Monday, July 30, 2012

Frank Grammer: Songwriter, Teacher, and Publisher

In previous postings on hymnal publishing among the Churches of Christ in the Arkansas-Oklahoma-Texas region--a topic for which I must admit a native's partiality--I had encountered the name of Frank Grammer (1882-1949) a number of times. I certainly saw it enough to associate it with the region, and guessed from his associations that he was likely a member of the Church of Christ. But it was not until a descendant of his asked me for more information about his career, that it became apparent just how often his name appears, and in how many different places. Grammer's career is an illuminating study of the interconnectedness of the paperback hymnal businesses in this region. In the first half of the 20th century, Frank Grammer was involved directly or indirectly with nearly every major songwriter and hymnal publisher among the Churches of Christ west of the Mississippi.

From Arkansas to Texas

George Washington Franklin Grammer was born 4 October 1882 in Bentonville, Arkansas.(WW2 draft card) His father, John David Grammer, was born in Missouri 15 August 1854,(death certificate) though the Grammer family apparently was in Benton County early enough that Frank sometimes identified his father as a native of Arkansas. Frank's mother, Julia Ann Walters, was born in Ohio in 1861 and married John D. on 26 December, 1875 in Benton County, Arkansas.(Arkansas marriages) Frank was the third of seven children, all sisters except for Albert (b. 1886), next to Frank in birth order.(Grammer & Geyer)

Like many farming families in that era, the Grammers moved around searching for greener pastures. One of Frank's younger sisters, Mary E., may have been born in Texas in 1893.(1910 census, but cf. 1900 census) In 1900, however, the family was living in northwest Arkansas again, in the Elm Springs area of Washington County, just south Frank's birthplace in Benton County.(1900 census) Grammer would later identify his birthplace more generally as Bentonville, the larger community to the northeast.(WW2 draft card) By 1910, however, the Grammers were in North Texas to stay, living in the Collinsville community in Grayson County. Collinsville is a quiet little town on U.S. 377 (or more significantly for the times, along the M. K. & T. railroad!), roughly halfway between Gainesville and Sherman and a little south.(1910 census)

Professor Grammer, Music Teacher

The 1910 census gives Frank Grammer's occupation as "music teacher," and in the new decade his teaching, songwriting, and publishing activities give evidence of a well established career. In a 1918 newspaper article from Bonham, Texas he is referred to as "Professor Grammer," indicating an education beyond the scope of the usual one- or two-week singing schools.(Bonham Daily Favorite, 9 Mar 1918). This raises the question: where did Grammer get his education, and when?

There were at least two diploma-granting "music normals" (schools with advanced training for singing-school teachers) operating in the Arkansas-Oklahoma-Texas area at the beginning of the 20th century: the Southern Development Normal based in Waco, Texas, and the Eureka Normal School of Music based in Stigler, Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). Schools of this type were modeled on the Virginia Normal School of Music, founded in 1874 by gospel music pioneers Ruebush and Kieffer as a counterpart to their publishing efforts. Not only did it increase the number of men teaching singing schools in their relatively new seven-shape notation system, thus increasing demand for their songbooks, it was also a means to cultivate songwriting talent. And once a music normal's reputation was established, it became virtually a franchise operation, with branches operating in as many locations as business would allow.(Goff, 49ff.)

The Southern Development Normal of Waco, Texas, was founded by Frank L. Eiland in 1898. Eiland also co-founded a publishing house, the Trio Music Company, in 1895. If Grammer had happened to attend sessions in Waco during the first decade of the 1900s, he might have been classmates with Tillit S. Teddlie; during this time Eiland's school was a magnet for songwriters in the Churches of Christ in Texas.(Harp, "Eiland") The S.D.N. songwriters were also frequently involved with the hymnals published in Austin by Firm Foundation, a landmark religious journal and publishing house among the Churches of Christ--and the first songbook Grammer is known to have edited, Zion Melodies, was published in 1910 by Firm Foundation. The Southern Development Normal is also known to have conducted sessions in other locations; there is a wonderful picture on Flickr of an S.D.N. session at Farmersville, Oklahoma (north of Tipton in the western part of the state?), and a session was taught in Golden, Texas in the summer of 1902.(Democrat (McKinney, Texas), 21 August 1902) Golden (home town of Tillit Teddlie!) is more than 100 miles from Collinsville, but this does show that the S.D.N. had a presence in North Texas and beyond.

