I'll Sing On
Treasure Hunts, Dead Composers, and Eternity
Jim Clemens

Not long after the great Y2K scare, I come across a small, early American tunebook on eBay.

I’ve spent countless hours searching for additions to my small hoard of antique tunebooks and hymnals, but this one is new to me: The Christian Melodist, compiled and arranged by Deerin Farrer (never heard of him) and printed by William Williams (ditto) of Utica, New York, in 1828. It contains, so the title page shouts in all caps, “A GREAT VARIETY OF SACRED SONGS AND HYMNS, OF APPROVED EXCELLENCE.

Approved excellence. How can I ignore that?

Music has saturated my environment since childhood. Before I reached school age, I sat at the piano and made up “songs,” which my dad copied down on manuscript paper. Although “There’s a Giant Walking Over You” never topped the Billboard charts, I still remember it fondly.

My parents, my younger sister, and I sang every day—wake-up songs, table graces, silly songs (usually Dad), lullabies (Mom). We sang along with Sesame Street, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Fiddler on the Roof. In the evenings we gathered in the living room and sang from the Fireside Book of Children’s Songs before bedtime.

Surrounded by four-part a cappella singing at church, I learned to sing alto, adding tenor and bass during middle school. While the pastor preached, I combed through our brick-red songbook, The Mennonite Hymnal, hunting for treasures to take me back to a time I imagined through Eric Sloane’s drawings in Diary of an Early American Boy. Some favorites: the boisterous EASTER ANTHEM by William Billings (1746–1800), with its enchanting image of “crystal ports of light;” the jubilant CORONATION by Oliver Holden (1765–1844), evoking festive fanfares; and the rustic and beguiling “folk hymns” such as SOCIAL BAND and WONDROUS LOVE, by the prolific Anonymous.

Those rugged early American tunes grabbed me by the ears and pulled me into their world. When I began writing music “for real” during high school, they supported my own compositions like hand-hewn barn beams, as they still do today. My favorite music from that period is peppered with open fifths, lowered sevenths, irregular phrases, and modal harmonies—tools I keep in my own composer toolbox.

A small number of venerable tune collections, including The Southern Harmony of 1835 and The Sacred Harp of 1844, have singing societies devoted to keeping this music alive. But only a handful of early American tunes make it into modern hymnals. Hundreds of others passed into obscurity before the invention of the phonograph, formless and forgotten.

Deerin Farrer’s curious name rings no bells, but the publication year of his book on eBay piques my interest: 1828. The Christian Melodist—I’ll call it TCM—predates both The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp.

Time to make a bid.

A week and $120 later (well-known titles can fetch many times that price), I’m the book’s new owner. Its dusty-green water-stained paper covers have been worn away along the edges by the hands of long-dead singers, revealing the wood beneath. The word “Melodist,” printed in gold leaf, adorns the dark leather spine. I find dog-eared pages, brown spots called foxing, even purple crayon marks. But the music and words are legible, the binding still holds together, no pages have fallen out—and it smells like one of my favorite places on earth: a used book store.

On my first visit to The Book Stack in Elkhart, Indiana, thoughts crowded into my adolescent head: A whole store full of used books? Why would anyone ever get rid of a book? I’ll never sell any of mine!

I’ve explored countless versions of The Book Stack since the 1970s, in many states and countries. Room after room, floor upon floor of dusty and faded and fragile and crooked and tattered and glorious BOOKS, stashed on shelves, wedged into boxes, heaped in precarious piles.

Mixed in with the delight of so many stories crammed into one space is the hope that a forgotten, one-of-a-kind treasure is waiting for me—and the fear that I’ll never find it.

Paging gently through Deerin Farrer’s collection from nearly two centuries ago, I recognize many tune names: WINDHAM, LENOX, CORONATION, SILVER STREET. But some are new to me: HUMILIATION, DROOPING SOULS, DANIEL IN THE LION’S DEN.

Although tunebooks from this era don’t always name composers or authors, Deerin identifies himself as composer or arranger of thirteen tunes in TCM. This intrigues me, so—with fledgling internet skills but much enthusiasm—I type his name into Yahoo and pull up ...



