Music In Early Texas History
Sing me your song so I’ll know your story; whistle your tune so I’ll know your heart.
Every generation has a song. That song reveals what they are thinking or how they survived the tough times. After a church service several years ago, a lady confronted me in the foyer. She was known as one who opposed contemporary worship music, and that was still on her mind. She said, “Pastor, we already have enough hymns. Nobody needs to be writing anymore!” How sad that anyone would deny the present generation the joy of writing their own songs for Jesus. Indeed, every generation should have the privilege of putting their experiences with God to music.
In early Texas history, the songs of those pioneers expressed their joys and sorrows. The songs they sang as they fought for freedom, or worked in the fields, or worshipped at church, revealed their heart. Many of their songs were folk tunes handed down through the generations. Those of Scottish ancestry, often brought their music from Scotland. The Germans had their favorites, as did the Spanish and French. The cultural songs of the Old World melded with the original tunes of the Native Americans and African-American slaves, to form a new song in the New World.
When the Texan Army went to war, they often sang old songs that united them in battle. Many historians say that the song “Green Grow the Lilacs” was sung by the defenders of the Alamo in response to the Mexican bugle’s rendition of Èl Degüello (no mercy). At San Jacinto, the Texan Army marched to the tune, "Will You Come to the Bower?" Later, our soldiers trooped to the Civil War singing the new song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
In the schools, the children usually sang songs that were imported from outside of Texas. Some of their favorites were America (My country 'tis of thee), My Bonnie, and Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, She'll be Coming Round the Mountain, Annie Laurie, Camptown Races, Home Sweet Home, Oh Susannah, Little Brown Church in the Vale, Battle Hymn of the Republic, My Darling Clementine, and Polly Wolly Doodle.
It is said that the first song or poem that was written on Texas soil was an elegy by Jaun Bautista Chapa. He is considered one of the early historians of Texas, and travelled with explorer Alonso De León in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1689, their expedition came across the remains of Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek, that was founded by the earlier explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The requiem is filled with much sorrow and grief, and ends with the phrase: For celestial dwelling bound, though pierced with such a wound. Pray thee to the God eternal, Spare us from the hell infernal.
As history unfolded, there were many original songs credited to songwriters in Texas. You will note that the following composers chose to honor God and His direct impact in Texas. These were not just songs for church. They were folk tunes sung when the families and friends gathered for meetings and fellowship.
In 1838, J. C. Parmenter wrote the Texan Hymn:
ARISE, arise, brave Texians, awake to liberty: To Mexican oppressors no longer bend the knee; But hasten to the combat, with freedom's flag unfurled, That the glorious deeds of Texas may echo through the world. For we are determined to die or to be free, And Texas triumphant our watchword shall be.
The bugle sounds to battle, war desolates our land, Proud Mexico's vile minions advance upon our band; But though the blood of Texians should crimson every plain The rights that God has given us, forever we'll maintain.
In 1842, an unknown writer penned these words:
Ye men of Texas, can you see Yon swarthy foeman coming on, And know that God has made you free, By San Jacinto's battle won? Can you look on with careless eye, Regardless of your sacred right Or strive a shameful peace to buy? Up! men of Texas, to the fight.
Pioneer Texas preacher Rev. Z.N. Morrell wrote of a time when he was conducting meetings near the Guadalupe River. As the meeting closed, word came that an attack by Indians was coming. As the settlers hurriedly returned to their cabins, they started singing the old hymn:
On Jordan's stormy banks I stand, And cast a wishful eye. To Canaan's fair and happy land, Where my possessions lie.
Chorus: Oh, sacred hope; oh, blissful hope, By inspiration given, The hope, when days and years are passed, We all shall meet in heaven.
In 1855,the East Texas Musical Convention was formed to give people the opportunity to learn and sing the old hymns and newer sacred songs. Now known as the Sacred Harp Convention, their music was unique in that they used the shaped note style of notation. Out of this convention came musical institutions like National Music Company and the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company. Many say that the Quartet Conventions of the early 20th Century had their origin in the Sacred Harp Conventions.
The truth is that songs of praise to God had a powerful influence in the lives of early Texans. Their music reflected their love, trust, and total dependence upon God for their very survival. This article only touches on the mountain of sacred music that was a refuge in those stormy times. The Texas patriots joined together to honor Psalm 95:1 NLT, “Come, let us sing to the LORD! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.” In many of their gatherings, they incorporated the admonition of the Apostle in Colossians 3:16 NLT, “Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom He gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.”