The Eureka Music Normal was founded by Stephen Jesse Oslin (1858-1928), a Methodist minister from Rockford, Alabama. He married Mollie P. Highfill in 1881 in Waldron, Arkansas,(marriage certificate) and during the early 1890s published a music journal titled Tempo in nearby Fort Smith.(American Newspaper Directory, 1894, p. 30) A search of shows that he published through the Ruebush-Kieffer Company in the 1890s, and co-wrote Harmony, Composition, and Versification, with Twelve Lessons on Rudimental Class-Teaching with J. H. Ruebush.(Worldcat 24837703) In 1911 Oslin persuaded Ruebush, one of the most famous shape-note teachers and publishers in the nation, to hold a music normal in Whitefield, Oklahoma, suggesting a personal relationship between the two.(Haskell County Leader, 25 May 1911)

Oslin certainly copied the Ruebush-Kieffer business model, setting up the Eureka Publishing Company in tandem with the Eureka Normal Music School, and editing the Eureka Messenger, "a monthly journal of music, poetry, religion, and literature."(Haskell County Leader, 28 September 1911). According to local historians, Oslin founded his "Eureka" businesses in Stigler, Indian Territory in 1898, with incorporation in 1901. Within the next couple of years a fine brick building was constructed, which later became the Eureka Hotel after Oslin's company moved to Arkansas.(Haskell County History, 56)

The earliest instance I have found of the Eureka Music Normal is a session held by J. R. McEwing in Jacksboro, Texas (northwest of Fort Worth) in February 1900.(Jacskboro Gazette, 1 Feb 1900). Oslin had already conducted a music normal in Commerce, Texas (northeast of Dallas) in 1896, though it is unknown whether he used the "Eureka" name.(Holmes) There was also a Eureka music normal in Scott County, Arkansas in 1901,(Echoes) and in Enterprise, Indian Territory (15 miles west of Stigler), the Eureka Normal Music School was already in "annual" sessions by 1902.(Checotah Enquirer 22 August 1902, p. 8) One of Oslin's star pupils, William W. Slater, taught a Eureka Normal in Little Cedar, Arkansas (southeast of Fort Smith) in 1907.(Advance Reporter, 12 July 1907) Did Frank Grammer attend the Eureka Normal School of Music, before his association with that company as an editor and songwriter in the late 1910s? (He certainly did advanced studies there later; his family is in possession of diplomas from 1923.) Until further evidence is uncovered, I can only point out that he had ample opportunity in his youth to encounter Stephen J. Oslin, and was within reasonable traveling distance of places where the Eureka Schools are known to have been held, both when he was living near Arkansas and after he moved to Texas.

Frank Grammer and the Firm Foundation Hymnals

The earliest published work by Frank Grammer that I have found is Zion Melodies (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation, 1910), which he co-edited with Austin Taylor, G. H. P. Showalter, and J. S. Dunn. It was only the second hymnal to come from this press, and the first edited by Taylor and Showalter, whose work would dominate the Firm Foundation hymnal tradition over the following decades (see my post on Firm Foundation hymnals). It contained at least two songs with music by Grammer: "On the rock of ages" and "Peace in my soul," both written to lyrics by Austin Taylor. (Copyright Entries 1910, Music, 689, 842) Grammer wrote both words and music for "Hear the Savior calling," a song copyrighted by Firm Foundation in 1911.(Copyright Entries 1911, Music, 996) It is not indicated what book this appeared in, if any. His "Dew of mercy" appeared in the 1913 Firm Foundation book Select Songs, edited by Austin Taylor and J. M. Hagen.(Copyright Entries 1913, Music, 1175) His last known collaboration with this publisher was "Believing in my Savior's word," which appeared in the popular New Gospel Song Book, edited by Taylor and Showalter in 1914.(Copyright Entries 1914, Music, 318)

His career by this time becoming well established, Frank also began a family; on 17 June 1911 he married Virgie Reaves (b. 1885) from Savoy, Texas (near Bonham). Interestingly, they were married across the river in Durant, Oklahoma by a minister of the Church of Christ.(Marriage license) Their first child, Austin Larimore Grammer, was born in Sherman, Texas in 1912.(Death certificate) The name "Austin," of course, has long been popular as a boy's name in Texas, though it is tempting to suppose that Frank named him after Austin Taylor. "Larimore" may have been the prominent preacher T. B. Larimore, who taught at the short-lived Gunter Bible College in Grayson County, Texas, less than 20 miles from the Grammer family home in Collinsville. He also co-edited the New Christian Hymnal with William J. Kirkpatrick, one of the best of the early Gospel Advocate hymnals.(Harp, "Larimore">)

According to the information submitted for the copyrights noted above, the Grammers lived in or near Sherman, Texas at least through 22 September 1914, when their second child (a daughter, Frankie Edgel Grammer) was born.(Geyer & Grammer Family Tree) At some point, however, he moved east to Bonham, Texas; the birth certificate of Jessie Verbal Grammer, born 21 March 1918, says that her father Frank was employed as a voice teacher in Bonham. "Prof. Frank Grammer" is mentioned in the local newspaper on the 9th of the same month, speaking to the Board of Trade (Chamber of Commerce?) about bringing the Fannin County Singing Convention to Bonham.(Bonham Daily Favorite, 9 March 1918, p. 4) He is mentioned in the newspaper again that summer as the president of the Fannin County Singers, Teachers, and Music Publishers Association.(Bonham Daily Favorite, 25 July 1918, p. 7) The Grammer family resided in Bonham at least through 1920, when they were listed by the U.S. Census.

