Sunday, June 08, 2008

Which is it?

A bit of musicology to get our week going. I went to a singing recital at which a quartet sang "Throw out the Life-Line", a piece written in 1888 by Reverend Edwin S. Ufford. The refrain is:

Throw out the life-line! Throw out the life-line!
Someone is drifting away;
Throw out the life-line! Throw out the life-line!
Someone is sinking today.

So, here's the question. In his introduction to the piece, one of the singers said that it was a temperance song, and this is supported in some places, like this one, on the web. But various websites, like this one, refer to it as a missionary piece, and the last verse in particular makes it seem that way.

Now, maybe this doesn't matter at all. Maybe there was a lot of overlap between the temperance movement and missionary zeal at the time.

I don't quite know why this has left me curious. Anyone out there want to jump in with a knowledgeable or speculative opinion?

Addendum. Meanwhile, e-Patient Dave was kind to send me these two renditions: Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland.


Ari Herzog said...

Interesting stuff, Paul. I love a good mystery.

Apparently, it's neither a missionary nor temperance song. It's simpler and very local to Boston.

Ufford was a Baptist preacher associated with the now-First Baptist Church of Westwood, who, in 1888, witnessed a life-saving drill off Nantasket Beach. He wrote a hymn after witnessing someone give the order to "throw out the life-line."

Sources: here and here, the latter mentioning the hymn was later covered by the Jerry Garcia Band.

Anonymous said...

Remember that the temperance movement was not about getting prim people to stop sipping sherry. It was about the devastation of alcohol on families, especially the poor. Pretty natural, when you haven't got any medications or programs or health insurance, to turn to heaven. I think that's why temperance is linked to salvation and I don't call that missionary zeal. As with everything else in life, a few people ruin it for everybody. Missionaries have gotten a bad name, such as "zealot," when really they have helped the least among us that nobody else would help.

Anonymous said...

I'm struck that weren't sure why you were curious about this. I have a hunch that it might be more about the content - throwing someone a life life who might otherwise drown - than where it comes from.

As someone who lives with chronic illness (MS) and coaches people with chronic illness about their jobs and career, the image of throwing a life line is near and dear. I've used it in my own blogs and my self published booklets.

Many of the people with whom I speak hope someone will offer - or throw - them a line to a better life. Oh, wouldn't it be a grand world if it were only so easy and we could assure everyone that it's just an outstretched arm away.