Thursday, November 15, 2018

Flee as a Bird

Praise for the Lord #151

Words by Mary S. B. Dana Shindler, 1842
Music: Spanish air

Mary Stanley Bunce Palmer Dana (1810-1883) grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister who saw that she received as much abundance in educational and cultural opportunities as she did in middle names. His investment was not in vain, for young Mary showed early signs of a sharp wit and a talented pen (Woodard 74). It would seem to have been a charmed life, until a series of personal losses turned her world upside down. From 1837 to 1839, she lost a sister, a brother, then her husband Charles E. Dana, and at last their only child (Woodard 76).

Used by permission:
By the norms of her era and station in life, Dana would have been expected to retreat to the home of her parents or other relatives. But Mary S. B. Dana instead turned her hand to what had formerly been her pastime of music and verse, and compiled a songbook titled The Southern Harp. In September 1840 she was able to get an initial run of 500 copies published by the prominent Boston music firm Parker & Ditson (Woodard 77). Its full title is descriptive of her approach: The Southern Harp: Consisting of Original Sacred and Moral Songs Adapted to the Most Popular Melodies: for the Piano-forte and Harp. These are parlor songs on religious themes, providing a more wholesome entertainment than the usual music hall fare while using much of the same music. The success of the first book soon led to The Northern Harp, graced with a preface by New England clergyman Edward William Hooker in which he even suggested the suitability of Dana's songs for social gatherings on the Sabbath, when entertainment was generally forbidden.

Mary Dana (later remarried as Mary Shindler) would go on to publish several other collections, and devoted her talents to the causes of temperance, education, and other social reforms, but her most enduring work was "Flee as a bird" from the 1842 Northern Harp. shows that another song from this collection, "I'm a pilgrim," has actually more instances in hymnals over the years, but the unusual melody of "Flee as a bird" caused it to be taken up by secular musicians as well, appearing as piano variations and even as a jazz standard (Woodard 92ff.).

Stanza 1:
Flee as a bird to your mountain,
Thou who art weary of sin;
Go to the clear flowing fountain
Where you may wash and be clean.
Fly, for the avenger is near thee;
Call and the Savior will hear thee;
He on His bosom will bear thee,
O thou who art weary of sin.

The opening line is from Psalm 11:1, but curiously, Dana has simply borrowed the simile and placed it in a completely different context. As Cat Quine's excellent article has demonstrated from Biblical and ancient Assyrian texts, the "bird fleeing to the mountain" was a common picture of a hasty and undignified retreat from battle; but the speaker in Psalm 8 roundly rejects the call to "flee as a bird," declaring instead his trust in God's deliverance. Dana instead turns her metaphorical focus to the helplessness and isolation of a lone bird, as seen in other Hebrew texts: "Like a bird that strays from its nest, is a man who strays from his home" (Proverbs 27:8); "I have been hunted like a bird by those who were my enemies without cause" (Lamentations 3:52). This bird gladly flies to its mountain refuge, seeking escape.

In Dana's poem, of course, the enemies are not the physical foes of the Psalmist, but rather one's own sins. Perhaps there are shades here of Psalm 6:6-7, one of the seven traditional Penitential Psalms:
I am weary with my moaning;
Every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
It grows weak because of all my foes.
When Jesus said, "Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28), He did not mean that following Him would be no work at all; but in comparison to the compounding weight of sins, "My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). The sinner in Dana's poem is as helpless in this plight as a small bird among its predators, or in the snare of a hunter; the only solution is to fly to safety where there is relief from sin.

The need to be washed clean from sin recalls another of the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 51:1-2:
Have mercy on me, O God,
According to Your steadfast love;
According to Your abundant mercy
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin!
The cleansing fountain is recalled in the Messianic language of Zechariah 13:1, "In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness." Paul touches on the same theme with his reassuring words to the Corinthians: "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11).

The second half of the stanza is set apart musically by the change from the minor key to its relative major key, and suggests a shift of mood from contemplation to urgency. The command to flee is repeated with the new impetus of an immediate threat to safety: the avenger. Our first thought in a Bible context is the cities of refuge described in Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 19, and Joshua 20. In cases of murder, the Hebrew Testament allowed the slain person's next-of-kin to deal retribution in kind; but if it were manslaughter, the guilty party could go to a city of refuge and receive sanctuary from the avenger. Only inside the city was the offender safe from the dreadful sentence.

We who are pursued by the guilt of sins today also need a place of refuge, where there is mercy from the law. This language is used in the letter to the Hebrews, describing God's steadfast love as that "city of refuge" in which we can trust:
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us (Hebrews 6:17-18).
In addition to seeking refuge, we are also advised to "call on" the Savior, another Biblical image of rescue. Joel spoke of this prophetically, saying, "And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls" (Joel 2:32). Peter preached at Pentecost that the day of salvation of which Joel spoke had arrived (Acts 2:16-21), and ever since then the Lord has been calling on us to call on Him. As Ananias told Saul of Tarsus, "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name" (Acts 22:16).