The Eureka Normal School of Music and Publishing Company

As his career progressed and his family grew, Grammer began to branch out in his associations with publishers. His next works are found in the Eureka Sacred Banner, published by a branch of the Eureka Publishing Company in Seymour, Texas in 1914. (Seymour is west of Wichita Falls, Texas; it would be interesting to know if Grammer were connected with this Texas wing of the Eureka Company.) Grammer's songs in this book were "Dear Lord, indeed, Thy love I need," "I from sin have been made free," and "Softly falls the dew at evening."(Eureka Sacred Banner,

Soon after he began to serve as a co-editor along with Will Slater (another important songwriter/editor from the Churches of Christ), and the boss, Stephen Jesse Oslin. Along with other songwriters, they produced the Eureka songbooks Christian Hymnal(1916) and Eureka Joy Carols (1918), published in Stigler, Oklahoma. Other songs by Grammer during this period included: "I am persuaded now to believe" and "We are marching on to Canaan's fair shore" from the Eureka Song Climax, 1916; and "I cannot see for blinded eyes," with lyrics by Grace Stoddard Dennstedt, in the Eureka Highway Songs, 1918.

By the fall of 1918, the Eureka company moved across the state line to Mena, Arkansas.(MTR 19 Oct 1918, p. 13) The first Eureka publication with a Mena imprint was Eureka Highway Songs in 1918, and from that point forward there are no more known publications from Oklahoma. And though it is not clear what Grammer's official role was during the preceding years, in 1919 he was selected as 2nd Vice President of the company, subordinate only to Slater and Oslin.(MTR1 Nov 1919, p. 5) His business was still conducted long-distance at this time, however; the 1920 U.S. Census shows the Frank Grammer family still living in Bonham, Texas.

But eventually Grammer's involvement with the Eureka Music enterprises led him to move the family to Mena, Arkansas, where the company was headquartered. The Adair Gleaner (Adair County, Oklahoma) of 22 June 1923 stated the following news:
Prof. Frank Grammer of Mena, Ark. will open an 18 day session of the Eureka Normal School of Music at Westville next Monday. Prof. Grammer taught a school at Starr and one at Horn this spring ... We hope that a goodly number will attend this.(p. 18)
The borderlands of Oklahoma, though sparsely settled, proved fertile ground for the Eureka schools. Westville, Oklahoma is just west of the Arkansas border, north of Fort Smith; the Horn community and the Starr School (to which this may refer) were near Stilwell, the county seat. The newspapers of eastern Oklahoma were full of notices, for a time, of the newly relocated Eureka Company. Frank was also busy with the editing and publishing side of the Eureka Company after his move to Arkansas. In 1921 he edited Eureka Sacred Carols with Oslin and Slater, which included his original songs, "I once was lost and doomed to die," "Is the Savior crowded out of your busy life today?," and "There's a beautiful land, 'tis the land of the blest." Grammer took up a catch-phrase from World War One in the title of another song, "Over the top for the Savior today."

"Marching On" first published in Eureka Song Climax, 1916

Parting Ways

The Grammer family continued to grow with the birth of Harrietta in 1925, the only one of the children born in Arkansas.(Virgie Grammer household, 1930 U.S. Census) Around this same time Frank was involved with Will Slater in another publishing project, the Herald of Song no. 1 (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Herald of Truth Association, 1925?). Grammer and Borden had worked together earlier on a revision of the Eureka book Songs of Truth, published by Borden in Oklahoma City in 1920. Borden was a significant gospel preacher and debater among the Churches of Christ in Oklahoma. (N.B. His Herald of Truth was not related to the later radio/television broadcast of the same name.) This association may also have brought Grammer into contact with Rue Porter, another prominent Oklahoma preacher, who would be co-editor of Grammer's last books.

Business apparently was good during the 1920s, but like much of the American economy, the Eureka Music Company faded away at the end of the decade. The latest mention of the company I have found is an advertisement in the 24 October 1929 issue of the Evening News from Ada, Oklahoma.(Evening News, 24 Oct 1929, p. 5) Changes were also afoot among the leadership of the company; Stephen Jesse Oslin passed away in 1928, and Will Slater started his own publishing house, Slater Music Company, around the same time. The last documented connection of Grammer to the Eureka company is 1923; Grammer's next hymnal,Tidings of Joy, was published in 1928 by the Fort Smith Music Company.

Near the end of the 1920s there was also a major change within the Grammer family; Frank and Virgie divorced. The 1930 U.S. Census shows Frank back in Sherman, Texas with his brother-in-law Andrew Dooley, teaching voice; his son Austin Larimore went with him. Virgie remained in Mena, Arkansas with the girls, supporting herself by working as a nurse.(Virgie Grammer household, 1930 U.S. Census) No further account of the split has been forthcoming. Both remarried; Frank married Blanch Willis of Sherman on 2 August 1930 (oddly enough, they went to Durant, Oklahoma, where he had married Virgie).(Grammer-Willis marriage certificate) Virgie married Eugene Richey of Amarillo, Texas on 9 March 1932.(Richey-Grammer marriage certificate) Frank and Blanch lost their first child, a son who was born prematurely, but later had other children.("Blanch Grammer," Geyer & Grammer) Frank and his new family stayed in Sherman, Texas until at least 1935, with Frank working at least part of that period as a salesman.(Sherman City Directory 1935, p. 133)

