The Stranger and His Friend

A couple of months ago the sister in charge of our sacrament meeting music wanted to arrange for someone to sing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” today, June 23, because it would be the Sunday before June 27. She asked one guy to do this, and he agreed at first, but it turned out he wasn’t really excited to do it, so I said I’d do it if I could turn it into a talk first and give an introduction to the song, which turned out to be fine. So I did it in sacrament meeting this morning, and it turned out pretty  well. I didn’t write down the text of my remarks, so while they’re still fresh in my mind I’m going to write them down here for future reference:

This Thursday will be June 27, which marks an important anniversary in the history of our Church, for it was on that date in 1844 that the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred in the Carthage Jail in Hancock County, Illinois. From the accounts of the survivors of the attack, Willard Richards and in particular John Taylor, we know something of the events that afternoon in the jail, and one of the things we know is that John Taylor sang a song–twice–to the other prisoners, which is the song we know as “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” and I’d like to tell you a little bit about that song.

So where did the song come from? The words derive from a poem written by James McDonald in December of 1826 as he toured the English countryside, which he titled “The Stranger and His Friend.” McDonald was also a hymnist, but he never set this poem to music. That would happen a decade later in 1835, when a minister named George Coles composed a musical setting for the poem, which he gave the tune name “Duane Street,” named for a street in New York City on which was a church where he sometimes preached.  And so the poem blossomed into a song that year, but at first it circulated only orally. Words and music would not be published together until, coincidentally, June of 1844, in a publication titled The Sacred Harp.

So where did John Taylor learn of the song? In England, the country of its origin, as he served a mission there in 1840. We know this because he, Parley Pratt and Brigham Young edited that year a new collection of hymns for the Saints in England, what we know today as the 1840 Manchester Hymnal, and this song is included in that book as hymn 225. (I mean the words only, as early LDS humnals did not include music at all.) Since Taylor was an editor of the volume, by definition he knew of the song at that time.

Four years later when he sang the song in the jail, the tune he sang it to was based on Duane Street, but was a fair bit different, being more elaborate, with more of a Gaelic feel, and coming from more of a folk tradition.

Now I can see it in your eyes, you’re all saying “Brother Barney, what are you talking about? There was no tape recorder in the Carthage Jail; how can you possibly say anything meaningful about how John Taylor sang the song on that occasion?” And in any other context you would be right, but not this time.

Fast forward 42 years to 1886. John Taylor is now President of the Church. He calls a meeting with a guy named Ebenezer Beesley, who is the Director of this thing we like to call the “Tabernacle Choir.” He’s also one of five men Taylor has called to be over the creation of a new hymnal, which will be published three years later in 1889 (unfortunately, a year after Taylor’s death, so he would never see the completed volume), titled The Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody, which would be the first LDS hymnal to include music. Music in a hymnal–what a concept! President Taylor wanted this song to go into the hymnal, but since this one would include music they would need to figure out what music to set it to.

So Beesley asks Taylor to sing for him the song just as he had sung it in the jail, and Taylor obliges him and sings the song, and Beesley takes notes on what he hears in musical notation. So not a tape recorder, but the next best thing. But Taylor didn’t want the song to go into the hymnal just as he had sung it. He wasn’t happy with how he had sung the song; musical tastes had changed (this was almost a half-century later), and so he wanted Beesley to punch it up. So that’s what Beesley does. He starts with how Taylor sang the song, but then makes it more elaborate and certainly more formal. So that is how it goes into the hymnal, and it has been in every hymnal since, it’s in our hymnal today, and when you and I sing the song in this room we’re singing Beesley’s punched up version of what John Taylor sang in the jail.

Beesley’s notes on how Taylor sang the song  were pretty quickly lost, and were missing for well over a century. We only rediscovered them about a decade ago, in 2008. The notes were lost because Beesley was thinking of them as a tool for writing the music, and not as an historical artifact in their own right. He didn’t even write them on a separate piece of paper; they were scrawled on the last leaft of his copy of the bass version of a manuscript edition of hymns for use by members of the Tabernacle Choir–about as an obscure a location as possible, which is why it took us a minute to find it again.

And if you’re curious about how John Taylor sang the song in the jail, this afternoon go to google or youtube and do a seard on A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, but then add the magic words “Taylor Version.” Because after the Beesley notation waa rediscovered in 2008, a number of LDS artists recorded it that way, and that is the way to find those recordings. And you won’t be shocked by what you hear; you’ll recognize it. The differences between how Taylor sang the song in the jail and what we sing today are subtle, but they’re also interesting, and I would encourage you to listen to the jail version online.

So there are three musical settings for the song in our tradition, all of which are genealogically related, but also different. First is Duane Street, which is by far the simplest setting and presumably the way John Taylor would have first encountered the song on the streets of England during his mission. Then there is Taylor’s folk elaboration of Duane Street in the jail. And finally there is the way we sing it today, which is Beesley’s formal elaboration of what Taylor sang in the jail.

So as an artifact of Church history, I would like to sing for you just a taste, the first two and the last verse, of The Stranger and His Friend/A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” but I am going to sing it to its original, simpler tune, Duane Street.

(Sings)

 

  • 1. A poor, wayfaring Man of grief
    Hath often crossed me on my way,
    Who sued so humbly for relief
    That I could never answer nay.
    I had not pow’r to ask his name,
    Whither he went, or whence he came;
    Yet there was something in his eye
    That won my love; I knew not why.

 

  • 2. Once, when my scanty meal was spread,
    He entered; not a word he spake,
    Just perishing for want of bread.
    I gave him all; he blessed it, brake,
    And ate, but gave me part again.
    Mine was an angel’s portion then,
    For while I fed with eager haste,
    The crust was manna to my taste.

