Singing with the Muse

Spiritualist séances sometimes featured invisible spirit instrumentalists producing sounds from floating trumpets, drums, guitars, or pianos.  At a séance at Barnum’s hotel in New York, for example, William Lloyd Garrison, William Cullen Bryant, and Horace Greeley, among other notables, were visited by the spirit of recently-deceased spiritualist, singer and impressario of the Hutchinson Family Singers, Jesse Hutchinson, who levitated a guitar and tambourine and played Jesse’s popular tune, “The Old Granite State.”  Spirit energy animated the inanimate.  Sometimes larger—much larger—instruments were brought to life.


“Toronto, October 14, 1856.

“Messrs. Partridge and Brittan:

“DEAR FRIENDS.—For the benefit of your many readers, I give you an account of one of the numerous demonstrations that we occasionally receive through the mediumship of Mrs. Swain, a lady of this city, who, for the different phases of that wonderful power of spirit influence, is rarely equalled.

“Happening in her house a few weeks since, four persons beside the medium and myself took our seat, around a piano that was in the room, myself locking it and placing the key in my pocket, with the usual lights burning in the room.  Shortly after the company had taken their seats, the keys of the instrument were sounded, and answers given in that manner to questions asked.  Among many inquires made was the question, ‘who it was that was communicating with us,’ when the name was spelled—by striking a key as the letter of the alphabet was pointed to—of an old friend of my own, one who had been many years at sea, and master of several ships.  To prove his identity he, at my request, did several things, such as making the noise of a gale of wind rushing through the rigging and blocks of a vessel; the plash of the water along the side; breaking of the heavy seas on deck; creaking of the guards and blocks; and rolling the heavy instrument, just like a vessel tossed about on a heavy sea.  At the time I, and most of the other persons present, were leaning all our weight on the instrument, it raised up and down, rolled about as if it were possessed with life, and became light as a feather, instead of weighing several hundred pounds!  To make assurance doubly sure, I put the following questions, knowing that no other person present beside myself knew the meaning of what I asked: ‘Now, friend,’ said I, ‘we will call the end of the instrument toward my left the stern of your ship, and the opposite one the bow.’  I was sitting at the front with my arms learning on it.  ‘Now, I want you to give your ship, as you call it, a list to port;’ when immediately over it went to the opposite side to the one I was leaning on, and perfectly correct in seaman’s language.  It rested in that position for some time, nor could all our bearing down bring it back.  I then asked the spirit to give ‘lurch to starboard,’ when over came the piano to the same inclination on the opposite side.  I then asked him to give me a sample of a ship riding at anchor in a heavy head sea.  Immediately, up raised the instrument at the bow, and then the end representing the stern, and so on, first one and then the other, with an occasional roll to each side.  After that was over, one of the party was influenced to sing a sea song, when a beautiful accompaniment was played on the strings to the tune; and one wonder is, that the person who sang, in his normal state could not sing at all, but at this time those who heard him said that he sang beautifully.  Now all this was done in a lighted room, with the instrument locked and the key in my own pocket; and I know that one or more of the parties present never had their hands or arms from off the front board all the time. [. . .]

“Yours sincerely, for the truth,

 —Emma Hardinge Britten, Modern American Spiritualism, 463-464, quoting a letter to the Spiritual Telegraph.

Séances or regular services of spiritualists—at lyceums or the popular spiritualist picnics or campmeetings—often began with, and were punctuated by, hymns and songs, for “singing is an essential in the promotion of harmony,” and “harmony” was a kind of energy upon which spirit-contact depended.

Spiritualist newspaper articles sometimes complained that spiritualist hymns were just Christian hymns that happened to be unobjectionable to spiritualists (“In the Sweet Bye and Bye”), or spiritualist words set to traditional Christian tunes, or Christian hymns whose lyrics had been modified.

The Hymnology of Spiritualism
Most spiritualists, however, had grown up hearing and singing Christian tunes, and these set the style for what religious music should be.  They had the advantage of already being well known, and, for many, well loved.

