October 16, 2018
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‘Bangor’ the song has complex past

The BDN’s June 26 special section on Bangor’s 175th birthday reiterates many of the inaccuracies so often repeated about the naming of the city after the song “Bangor.” Whether the Rev. Seth Noble was a tippler, inadvertently told the apocryphal Boston clerk the song he was whistling was “Bangor,” or simply renamed the town himself, I have no dog in that fight. But let’s look at the music.

Richard Shaw writes: “The dirge-like Welsh hymn ‘Bangor’ probably would not inspire Tony Bennett.” This confused me. Our city’s official Web site claims Bangor is an Irish hymn. The “Bangor” I know was written in England by an Englishman. And although it’s not real peppy, “Bangor” is certainly not a dirge.

The piece continues: “‘Bangor’ was written by William Tans’ur and supposedly means high choir in Welsh. In Celtic it translates to ‘the white choir.’” This is a very strange hodge-podge of misinformation. Many believe our city is somehow related to Bangor, County Down in Northern Ireland (and the Bangor Abbey there), or to Bangor in Gwynedd, Wales, and its cathedral. The Irish city gets its name from the Irish word Beannchor, meaning a horned curve (the shape of Bangor Bay). In North Wales, bangor was the local word for the type of wattle fence (poles woven with branches) around the land where the Bangor Cathedral was built. Neither has anything to do with a choir.

The lyrics printed in the BDN are actually “Hark! From the Tomb a Doleful Sound,” written by Isaac Watts, “the father of English Hymnody.” It is a very dire and depressing hymn, reportedly sung at George Washington’s funeral on Dec. 18, 1799, a traditional Masonic burial. It’s still used for Masonic burials in some states. It is sometimes sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” or in haunting folk versions with uniquely American melodies.

Watts wrote words only, not music. His hymn is sung to many different tunes, including Tans’ur’s “Bangor.” Old hymns often had no preassigned tune, and in their notations they sometimes included the name of a town where a particular melody was common.

Most sources assert that Tans’ur composed “Bangor” based on The Antiphonary of Bangor, a sacred Latin manuscript from Northern Ireland. I can find no evidence to support this. I have my own theory: that Tans’ur was inspired to write his hymn-tune by an actual city named Bangor for some unknown reason: perhaps it was an air he heard there, perhaps he was recapturing the spirit of the town or the cathedral or abbey. In the original version of “Bangor” in his 1734 book “A Compleat Melody: or Harmony of Syon,” Tans’ur used Psalm 12 for the words. Tans’ur’s song has been used with many lyrics over the years, but it seems clear the most affecting aspect of the song then as now, is the pretty melody of “Bangor.”

Many, many songs have interchangeable words. I remember old hymnals in church not even having written music. An old custom was to sing a hymn in any melody that had a matching meter and was well known to the singers. “Bangor” (in quatrains or four-line verses) has one of the most popular verse forms. In popular songs it’s called ballad meter and in hymns common meter (hence the letters C.M. at the top of some hymns). You’ll find the number of syllables in these songs alternates: 8:6:8:6.

Here are some lyrics from Tans’ur’s “Bangor”:

Since I have placed my trust in God,(8)

a refuge always nigh, (6)

Compare them with “Auld Lang Syne”:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot (8)

And never brought to mind (6) …

Adding to the confusion, the Bangor Public Library got us another “Bangor” from 1781, with yet a different Watts hymn for Tans’ur’s melody: “Stoop down my tho’ts that us’d to rise.”

I firmly believe in everyone’s right to interpret music their own way. We have been performing “Bangor” at venues around the city in honor and celebration of Bangor’s 175th birthday. My children sing both a traditional version, and their own rowdy rock ’n’ roll version. Music belongs to every generation.

The BDN has a fine reputation, and is rightly considered the source of record for all things Bangor. The song “Bangor” should be well and properly remembered and written about. But why worry about songs? All history should be told right, even just the songs and old stories we pass on to our children. Happy Birthday, Bangor!

John Picone of Bangor performs music with his family.


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