I’d expected at least one reference to this composer, maybe something about his schooling, his life as a singing master, or even just his birth and death dates. He published his own book, after all.

Well, hold on. Actually, he didn’t. He compiled it. As the title page states, William Williams of Utica published it in 1828. Can I learn anything from that?

This time my internet search locates something promising: An Oneida County Printer, William Williams—Printer, Publisher, Editor. The book contains a “bibliography of the press at Utica … from 1803–1838.”

My interlibrary loan copy ($3.50 for shipping) arrives a few days later.

Skipping the introduction and foreword, I leaf through the bibliographies. The section for 1828 lists these titles:

Map of the State of New York—by John Fish
Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne—Written by Himself

I wonder briefly if Himself was acquainted with Anonymous.

Reading on:

“They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships”—Psalmist
Musica Sacra—by Thomas Hastings and Solomon Warriner

Hastings and Warriner aren’t in my good book; they’re among the smug musicians who took the bite out of hymns by “correcting” them with European composition methods. But at least it’s a tunebook. Next:

The Patriot’s Manual—Compiled by Jesse Hopkins
Map of the State of Michigan—Engraved by Balch and Stiles
Roll of Members of the Temperance Society of Utica

Sounds like a real page-turner.

Finishing out the list:

Common School Manual
Preston’s Tables of Interest
—by Lyman Preston

Did Mr. Preston include the periodic table? How about the water table? Did those interest him? Or did he create etchings of his favorite dining room tables? Or maybe—     

Wait a minute. Back the truck up.

The author's second copy of Deerin Farrer's The Christian Melodist, published in 1828.

Where’s the entry for The Christian Melodist?

I double-check the date in TCM, even though I know it like my own reflection in the mirror—1828. Not yet frantic, I inspect the titles from 1827, then 1829. Still nothing. Using a ruler to make sure my eyes don’t skip around—and to stem the tide of panic—I examine every title published from 1803 through 1838.

In disbelief, I close the book.

First, nothing about Deerin Farrer in my search. Now, no reference to Deerin’s tunebook in the publisher’s bibliography. I’m not one to cry “Conspiracy!”—but what was going on here?

Baffled but undeterred, I go back online and surf around in some library catalogs. Finally, another lead. The Newberry Library in Chicago owns a copy of TCM, and—bonus—it includes some extra bound-in pages and a handwritten tune on a loose sheet of paper.

The carrot has been dangled.

I’ve never been able to resist a treasure hunt.

Treasure—an elusive word in a crossword puzzle, a path through the maze, a fossil of a prehistoric creature, a photo of a great-great-grandparent. The thrill of the hunt and the joy of discovery have kept boredom at bay for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes I set out on a random adventure just to see what might happen. A few times a year I visit a local antique mall to paw through boxes filled with thousands of old photographs from estate sales, looking for anything strange or eye-catching.

I’ve found a few gems, but each holds a tinge of melancholy. Sprinkled in among images of mountains and trains and lakes and houses are photos of people posing stiffly for the camera, singing or dancing, gathered together at a party, setting off on a honeymoon. The emotional tug comes from the handwritten notes.

“To my Sweetheart, Love Always, your Maxine.”
“Come visit us soon! Peter K.”
“With great affection, Ruthie. Always remember me.”

The postcard with Ruthie’s portrait was sent from Chicago, addressed to Michael in Springfield, dated September 20, 1910.

Maybe Michael never wrote back. But I see you now, Ruthie.

The next time we visit my in-laws near Chicago, I arrange to spend a day at the Newberry Library.

The Newberry sits across from Washington Square Park on West Walton Street in Chicago’s Near North Side. Built of granite in the Spanish Romanesque style, it was completed just after the World’s Columbian Exposition in the fall of 1893.

At the front desk, I fill out a request to study the library’s copy of TCM, which an attendant will retrieve from the stacks and bring to a reading room within the next hour. While I wait, I distract myself by making use of the Newberry’s complimentary access to a resource that will soon loom large in my quest: ancestry.com.