New Connections: The Hartford Music Company

Despite setbacks in his personal life and career, Frank continued to press forward during the 1930s, establishing relationships with other publishers. In 1931 he was credited as a co-editor (along with many others) in Garden of Song published by the Hartford Music Company in Hartford, Arkansas. In 1933 he edited the Herald of Song no. 2 with E. M. Borden, Will Slater, and others (though this apparently does not indicate a publisher, it seems likely that it was connected with Borden's Herald of Truth Publishing in Oklahoma City. In 1936 he edited Songs of Praise and Devotion with Will Slater, published by the Slater Music Company in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

His songwriting continued as well, collaborating with Don Hooper in "Some Happy Day" in 1933 and with D. M. Rice in "My life was once all stained with sin" in 1935. Grammer also wrote both words and music for "With Christ the Lord who leads the way," published in 1935. These publications also demonstrate a developing association that would figure prominently in Grammer's life throughout the 1930s: the first song appeared in The Wonderful Message, and the latter two in Charming Melodies, both of which were publications of the Hartford Music Company in Hartford, Arkansas.

The Hartford Music Company and Hartford Music Institute were founded in 1918 by Eugene M. Bartlett (best remembered for the song "Victory in Jesus") in Hartford, Arkansas, halfway between Fort Smith and Mena. The most famous alumnus of the school was Albert Brumley, who also served on the faculty and later bought the company. Bartlett retired in 1931, leaving the management of the business to his long-time partner John A. McClung.(Gibson & Way) Grammer, after serving as one of a large number of co-editors on the 1931 Garden of Song, was McClung's only partner in editing The King's Pilot in 1938 and God's Billows of Love in 1941.

Around this time Frank and Blanch relocated to northwestern Arkansas, presumably to work more directly with the Hartford Music Company. An announcement in the Fayetteville Daily Democrat said that "Frank Grammer of St. Paul will teach a session of the Hartford Musical Institute at Greenland Church of Christ, beginning Monday, March 22."(20 March 1937, p. 7) Greenland is a little to the south of Fayetteville, and St. Paul to the southwest on the edge of the Ozark National Forest.

A notice in the Northwest Arkansas Times, 2 Aug 1938, p. 7, shows that they had moved yet again. This is a more elaborate advertisement than most, and helps us imagine the setting. If only I had a time machine!
There will be an all-day singing at Oak Grove three miles west of Springdale, Sunday Aug. 7th. The singing will be at the shed on the school grounds where there is plenty of good shade and parking ground, also plenty of good water.
Prof. Frank Grammer of Huntsville will have charge of the singing. All singers and lovers of good music are invited to be there.
Huntsville is about 23 miles north of St. Paul, lying more directly west from Fayetteville. Presumably Frank had other employment that led him to these out-of-the-way locations, none of which were particularly convenient to the Hartford Music headquarters.

California and the Church Music Company

Like many a person from the Depression-stricken central part of the United States, Frank Grammer found his way to California. He was in Bakersfield in the fall of 1941,(Bakersfield Californian, 11 October 1941, p. 7) and since his last hymnal with Hartford Music (God's Billows of Love) appeared the same year, it seems likely that he moved from Arkansas to California that year. Frank resided in Fullerton from 1942 until his death in 1949.(Death certificate) His 1942 draft registration indicates that he worked as a fruit packer for the Mutual Citrus Product Company in Anaheim; but his first love, gospel music, was never far away. The Bakersfield Californian advertised the following interesting method of church outreach:
Free music instruction is offered by the Magunden Church of Christ which has procured Frank Grammer of the Eureka Normal School of Music in Tennessee to conduct a course of voice culture and harmony. The church school is held in Magunden hall.(15 October 1941, p. 12)
Magunden is a neighborhood of Bakersfield. The reference to Tennessee seems to be an error; I can find no evidence that either Grammer or the Eureka Company was ever in Tennessee.

The difficulties of a wartime economy were doubtless discouraging to the many small gospel music publishers spread across the United States during the early 20th century. Grammer does not appear to have been involved with any new hymnals until after the war, when the More Perfect Gospel Hymnal appeared. This was published by Ditler Brothers in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1946, but was a revision of Hall's earlier Cross and Resurrection in Song, first published in 1917.(Copyright Entries 1946, Part 1 (Books), p. 454) Samuel Henry Hall (1877-1961) was one of the most prominent evangelists among the Churches of Christ in the southeastern United States, and also in California, where he relocated in the 1940s. He was also a significant songwriter and hymnal publisher.(Harp, "Hall")

Grammer edited another hymnal published in 1946, this time through the Church Music Company of Fullerton, California: Favorite Songs of the Church. This was followed by Favorite Songs of the Church, no. 2 in 1948. Besides these two I have found only one other publication connected with this company: Church Praises, published by a Church Music Company in Neosho, Missouri in 1952. It was edited by Rue Porter along with Albert E. Brumley and W. N. Bohannon. According to the Grammer family, Porter was a partner in the Church Music Company, and took it over after Frank's death. Though he was not able to keep it actively publishng, he managed its copyright affairs and made sure Blanch received the royalties.

