There is a Happy Land: A Musical Journey Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

There is a Happy Land: A Musical Journey

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There is a happy land,
Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand,
Bright, bright as day.
O how they sweetly sing:
Worthy is our Saviour-King!
Loud let his praises ring,
Praise, praise for aye.
Come to this happy land,
Come, come away;
Why will you doubting stand,
Why still delay?
O we shall happy be
When, from sin and sorrow free,
Lord, we shall live with thee,
Blest, blest for aye.
Bright in that happy land
Beams every eye;
Kept by a Father’s hand,
Love cannot die.
On, then, to glory run;
Be a crown and kingdom won,
And bright above the sun
Reign, reign for aye.
A village choir in the 19th century

Unless you're a historian or musicologist (or church musician), that lyric is unlikely to be familiar to you. But once upon a time, not so long ago, it was as popular as that song you love to hate, and quite possibly just as irritating to some people. It was a popular hymn on the North American frontier and showed up in Salvation Army Songs by General Booth. Mark Twain knew it – and a parody version, too.

It has an intriguing little history, this rousing little hymn. Let's see what we can find out about it and its influence.

The Original

Andrew Young (1807-1889) was a Scottish schoolmaster who taught in Edinburgh. He wrote the words to 'There is a Happy Land', a lyric about going to heaven. The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900) says that he wrote this hymn in 1838 and that it was first published in composer James Gall's Anthems and Sacred Songs. But Gall's ground-breaking hymnal was first published in 1843; it is not clear where the song might have appeared before that.

We are also told by the Dictionary of National Biography that Young set the words to an 'Indian air' which he heard a lady playing on the piano. That is absolutely all we know about the genesis of this song. The tune, described variously as a 'Hindustani air', 'Telugu air', or simply 'old melody', was later arranged by Leonard P Breedlove, a hymn composer in Georgia, USA.

Here is how the chorus goes.

There is a Happy Land tune

So far, so cheerful. According to the website, 'There is a Happy Land' has been in print somewhere ever since it was composed. Its popularity has experienced an upsurge recently. It has been translated or adapted in many other languages and – as referred to in the film The King and I   – the tune could be used as shorthand for 'missionaries'.

The song was so popular in the 19th Century that writers such as Laura Ingalls Wilder could refer to it in her Little House on the Prairie and expect the song to evoke frontier piety. It's also a cheerful and upbeat number unless the choir is determined to make a dirge out of it. It is sung in the comedy film Arsenic and Old Lace. But even the most popular tunes – or, perhaps, especially the most popular tunes – occasionally meet with the contempt bred by familiarity.

In other words: there are parodies.

Mark Twain Jokes Around

In 1892, Mark Twain wrote a comic novel called The American Claimant. This novel is not famous today. It makes fun of the British: perhaps there is a secret cabal against it. It also makes fun of people who describe the weather in fiction. (All the weather in the book is relegated to an appendix.) The American Claimant is remarkable for being the first novel to have been dictated on a recording device, to wit, a phonograph. Twain was very fond of new technology.

The American Claimant also uses the idea of phonographic dictation. You see, Twain had figured out that if you could record language on a phonograph, you could also record swearing. The purpose of the recording device in the book is to record bad language for use aboard ship in order to motivate sailors. As with most infant technology, this experiment experiences a glitch.

The phonograph began to sing in a plaintive voice:

There is a boarding-house, far far away,
Where they have ham and eggs, 3 times a day.

'Hang it, that ain't it. Somebody's been singing around here.'

The plaintive song began again, mingled with a low, gradually rising wail of cats slowly warming up toward a fight;

O, how the boarders yell,
When they hear that dinner bell
They give that landlord –

(momentary outburst of terrific catfight which drowns out one word.)

Three times a day.

(Renewal of furious catfight for a moment. The plaintive voice on a high fierce key, 'Scat, you devils' – and a racket as of flying missiles.)

'Well, never mind – let it go. I've got some sailor-profanity down in there somewhere, if I could get to it. But it isn't any matter; you see how the machine works.'
The American Claimant, Chapter 17

Now, Mark Twain didn't compose this jingle. He heard it somewhere. And he sang it to his children, who loved it and demanded that he sing it again. And again, 'with burdensome frequency'. He also scribbled it on the cover of a songbook. Other versions existed, such as one collected by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1939.

British Parodies

Parodies like this made the rounds in pubs and music halls in England in the 1880s, and were even collected by folklorist and hymn-writer Sabine Baring-Gould1.

I wish my mother-in-law, far, far away!
You can hear her blessed jaw, far, far away!
When she speaks the house it shook,
Always bringing me to book,
I shall quickly take my hook, far, far away!

Soldiers from the Great War also reported parodies such as 'Where Are Our Uniforms?' and 'This is the Royal Flying Corps'. That hymn surely travelled. But did it go even further, from religion to parody to... somewhere else entirely? We'll have to speculate a bit, as musicologists are wont to do.

One More Step?

In 1917, Countess Ada de Lachau2 published a song called 'Li'l Liza Jane'. The chorus went like this.

Li'l Liza Jane tune

The song 'Li'l Liza Jane' was a toe-tapper. It became very popular in the US after 1917. But it wasn't original with Countess de Lachau. She has to have heard it somewhere, because it was an African American folk song.

In the 1930s, a New Deal government program in the US called the Works Projects Administration, or WPA, sent researchers out to interview elderly people who had been born under the slavery system. Their stories form a treasure trove for researchers today. Lucy Thurston, at age 101, told the story about singing a version of 'Li'l Liza Jane' in Covington, Louisiana, sometime before the Civil War. The song was part of a dancing game. 'Li'l Liza Jane' is regarded as folklore today. It has been recorded by noteworthy artists such as Nina Simone.

We can never trace the exact route a folk song takes from performer to listener/new performer around the world. We can't guess when a song is going to saturate the market and stray into parody. We never can tell when a melody will jump genres. We can't be sure 'Li'l Liza Jane' is a direct or indirect descendant of 'There is a Happy Land', or even its second cousin. We can be sure that African Americans in the southeast US in the mid-19th Century were likely to have heard 'There is a Happy Land' in a religious context. It's possible that this tune migrated all the way from the Indian subcontinent to Louisiana by way of Edinburgh, Scotland. You can't keep a good song down.

Hear the Song

Listen to a modern version of There is a Happy Land arranged by CE Walz.

1Reverend Baring-Gould wrote 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', perhaps one of the best-known hymns to non-churchgoers. Although widely perceived as uncomfortably militant, the hymn was originally written for children to march over Horbury Bridge. The music was composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Imagining children singing this song while trying to stay in line across the bridge and not drop the Sunday School banner should do much to erase the mental image of Crusader armies.2The countess was a musical lady by the name of Ada Metz from New York City. She married a French count. Having 'Countess' in her name probably helped with sheet music sales.

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