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Two Mormon Folk Songs — One Tune to Learn

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 14, 2009

As you’re no doubt aware, the earliest Mormon hymnbooks – like most hymn- and songbooks of that time – were published with words only, no tunes provided. People sang the words to whatever tunes they knew with compatible meters.

Some news accounts of Mormon meetings in England, aboard ship, and in the eastern U.S. mock our singing because words were put to tunes that fit – according to the meter, but not according to the mood. They laughed when texts speaking of sacred subjects were sung to popular, even drinking, songs. (To understand the effect, try singing “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” to the tune of “Oh, Susanna,” a tune apparently very popular among 19th century Mormons. It can be done, but the effect is ludicrous.)

One of the more popular Mormon songs in the Nauvoo era, with words published in the Times & Seasons, was this one:

That’s the Church for Me

A church without a prophet is not the church for me;
It has no head to lead it, in it I would not be;
But I’ve a church not built by man,
Out from the mountain without hand,
A church with gifts and blessings, oh, that’s the church for me,
Oh, that’s the church for me, oh, that’s the church for me.

The God that others worship is not the God for me;
He has no parts nor body, and cannot hear nor see;
But I’ve a God that lives above,
A God of Power and of Love,
A God of Revelation, oh, that’s the God for me.
Oh, that’s the God for me, oh, that’s the God for me.

A church without apostles is not the church for me;
It’s like a ship dismasted, afloat upon the sea;
But I’ve a church that’s always led
By the twelve stars around its head,
A church with good foundations, oh, that’s the church for me.
Oh, that’s the church for me, oh, that’s the church for me.

The hope that Gentiles cherish is not the hope for me;
It has no hope for knowledge, far from it I would be;
But I’ve a hope that will not fail,
That reaches safe within the vail,
Which hope is like an anchor, oh, that’s the hope for me.
Oh, that’s the hope for me, oh, that’s the hope for me.

–ooOoo–

A little later, as the Saints began to move west, a new song about the freedom we anticipated in the Rocky Mountains (called in the late 1840s “Upper California”) became popular. You’ll note from the pattern that this song is only a variation of the one above:

The Upper California

The Upper California, Oh, that’s the land for me;
It lies between the mountains and the great Pacific sea;
The Saints can be supported there,
And taste the sweets of liberty
In Upper California – Oh, that’s the land for me!
Oh, that’s the land for me, oh, that’s the land for me.

We’ll go and lift our standard, we’ll go there and be free!
We’ll go to California and have our Jubilee;
A land that blooms with beauty rare,
A land of life and liberty,
With flocks and herds abounding – Oh, that’s the land for me!
Oh, that’s the land for me, oh, that’s the land for me.

We’ll burst off all our fetters and break the Gentile yoke,
For long it has beset us, and now it shall be broke;
No more shall Jacob bow his neck,
Henceforth he shall be great and free
In Upper California – Oh, that’s the land for me!
Oh, that’s the land for me, oh, that’s the land for me.

We’ll reign, we’ll rule and triumph, and God shall be our King;
The plains, the hills, and valleys shall with hosannas ring;
Our towers and temples there shall rise,
Toward the great Pacific sea,
In Upper California – Oh, that’s the land for me!
Oh, that’s the land for me, oh, that’s the land for me.

We’ll ask our cousin Lemuel to join us heart and hand,
And spread abroad our curtains throughout fair Zion’s land;
Till this is done, we’ll pitch our tents
Toward the great Pacific sea,
In Upper California – Oh, that’s the land for me!
Oh, that’s the land for me, oh, that’s the land for me.

Then join with me, my brethren, and let us hasten there;
We’ll lift our glorious standard and raise our house of prayer;
We’ll call on all the nations round
To join our standard and be free
In Upper California – Oh, that’s the place for me!
Oh, that’s the place for me, oh, that’s the place for me.

These songs are only two of many, many 19th century songs following this pattern. Probably the base text was a song beginning “The rose that all are praising …” but there are other texts – political songs, anti-slavery songs, songs on just about any subject where a singer might declare himself for or against something – all set to the same tune. This one:


So learn one tune, sing two Mormon folk songs. Explore your heritage.



14 Comments »

  1. And of course the first song was enthusiastically embraced by the Strangite Church. (from the 9th number of the Voree Herald, September 1846):

    The following excellent hymn we clip from a former number of the New York Prophet, the mouthpiece of the Church. We need not mention with what universal eclat it was received by the Church at the time, especially in Nauvoo, and by the Twelve themselves–as the fact is notorious; but we will just hint at the fact of its being dropped like a hot potato. And pray says the reader, when was that time? It was when the Church in Nauvoo recorded that awful, and suicidal vote. “We no longer want a Prophet to lead us.” We now, present this old favorite to our readers with pleasure, and commend it to the particular attention of the Brighamites, especially the 2nd verse [which was the first verse as quoted above], as an old and, neglected friend.