Some Spiritualist Hymns and Tunes:

1 2 3 4 The Trumpet Séance

Sweet Séance Hour (Sweet Hour of Prayer)


1 2 3 4 Music on the Waters, Music from the Spirit Shore, & Voices from the Spirit Land

Only rarely would a hymn written by a spiritualist travel in the opposite direction—becoming popular in mainstream Christian churches.  An example of one that did (even though some had qualms with its doctrine)—

Love Maria Willis’ “Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer” (1856)


But spiritualists had other resources than the Christian hymnary and popular tunes.  Mediums received poems, lyrics, and tunes directly from the spirits.  The medium Lizzie Doten specialized in improvising poems onstage, often attributing them to the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.  Medium Thomas Lake Harris also received reams of verse from the spirit-land, and published many volumes, to mixed critical reviews.  Piano-playing mediums sometimes sat at their instruments in trance and improvised “in the spirit of” Mozart or Beethoven.

Those who have witnessed Mrs. [Semantha] Mettler’s remarkable powers as a clairvoyant and healing medium will readily infer that [her daughter] Catherine inherited a natural title to her inspiration.  Previous to her development as a medium, Catherine had taken a few lessons on the piano, and could execute a few rudimentary lessons with tolerable correctness, but had never evinced any remarkable taste for the art, or given promise of ultimate proficiency.  One day, whilst laboring to make out the air of a simple song, Miss Mettler’s arms were apparently seized by an unknown power, which at once compelled her to commence the most astonishing improvisation, evidencing an extraordinary mastery over the instrument and a thorough knowledge of the science of harmony.

The medium’s hands for some time mechanically obeyed the irresistible impulse of this unseen performer without any volition or mental impression of her own.  At length the wonderful sounds issuing from the instrument attracted the attention of other members of the family.  Mrs. Mettler, who had an intuitively fine taste for music, whilst engaged in another part of the house, heard and recognized the masterly touch of an unknown performer, and inquired who was in the parlor.  She presumed that some very skillful pianist had called on her daughter without her knowledge.  To ascertain this fact, she entered the apartment, where, to her amazement, she found no one but Catherine.  The young girl was sitting at the instrument, apparently fixed and spell-bound; her hands automatically performing those wondrous symphonies, but her mind locked in the deep unconsciousness of a profound trance.  Since this time [some three months ago], Catherine has been daily influenced by spirits whom all skilled musicians recognize by their graphic and peculiar style to be those whom they claim; namely, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and others, who each perform with marked and unmistakable individuality.  Sometimes the compositions are wholly original and improved upon given subjects.  Sometimes they are recognized chef d’oeuvres of celebrated masters, of whom the medium has scarcely ever even heard.  These marvelous performances are executed equally well in the dark or the light, and usually occupy several hours of each day.  On one occasion, when the spirits had performed a medley of some twenty popular airs, Mrs. Myers, a lady present, mentally desired that some martial music should be given, when the performers, by a skillful modulation, changed the strain she was then executing into a noble march for Liberty, accompanied with some fine variations and closing with a sublime hymn, improvised, as it was claimed, by the spirit of Beethoven.

—Samuel Byron Brittan, in the Spiritual Telegraph, as quoted by Emma Hardinge Britten, Modern American Spiritualism, 202-203.

Reported in the spiritualist press were wonders such as “a piano played with invisible hands angel music heard in Indiana” and “the production of voluntary music in perfect harmony, through a medium wholly unacquainted with the musical art.”

The Spirit of Orpheus

Songs and poems were “given from time to time, to Circle A. of Philadelphia, by Spirits of the Second Sphere, through the alphabetic card.”  The medium for these was Esther Henck, who led the First Spiritualist Circle in the early 1850s, at a time when spirit communications were still mostly sent and received through means resembling a telegraphic code.  Henck’s songs were actually poems, which, the spirits instructed, were to be set to the tunes of standard folk and popular songs and hymns, like “Auld Lang Syne,” “The Mountain Maid’s Invitation,” “Home Sweet Home,” “Bonnie Doon,” “Ben Bolt,” “Hail Columbia,” or “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.”

