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History Matters: The day the music died

Those reading the weekly Connecticut Current newspaper on Tuesday morning, May 1, 1821, awoke to the news of the following tragedy.

“Saturday, in the afternoon, a wood schooner, Ezra Beckwith-Master, left Niantic River for New York with six men aboard. At seven in the evening off Cornfield Point, Saybrook, one of the men, Marsena Miller, was knocked overboard by the boom. In wearing the schooner to throw him a rope, she overset and the wood on deck, falling into the mainsail, prevented her rising. Mr. Ezra Beckwith and Mr. Marsena Miller of Lyme and Mr. Epiphalet Manwaring of Waterford were drowned. The three others remaining were taken from the wreck the next morning speechless, carried on shore and after proper application, recovered.”

That news hit our area hard. Captain Beckwith was 50 years old, well-known and from a prominent local family as was Mr. Manwaring (age 33). Young Mr. Miller was only 18 years of age at the time of the sinking. His father, Richard Miller, promptly implored residents of Fishers Island and those along Long Island Sound to be on the lookout for his son’s body and, if found, “convey it, to the Miller home in the East Society of Lyme, one and a half miles from Riverhead.”

He said his son had been wearing a blue coat and vest, dark pantaloons and short boots …coat trimmed with yellow buttons and purple glass buttons upon his vest. Mr. Miller further offered that he would “thankfully and abundantly reward all trouble and expenses incurred.”

The body of Marsena Vinton Miller, however, was never recovered. Known locally as a gifted music composer despite his youth — he had been composing music since age 13 — Marsena Miller’s musical voice would be heard no more. What appeared to be a promising career had been cut short by the boom of the schooner, Industry, when it suddenly had swung free and swept the young man to an untimely, watery grave.

Such a sad story and one filled with “what-ifs.” Certainly, such a story would be worthy of current investigation, but to do so, one would have to gain some understanding of this young man and popular American music from two centuries in the past. Where to begin such a journey?

Fortunately, one of Ezra Beckwith’s descendants in Massachusetts had been researching her family genealogy in 2019 and had contacted the East Lyme Historical Society to share what she had found.

Much of that information, it turned out, was not so much about her unfortunate ancestor, whose life and ship were lost at sea in 1821, as it was about a promising young music composer who happened to also be on board and shared a similar fate.

It was interesting to find that this young man, despite his body never being found, had two graves.

One is in Niantic in the Old Stone Burial Ground and the other in Ohio where his family went to flee the memory of the tragic event that had befallen them. The Ohio family plot features an obelisk listing the names of parents, Richard and Phoebe Miller, along with those of their still missing son, Marsena, his three siblings, their spouses and their children.

But there was something more remarkable found in Ohio, something that might help to define Marsena Miller in the musical world of his time. A small (8-inch by 3-inch) manuscript book, bound in rag paper without watermarks had managed to find its way to the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. It came with provenance saying that it had been compiled by a teenager named Marsena V. Miller of Lyme.

The booklet began on June 24, 1817, and spanned several years. It was a compilation of psalmody (spiritual songs) that had the flavor of older tunes but had been written using a four-shape notation system, something quite new at the time. The normally rounded bottoms of the musical notes in the score had given way to shapes such as diamonds, right triangles, ovals and rectangles, which represented mi, fa, sol, and la, respectively.

This made the reading of music much easier, thus allowing it to be sung more informally and often outside a formal church setting.

This four-shape notation system is reported to have begun in New England in the early 1800s, but by the 1840s it had spread to the southern part of our country. There it would become instrumental in the development of something called “Sacred Harp Music.” Because the four-note system was easy to read and instruments might not have been readily available in some areas, music could be sung a cappella in four-part harmony.

Not being musically literate, I decided to contact someone I knew who was. MaryAnn Liniak-Bodwell had been the head of the music department and a colleague of mine for many years at East Lyme High School. I recently asked her what she knew about this four-shape notation system and the Sacred Harp music it inspired.