Ten minutes in, I’ve collected a few references to what might be “my” Deerin Farrer. It shouldn’t surprise me that genealogy hooks me from the get-go—treasure hunting! I resolve to get my own subscription to this web site.

An attendant calls my name, and I follow him to the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections Reading Room. My table holds a book cradle and a few book weights covered in velvet. Except for my camera, the things I brought with me—jacket, briefcase, umbrella, Snapple bottle—are banned from the Reading Room.

Now it’s just me and Deerin’s book.

This copy of TCM has a different type of binding than mine—a brown leather spine with no gold lettering—but mostly the same contents. My own book has no supplementary pages at the end as this one does; the Newberry copy lacks the Errata page that mine has.

One of my favorite rewards in an old book? Handwriting—doodles, signatures, poems, and other marginalia added by former owners. As I pore over this book, I find many handwritten corrections in the musical notation and text. The ink has faded to pale orange, illuminating many of these somber hymns with ironic fireworks.

Photography—without flash—is permitted in the Reading Room, so I photograph every page, the inside and outside of both covers, and the spine. Then I scrutinize everything, focusing on the corrections, the bound-in supplement, and the loose sheet of handwritten music—a tune called THE HAPPY MAN.

In the preface to TCM, Deerin wishes for his book to be “the happy instrument” drawing people together, “dispersing the sorrows, heightening the joys, and elevating the devotion” of those who sing from it.

Would Deerin be a happy man, knowing that his book fell into obscurity, a few decomposing copies buried in dusty archives?

Or am I struggling with my own fears of being forgotten, imagining my own works—my own life—fading into anonymity?

Back home after my Newberry visit, I print out color copies of all my photos, blurry or not, and set to work following some new clues. An inscription on one of the book’s endpapers reads “Present to Rebecca Pierce, 1834.” With genealogical fervor and my new friend, ancestry.com, I find that Deerin Farrer’s sister Sarah married Richard W. Pierce, and that Sarah and Richard’s eighth child, Rebecca, was born in 1820, eight years before the publication of TCM.

Did Uncle Deerin give this book to his teenage niece? And might the inscription—possibly even the editorial markings—have been penned by the tunebook compiler himself?

Speculative, yes. But enticing.

With my own family tree full of musicians, maybe my affinity for two-hundred-year-old songs is encoded into my genetic memory.

Whimsical philosophizing? Maybe. But it’s compelling to imagine that my ancestors who took part in singing schools in the early 1800s could send their experiences into the future to affect my musical life. Am I, on some primitive level, “remembering” this music from two centuries ago? And if so, will the music I’m hearing now—the music I’m writing now—help to shape the life of someone eight generations down the line?

Soon after my journey to Chicago, I visit the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, not far from my home. Although the library houses an appealing collection of tunebooks, the librarians haven’t come across The Christian Melodist. However, they tell me that a doctoral student from the University of Kentucky has recently visited, working on his ambitious dissertation involving the study of hundreds of early American tunebooks.

The student’s name is Nick, and I begin corresponding with him by email. Quick to lend his expertise, Nick gives me a lead on an 1841 newspaper article from New York’s Fayetteville Luminary, which mentions Deerin Farrer’s anti-slavery stance and secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church: “[W]e cannot any longer with a clear conscience submit and give our support to a church that upholds a system of slavery, which, in the language of Wesley is, ‘the vilest that ever saw the sun.’”

I don’t know much about Deerin yet, but I think we could have been friends.

Nick’s lengthy email also includes something tantalizing: he saw a copy of TCM at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before long, I’ve arranged to study this copy of Deerin’s book, and it bears nearly the same editorial markings as the Newberry’s does. To my untrained eye, the handwriting and faded-ink fireworks look similar, too.

Now I know of three copies of TCM, but with the help of Nick’s exhaustive tunebook dissertation, it becomes clear that Deerin’s own compositions never made it into later collections. I can think of reasons for this: Deerin didn’t know the “right” people. Or Deerin lacked the wherewithal to travel and introduce his book to a wider audience. Or Deerin didn’t want to let anyone else publish his works.