The eldest of the Fox Sisters discovered another method, allowing the dictation of a melody by way of the names of the notes.

Leah Fox’s Hallowed Ground

Spiritualists oriented themselves toward the future, even while invoking the spirits of the past—and consequently, some of them found traditional spiritual music too conventional and sentimental, and envisioned a new kind of music, although they aknowledged that it had not yet been realized.

Among the dreary multitude of Christian hymns there are a few noble examples, they are few and easily counted.  Aside from these the rhymester holds undisputed sway, and the poet enters not his domain.  There was a time when the Christian poet might have moved the world with his songs.  The age is passed never to return.  Mediocrity, bare, bald, senseless, presides over Christian hymnology, and the worst feature is the contentment with which Christians repeat the words and tunes, parrot-like that are set for them.  The new order of song must come from the higher and nobler views of life taught by Spiritualism and the poet of that new era has yet to write.  The old will linger like a perfume in his song, but the song itself will be strong in the truth of noble natural living, aglow with immortal aspirations, foreshadowing the heritage of infinite possibilities.

—Hudson Tuttle, “Christian Hymns,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, June 4, 1881

Spiritualist lecturer James Peebles, a leader among spiritualists in pursuing new forms of music and new uses for it, saw music as an important instrument for revolutionizing society, clarifying and activating sacred patterns of vibrations that were present everywhere.  He wrote in his collection of spiritualist hymns, The Spiritual Harp:

Revolutions date in the improvised songs of the peasantry.  Religion springs to form from the hearts of the musical seers of all ages.  Music envelops every surrounding object with Aeolian vibrations.  The angels, charmed when sweet melodies rise like ocean ripples from joyous souls cannot help approaching us.  As our music quiveringly touches and trembles the finer chords of their souls, we hear an echo far sweeter, and in turn we pause and listen, the auditors now of heavenly choirs.  Thus the songs we produce, however, humble, set all the universe ablaze with melodious light, and, ringing through the arches of heaven, bless all hearts with new joy.

In this sentiment is already present an association of Leftwing, anti-establishment, revolutionary progressivism with an ideal of music “of the common people,” an association that was present in the Hutchinson Family Singers’ use of (European-derived) “demotic” folk and rustic musical melodies and lyrical themes used in the service of radical politics—as it would be in the twentieth century with radical political sentiment being fueled by folk and blues music.

Peebles promoted a new form of musical service he called “spirit echoes.”  It consisted of “silver-chain recitation,” in which readings, responses, and chants alternated, and with the medium or leader alternating with the group or congregation.  He wrote that it would increase the spiritual power of the group—“the alternation of reading by the speaker and singing by the congregation, thus bringing the two into rapport with each other, and preparing the way for a most inspirational influx from the angels, must be most hallowed in influence.”  The idea was similar to the rationale for those in a “spirit circle” to join hands in order to facilitate the exchange of “energies.”  Here is an example of “spirit echoes” on the subject of “Purity.”  The speaker was to read the short selections, then the congregation was to sing the recurring verse.


Virtue is nobility without heraldry.—Sallust
Unto the pure all things are pure.—Paul.
Be not ashamed of thy virtues.—Ben. Johnson.

There’s a | pure white | lily
That is | blooming | in the | earth,
A | beautiful | lily,
And it hath immortal birth,
The | lily | of the | soul.

Sully not the honor of thy house;
Fix not a withering stigma upon thy children.—Phocylides.

There’s a | pure white | lily
That is | blooming | in the | earth,
A | beautiful | lily,
And it hath immortal birth,
The | lily | of the | soul.

Virtue can add reverence to the bloom of youth;
And without it age plants more wrinkles in the spirit than on the forehead.—Sanscrit.

There’s a | pure white | lily
That is | blooming | in the | earth,
A | beautiful | lily,
And it hath immortal birth,
The | lily | of the | soul.

Pure affections, pure thoughts, pure habits,
clothe the person with attributes of beauty.