“Funny you should ask about that,” Liniak-Bodwell replied. “Shape notes have a significant place in music history. Variations of shape notes appeared as early as the 11th century but for your story here we might want to zero in on a man named John Connelly, a shopkeeper down in Philadelphia, who invented the four-shape note system in 1790. He had created that system with non-music readers in mind. He eventually sold the rights to it to two men, Little and Smith, and they published “The Easy Instructor” in 1803 using Connolly’s system. The book was popular here in Connecticut in the early 1800s, and that coincides with young Marsena’s early years. That was most likely how the young man became familiar with four-shaped notes.”

“As a vocal musician who specializes in American music, Sacred Harp singing is no stranger to me,” Liniak-Bodwell said; she has an impressive resume of professional work both in the U.S and Europe. “My first rather enlightening introduction to Sacred Harp singing was back in the mid-1980s. I was a member of the American Music/Theater Group directed by Dr. Neely Bruce [of Wesleyan University] who is an American music scholar and one of the founders of the New England Sacred Harp Convention. The most memorable concert for me was titled ‘Hartford, Northampton and Saybrook, featuring psalm tunes, hymns and anthems from the Connecticut River Valley before 1825.’ It was powerful and moving and was an unforgettable singing experience.”

“Sacred Harp singing is not about fussiness and perfection. The ‘harp’ is simply the human voice, and the singing is all about freedom of expression in soul and spirit. There is no competition for high notes (the tenor voice carries the melody) nor care about the overly loud dude next to you. It does not matter whether a group numbers in the hundreds or just three to four singers. Seated around a conductor who stands inside a hollow square and leads the singing, the whole experience becomes communal, organic and infectious,” Liniak-Bodwell concluded.

Mulling over Liniak-Bodwell’s comments and personal experiences, I was starting to view Marsena Miller in a broader musical context. Efforts are now underway by the local historical society to retrieve that small manuscript book from Ohio, or at least obtain a copy of it, as we approach the 200th anniversary of the young man’s death. That book could reveal a great deal about his role as a musical innovator.

Are you old enough to remember the tragic news of Feb. 3, 1959? A plane had crashed in an Iowa cornfield, killing all four young men on board. The pilot, Mr. Roger Peterson, along with three well-known and talented musicians… Mr. Buddy Holly, Mr. Ritchie Valens and Mr. J.P. Richardson perished in the crash.

It would take singer-songwriter Don McLean years later (until 1971) to forever place a musical stamp on the tragic event. In the classic song, “American Pie,” he would express his personal regrets, claiming he could still remember how their music “used to make me smile.”

He also recalled that on that sad, sad, day back in 1959 how “lovers cried, and poets dreamed but not a word was spoken, (even) the church bells all were broken.”

McLean would also offer a haunting question about music’s vast potential. “Can music save your mortal soul?” he muses, as he continues to widen the scope of the tragedy.

“American Pie” forever christened Feb. 3, 1959 as “the day the music died” and that is the way many of us from the rock ‘n’ roll generation, myself included, still remember it. But to widen our lens through a little historic reflection, maybe the story of our own Marsena Miller is not so vastly different. Such talent silenced at such a young age.

The following poem also turned up in Ohio, most likely something the family had brought with them from that painful spring day back in Connecticut. It had been penned by an unnamed young woman. Was this woman a lover, a music fan, just a friend, or perhaps a fellow musician? All we really know today is that she felt this musical loss deeply.

To her (and most likely many others at the time), April 21, 1821, was, indeed, “the day the music died.”

“Since death with ever a jealous eye

In youth’s untimely hour,

Has-passed the vile and worthless by,

To pluck the fairest flower.

Friendship may hang her mournful head,

O’er dear Marsena’s bier

Nature, may offer to the dead

The tribute of a tear.”

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher and author of two local history books and two Civil War novels. He lives in East Lyme.


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