Grammer's last hymnal, Favorite Songs of the Church, no. 2, is a fitting testimony to his goals as a music teacher, songleader, songwriter, and editor. I own a copy, and in an earlier post I gave a more complete description of this book along with an author-title index. The title page of Favorite Songs of the Church, no. 2, lists Springdale, Arkansas and Pine Apple, Alabama as places of publication in addition to Fullerton, California; according to the Grammer family, Rue Porter was handling the Church Music Company business back in the gospel heartland.

The title page of this songbook is a who's who of songwriters and preachers of the Churches of Christ during this period. I have linked these names to their pages at Scott Harp's Restoration Movement website where possible. Contributing songwriters included:

Rue Porter
W. N. Bohannan
C. E. McCord
Clarence C. Gobbel
Arval Tackett
Floyd B. Lee
Owen Humphries
Mrs. May Thompson
Maurice Claymore
Albert E. Brumley
Lee Pennington
Earl E. McCord
P. A. Crum
Earnest N. Edwards
V. A. Shoke
Mrs. G. W. Nichols
A. C. Carpenter
Mildred Siskowski
Flavil Hall
W. A. Harrison
Palmer Wheeler
Florence Wing
R. N. Hogan
Mrs. Bertha Hall
J. R. McClung
U.A. Carruth
W. E. Williams

Topping the list, of course, are Porter and Brumley, old friends and associates. Flavil Hall was a Georgia colleague (though apparently not a relative) of Grammer's partner S. H. Hall. Palmer Wheeler was another prominent songwriter among the Churches of Christ. An interesting name to find here as well is R. N. Hogan, one of the greatest African American evangelists in the Churches of Christ.

"Associate authors and compilers" included:

G.H.P. Showalter
Austin Taylor
T. Y. Morrison
J. M. McCaleb
L. O. Sanderson
J. H. Fillmore
Gardner S. Hall
Attress McNoble
James L. Neal
Horace W. Busby
Austin Hazelwood
W. H. Dunagan
E. M. Borden
Will G. Hager
Ira Y. Rice*
N. W. Allphin
Tillit S. Teddlie
Will W. Slater
Albert Lovelady
Mrs. Frank Grammer
Mrs. Palmer Wheeler
George W. DeHoff
L. F. Martin
Henry Skaggs
*Probably Rice, Sr., who was a music teacher as well as preacher, and not his better-known son, Ira Rice, Jr., the missionary and founding editor of Contending for the Faith.

What exactly is meant by "associate authors and compilers" is a good question. High on the list are Showalter, Taylor, Teddlie, and Slater, old associates of Grammer, and also E. M. Borden from the Herald of Truth songbook days. Albert Lovelady, one of the pillars of the Churches of Christ in California during the 20th century, was also heavily involved. But J. H. Fillmore died in 1936--unless Grammer refers to James Henry Fillmore, Jr. (1881-1956), who was much better known as a trombonist and bandleader. The editorial contribution may have consisted in Grammer using quite a few of the elder Fillmore's songs!

The introduction to this hymnal also expressed Grammer's deep concern about the words of the songs. Every song, he promised, was gone over carefully by himself, by James L. Neal, a preacher and business partner from Springdale, Arkansas, by Rue Porter, a preacher known throughout the country, and by Albert Lovelady, one of the most prominent ministers in the Churches of Christ in California.

Frank Grammer passed away on the 4th of July, 1949. Fullerton, California was home to many immigrants from the central part of the United States, and for a number of years there was an "Arkansas Picnic Festival" on the Independence Day holiday. According to the Grammer family, Frank was there to lead singing and promote his new hymnal when he collapsed on the stage. It seems fitting that he died among "home folks" gathered for fellowship and song.


In the course of his career, Frank Grammer edited hymnals with Austin Taylor and G.H.P. Showalter at the Firm Foundation, and with Will Slater, first at the Eureka Music Publishing Company and then through Slater's own publishing house. Through his work with the Hartford School of Music, Grammer was likely in contact with Albert E. Brumley. He also published with Rue Porter and S. H. Hall, and was probably at least occasionally in contact with Tillit Teddlie and perhaps Lloyd O. Sanderson. He seems to have interacted with almost every publisher of hymnals for the Churches of Christ in this country during his lifetime, with the exception of Elmer Jorgenson (Great Songs of the Church), who was less associated with the Southern Gospel scene.

Though Frank Grammer worked for years with Stephen J. Oslin, a Methodist, and with Hartford Music, which was generally Baptist in orientation except for Brumley (so far as I know), he obviously had a real interest in uniting and cultivating the songwriting and publishing efforts of members of the Churches of Christ. For half a century he spent his efforts in this field, from the 1910s work with the Firm Foundation to his final hymnal, a grand collaboration with many old friends. Though he never made the "big time," and even if he had to work as a salesman or a fruit packer on the side, Frank Grammer was ever faithful to his commitment to promoting gospel music--and in particular, promoting the gospel.

