Bruce Springsteen’s new song “Death to My Hometown” samples “The Last Words of Copernicus” from the 1869 Sacred Harp, by Sarah Lancaster of Buena Vista, Georgia. The source for the sample is Alan Lomax’s recording of the 1959 United convention at Corinth Baptist Church in Fyffe, Alabama, which was reissued in 1997 by Rounder Records and is now available online through the Association for Cultural Equity Online Archive.You can hear the sample in the musical intro to the song and in the musical breaks after every repetition of the song’s chorus. What you hear is mostly the song’s alto line at the start of the fuge, which was added to the song by S. M. Denson in 1911 (it was a 3-liner in the 1869 book). It appears this alto was adapted from the alto written by James Landrum White for his 1909 5th Edition of The Sacred Harp.
Lancaster chose to set her tune to the first two stanzas of a 1755 hymn text by Philip Doddridge. The title of Doddridge’s hymn was “God the everlasting Light of the Saints above.” It was based on Isaiah 60:20. Sarah Lancaster associated these words with the sixteenth-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in titling her composition.
Here is Doddridge’s hymn text in full:
Ye golden lamps of Heav’n farewell,
With all your feeble light:
Farewell, thou ever changing moon,
Pale empress of the night.
And thou refulgent orb of day,
In brighter flames array’d,
My soul which springs beyond thy sphere,
No more demands thy aid.
Ye stars are but the shining dust
Of my divine abode,
The pavements of those heavenly courts,
Where I shall see my God.
The Father of eternal light
Shall there his beams display;
Nor shall one moment’s darkness mix
With that unvaried day.
No more the drops of piercing grief
Shall swell into my eyes;
Nor the meridian sun decline
Amidst those brighter skies.
There all the millions of his saints
Shall in one song unite,
And each the bliss of all shall view
With infinite delight.
One more bit of trivia: When it was first included in The Sacred Harp, Sarah Lancaster’s song had the designation “For the Organ,” which referred to a newspaper published by B. F. White from 1852–1862. If that designation is correct, Lancaster probably wrote the song either just before or during the Civil War.