Saturday, August 30, 2008

George Frederick Root

Composer George Frederick Root was born today in 1820. Musical from an early age, he studied with George Webb, and later worked with Lowell Mason, probably the best-known hymn tune composer in America at that time.

As an instructor at Mason's Boston Academy of Music, he began his composing career with simple pieces for his students, often writing both words and music for his songs and choral pieces. In 1848 he collaborated with Fanny Crosby on a simple cantata called The Flower Queen. They would go on to write several more pieces together, both secular and sacred.

During the Civil War he wrote several songs that were much in demand, including The Battle Cry of Freedom. Publishers had trouble keeping up with the orders for the sheet music, and a southern poet appropriated the tune and wrote a Confederate version for the other side to sing. Root edited a number of collections of songs, anthems, and hymns, all containing many of his compositions (The Sabbath Bell and others are available online). You can hear quite a few of them at this page.

Root's hymns and gospel songs were apparently very popular, appearing in dozens of American hymnals of the late nineteenth century, but they mostly faded out in the twentieth. This is one that I like, based on a story of Jesus' healing from Matthew 9:18-26.

She only touched the hem of his garment
As to his side she stole,
Amid the crowd that gathered around him,
And straightway she was whole.

Oh, touch the hem of Christ's garment!
And thou, too, shalt be free!
That saving power this very hour
Shall give new life to thee!

She came in fear and trembling before him,
She knew the Christ had come;
She felt that from him virtue had healed her,
The mighty deed was done.

He turned with “Daughter, be of good comfort,
Thy faith hath made thee whole!”
And peace that passeth all understanding
With gladness filled her soul.

George F. Root, 19th c.; alt.
Tune: GARMENT'S HEM ( with refrain)
George F. Root, 19th c.

Not wholly forgotten, George Root was inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, though perhaps more for The Battle Cry of Freedom than for his hymns.


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Even more than "The Battle Cry of Freedom", I think his legacy depends on "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" ("In my prison cell I sit, thinking, mother dear, of you..."), and this not so much for itself as because after the war the tune was adapted for use with a children's hymn by C. H. Woolston beginning "Jesus calls the children dear", whose refrain has become a universal standby.

A number of additional verses have been written to turn the refrain of "Jesus loves the little children" into the first stanza of a hymn of its own. One of my favorites is from the Reorganized LDS [now "Community of Christ"] Hymns of the Saints— the first verse is Woolston's (though they call it anonymous; the second—"Jesus died for all the children"—as far as I know is anonymous; and the third is by RLDS member Rosalee Elser:

Jesus rose to save the children,
All the children of the world;
Brothers, sister of each land,
Just reach out and take his hand.
Jesus rose to save the children of the world.

But I think there is something to be said for the Southern Baptists' rewrite of the "red and yellow, black and white" line (which while universal is also stereotypical and unrealistic about skin tones and Crayola terms):

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Every color, every race,
All are covered by his grace.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

(#592 in the 1991 Baptist Hymnal; ©1991 Broadman Press)

Incidentally, "Kristo amas la infanetojn", Ann E Beatty's Esperanto version of "Jesus loves the little children", was the opening hymn in Espero Internacia, the first Esperanto-language Christian hymnal published in the US (ca. 1920).

"She only touched the hem of his garment" is a favorite of mine; I only recall seeing it in one hymnal (Church of the Brethren?) that I don't own and whose title escapes me ...Hymns of Praise and Worship?... but I enjoyed singing it, and photocopied it in technical violation of copyright.

Leland aka Haruo

Dorothy said...

I love that passage in Matthew 9 and the hymn is a lovely expression of it.

robert said...

Thanks for posting a bit about George Root. (Today, as I write, is the 190th anniversary of his birth.) And yes, he was one of those musicians who was successful both in the secular and sacred fields.

If you enjoy reading about our hymns and their authors, I invite you to check out my daily blog on the subject, Wordwise Hymns.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks, Robert. Hope you also saw the 2009 Root entry (though I did miss his birthday this year).

I have indeed been following your blog almost since its beginning.