"O My Father": The Musical Settings

Author: Michael Hicks
Categories: Music
Journal: 36:1
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"O My Father" began public life as a poem on the back page of an obscure newspaper. It is now a lilting, pastoral hymn instantly recognizable throughout the world, sung in dozens of languages by millions of people. The transformation was convoluted. Latter-day Saints always wanted to sing Eliza R. Snow's poem. But as they sought for the best way to do so, they found a bewildering set of options, all complicated by inconsistencies of publication, competing musical tastes, visionary experiences, political happenstance, and quirks in Snow's text itself.

In tracing the history of "O My Father," we should begin with the obvious question: Did Eliza R. Snow intend it to be sung? As first published in 1845, "O My Father" (then under the title "My Father in Heaven") was clearly labeled as poetry, not as a hymn. But poetry and song lyrics were virtually interchangeable in early Mormondom; a great deal of verse was published under the heading of "poetry" with a notation of the tune to which it should be sung. So even if Snow did not originally intend her poem to be sung, she probably knew that it would be. Practically speaking, the Saints needed hymns to fill their meetings, not poems to fire their private meditations. (They had an abundance of new revelations to do that.) They craved hymn texts like "O My Father" short, didactic, distinctively Mormon, and strict in the number of syllables per line. So it was not surprising that, six years after its publication as a poem, "O My Father" entered the LDS hymnbook.