth in 2010:
That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some might even think it sacrilegious, or disrespectful, or gimmicky. But that would be a mistake: lead vocalist Tim Eriksen and bassist Cath Oss are vastly knowledgeable about this music, and have been immersed in Shape Note singing for years. If you have the Cold Mountain soundtrack, you’ll have heard Tim singing Idumea solo, to his own fiddle accompaniment. And if you’ve seen the film (and frankly, if not, why not?) you will surely remember the way Idumea is used early in the film as a wonderfully effective musical backdrop to the scenes of post-battle devastation at Petersburg. Tim Eriksen coordinated the Sacred Harp singing on that film, and insisted that the recording should be made at a real Sacred Harp singing, at the Liberty Baptist Church in Alabama.
I believe it is the recording from Cold Mountain that has been used once again to provide a moving accompaniment to images of Native Americans on this final YouTube video:
Did I say final YouTube video? Let’s have one more performance full of emotion before you get to hear me sing Idumea.