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American Folklore Society (New Orleans, 2012)

“Maiden’s Prayer” History

Sound: “Maiden’s Prayer” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys
Pic: 78 disk 1935 Bob Wills recording
Pic: Bob Wills w fiddle

When Bob Wills recorded “Maiden’s Prayer” in 1935, he yanked a Victorian piano piece out of the parlor, carved it down to its basic motif, coupled the melody with the surging beat of the new Western Swing genre, and placed it squarely in the middle of the honky- tonk dance floor. Wills was doing exactly what American youth do today, as they create anew with the pearls of American culture, grinding them up and remixing the pieces into something they call their own. “Maiden’s Prayer” illustrates this process from the 1850’s through the 21st century.

As a fiddler, I developed an interest in the roots of the music I played at dances, clubs, recordings, jam sessions, and for radio and film sound tracks. An unspoken code among fiddlers prompts us to remember, credit and honor the sources of the tunes we play. For me, doing this has almost become an obsession. I like to uncover not just the fiddlers in the chain of “passers-on,” but the very origins of some of my favorite fiddle tunes.

In the early 1970’s, I added “Maiden’s Prayer” to my repertoire for listening and dance clubs in California and the West. When creating my own version, I was inspired by examples played by well-known country fiddlers and bands, such as Bob Wills himself, Bobby Hicks, Chubby Wise, Don Rich (fiddler and guitarist for Buck Owens) and Tommy Jackson. They all played the piece as a fiddle feature in the key of A, unless accompanying a singer, in which case they modulated from the singer’s key to A major for the fiddle solo. The tune was clearly in the honky–tonk vein, with 20th-century country fiddle ornaments adorning a simple melody over a shuffle beat. It gave the fiddler a chance to shine through the smoke in the nightclubs.

During my travels around the United States, I often visited antique stores in search of interesting old instruments, records, and sheet music. In some of these stores I discovered music called “Maiden’s Prayer,” but clearly not the “Maiden’s Prayer” of modern fiddlers. My hunch was that the sheet music must have been an ancestor to the contemporary tune. Or, perhaps somebody just copied the title when trying to come up with a name for an instrumental. The “Maiden’s Prayer” in old sheet music was written for piano by a composer with an unpronounceable name; it was in the key of E-flat, which no fiddler would use for a fiddle feature; it included a set of increasingly intricate variations that went up to the violin’s seventh position (where fiddlers don’t dare to tread); and all of the versions but one were published before 1937.

Scrutinizing the early sheet music, I made out the melodic shapes that might have inspired Bob Wills’ iconic fiddle tune. Over the next decades, I collected many recordings and various publishers’ printed versions of “Maiden’s Prayer.”

I eventually realized that I had assembled a remarkable barometer of cultural, social and musical changes from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries in my collection of “Maiden’s Prayer” music and recordings, and after doing a bit more research, have brought some of my findings to share with those of you who are interested in the makings of country music.

Pic: Oeuvres de TB Leipzig 1851-53 cvr.jpg
Sound: “Maiden’s Prayer” by Susan Bruckner, piano

In 1851, a piano prodigy and composer in Warsaw, Tekla Badarzewska (I have learned how to pronounce her name ), wrote “Modlitwa dziewicy,” which means “Maiden’s Prayer” in Polish. The Polish National Library says that at least 900 copies were circulated in the 1850s in Poland. But when it was added as a supplement to the Parisian weekly “Revue et Gazette Musicale,” dated September 26, 1858, the floodgates were opened beyond the borders of Poland.

An emerging middle class in Europe and the United States craved the trappings of higher culture, enlightenment and sophisticated music. In spite of scornful critiques from high-level “keepers of culture,” a hit was born. 1 The people loved the tune. Eventually more than eighty publishers in Europe and the United States printed and sold many versions of “Maiden’s Prayer” for piano, adaptations for other instruments, and songs based on its melody. 2

Pics: Covers of “Prayer Granted,” “Maiden’s Thanksgiving,” and “The Orphan’s Prayer.”

The piece was so successful that it spawned a variety of sequels and answer tunes, including Badarzewska’s own “Prayer Granted,” “Maiden’s Thanksgiving,” and “The Orphan’s Prayer.”

Pic: Maiden’s Prayer Ditson Cover

Badarzewska’s piece, written for intermediate pianists, is a set of stylized, florid variations built on a simple, arpeggio-based melody, and is fairly typical of the parlor piano pieces being written and performed in Europe in the mid nineteenth century.