    They may not only say with David, “How can we sing the sweet songs of Zion in a strange land,” but how can we sing this song of Zion in a “Church without a Prophet”

    We sang this song at last year’s JWHA conference at Voree. It was a very fun experience.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — September 14, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  2. Robin, does the tune printed above seem to be the one you sang it to last year?

    The Strangites needed to wait another year before they boasted quite so boldly! Thanks for this unexpected glimpse into this song’s use in our history, Robin.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 14, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

  3. I just played through the song on the piano. I’ll just say that there are more memorable tunes, and having to repeat this one four or six times could start to feel like getting a root canal. (It’s very repetitive, and if you are at all sensitive, it might begin to wear on you.) Kind of similar in effect to “Follow the Prophet” or “I Believe in Christ,” especially if sung slowly. But if sung at a good pace and with a lot of enthusiasm, it could work.

    Comment by Researcher — September 14, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  4. Thanks for this.

    It’s a fun thing to find a new tune for an existing text. But yeah, sometimes the marriage isn’t exactly a good aesthetic one!

    In this case, this particular tune seems like it could be sung either loudly and boisterously, or quiet and contemplatively. (Harmonically, this song has really only two chords in it, so in that respect it seems kinda boring. But simplicity was probably a boon when it came to carrying tunes across the Plains!) I’m interested to read others’ reactions: does this tune — with this text — suggest toe-tapping? Or does it suggest a more dignified or restrained performance?

    (By the way, Ardis, do you know the tune name?)

    Comment by Hunter — September 14, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  5. Researcher: Try playing and singing it a little slower and with a more subdued dynamic. Does it work? Or does it just prolong the root canal effect?

    Comment by Hunter — September 14, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  6. Ardis,

    Yes, this is the same tune we found and sang for JWHA. While only somewhat musically inclined, I didn’t mind the tune. Although I was likely caught up in the historical nerdyness of the moment so that I didn’t worry about the aesthetics.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — September 14, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  7. Only that it was the air used for “The rose that all are praising.” I don’t know the name of the tune itself.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 14, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  8. Speaking of historical nerdyness (oh, what a glorious time that suggests!), hie thee to Bruce Crow’s wonderful post this morning on Confessions of a Mormon History Geek. I think you just made such a confession here!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 14, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  9. Actually, “Follow the Prophet” is best sung while dancing the hora.

    I haven’t tried plunking this out on the piano, but all that repetition reminds me of the University of Utah fight song: Utah Man. Maybe we’d find a correlation between liking that song and this one. (Would it be better with brass and drums?)

    Comment by Mark B. — September 14, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  10. Here’s a recording of a version of The Upper California. It is from the audio recording of a performance by the Mormon Symphony and Mormon Youth Chorus: The Upper California.

    Comment by Doug S — September 15, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  11. Thanks for that, Doug — I hunted but couldn’t find a link to a performance of either version.

    And why haven’t I run into your blog before?? I liked it so well poking around for a few minutes that I’ve already added it to my blog roll — “Hic et Nunc,” with some wonderful resources for Gospel Doctrine teachers and class members.

    I hope you’ll like Keepa well enough to come back.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 15, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  12. Ardis, is the author of “Upper California” known? Did it ever appear in hymnals?

    Comment by John Turner — September 25, 2009 @ 10:39 am

  13. It didn’t appear in any hymnal I’ve ever seen (or in the online listings of LDS hymns that include hymnals I haven’t seen), and so far as I know no specific author is known. Its pattern is so close to the other songs sung to this tune that I think it could be called a true folk song in that it probably started out as a kind of parody, with various singers adapting the lines until a standard version was widely known.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2009 @ 10:47 am

  14. Ardis and John,

    Peter Crawley suggests the author of The Upper California as John Taylor:

    “This broadside contains the text of a song in six verses, which, according to William Clayton’s journal, John Taylor composed and revised at a meeting of the Council of Fifty in April 1845. To a note in the Nauvoo Neighbor of May 7, 1845, that John C. Fremont was organizing an expedition to California, Taylor added eight lines of verse that are either an early version of his song or someone else’s upon which his was modeled: “The upper California, / O that’s the place to be; / It lies between the mountains, / And great Pacific sea. / With a climate pure as Naples, / And budding liberty, / O clear away the rubbish, / And let us there be free.” The first verse of the broadside version differs mainly in the last two lines: “The Upper California, O that’s the land for me, / It lies between the mountains, and great Pacific Sea, / The saints can be supported there, and taste the sweets of liberty / With flocks and herds abounding, O that’s the land for me, O that’s, &c.” The song is clearly patterned after “The Rose That All Are Praising” (see item [27]). When or where this broadside was published is not known. The song appears in the LDS hymnal from 1851 to 1890, with a series of textual changes. The broadside version seems to antedate those in the hymnal. In August 1857, when the Tenth Infantry was then marching to Utah, Taylor quoted the third verse, “We’ll burst off all our fetters and break the Gentile yoke . . . ,” and urged the Saints to sing his song as a kind of Mormon “Yankee Doodle.” (Crawley 1997, 335).

    Comment by Shane Chism — January 13, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

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