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An Adair Co. Author: Mary Allen Grissom (1883-1963)


With the annual Adair County Book Fair just days away, a brief sketch of a local author seems in order. The name Mary Allen Grissom likely doesn't ring any bells, but her one publication remains in print after 90 years.

She drew her first breath in July 1883 in the Bliss community, the oldest child and only daughter of Dr. William T. and Elizabeth A. Jones Grissom. Her early education isn't known but possibly consisted of common (or subscription) school followed by attendance at the Male & Female College in Columbia.

Mary Allen's musical interest and ability manifested early, and in March 1901, the Adair County News reported her recent return home after having "taken music in Louisville for the past six or eight months." June 1902 found her receiving a Diploma in Music from the L.C.Y.L. (Lebanon College for Young Ladies) in Lebanon, Tennessee. The following June she earned the Baccalaureate of Arts degree from the same school, and fall of that year found her teaching there as an assistant music instructor, a post she held through at least the spring term of 1906.

Over the next several years, in the custom of the day, she taught in several schools, including those in Greenfield, Tenn., Asheville, No. Car., Franklin, Va. (where she served as head of the music department), Mount Vernon, Ky., and at the Bethel Female College, Hopkinsville, Ky. as director of the music department, as well as a handful of other institutions of learning.

Interspersed with her teaching, Mary Allen frequently took summer courses at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, completing her studies there in the early summer of 1918, and her reputation as a skilled musician grew. Years later, an article about her in The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey, November 27, 1937) spoke highly of her abilities:
"Her musical career shows unusual versatility. Besides being a college music teacher for years in piano and voice, she has had many successful appearances as soloist, pianist, accompanist, choir director, music director, and solo singer of Afro-American spirituals and other folk songs, and teacher and writer on musical subjects. On several occasions she has contributed valuable items to the music columns on this page."
In August 1923, she accepted a teaching post at the Louisville Conservatory of Music, where she had been a student over twenty years earlier, a position she held for seven years. In 1930, she moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, where she spent the remainder of her life.

At some point earlier in her career, Mary Allen had developed an interest in Afro-American music, specifically, the manner in which hymns were sung, and in the summer of 1926, she was accorded the signal honor of working for two weeks with Dr. Howard W. Odum of the University of North Carolina, a leading luminary of Southern sociologists who held a similar interest in Afro-American music.

In 1930, after years of meticulous note-taking, Ms. Grissom's slim compilation, "The Negro Sings a New Heaven," originally intended for publication in 1927, finally went to press, published by the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, under the direction of Dr. Odum. This collection of several dozen hymns, both words and melodies, some hundreds of years old, others more contemporary, were mostly, as stated by the author in the Foreword, "selected from those sung in the neighborhood of Louisville, Ky., and certain rural sections in Adair County."

The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina, November 2, 1930) referred to her work as "a collection of unharmonized melodies recorded as sung in the big meetings and revivals near the home of the author..."

One of best descriptions found of her work appeared in the Courier-Journal (Louisville, Ky., November 9, 1930), the article stating in part,
"[T]hese songs constitute a part of collections of original melodies whose value lie in their presentation and preservation as they are found and sung...

"Only the melodies and texts are given. No attempt has been made to provide elaborate and intricately harmonized accompaniments. In that way, the absolute simplicity and sincerity of the Negro folk-song has been preserved. The tunes are written exactly as Miss Grissom heard them. Many valuable and practical hints as to how these songs ought to be sung will be found in the collection."
Some forty-five songs are presented, divided under six subheadings such as "Bible Stories in Songs" and "Songs of Service and Personal Experience." The lyrics as she heard them sung, including the varying dialects and pronunciations, appear on the right hand pages, and the opposite left-hand pages give the notation for each song along with the first stanza.

This, along with Miss Grissom's accompanying information in the Foreword, gives an excellent sense of how to sing each song in the same manner as she heard it.

Her obituary in The Courier-News (February 27, 1963) stated in part,
"Miss Grissom was keenly interested in the Music of the American Negro, and before coming to Plainfield had spent many hours collecting Negro spirituals in their original form...[and her book] contains a large number of these melodies...

"Her value to the community was more than that of piano teacher. She was in the true sense of the word a musical educator, one who had the ability to create in her pupils a love for the art of music."
While some of Miss Grissom's remarks in the Foreword of "The Negro Sings a New Heaven" are (quite rightly) considered racist today, the notated songs themselves remain a valuable source of insight into the singing style of the era.

Her book has been reprinted at least twice, first in 1969 (Dover Publications, as part of their "Black Rediscovery" series) and later, beginning in 2010, by the University of North Carolina Press, apparently on a digitized "print on demand" basis (Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4456-1).

Previously owned reprint copies of the book may be found for ten dollars or less (my Dover edition cost less five dollars, shipping included), and diligent searching online will reveal used copies of the original 1930 hardback edition available for under $100.

This story was posted on 2021-10-31 11:23:25
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That Lonesome Valley

2021-10-31 - Adair Co., KY - Photo courtesy JIM.
Notation and first verse of "That Lonesome Valley," from "The Negro Sings a New Heaven," by Mary Allen Grissom, Dover Publications 1969, page 2.

In 1930, after years of meticulous note-taking, Ms. Grissom's slim compilation was published by the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. This collection of several dozen hymns, both words and melodies, were mostly "selected from those sung in the neighborhood of Louisville, Ky., and certain rural sections in Adair County."

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