When the average person thinks about Freemasonry, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is not singing. Yet there's a rich history of music and Freemasonry. In fact, the very first Masonic book ever printed - Anderson's Constitutions, published in London in 1723 - contained not only the lyrics of Masonic songs, but even some musical notation. Irving Lowens's A Bibliography of Songsters Printed in America before 1821, in which he defines a songster as "a collection of three or more secular poems intended to be sung," lists Benjamin Franklin's 1734 edition of Anderson's Constitutions as the very first songster printed in America.
The book pictured here is from our collection - a clearly well-used copy of Masonic Melodies: Adapted to the Ceremonies and Festivals of the Fraternity, published in Boston in 1844. The songs were written, or in some cases, collected by Thomas Power (1786-1868), who served as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts from 1820-1833.
The January 1, 1844 issue of Charles W. Moore's Freemason's Monthly Magazine, contains a positive review of Power's book, noting that
"[the songs are] chaste in style, pure in diction, and classical in allusion. As a merely literary work, it will be honorable to the Institution; while its practical utility and refreshing moral influence, will render it a popular and desirable acquisition in every Lodge, and to every Brother, who has an ear for music, or a taste for poetry. It is designed to drive out from among us, and, we trust, out of remembrance, the coarse and vulgar Bacchanalian songs, which, however tolerable in the age when they were written, are now a disgrace and a reproach to the Institution. If it shall effect this, it will entitle its accomplished author to the lasting gratitude of his Brethren."
Perhaps that's a slightly unfair quote to pull, since Charles W. Moore (1801-1873) was hardly a dispassionate observer. The title page states: "published by Oliver Ditson, 135 Washington Street; and at the Office of The Freemason's Magazine, 21 School Street." Although the title given is slightly different (i.e. The Freemason's Magazine, instead of Freemason's Monthly Magazine) they are one in the same and indicate that Moore was one of the two publishers of this book. A London Masonic periodical from 1844, however, raves equally about Power's work:
"As a repertory of Masonic Lyrics, it is incomparably beyond any previous competitor, and embraces every point it professes to treat of, and may be referred to by every Lodge, Chapter, and Encampment. We consider ourselves fortunate in having a copy, and would advise any Brother desirous of these Melodies to enquire of Brother Spencer, the Masonic Librarian, London, as to the readiest mode of obtaining one for himself."
Although presumably intended for use by members of the fraternity, our copy, interestingly, is inscribed by Thomas Power to a "Mrs. Rachel Carnes." More research may reveal who Rachel Carnes was and why Power might have given her an inscribed copy of his book.
If you're interested in reading more on this topic, you might start with Sion M. Honea, "Nineteenth-Century American Masonic Songbooks: A Preliminary Checklist," Heredom, vol. 6 (1997), 285-304. (The article originally appeared under the same title in Music Reference Services Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4 (1995), 17-32.)
And if you are interested in singing some Masonic tunes, Harvard's copy of Masonic Melodies has been digitized and is available via Google Books.
Thomas Power. Masonic Melodies: Adapted to the Ceremonies and Festivals of the Fraternity. Boston: Oliver Ditson, and at the Office of the the Freemason's Magazine, 1844.
Call number: RARE 65.1 .P887 1844