Living Memorials

Brothertown singing traditions, remembered by quahog clam shells (wampum material) and a singers’ “Memorial Lesson” for OCCOM.

February for me is Brothertown Singing Month.
There’s no such thing–this is just for me personally.
But there are good reasons…

Wampum and music– they are animate.
They remind us. They are memory keepers.
Living memorials. As are we who sing.

Three years ago today,
peoples gathered,
Brothertown, shape note singers, academics, more,
and we sang for each other,
and we heard the music first written and published,
though sometimes much older than that,
by Thomas Commuck (Narragansett/Brothertown) (1804-55)
in his musical tunebook Indian Melodies (1845).

The quahog clam shells,
the wampum beings–
–they have something to remind us–
that’s what they do.
But we have to listen.

Here are some views of memorial-wampums I crafted lightly–too lightly really to be wampum, I admit– with the whole half shells, their bodies!, given me by the quahogs. The gift must always move. These were gift memorial wampums I gave to as many of the traveling singers and core organizers and Brotherton as I was able to make . . . . . . wish I could have made triple as many . . . They have traveled back now to homes all across the continent,
where they whisper still: “sing Commuck” “sing for Brothertown”

it was ten years ago this month (!), February 2011, that I ordered my own first facsimile of Commuck’s Indian Melodies, and opened an ever-surprising door of learning and searching and meeting and relations and, I’ll admit, endless compulsive reading, and teamwork with so many wonderful people . . .
. . . I had no clue then that there could be such a thing as the Calumet and Cross Heritage Society, Inc., 501(c)(3), promoting Brothertown Indian culture and heritage, or that I might be one of its founding officers and members of the Board of Directors!

February 3rd, 2018, was also a reveal of sorts for Calumet and Cross Heritage Society, which had put up the $$ for the musical “program booklet” = selection of ca. one third of Commuck’s original contents which best told the Brothertown story, plus many modern add-on features . . .
🙂 What a great singers’ and Brothertown resource !!!
–still available– info here


Shifting topics,
yet not–

memory, memorials, living memorials . . .
wampum and music are animate . . .

“people of wampum” might include all the Northeastern Algonkian peoples and also the Haudenosaunee.
The Haudenosaunee especially used (use) wampum ceremonially for memorials and adoptions and condolences; besides the usual gift-relationship-reciprocity establishment or maintenance among peoples, and political and diplomatic messages, and other communal and sacred functions and meanings.

Sir William Johnson, in explaining his expenses in Mohawk country to his Royal and Parliamentary financiers as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern colonies, described often the day or days of annual councils which were taken up entirely with sharing of news, remembrances, condolences, and memorials for those who had walked on since the last year’s gathering . . .

Such observances were widespread in colonial era “Indian Country” (and before, and still…)

In this context,
I found it extra-striking in recent-months’ stumble upon when I found for myself
what I am convinced is exactly
tunesmith Abraham Wood’s (1752-1804)
Memorial Lesson
for the Reverend Samson Occom (Mohegan/Brothertown) (1723 – 1792–not a coincidence!).

From The Columbian Harmony (Joseph Stone and Abraham Wood) 1793.

We should sing this tune more.
[[ ! Remember: the most main melody is in the third staff down = the “Lead” part = Tenors of all description and some octave-doubling by high women’s voice — but all these parts are wonderful! ]]

It’s one thing for shape note singers and musical researchers to dig and search and sift and feel and find sources for TUNES and TEXTS sung in the living hollow square, shape note singing traditions.

It’s a whole nother thing to explain all the EXTRA-MUSICAL customs ubiquitous in the tradition,
such as the
all-day sing with dinner on the grounds
the memorial lesson . . .

The more I learn,
the more I feel that these elements really entered shape note traditions through the participation and traditions of singing Native Americans, Brothertown very high on that list . . .

Rev. Samson Occom’s journals in the fall of 1785 describe a full day of community gathering, shucking corn and tending to the harvest at his Montaukett brother-in-law David Fowler’s place in the new Brothertown community on Oneida land, upstate “New York”,
with singing of psalms and hymns all through the labors,
and with a break in the middle for communal shared meal.
That’s an all-day singing with dinner on the grounds.
I don’t know of earlier precedent.

And Abraham Wood’s Memorial Lesson for Samson Occom, published within a year of Occom’s death, makes for me a clear early landmark in the mainstream singers’ practice of Memorial Lesson, and a really interesting case of mutual acculturations….

The tune is titled OCCOM.
Although not attributed in originals,
the text also is Occom’s.
It is the only text of his own which Occom included in the landmark interdenominational hymnal which he compiled and published (1774: New London, CT).
The hymnody meter of the tune and the text is C.P.M., or “Common Particular Meter”– and this meter is noted as “Occom’s favorite meter” (Wm. DeLoss Love, 1899, p. 186)– so, now there are actually several identified Rev. Occom texts to choose from which work with this tune! I am inspired by that . . . read on . . . 🙂
And the musical style of Wood’s tune OCCOM– wow– it is wild.
What . . . a . . . tune !!
It reminds me of nothing so much as William Knapp–a rural English composer often credited with innovating the fuguing tune and inspiring substantial trends in West Gallery and North American colonial ==> shape note musics.
It’s not like most of Wood’s other music.
It feels very particular and personal; rangy and emphatic; oddly chromatic [I believe whole-heartedly in exactly and only the three C-sharps in all parts combined with which Wood highlighted the tune! etc.]–and such varied, idiosyncratic, athletic rhythms!
Abraham Wood was born and died in Northboro, Mass. He didn’t get around much, as Occom did. We have no indication they ever met.
And yet, Wood knew, and he was moved.
Something about the Reverend Samson Occom (Mohegan/Brothertown) and/or his works,
moved Abraham Wood, inspired his memorial to Samson Occom in words-set-to-music, led him to create and to publish his new memorial tune within the year of death.
What a grand overlapping of the New England singing school and Native and (would become) shape note singing traditions!
And mutual influence, I believe– “mutual acculturation” as jargon may prefer.


I can’t wait ’til we can gather again and sing.
There’s some Commuck I really want to hear with you all.
And there’s a Memorial Lesson for Rev. Samson Occom I really want to sing and hear with you all.

Even while we await regathering,
wampum is whispering, waiting with us, reminding us . . .
. . . we who gather alive with the generations, for the generations,
also will remember those who are no longer with us here,
especially those we’ve lost in the last year, or since our last gathering.
It’s the Native way. It’s the shape note singers’ way.

Until then, to help us all prepare,
here are my new type-settings of Abraham Wood’s tune OCCOM; with a couple different Occom texts, just to feel how they handle.

Please sing!

also, careful ! –this tune has been a pretty persistent “ear-worm” for me since my stumble-upon . . . warned you . . .


more wampum beings — quahog clam shells — and one rugged passenger….

Author: whiteravenarchivesproject

musician, independent scholar, shape note singer, Brothertown Indian Nation cultural researcher and ally

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