Tad Walch: Original 'Poor Wayfaring Man' had different tune

Published: Saturday, Oct. 11 2008 12:05 a.m. MDT

PROVO, Utah — New research has recovered the more upbeat tune John Taylor used when he sang "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" to Joseph Smith just before the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was murdered on June 27, 1844.

The tune had been lost to history. For 140 years, church members have sung the song to a different tune, one commissioned by Taylor himself.

A year before President Taylor died in 1887, he sang the song for composer Ebenezer Beesley the way he sang it at Carthage jail in Illinois before a mob stormed the jail and shot and killed Smith and his brother Hyrum and wounded Taylor and Willard Richards.

Beesley recorded the tune in his choir book. Then he composed a different one for the song for a new hymn book commissioned for the church by Taylor, and Beesley's arrangement is the only one known to generations of Latter-day Saints.

A Taylor descendant recently uncovered the Beesley choir book, and historian Jeffrey N. Walker presented his arrangement of the song at a church history symposium on Taylor held Friday at Brigham Young University.

A quartet that included Walker's son performed the song at the conference. Taylor's tune wouldn't be completely unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints, but it is more upbeat and some notes have a distinct Irish-Celtic sound.

"We heard a hymn that changed us a bit," Walker said after the performance, "that transported us back to a day in Carthage, amongst the leaders of the church as they contemplated the role that the church would have through the world, and while that day (the mob) may have taken two of the greatest who have ever lived, John was there (as) more than just a recorder, he was there to capture the essence of the day."

The Smiths were in jail on a charge of treason based on the affidavit of two men whose word, according to Taylor, wasn't worth 5 cents. Taylor and Richards joined them for support, and on the afternoon the brothers died, Taylor sang "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief."

Hyrum Smith so liked the song that he asked Taylor to sing it a second time. Taylor tried to decline because of the gloomy mood — he later called it "a remarkable depression of spirits" — in the second-story room of the jail but Hyrum Smith insisted, telling Taylor he'd get the spirit of it once he began. Those facts endear the recovered tune to Walker.

"I like it because John Taylor sang it that way," Walker said. "I like it also that Hyrum liked it."

The song began as a poem written by English poet James Montgomery during two chilly, dreary trips in horse-drawn carriages in England in December 1826. Titled "The Stranger and His Friend," Montgomery didn't expect the poem to become a hymn.

A New York preacher named George Coles set the poem to music, to a tune he named Duane Street after the address of one of his churches. Taylor learned the hymn in England on a mission and included it in a Mormon hymnal published there in 1840 under his direction and that of Brigham Young and Parley P. Pratt. Pratt was the missionary who converted Taylor. Young would succeed Joseph Smith as church president, and Taylor would follow Young as the church's third president.

The hymnal didn't include music or even the name of a tune, only Montgomery's lyrics. Taylor sang it to a different tune than Duane Street. The new song with Taylor's tune had been introduced in Nauvoo, Ill., before the martyrdom of the Smiths. The hymnal included all seven verses of the song, which settles the question for Walker of whether Taylor sang all seven verses at Carthage.

Taylor apparently thought the hymn's tune needed to be more elegant.

"He'd write he didn't like the tune," Walker said. "He thought it was quite plain."

Taylor asked Beesley to compose a new tune at the same time he launched a committee to create a new hymnbook for the church. The result was the Psalmody, completed in 1889, two years after Taylor's death.

"The one we have in our hymnbook now is a little more elegant, a little more formal, a little more memorial," Walker said.

The church is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Taylor's birth next month, and Taylor descendants lauded Walker for presenting the song at Friday's conference.

"It's wonderful we now have that tune," Mark H. Taylor said. "We now have the tune as sung in Carthage jail."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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