The stanza concludes with the touching image of being carried in the Lord's arms. We see this promised in the Isaiah 46:
"Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save" (Isaiah 46:3-4).
The prophecy is all the more powerful in its context, promising the deliverance of the people out of future bondage. God reminds them that He has carried them all along the way, and is not about to fail them, either at that time or in the future.

Stanza 2:
He will protect thee forever, 
Wipe every falling tear;
He will forsake thee, O never,
Sheltered so tenderly there.
Haste, then, the hours are flying,
Spend not the moments in sighing,
Cease from your sorrow and crying:
The Savior will wipe every tear.

Scripture is perfectly frank about the sorrows of this life. An entire book of the Hebrew Testament, after all, is titled "Lamentations." But it is worth noting that in the very center of that book of tears is this statement:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"Therefore I will hope in Him."
How ironic that this text, which has become a well-known song of praise, comes from the middle of such a book! The sorrow is real, but so is the steadfast love; God knows our tears, and cares. As David said, "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?" (Psalm 56:8). The prophets were clear, also, that a day was coming when tears would be dried forever. Isaiah 25:8 promises that someday,
He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken (Isaiah 25:8). 
Though there has already been a historical fulfillment of this prophecy with the restoration of the Jewish people from exile in Babylon, the Revelation picks up this language again in a far greater scope:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).
There is comfort available even in the midst of sorrow in this life, and greater comfort to come. God promises a day when there will be no more tears, when everything will be made right. Mary Dana's hymn encourages us not to be overwhelmed by the sadness--which she certainly could have been herself--but instead to seek the "God of all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3) who is able to "bring [us] safely into His heavenly kingdom" (2 Timothy 4:18).

About the music:

In my day job I have had the opportunity to catalog bound collections of sheet music from well-to-do ladies of the antebellum United States, and Mary Dana's arrangements are exactly what I would expect from a (previously) amateur musician of this era: a mix of light classical works and popular songs from composers famous at the time but seldom heard today, and arrangements of folk songs of a distinctive national character (Scottish, Spanish, and Swiss songs seem to have been particularly favored). Whatever her own considerable musical skills may have been, she knew her audience, and even adapted well known secular tunes to her spiritual lyrics. This appears to have been the case with "Flee as a bird," which bears a strong resemblance to the song "Llegó il instante amargo" which was also adapted by John T. S. Sullivan as "Break, my heart!" (Click here for a computer-generated rendition.)

This publication by Sullivan and Blessner was copyrighted in 1842, and is thus unlikely to be the source of Mary Dana's arrangement; but it does at least give a name to the "Spanish air." Further exploration of the Spanish title leads in unexpected directions. It appears to be a lyric published by Peruvian man-of-letters José Rossi y Rubí (1765-1803) in the first volume of the journal Mercurio Peruano (Lima, 1791, 1:55). This text was not original, but was a translation from the Italian canzonetta La Partenza, written by the classical opera librettist Pietro Metastasio (Fuentes 8:228). Where the tune itself joined up with the Spanish words is unclear, but it seems at least as likely to be Peruvian as Spanish.

Dana's arrangement of this tune with her original lyrics proved very popular, leading to an individual sheet music reprint by Ditson & Co. as late as 1857. The earliest four-part harmony version I have found is from William Bradbury's Cottage Melodies (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1859), where it is designated as "arranged for this work," presumably by Bradbury himself. Here the familiar repetition of the final line is present (not found in Dana's original), and a few other details of wording and melody are altered to the form found in most hymnals today. "Weary" replaces "sick" in the second line of the first stanza, the melody at "and be clean" is A-A-D instead of the original A-C#-D, and the dotted-eighth to sixteenth rhythms are slightly altered in places. The closing phrase of the melody continued to evolve in the hands of different hymnal editors until reaching its current version, a descending arpeggio, as can be observed through the numerous scans available at

Not surprisingly, this somewhat unusual hymn entered the repertoire of the Churches of Christ via Elmer Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church, in the 1930 edition. For most of my youth it was the only minor-key tune in the hymnals we used (depending on how you describe the tonality of "O sacred Head"). It has been recorded several times over the years by the choirs of our Christian colleges, which helped its popularity to spread.


Woodard, Patricia. “‘Flee as a Bird’: Mary Dana Shindler's Legacy.” American Music, vol. 26, no. 1, 2008, pp. 74–103.

Quine, Cat. "The Bird and the Mountains: A Note on Psalm 11." Vetus Testamentum, vol. 67 (2017), 470-479.

Fuentes, Manuel A. Biblioteca peruana de historia, ciencias y literatura. Lima: Bailly, 1861.

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I have always loved the song "Flee as a Bird" and listened to it over and over this evening as sung by Cynthia Clawson.
    It was quite by accident that I stumbled upon your blog but so glad that I did. Thank you for the research and for posting your findings. I am so interested in how this song came about and you've certainly added some light to me search! Willa Brown