Following Frank: This interactive map lists most of the places mentioned in the post, and may help to show the geographic proximity of so many of these activities.

View Frank Grammer - Locations in a larger map

List of hymnals edited by Frank Grammer

List of songs written by Frank Grammer

Because of the large number of sources used for this post, I have made the References list available as a separate document:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Crossing the Bar

Praise for the Lord #117

Words: Alfred Tennyson, 1889
Music: Lloyd O. Sanderson, 1935

N.B. There are several famous choral settings of this text, most notably by Hubert Parry, Charles Ives, and Joseph Barnby. The musical setting discussed here is by Lloyd O. Sanderson, copyrighted by Gospel Advocate in 1935 and to my knowledge used only among the Churches of Christ.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), poet laureate of the United Kingdom and one of the most widely quoted poets of the English language, wrote this poem late in life and under somber circumstances. He was 80 years old, and became seriously ill while crossing the Solent (the strait between England and the Isle of Wight). According to his own account, the words "came in a moment." It was a very meaningful work to the elderly poet; before his death Tennyson instructed his son to place this text last in all publications of his poems.(Hill, 496)

For those of us from land-locked places, the concept of "crossing the bar" needs some explanation. Rivers that empty into the sea sometimes deposit an underwater wall of sediment where their currents meet the tidal forces. Over time this builds up into shoals or sandbars. This is both a blessing and a curse: the bar makes a natural harbor, deflecting the rougher forces of the outside seas, but it is often a formidable barrier to cross. Not only is its sounding depth affected by the interaction of the tide and the river flow, but its configuration is subject to change through the endless process of silting and erosion. The video below shows a dramatic bar crossing by a small fishing boat, which has to ride the incoming swells to pass over the bar into the harbor.

Given the complex and changing nature of such bar harbors, commercial vessels long ago began using local harbor pilots who come aboard to take the ships in and out. A shipwreck report on the loss of the Coila in 1885 indicates the critical nature of such operations. While waiting to cross the bar out of Poole Harbour into the English Channel, the Coila's master told the harbor pilot to press on ahead of schedule. The pilot warned that he did not believe the tide was high enough yet to give them depth to clear the bar, but the ship's master insisted they go ahead in spite of the risk. The Coila grazed the bar, inflicting damage below the waterline that eventually caused her loss at sea.

For Tennyson, his fellow Britons, and all other sea-faring peoples, the perils of crossing a bar were quite familiar. In the video above it is obvious that there is a point of no return when the pilot has committed to cross and will either pass safely over or meet disaster. For a boat leaving the harbor, as in Tennyson's poem, the same is true; once the ship has begun its crossing there is no turning back.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems a sleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark.

For, though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

There is a very fine analysis of this poem written by a Cambridge student, Claire Wilkinson, that brought out a number of features I had never noticed. First is the finality with which Tennyson discusses his impending death. Each stanza uses the term "when"--"When I put out to sea," "When that . . . turns again home," "When I embark," "When I have crossed the bar." There is no "if" in his mind; it is a departure that may be delayed but never canceled. This is emphasized on a larger level by the openings of the first and third stanzas: "Sunset and evening star" give way to "Twilight and evening bell / And after that the dark!" He has seen the progression day by day throughout his life; it has always been so, and now he sees the same advance toward the close of his own life's day.

Wilkinson also notes the elements of uncertainty: "And may there be no moaning of the bar," "And may there be no sadness of farewell;" the poet wishes this to be so, but does not know this will be the case. These are elements of uncertainty because they lie within the free will of the poet and his audience (suggested by "our" in the last stanza). In the final stanza, however, we read that "The flood may bear me far," and that the poet "hopes" to see his Pilot "face to face." These are beyond the control of the poet, and unknowable (at least in the fullest sense) until experienced.

Finally, Wilkinson notes the capitalization of just three words in this poem: "Time," "Place," and "Pilot," all of which occur in the final stanza. Time is passing in the poem, from sunset to twilight to darkness. Place is also in transition; it is a shifting, unseen shoal, right at the transition point from the known harbor to the unknown sea. Even the poetic rhythm Tennyson uses--a rambling arrangement of 6-, 10-, and 4-syllable lines--suggests the ever-evolving patterns of the waves. But the Pilot, introduced abruptly in the penultimate line, stands outside this cycle; He is the unseen second character in this story, whose role is well worth understanding.

Ms. Wilkinson closes her essay by inviting comment on who the Pilot might be. Some have suggested that Tennyson was speaking of Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and close friend from his youth, whose death at the age of twenty-two grieved Tennyson the rest of his days. But the far more obvious explanation--though I do not fault Ms. Wilkinson for challenging us to draw conclusions for ourselves--is what Tennyson himself said. According to the poet, the Pilot is "that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us . . . The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him."(Hill, 496)

This is not to say that Tennyson was a traditional Christian; in "Tennyson and religion," Ms. Wilkinson notes that the poet described himself at least once as a kind of "pantheist." But the image of the Pilot in the poem is very particular: He is a person, not a force; He can be known "face to face." And if "crossing the bar" is death, who better for the Harbor Pilot than Jesus Christ, who has made the crossing before? I wonder if Tennyson found himself, as many people do, looking again for comfort in the faith of his youth at the end of life's day.

