Posted to YouTube (two years ago) by Zippie Elijah.

Content advisory. Some very nerdy notes about playing this song the mountain dulcimer are tacked on at the bottom, which may be of limited interest. But it’s a fine old hymn in the 19th-century “Sunday school” tradition that in later years would give rise to gospel music. And the YouTube video I found gives a rousing interpretation in English — and another language I think is Swahili or another East African language — by a Canadian couple who seem to be part of the African disapora. Bottom line: It’s not quite the way I learned to sing it, but I love it!

Here’s a hymn I’ve always wanted to sing for an Advent service (but never got around to). I know it from shape-note Christian Harmony singings in North Carolina, and it’s not in any of the mainline Christian hymnals I’m familiar with. But it was a favorite of mine, and there are enough different versions posted to YouTube by African musicians to make me suspect it’s a favorite, at least in some denominations, there too.

A good reminder, I think, that Christianity is taking hold in Africa even as membership wanes in Europe and now apparently in North America as well.

The hymn is know by its first line as, “Watchman, tell me does the morning of Zion’s fair glory dawn.” The words are by Sidney S. Brewer, a minister of the Advent Christian Church in the mid 1800s; not much is known about him, but the composers of the melody are J. W. Dadmun, who also composed “Angel Band,” and William Bradbury, whose other songs include “He Leadeth Me” and “Jesus Loves Me.” Bradbury is best known, perhaps as the editor of an 1869 book titled Bright Jewels for the Sunday School. A disciple of Lowell Mason, Bradbury is seen as a precursor of the Moody and Sankey revival music and thus of gospel songs in general.

I couldn’t find much about the singers, but what I did find is really intriguing.

According to the Zippie Elijah YouTube channel where I found this video, they’re in Canada. I suspect they’re from Africa, since their version of “Watchman” is bilingual, but I can’t confirm that. I can confirm they love the music, though! Brewer wrote a book in the 1840s about the Second Coming, and the lyrics are apocalyptic. But I think they work equally well for Advent. The first verse:

Watchman, tell me does the morning
Of fair Zion’s glory dawn?
Have the signs that mark His coming
Yet upon thy pathway shone?
Pilgrims, rise, and look a round thee;
Light is breaking in the skies;
Gird thy bridal robes around thee,
Morning dawns, arise! arise!

The other verses are similarly concerned with the end of days. But so is Advent. Two other versions you can watch online:

And here’s the part for dulcimer nerds

“Watchman tell me does the morning …” is in the public domain. Hymnary.org has printable sheet music and PDF files of several hymnals. And shape-note singers in Bremen, Germany (yes, that’s right! Germany) has text and a copy from Christian Harmony; theirs is the version I learned in North Carolina, and it has a nice bit of vocal ornamentation at “Pilgrims, rise and look around you” in the first verse that’s missing in Bradbury’s original.

The melody, as with other old shape-note songbooks, is in the tenor (third line from the top). If you don’t read shape-notes, don’t worry — they’re spaced out on the musical staff the same as in standard musical notation. The Wikipedia article on Shape note music (an excellent introduction, by the way) gives the shapes like this in the basic C major scale:

C major scale in seven-shape notation (Wikimedia Commons)

Do is always the keytone, re is the second and so on up the scale — it’s the same scale that Mary Martin taught the kids in The Sound of Music. (Playing it on a mountain dulcimer is a good way to learn shape notes, by the way, so you’re not dependent on someone else’s tab.) Since “Watchman tell me does the morning …” is in G, the keytone — do — is G. I really like the sound when I’m tuned to DGD, so G is one the third fret, and I take it from there. In that tuning, I can get really nice harmonies by fretting the melody on the string closest to me (it’s called the melody string for a reason), and fretting the G string one fret down — for example the third fret on the melody string and the second (an A) on the G string.

Once you’ve puzzled through a few tunes, you can play anything in the book. Shape notes are sometimes called a “moveable do” system because the intervals are always the same no matter what key you’re in. So when I play “Watchman …” in DAD (more suitable for my voice), the keytone is the D on the open D string, and again I can take it from there. If I’m playing it in DAA, the keytone is the D on the third fret. Again, I can take it from there in either tuning once I’ve played “do, a deer, female deer” a few times in each tuning.

Sacred Harp singers will have a different type of four-shape notation to learn, but the same logic works there too, and it opens up a wealth of early American music that is (mostly) quite compatible with a diatonic instrument like the dulcimer (either mountain or hammered — they’re both diatonic).

[Published Dec. 14, 2022]

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