Pics: MP Ditson p1.jpg, MP Dits p2.jpg, MP Dits p3.jpg, MP Dits p4.jpg
Sound: MP by Susan Bruckner

Reading the sheet music no doubt stymied many middle-class pianists on both sides of the Atlantic who squinted under 19th – century kerosene lamps, trying to decipher its dense splatters of black ink while remembering to play in three flats. Most publications included the French translation of the title, sometimes in smaller font and sometimes as the primary title. A reflection of the tune’s appearance in the Paris “Gazette,” the French name let observers know that the pianist who was working on the piece was flirting with high culture, indeed. But the piece appealed to more than just parlor piano players and their listeners.

Pics: Justin Holland photo; MP Justin Holland Cvr; MP Justin Holland p1
Sound: Maiden’s Prayer Gtr

Justin Holland, an African-American guitarist, composer and arranger scored “Maiden’s Prayer” for guitar in 1854, four years before its appearance in the “Revue et Gazette Musicale” had launched its massive popularity. Holland followed some of Badarzewska’s structure, with a short intro based on a descending major scale in octaves and a statement of the melody followed by variations, but his arrangement is shorter and simpler. He also placed the tune in the guitar-friendly key of A Major, where Bob Wills fiddled the piece roughly eighty years later. By making the tune available for the small and highly portable guitar, Holland may have begun the liberation of the piece from the staid and proper parlor to the street and then on to the dance hall. In any event, Holland’s publication demonstrates that at least one arranger and publisher of guitar music saw an American audience for the piece.

Holland was not the only musician to broaden the audience for “Maiden’s Prayer.”

Pics: Cover and pg of music of EHOL/MP, Adams books, Bissell works
Sound: Play EHOL, Deby Grosjean, Susan Bruckner

Song-writer and music educator John Stowell Adams, working with tune- smith T. Bissell, put together a song, “Each hour of Life, or A Maiden’s Prayer,” which Oliver Ditson published in 1860. [Adams wrote a musical dictionary and a temperance music book; Bissell wrote songs and a music instruction book.] Bissell whittled Badarzewska’s melody down to a single line that non-professional singers could navigate, and placed the tune in the amateur-friendly key of D, helping to ensure its adoption by an even wider segment of the population. The pair added a bridge in the relative minor, so that the tune, minus Badarzewska’s repetitive variations, could still offer singer and listener some variety while fitting in with the emerging model for a pop tune.

Sound: Play EHOL, Deby Grosjean, Susan Bruckner
Pic: “Quadruple Musician’s Omnibus,” (Boston; Elias Howe, 1869)

Just a few years later, in 1869, Elias Howe in Boston published the “Quadruple Musician’s Omnibus,” a collection of popular pieces much like today’s fake books that musicians take to gigs. The Omnibus’s version of “Maiden’s Prayer” is a single line melody in the key of D, clearly the melody from the song that T. Bissell and John S. Adams wrote, “Each Hour of Life.” No harmony is indicated, as is the case for much of the music in the “Omnibus,” but by 1869, the harmony from the 1860 Ditson publication must have been well-known to many mid-nineteenth-century accompanists.

Pics: (78 Victor label “Maiden’s Prayer” by Neapolitan Trio; pics of the band
Sound: 78 Victor recording “Maiden’s Prayer” by Neapolitan Trio

Nine years after the “Omnibus” publication, Thomas Edison began recording audio. I haven’t found any recordings of “Maiden’s Prayer” from the nineteenth century, but Victor made this record in 1914 in Camden, New Jersey. The Neapolitan Trio was comprised of Howard Rattay, violin, Clement Barone, flute, and Francis J. Lapitino, harp. With the addition of William Reitz on bells to help fill out the absent piano parts, the group actually plays the song that John S. Adams and T. Bissell wrote more than fifty years before, keeping to the violin-friendly key of D while performing in a romantic classical salon style. The Neapolitan Trio played the hits and classical favorites, and their inclusion of “Maiden’s Prayer” on the Victor disk shows that sixty years after its initial U.S. publication, the piece was still well-known and would likely generate good sales. That the tune retained Badarzewska’s catchy title (rather than the more accurate “Each Hour of Life”) shows how powerful “Maiden’s Prayer” still was as a selling point in 1914.

Pics: Eddie Cantor, Cover of “The Modern Maiden’s Prayer;” and Victor 78 record label; MP Postcard

Sound: Eddie Cantor, Victor 78 record of “The Modern Maiden’s Prayer.”