Tennyson was absolutely right about one thing: we will all "cross the bar" someday. There is no "if," but only "when," in regard to that statement. "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment."(Hebrews 9:27) That is an appointment no one will miss; no one will even be late. Now, we may not wish to think about it; I do not like to contemplate the fact of my eventual death any more than anyone else. When I was a boy I used to assume for some reason that Jesus would come back before I died, and that I would not have to go that route myself; but as years pass and I go to more and more funerals, I realize that I have no more reason to suppose I will escape death by that means than any of the other billions who are living and have lived on this earth. I cannot cheat death, and there is no good in denying its reality. What I can do, is to "put my house in order"(2 Kings 20:1) so that I am ready when the time comes.

And what of the "moaning of the bar?" Some have interpreted this as the moaning of people who have come to see the ship off, who might gather near the bar, that being the furthest point to sea they could reach. This harks back to the earlier line of the "sadness of farewell." But in context, I believe it refers to the speaker's own experience--he explicitly says that, instead of a "moaning of the bar," he prefers "a tide as moving seems a sleep." He wishes for a peaceful transition; and I believe he is speaking of the experience of death itself, not of the reactions of others.

Perhaps Tennyson wished, as we sometimes hear expressed in prayer, for "a quiet hour in which to pass"--a death free from physical turmoil and suffering. But the entire poem is so reflective of the poet's frame of mind toward death, I would suggest that he really wishes for a calm spirit at the moment of departure--that he would not be "moaning of the bar," but instead surrender himself serenely into the hands of God.

Scripture gives us many scenes of the end of life, some noble and some ignoble; but when we are looking for examples of how to meet that appointment we all shall keep, we can do no better than those given by Jesus and His apostles who followed in His footsteps. Peter knew for years--ever since Jesus told him on the shore of Galilee--that he would die at the hands of men.(John 21:18-19) By the time of the writing of 2 Peter he could say, "I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me."(2 Peter 1:14)

What then was his thinking about his impending death? "I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder . . . and I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things."(2 Peter 1:13,15) He was busily working for the kingdom, doing what he could for the glory of God and the benefit of the church. There is no retirement plan in Christ's kingdom; we are at our posts until relieved. Age slows us down, but as long as we can teach and encourage, as long as we can pray, there is work to be done and we are needed!

The apostle Paul thought about his death frequently, not surprising for someone who seems always to have been just a step ahead of a lynch mob. I believe the key to Paul's serene attitude toward his mortality is revealed in his statement to the Christians at Philippi:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.(Philippians 1:20-24)
You cannot break a man like Paul; he cared about one thing only, and no amount of threatening, beating, or stoning could take it away from him. His only reservation about death was the loss of his usefulness to the cause of Christ in this world; other than that, he found it a gain in every way.

When I come to the end of my life, I pray that I will be able to face death like Paul. At the close of 2 Timothy, Paul sounds very much like a tired old man, but his words are still full of that martial vigor: "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith."(2 Timothy 4:7) He never said that he had won every battle, or that he came in first in every race. But he kept the faith. He had fought as well as he could, and never abandoned the field; and whether he finished the race running, walking, or crawling, he crossed the finish line.

Of course our greatest example of all, in this as in all things, is Jesus Christ himself. And though we obviously cannot imitate Him in every aspect of His unique death, we can be comforted and advised by considering the attitude with which He approached it. He gave His disciples a preview of His distinctly different thinking when He said,
For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father."(John 10:17-18)
We do not have such mastery and foreknowledge of our own departures, but we can remind ourselves that death is a part of our Father's plan to bring us back to Him, and submit trustingly to His will just as Jesus did. Jesus did not cling to His life, begging for mercy; He "yielded up His spirit."(Matthew 27:50). He "bowed His head and gave up His spirit."(John 19:30) But consider first the last words Jesus spoke before this act: "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!"(Luke 23:46) This was a quote from Psalm 31:5, and at least as far back as the Mishnah was part of the prayers a faithful Jew would say every evening before going to sleep. One scholar notes,
The custom to pray before going to sleep reflects man's need for protection in a state of suspended consciousness and vulnerability, especially since sleep was held in ancient times to be similar to death.(Blumenthal)
Traditionally one would recite the Shema first (Deuteronomy 6) as a reminder of and recommitment to the Torah; but some rabbis held that those who studied the Torah daily were already in such a state, and needed only to recite the invocation from Psalm 31:5. Jesus, living as He did in constant subjection to and awareness of His Father's will, said only the customary bedtime prayer before giving up His life.

