American Angels is the diary of our journey to the roots of Anglo- American spiritual vocal music. It includes songs of redemption and glory spanning the years from the American Revolution to the present day: eighteenth-century psalm settings and fuging tunes from rural New England, nineteenth-century folk hymns and camp revival songs from the rural South, and gospel songs originating in Northeastern cities and adopted in the late nineteenth century by rural Southerners. Each of these musical styles has played its own part in an interweaving of oral and written traditions, in which favorite older tunes have survived and flourished from one generation to the next. We love the fact that these tunes have been treasured by so many others before us. They have been printed again and again in the tunebooks, and imprinted on the memories of generation after generation of singers, who continue to sing them at singing conventions, in worship services, and in many other settings.
The story of the rural American sacred music featured in American Angels opens with the attempts of certain eighteenth-century colonists to “improve” upon the lining out of psalms. In this practice—the main musical worship practice in the Colonies at the time— a deacon read out a line of text, the congregation responded by singing it, the deacon read out another line of text, and so on. How did those in favor of replacing the “old way of singing” with “regular singing” accomplish their goal? With the introduction of the singing school, where students practiced singing the octave scale with European solmization syllables, ??fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa, and learned to sing music composed in three and four parts. The singing school acted as a primary means of teaching and disseminating music in New England during the eighteenth century.
The musical settings of psalms and hymns taught in the earliest singing schools and published in the first colonial American tunebooks were imported from England. But by the late eighteenth century, New England tunesmiths—singing school masters who had themselves attended the singing schools—had started to make their own contributions. Many of them compiled their own tunebooks, which they sold to singing school students in each town they visited. They were at first greatly influenced by the English composers of their day, but soon the sound of their compositions began to reflect their rural American origins. Most frequently taking their texts from the English poet Isaac Watts, the New Englanders wrote pieces intended both for worship and for artistic expression. They favored among other styles four-part homophonic settings of psalms, such as Poland and Amanda, and fuging tunes featuring both homophonic and imitative sections, such as Blooming Vale. In both forms, the tenor line holds the tune, but the other three voices carry equally strong, independent, melodies.