In 1917, Victor recorded a humorous, sarcastic novelty tune that played on the fame of Badarzewska’s piece. “The Modern Maiden’s Prayer,” by Tin Pan Alley stars James F. Hanley (composer) and Ballard MacDonald (lyricist), came from a completely different cultural perspective than the Neapolitan Trio’s stately and romantic “Maiden’s Prayer” of three years earlier. Eddie Cantor, the singer, had just begun performing with the Ziegfeld Follies. His spoof of “Maiden’s Prayer” showed his charismatic, Broadway- oriented, stage-savvy delivery. After a brief introduction and the “A” and “B” parts, the song segues into the melody that T Bissell assembled in the nineteenth century. Then it plays around with it and varies it. The lyrics poke fun at the choices made by 20th century maidens, ridiculing their preoccupation with worldly possessions and money, and reinforce the belief that to be happy, a maiden just needs a good (and wealthy) man. [And note that in the recording, Cantor adlibs a joke about sending suffragists to the north and south poles.] Where Badarzewska’s 1850’s piece strove to elevate the listener to a spiritual plateau, and the Neapolitan Quartet’s 1914 version sought to evoke a reflective calm for the listener, Eddie Cantor used what by 1917 was simply a relic of the Victorian past to make fun of both the hold- overs of 19th century culture and the emerging material social values of the early twentieth century. “Maiden’s Prayer” seemed to be at the end of its intended life, turned 180 degrees around to look at previous generations through the curvy mirror of a penny arcade.

Sound: Bob Wills’ original 1935 78 recording of “Maiden’s Prayer”
Pics: 78 record label, 1935 pic of Bob Wills & Texas Playboys

Eighteen years after the release of “The Modern Maiden’s Prayer,” Bob Wills recorded his instrumental version. It is a honky-tonk fiddle feature of 3 stunning simplicity and directness. Shorn of Badarzewska’s embellishments and bric-a-brac, and freed from the piano-friendly key of Eb, the melody rests comfortably in the fiddle key of A, where Wills easily exploits the country fiddle ornaments of his day and delivers a straightforward and adroit performance of a medium tempo dance number.

Wills re-purposed the tune when he recorded it and played it at dance clubs all over the southwest. Within a decade, other country fiddlers had recognized the opportunities inherent in the simple structures and melody that Wills used in his 1935 recording. Subsequent fiddlers and their bands added newer chord progressions and more virtuosic fiddle licks, while keeping Wills’ basic form and melodic shape, and a 20th-century showpiece emerged from the ashes of Thekla Badarzewska’s “Maiden.”

Pics: 1860’s Ditson covers of praying maiden; segue to 20th century Moderne and Calumet covers with piano bar player and fashion icon women

While the nineteenth-century maiden (or virgin, to use another translation) is depicted on sheet music covers in religious rapture, praying before her Bible and relics, John S. Adams and T. Bissell’s song is somewhat ambiguous about the devotion embodied in prayer. The lines

“May the pure feeling
upward now stealing
ever be strengthened
‘twixt me and thee”

do little to resolve the question of whether the maiden’s devotion is to God or a lover. And when Eddie Cantor delivered James Hanley’s lines about prayer, the maiden was asking for limousines, show tickets, millionaire boyfriends, diamonds, and lasting youth. By the 1930’s, the maiden had left religion behind, choosing instead the piano bar and form-fitting dresses, and baring her shoulders with a “come hither” look.

The meanings of both “maiden” and “prayer” changed significantly in the eighty years between the tune’s composition and Bob Wills’ 1935 recording, and the sheet music covers and the lyrics both serve to deliver quite different messages. They also reflect the journey the tune made from the stately parlor and salon to the street, the Broadway stage, and eventually, the honky-tonk dance floor. I will be watching for ways new generations continue to change the maiden and her prayers.

Sound, pic: “Maiden’s Prayer” by Buck Owens (segue into others while sheet music covers with dates play in a slide show)

Notes: 1 Pianist/writer Arthur Loesser described it as a "dowdy product of ineptitude."

2 From “Presentation of the composer and her work: Beata Michalec, Sekretary of the Society of the Friends of Warsaw, Chairwoman of the Committee for Restoring Tekla Bądarzewska’s Remembrance” According to Tony Russell, there were several fiddlers at the session on Monday,

3 September 23, 1935, when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded “Maiden’s Prayer.” They included Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Art Haynes.

Additional information:

Stories of other fiddle tunes, country songs with 19th century origins:

• Cattle Call Waltz/St. Paul Waltz (Chicago, Rood & Cady 1864)

• Faded Love/Darling Nelly Gray (1856 Boston, Oliver Ditson 1856)

Pic: Nelly Gray LOC Duke Cvr 1856 a3400-1-72dpi

Copyright © 2012 by Joe Weed

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Joe Weed is a fiddler, recording artist, writer, and producer. He has released six albums of his own. His music productions have been used by Ken Burns, PBS, NPR, the Martin Guitar Company, and at Arlington National Cemetery. Joe has composed music for film scores at The Lincoln Museum, the National Steinbeck Center, and many others. He has written fiddle tunes that are played at contra dances, festivals, and jam sessions across the country.