One of the saddest lines in all of poetry is from Dylan Thomas's famous poem about death: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light / Do not go gently into that good night." When all is finished, what does that attitude accomplish? What is gained? How much better to lay our heads down to sleep as little children, committing our spirits to God who has promised to keep us in His care? Here is my own desire for myself; and I believe this is what Tennyson's poem reaches for as well.

Finally, it is interesting to compare Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" to the well-known hymn "Jesus, Savior, pilot me," written by Edward Hopper in 1871. Hopper speaks of Jesus as the Pilot who guides us home: "When at last I reach the shore / And the fearful breakers roar." Tennyson, however, speaks of the Lord as a Pilot who is taking us out from the familiar harbor into the unknown sea. Certainly both uses of the metaphor are valid and meaningful in their own ways; but "crossing the bar" to Tennyson is the beginning of the journey, not the end. This life is not the ocean, but just a harbor where we prepare for the great adventure, where "that which drew from out the boundless deep"--the eternal part of us, made in the image of our Father--"turns again home."

About the music:

My wife and I have a number of ongoing debates about music, some dating back to our courtship nearly 30 years ago. (These debates will never be resolved, but they do serve to sharpen one's thinking!) Many of these take the form of, "What is the best song by 'X'?" When it comes to Lloyd O. Sanderson, though, we have always been fairly well agreed: "Be with me, Lord" is his best song overall, in terms of its longstanding value to so many people, but his prettiest song, far and away, is his setting of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar."

It reminds us that, though Sanderson is always associated with the more workaday materials of hymnals for congregational singing, he also had a background in classical choral music. He began his music career as a choir director for the Methodist Church in his home town, and in the 1920s directed the chorus at Harding University. He also made the most of the education opportunities that were available to him, taking college courses in music through Southwest Missouri State and the University of Arkansas as his work permitted.("Autobiography")

Sanderson's setting of "Crossing the bar" first appeared in Christian Hymns no. 1, published in 1935 by the Gospel Advocate in Nashville, Tennessee and by Firm Foundation in Austin, Texas. It was one of a number of new songs written by Sanderson, who was hard-pressed to fill out the hymnal given the Gospel Advocate's limited funds for purchasing copyright permissions. Ironically, these songs were (in my opinion) Sanderson's very best work!

What Sanderson accomplished in this setting is proof that the thoughtful application of a few simple, timeworn rules of thumb is the path to great craftsmanship and sometimes to exceptional brilliance. The opening phrase pair ("Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me") give us first a plagal ("Amen") cadence, then an imperfect authentic cadence (ending on the tonic chord, but with MI in the soprano instead of DO--it doesn't sound quite as finished as it might). These are just short sallies away from the home key; but then the next phrase pair ("And may there be no moaning of the bar / When I put out to sea") brings us firmly to a cadence on the dominant chord of the key (SOL-TI-RE).

I am always hesitant to say what a composer was thinking, but I believe Sanderson may have been illustrating the text here; the opening is serene but in motion, then there is a determined move away from the home key--when we reach then end of the phrase "When I put out to sea," there is no question that we have left the tonic chord and are headed somewhere else!

In the second half of the setting, Sanderson builds the tension through each successive sub-phrase by the placement of the highest notes of the melody. We already heard the high "TI" or leading tone of the key on the word "I" in "When I put out to sea;" that TI is left hanging, begging to be resolved up to DO. Sanderson touches it again in the next phrase: "But such a tide as moving seems a sleep." He ups the ante in the phrase that follows, passing up DO to peak on RE: "Too full for sound or foam." Now comes the highest note of the entire piece, one step higher yet, then striding firmly back down the scale: "When that which drew from out the boundless deep." The final phrase ("Turns again home, turns home") is an anticlimax, actually monotone in the melody but with chords moving quietly underneath.

Now, did Sanderson intend to paint a picture of "crossing the bar" in the second half? A phrase reaches toward the top of the scale but falls short; another phrase reaches a little higher; then there is the triumphant third try that resolves into calm. I think this may well have been his plan. It is also interesting to see how well the words of the final pair of stanzas fit the music the second time around. Of course, Tennyson wrote his poem with that kind of parallelism; but Sanderson had the good sense to follow it!

There are only minor adjustments to the text here and there, particularly the repetition in the lines "Turns again home, turns home" and "When I, when I embark." In both cases Sanderson had to smooth out the irregularities of Tennyson's varying line lengths, in order to make the music fit both sets of words. Necessary and permissible, since the repetition of the music fits the parallels in the poetry!

I wish I could find a recording of this work to post here; if anyone knows of one (that can be used legally!) please link it in the comments section.


Hill, Robert W. Tennyson's Poetry. New York: Norton, 1971.

Wilkinson, Claire. "Practical criticism: Tennyson's 'Crossing the bar.'" Cambridge Authors. Cambridge University, 2012.

Wilkinson, Claire. "Tennyson and religion." Cambridge Authors. Cambridge University, 2012.

Blumenthal, H. Elchanan. "Night Prayer." Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2012.

Sanderson, Lloyd O. "'The Lord has been mindful of me': an autobiography of L. O. Sanderson." Gospel Advocate 146/9 (September, 2004), pages 26-28.