Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thoro Harris

Gospel song writer and composer Thoro Harris (March 31, 1874 - March 27, 1955) was born in Washington DC. His father was black and his mother white, and some accounts claim that he "passed as white" in some situations, though it seems that he is generally considered to be an African-American Pentecostal songwriter.

After attending college in Battle Creek, Michigan, he lived in Boston and Chicago, compiling his first hymnbook in 1902 (containing several of his own songs). He wrote both texts and tunes, and sometimes arranged the tunes of other composers. We encountered Harris briefly as the arranger of a song based on Aloha Oe, the best-known melody by the Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani. Several other books under his editorship followed and his songs were widely sung for many years across many denominations, including the hymnals of Bishop Alma White's Pillar of Fire Church. In 1925 he edited The New Hymnal, the first collection for Swedish-American Baptists published in English (and containing 39 of his songs), though he was not a Baptist. The Cyber Hymnal's listing of his works (see the link above) is quite small; you can get a better sense of his large output as listed at The Hymnary site.

In addition to his many gospel songs, Harris also wrote some more "standard" hymn tunes as well, including this one, which may have first appeared in the Free Methodist Hymnal (1910), set to a translated text by Martin Luther, All praise to thee, Eternal Lord, but I think it suits this text as well.

O God, in whom we live and move,
Thy love is law, thy law is love;
Thy present Spirit waits to fill
The soul which comes to do thy will.

Unto thy people’s spirits teach
Thy love, beyond the powers of speech;
And make them know, with joyful awe,
Th'encircling presence of thy law.

Its patient working doth fulfill
Our hopes, and God’s all-perfect will,
Nor suffers one true word or thought,
Or deed of love, to come to naught.

Such faith, O God, our spirits fill,
That we may work in patience still.
Who works for justice, works for thee;
Who works in love, thy child shall be.

Samuel Longfellow, 1864
Thoro Harris, c. 1910

There is a Perry Street in Chicago, in Boston, and in Battle Creek so we can't say which one he had in mind, assuming it was Harris who named this tune and not some editor somewhere.

Around 1930 Harris moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he played the organ at several churches. He also owned a boarding house for a time, which is still in operation today as a bed-and-breakfast.

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