Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies: Southern Marvel #2

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Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies

Edden Hammons plays “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies”:


by Andrew Kuntz (http://www.ibiblio.org)

The melody was recorded by West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons (1874-1955) for visiting folklore professor Louis Watson Chappell in 1947.   Hammons was a member of a family of back-woodsmen, who, in addition to being adept at living off the land (their pursuits included poaching and moonshining), were also musically talented. Edden learned to play on a home-made gourd fiddle and, still a boy, acquired a manufactured instrument as a gift from a musician. He became an accomplished fiddler, and according to local lore, did little else. His first marriage failed because of this, but his second, to a more compatible (and tolerant) spouse, lasted over fifty years.

“Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies” is one of the few slower, crosstuned and slightly ‘crooked’ pieces of the 51 that Hammons recorded for Chappell, over three recording sessions. Alan Jabbour (in his 1984 notes to the Edden Hammons Collection, vol. 1) identifies the melody as a piece called “The Blackbird,” one of the most famous and enduring airs in the British Isles. Several versions were collected in south-western Pennsylvania, but with the generally agreed upon function was that the tune was a “dead march,” i.e. one to be played at funerals.

The Irish versions of the “Blackbird” are Jacobite in nature whose lyrics indicate loyalty to the cause of the Stewarts, and Bayard says the song, referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie, was still being sung in south-western Pennsylvania in the early 1930’s. Although most Pennsylvania fiddlers seemed to know the melody by the “Blackbird” title, other titles existed: Bayard himself heard it called the “Lady’s Lamentation” by an Indiana County (Pa.) fifer in 1951—the title of the original broadside printed in London in 1651.

How it came to be known by Hammons, and how it acquired the title he knew it by, is a mystery.  The line “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies,” however, is known to be from American shape-note singing (popularized so recently in the film “Cold Mountain”). It is similar to a line from a shape-note hymn called “Star of Columbia” (also called simply “Columbia”), found in the Social Harp (1855) and other hymnodies, which begins:

Columbia! Columbia! to glory arise,

The queen of the world and the child of the skies;

Thy genius commands thee with raptures behold,

While ages on ages thy splendors unfold:

Thy reign is the last and the noblest of time,

Most fruitful thy soil, most inviting thy clime;

Let crimes of the east ne’re encrimson they name,

Be freedom and science and virtue thy fame.

Words are credited to “Dr. Dwight” and music to “Miss M.T. Durham” (although the melody employed is a traditional fiddle tune called “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine”). Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was one of the “Hartford Wits,” a group of Connecticut men associated with literary work during and after the American Revolution. Dwight would go on to become president of Yale College, but he was a young man when he wrote his lyric “Columbia” in 1778, when he was a chaplain in for George Washington’s Continental Army. Dwight’s song suggests that America would be the seat of God’s kingdom and Americans its saints, and it was popular for a long time. So popular, in fact that some of the lines were incorporated into another shape-note hymn, “Murillo’s Lesson,” which can be found in the 1844 Sacred Harp and the 1848 Sacred Melodeon. It begins:

As down a lone valley with cedars o’erspread,
From war’s dread confusion I pensively strayed,
The gloom from the face of fair heaven retired,
The winds hushed their murmurs, the thunders expired.
Perfumes as of Eden flowed sweetly along,
A voice as of angels enchantingly sung,
Columbia, Columbia to glory arise,
The queen of the world and the child of the skies.

Later generations of the Hammons family played the tune somewhat differently, with Burl Hammons calling the piece “Old Man in the Woods” (which is also the name of an edible mushroom in the eastern US pinelands, one of the names for a Green Man or Jack-in-the-Woods, and the Native American term for a black bear). Sherman Hammons called it “Star of Bethlehem,” echoing the shape-note origins of the older title.

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