Travis Wesley

Pianist, Recording Artist, Recording Engineer, Composer, Educator & Musicologist

Daniel Read’s Sherburne: An Examination of the New England Psalmody Tradition

Posted on 23 December, 2013  in Around The Horn, Writings

When the Pilgrims migrated to America seeking religious reform, they brought a book with them called the Ainsworth Psalter.  It was compiled and translated by the English Reverend, Henry Ainsworth and it contained a unique meter and tune set to every psalm in the Old Testament.  In his book, An Introduction To America’s Music, Richard Crawford describes the publication as a pocket-size book making it easily portable and easy to read thus, geared toward the “non-musician.”  While there are 150 psalms in the Old Testament, this psalter only contained 39 tunes, so many of the psalms in the Ainsworth Psalter shared the same music and rhythmic meter.


The psalmody tradition can be traced back to the 1560s in England and France, and when the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620, psalmody became the first Christian worship music in the United States.  Over the course of the next century and a half, Psalmody flourished throughout the colonies in both sacred and secular circles.  More psalters, or tune books were compiled by New England composers such as William Billings and Daniel Read, and had expanded beyond the psalms to other popular Bible verses (this is the case with “Sherburne,” which is examined in the attached essay).


Americans developed a particularly unique way of singing in the psalmody tradition.  For example, New England’s native composers preferred open harmonies containing fourths and fifths and the European composers tended to prefer the traditional, more consonant thirds and sixths.  In a sense, this can be viewed as one of America’s first attempts at artistic rule breaking, something that has given us our own identity in the popular realm with jazz, blues and rock music.


My essay (attached below) traces one song from the New England Psalmody tradition entitled “Sherburne.”  It places the composition and it’s composer into its appropriate historical context, provides an overview and analysis of the psalmody tradition, and traces its appearance in various publications dating back to the 1700s when it was originally composed by Daniel Read.  Several modern recordings of the piece are also discussed.  While the psalmody tradition died out in New England, it survived in the American south (something that is discussed in the essay).  The soundtrack to the film, Cold Mountain starring (Jude Law and Nicole Kidman) showcases the old psalmody piece, “Going Home” performed by the Sacred Harp Singers.  I’ve included the Youtube links to the recording from the soundtrack as well as live footage from the congregation in Alabama singing the same piece.


My Essay On Daniel Read’s Sherburne


“Sherburne” Performance


“Going Home” From Cold Mountain Soundtrack (YouTube) 


“Going Home” by the Sacred Harp Singers, Alabama