Tuesday, August 30, 2016

George Frederick Root

Composer and lyricist George Frederick Root (1820-1895), born today in Sheffield, Massachusetts, made his mark in secular songs as much as in songs for Sunday Schools and churches. In Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers (1914), author J. H. Hall writes that by age thirteen, Root could play as many instruments as he was years old.

His early career was as a teacher of music in several schools, and he did not compose much before 1850. Over the next ten years, however, he wrote songs (sometimes both texts and tunes but more often tunes only) which became very popular and by 1860 he went into the music publishing business with his brother and a friend as Root & Cady.  The successful firm lost thousands of dollars when their building and inventory burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The text of today's hymn (which was apparently originally sung to a melody known as Lord Ellin's Daughter) was shown to Root by his wife, who suggested he write a tune for it. He was not entirely pleased with the result, thinking it too simplistic, and though it was not immediately published, it eventually appeared in many hymnals (at least 552 according to Hymnary.org).  As told in Ira Sankey's Story of the Gospel Hymns, Root said "In after years I examined it in an endeavor to account for its great popularity - but in vain." Many writers of congregational song have been similarly baffled when texts or tunes they thought ephemeral became widely sung.

My days are gliding swiftly by;
And I, a pilgrim stranger,
Would not detain them as they fly,
Those hours of toil and labor.

For, oh! we stand on Jordan’s strand;
Our friends are passing over;
And, just before, the shining shore
We may almost discover.

We’ll gird our loins, my kindred dear,
Our distant home discerning:
Our waiting Lord has left us word,
Let ev’ry lamp be burning.

Should coming days be cold and dark,
We need not cease our singing:
That perfect rest naught can molest,
Where golden harps are ringing.

Let sorrow’s rudest tempest blow,
Each cord on earth to sever:
Jesus says, Come, and there’s our home,
Forever, oh! forever.

David D. Nelson, 1835; alt.
Tune: SHINING CITY ( with refrain)
George F. Root, 1855

David D. Nelson (1793-1844) was born in Tennessee and lived for many years in the South, serving as a surgeon in the War of 1812 and later pastoring Presbyterian congregations in Kentucky and Missouri before moving to Illinois (due at least in part to his anti-slavery views: "I will live on roast potatoes and salt before I will hold slaves," he once declared).

This hymn was reportedly a favorite of Henry Ward Beecher and later appeared in the Plymouth Sabbath School Collection of Hymns and Tunes (1865) which was published by William B. Bradbury but compiled from songs used at Beecher's Brooklyn church. Today, I am told this remains a well-loved hymn still sung at the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, where they proudly celebrate Beecher's legacy (including his immense contribution to congregational singing in this country).

Eight Years Ago: George Frederick Root

Seven Years Ago: George Frederick Root


Anonymous said...

I am a member of Plymouth Church and can attest that Plymouth Church does indeed continue to sing this hymn, particularly on Anniversary Sunday, the first Sunday in May. The church's current hymnal allowed for a supplement to be included as part of the book, so The Shining Shore is enshrined in our hymnal. We sing it heartily, though we do at times scratch our heads about the text. I cannot locate it now, but at one time one of our members found a moving account on the internet of this hymn being sung in a hospital tent during the Civil War. Thank you for this post, and indeed for your lovely blog.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Brooklyn Pilgrim. Hope you can find something more of interest in the blog archive. (there are a few more Beecher-related posts at least!)