And then, the one that worries me the most: Maybe Deerin’s compositions weren’t good enough to make the cut.

During the early days of my pursuit of Deerin, I studied music composition with Jon Polifrone, a composer who had four of his works nominated for a Pulitzer Prize during his lifetime. We enjoyed each other’s dry humor, and he often regaled me with stories of famous composers he’d met, including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alan Hovhaness. He also spoke of his friendship with composer and humorist Peter Schickele, a musician I admire.

During our lessons, Jon could get restless if we stayed on one topic for too long, so we’d go for a walk, or listen to music composed by someone else, or talk about the greyhounds he raised with his wife, Sharon.

After one of our lessons, Jon handed me a CD of his Requiem: For Those We Love, an hour-long work for soloist, choir, and orchestra. When I thanked him for the gift, he told me—in his typical sardonic manner—that I should reserve my thanks until after I had listened to it.

“I once suggested to Sharon that Requiem might be the piece I’ll be known for,” Jon said. “But since my wife likes to keep me cut down to size …”
He paused, gave a small snort, then continued. “She said, ‘What makes you think you’ll be known for anything?’”

We laughed at this together. But there was an edge to it.

Jon died in 2006. Will anyone know his music in 2106?

Who was this obscure Deerin guy, anyway? And why can’t I let him go?

I uncover nothing new for several months, so I decide to sift through my United States Census data to see if anything pops up. The 1860 census places him in Darien, Wisconsin, so I contact the Darien Public Library and describe my project to a reference librarian. She puts me in touch with an elderly Darien resident known to the locals as Sherlock Shirley.

Shirley and I hit it off right away. She’s soon sending me foot-long emails detailing her findings—along with litanies of her physical ailments and the trials of being nearly eighty years old. She’s a hoot! Our email exchanges and phone conversations feel so natural that it seems like we’ve known each other for years.

With help from ancestry.com, Shirley and I piece together Deerin’s likely trail: born in Scituate, Massachusetts; married to Mary Ockinton in Keene, New Hampshire; raised a family in Tully Valley, New York; and lived out his days in southern Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, I keep scouring the internet for any mention of Deerin. Half a year later, pay dirt! I stumble upon a notice for his probate record. I immediately pass this nugget on to Sherlock Shirley, who enlists the help of her daughter. They unearth Deerin’s original last will and testament, along with other documents related to the end of his life. I send Shirley $20 for the photocopies and shipping costs, but she won’t take any money for all her hours of research and travel. She’s doing what she loves, and I’m grateful for her generosity and in awe of her zeal.

While Shirley’s work continues, I manage to locate copies of TCM at Yale, the University of Michigan, and Central Connecticut State. I purchase scans and photos and photocopies from those libraries and add them to my burgeoning binders of all things Deerin.

The marginalia in these books continue to embellish the story.

One copy has a rather stuffy dedication from a mentor: “Never for a moment encourage addresses which your better judgment assures you will end in disappointments. Mr. R.”

Two of them list the cost: “Price 20 cents;” “Price 25 cents.”

Five are signed: “Samuel Stoddard;” “Miss Jane Spencer;” “Mr. I. Johnsons Book;” “Wm. S. Wire’s Book;” “The property of Joseph Cross. 1831.” Could these be Deerin’s friends or relatives?

Another year later, another treasure: a copy of TCM appears on Amazon for $39.98 (i.e., a steal). I order it posthaste—can’t have another Deerin fanatic snagging it first. Along with the same handwritten markings in faded ink, it includes a partial supplement similar to the Newberry’s, but with different songs.

My genealogy work leads inevitably to another internet site: findagrave.com. With the help of Nancy, an amateur photographer who lives in New York’s Onondaga County and calls herself a “local rambler,” I track down the gravestone of Deerin Farrer Junior in Otisco’s Octagon Cemetery:

son of
Deerin & Mary
Farrer died Oct
28th 1820
aged 12 years
1 month & 25

Below that, complete with a quaint spelling that lends a note of levity, this bleak verse is inscribed:

Stranger, as this spot you tred
And meditate upon the dead
Improve the moments as they fly
For all who live must shortly die

A macabre detail: Deerin Junior’s death date falls on his parents’ thirteenth anniversary.