 

  • 7. Then in a moment to my view
    The stranger started from disguise.
    The tokens in his hands I knew;
    The Savior stood before mine eyes.
    He spake, and my poor name he named,
    “Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
    These deeds shall thy memorial be;
    Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”

 

 

 

Comments

  1. sidebottom says:

    I sang the “Taylor” version in a men’s quartet shortly after its rediscovery. I prefer Beesley’s version, I think, but found the rediscovered version gave new life to a song that I felt had been done to death.

    On a side note, this hymn is one of several that suffer from the unfortunate assumption that verses appended to the end of the song in our hymnal are somehow optional. Even though it’s become something of a cliche, singing all seven verses is far better than chopping it off after verse three.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Sidebottom, the last time our ward sang this the Bishop had us sing all seven verses, so he is sensitive to this concern. At the least the song doesn’t make any sense without verse 7.

    You’ll be pleased to know the 1840 Manchester Hymnal printed all seven verses, which was rare. If anyone is interested, if you google 1840 Manchester Hymnal you can find a scanned copy of it (go to number 225).

  3. Nathan G says:

    The Taylor version reminds me of the rendition from the end credits of New York Doll. I think it’s cool that David Johansen would instinctively connect to the song’s folksy roots.

  4. I once used the Duane Street version for a ward choir number, slightly modified. (I’m a shape note singer, and it’s still in most of the latest editions of the Sacred Harp hymnals.) It’s still poignant, but much less lugubrious and it requires much less lung capacity than today’s funeral dirge. 😁

  5. I had no idea. Wonderful, Kevin!

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Nathan, I totally forgot about that version! I agree it’s haunting and beautiful, and kind of veers back towards the John Taylor folk direction. Thanks for mentioning it.

    New Iconoclast, you do shape note singing? So, so cool! I’m envious. I love that style. If anyone is unfamiliar with it there are lots of videos online (and I remember shape note singing was involved in a scene in the movie Cold Mountain):

    Ardis, I hope you don’t mind that it makes my day on the (extraordinarily rare) occasions I can mention something historical you didn’t already know about…

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s the version Nathan G. mentioned from the closing credits to New York Doll:

  8. This and “Oh My Father” are my all time favorite Mormon hymns. I had no idea of the additional history.
    Ages ago, when Keith Merrill took over the direction of the Oakland Temple Pageant, “And it Came to Pass”, he enhanced the jail scene. It opens with Joseph’s request of John Taylor to sing it. Verses one and six are sung solo. No accompaniment. Just as the audience is lulling toward repose, militia break in, shoot, kill, maim, then leave. The stage darkens, and in a haunting voice off stage, begin the words, “Then in a moment to my view, the stranger started from disguise.”

    I cried every dang time I watched it. I watched a million times through rehearsal and production.

    Wish I could have heard you today.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    And here’s one example of the Tayllor version, but there are a number of others you can easily find with a google search:

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s a video showing the song being sung to Duane Street in Sacred Harp/shape note style:

  11. Thank you, great post and videos to end a long Sabbath day.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this and hearing the different versions. I’ve sung it from the Hymnal and from The Sacred Harp, and noted the similarities, but wondered how the tune changed and what John Taylor would have actually sung.

    And there’s no need to be envious of shape note singers when you could be one! Fasola.org has good links to find local singings. No experience required.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the tip, Mike R.!

  14. arganoil says:

    I so intensely dislike this hymn. It is boring and makes me yawn every time I sing it. Glad it is not on the radar here in Europe ans we rarely sing it, neither is June 27th comemorated at all.

  15. I love this. It reminds me of the time that I sang “Oh My Father” with a quartet in sacrament meeting. I also did a short introduction to the hymn and explained that early hymnals had no music, and that many of these hymns were sung to different tunes that we have now. We then went on to sing “Oh My Father” to the same tune as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I prefer that tune to the one in our current hymnal, and rue that “Come Thou Fount: is not there. There is much we can do to enrich our congregational singing, and I appreciate your story.

  16. I’m not sure where the 2008 date comes from. Sterling Beesley reprinted the original holograph transcript of Taylor singing “Poor Wayfaring Man” in his “Kind Words; The Beginnings of Mormon Melody, A Historical Biography and Anthology of the Life and Works of Ebenezer Beesley, Utah Pioneer and Musician” in 1980. I’ve been singing the Taylor version in firesides since the mid-1980s.

    The opening essay in my book *Spencer Kimball’s Record Collection: Essays on Mormon Music* (Signature Books: forthcoming 2020) is entitled “Joseph Smith’s Favorite Songs (or Not)” and pertains. Should be worth a read.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, that is fascinating! Everything I’ve seen says 2008. Really interesting that it was actually published in 1980.

    Of course, my interest in this song was originally piqued by your great BYU Studies article on it many years ago: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/strains-which-will-not-soon-be-allowed-die-stranger-and-carthage-jail

    I will of course be looking forward to the new publication.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    There is a 2008 Deseret News article that mentions a Taylor descendant finding the Beesley choir book in that year with the notation. It appears this person and others involved simply didn’t know of the 1980 publication, Fascinating!

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    The photocopy of the page from the Beesley choir book that has the notation was published on page 399 of Kind Words in 1980. But apparently that book was not well known due to the very limited print run, and the people involved in the 2008 discovery had no idea about the prior publication of Beesley’s notation. Thanks again Michael for this really interesting twist in the story!

  20. Patrick Faulk says:

    Last year I had my ward choir sing Kurt Kammeyer’s setting of the song, which relies heavily on the Duane Street version. Fun to see others discovering this gem!