There’s a | pure white | lily
That is | blooming | in the | earth,
A | beautiful | lily,
And it hath immortal birth,
The | lily | of the | soul.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they see God.—Jesus.

There’s a | pure white | lily
That is | blooming | in the | earth,
A | beautiful | lily,
And it hath immortal birth,
The | lily | of the | soul.

Oh, take heart! a pure and honorable life is possible to all.—Grace Greenwood.

Nineteenth-Century Spiritualist Hymnals and Songbooks

Adams, John Stowell.  The Psalms of Life; a Compilation of Psalms, Hymns, Chants, Anthems, &c., Embodying the Spiritual, Progressive and Reformatory Sentiment of the Present Age (Boston: O. Ditson, 1857).

Boozer, H. W.  Inspiration’s Voice. A Music Book, Complete for the Spiritualist’s Every Use (Grand Rapids, MI: 1898).

Britten, Emma Hardinge [and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]. The Footsteps of Angels; Recitative & Air (New York: H. Waters, 1856).

Henck, Esther C.  Spirit Voices: Odes, Dictated by Spirits of the Second Sphere, for the Use of Harmonial Circles (Philadelphia: G. D. Henck, 1854) 2nd ed.

Longfellow, Samuel.  Hymns of the Spirit (Boston, 1864).

Luddon, William. The Spiritual Hymnary, Together with Tunes, Opening Exercises, and Ethical Studies (New York: Ludwen and Bates, 1899).

Packard, J. B.  The Spirit Minstrel; a Collection of Hymns and Music, for the Use of Spiritualists, in Their Circles and Public Meetings (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1853).

Peebles, James Martin.  The Lyceum Guide; A Collection of Songs, Hymns, and Chants; Lessons, Readings, and Recitations; Marches and Calisthenics (Boston: Adams and Company, 1870).

Peebles, James Martin.  The Spiritual Harp; a Collection of Vocal Music for the Choir, Congregation, and Social Circle (Boston: W. White, 1868).

Sinclair, Alice.  Songs for Spiritualists (Mass: The Attleboro Press, n.d.).

Smith, H. W.  Star of Progress; New Devotional Music, for Congregation or Choir; Lyceum Songs with Marches (Boston: Cochrane & Co., 1886).

White, Nathan Francis.  Voices from Spirit-Land; through Nathan Francis White, Medium (New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1854).

Books about Receiving Music from Spirits

Bennett, Edward T.  The Direct Phenomena of Spiritualism—Speaking, Writing, Drawing, Music & Painting (London: W. Rider & Son, 1908).

Morgan, Richard Cope.  An Inquiry into Table-Miracles, Their Cause, Character, and Consequence: Illustrated by Recent Manifestations of Spirit-Writing & Spirit-Music (Bath: Binns and Goodwin, 1853).

A Few Popular Songs with Spiritualist Themes
(Duke University Archive of Historic American Sheet Music)

Spirit Rappings (1853)

Angel Friends (1862)

How the Gates Came Ajar (1869)

Spectral Bride (1872)


Speaking of anthems (says a writer in the Nautical Gazette) reminds me of the story of two old British sailors who were talking over their shore experience.  One had been to a cathedral and had heard some very fine music, and was descanting particularly upon an anthem which gave him much pleasure.  His shipmate listened for a while and then said, “I say, Bill, what’s a hantham?”  “What,” replied Bill, “do you mean to say you don’t know what a hantham is?”  “Not me.”  “Well, then, I’ll tell yer.  If I was to tell yer, ‘Ere Bill, giv me that ‘andspike,” that wouldn’t be a hantham; but was I to say, ‘Bill, Bill, Bill, giv, giv, giv me, give me that, Bill, giv me, giv me that hand, giv me that hand, handspike, spike, spike, Bill, giv, giv me that, that hand, handspike, hand, handspike, spike, spike, spike, ah-men, ah-men.  Billgivmethathandspike, spike, ah-men!’ why that would be a hantham.”

—Banner of Light


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