Other tombstones populate the Farrer family plot: Silvia (1820–1821); Lucy (1822–1824); another Deerin (1824–1824); and an illegible marker, likely for another child. Because their birth and death dates didn’t span the beginning of a decade, these children never appeared in a U.S. census report; these stones alone stand witness to their lives. It’s a grim reminder of the mortality rate during that era.

My image of Deerin Farrer Senior continues to evolve. His name means “brave blacksmith,” and I think it fits him.

Deerin made his way from New England to Wisconsin in the nineteenth century, buried several of his children, spoke out against slavery, left his church. The Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States confirms that, true to his name, Deerin worked as a blacksmith, forging tools for the Six Nations people of New York. Other roles in his long life included husband, father, farmer, composer, tunebook compiler, postal worker, and revival leader. I even find a clue that suggests he spent time as a circuit-riding preacher, a brutal and punishing occupation.

From the papers that Sherlock Shirley brought to light, we’re able to fill more gaps in the genealogical record. Items recorded in Deerin’s inventory include a chamber organ, a number of violins, and a cello, confirming his interest in music. We find receipts for funeral expenses and the purchase of a coffin and gravestone, but despite outings to various Wisconsin cemeteries undertaken by Sherlocks Senior and Junior, we’re unable to locate a burial site.

Many times during the last ten years I could have labelled this extended undertaking as doomed. It’s a good thing I don’t believe in curses … or do I?

Why the big to-do about all these copies and markings and tunes and family trees? Why all the fuss over a nearly forgotten tunebook compiler with a peculiar name who died almost a century-and-a-half ago?

It’s that one word: nearly. Nearly forgotten.

Deerin Farrer is not forgotten. I am remembering him now, piecing together his story. In fact, with little provocation I’ve been known—as one of my friends puts it—to wax hysterical about Deerin’s life and work.

Since that eBay purchase years ago, I’ve filled a dozen three-ring binders with details about Deerin and TCM: census data, genealogical charts, historical documents, tunes and texts from contemporaneous sources, maps, town histories, newspaper articles, and heaps of related coma-inducing information.

I am, with little doubt, the world’s foremost authority on the man and his book.

Back in New York’s Tully Valley in 1828, did Deerin wonder about the future of his collection of hymns? He couldn’t have envisioned the crazy maze he’d send me hurtling through eighteen decades later. But did he dare to think that people would still sing from his tunebook in a new millennium, “until”—as he wrote in the preface—“the themes of earth are swallowed up in the delights and songs of a blissful immortality”?

He may have pondered these things. But what if he didn’t?

Does it matter?

Maybe at the end of his four score and seven years (1784–1871) he was filled with contentment from a life well-lived.

Maybe the challenges and rewards of moving from state to state, taking on numerous occupations, fighting against slavery, and fathering a half-dozen children sustained him through his years as a grandparent and great-grandparent.

Maybe he gave The Christian Melodist—his published collection of music that included some of his own compositions—to his family and friends, and maybe they gathered every year to sing from it.

And maybe that was enough for him.

Could it be enough for me?

Singing strengthens our physical and emotional health. I’ve experienced this throughout my life—in a concert hall with more than a thousand singers, in a church building with a congregation of a hundred, on tour with a chamber choir of twenty, at home with my family of four, and even with no one else around.

In times of distress and in times of joy, music supports me, through the voices of others and through my own.

 My mother’s lullabies probably shaped my love of music before the genesis of my conscious memories, perhaps even before my birth. In this way—and, I believe, with the genetic memories from my forebears—I’m already part of “the everlasting song.”

That phrase from Edward Perronet’s text, often sung to the tune Coronation, resonates in the same way as these words sung to my favorite early American tune, Wondrous Love:

“And through eternity I’ll sing on.”

Is that enough for me?



Jim Clemens composes music ranging from Te Deum for choir and orchestra to a musical version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. He performs in a variety of styles and works as a music engraver. His writing has appeared in diverse publications including Birder’s World and The Hymn. Jim lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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