Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Music Man: John Menzies McFarlane

John Menzies MacFarlane was born in 1833 in Stirling, Scotland. After being baptized, he and his family immigrated to America using the Perpetual Emigration Fund provided by the saints already living in Utah. He was just eighteen years old when he arrived in America and made the trek with the Abraham O. Smoot Company to the Utah Valley (Parshall and Richards).

Upon arrival in Utah, MacFarlane held many positions and made many contributions to the community, serving as a school teacher, postmaster, judge, surveyor, and a choir director. Despite the many hats he wore, John Menzies MacFarlane is most remembered for his musical contribution of the well-known Christmas song, “Far, Far, Away on Judea’s Plains” written in 1869 (Larson and Parshall).

MacFarlane and Charles L. Walker, another well-respected composer, initially tried writing “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” together with Walker writing lyrics, and MacFarlane putting them to music. It is said that they were trying to produce a song for a Christmas program.

Despite the beautiful lyrics that Charles L. Walker had written, MacFarlane was having a very difficult time finding the right music for the song (Larson 482).

He prayed and prayed and waited and wrote and wrote trying to find the perfect tune for this song. It wasn’t until the night after an unsuccessful day of writing, while MacFarlane and his wife, Ann, were asleep, that he woke up with the workings of a song on his mind. Revelation had finally come. He got up to write it down and his wife asked him what he was doing, he replied that the song had come to him and that he needed to record it. Ann, wanting to go back to sleep, tried to persuade him to come back to bed and write the song down in the morning, but he would not be deterred . So she too got up to help MacFarlane write down his song by holding up the light so he could see. In Andrew Larson’s book I Was Called to Dixie, it says of Ann,

She stood at his shoulder, holding the...light, first in one hand, then in the other, supporting with one hand and arm the other arm which held the primitive candle, her elbow supported by her hand until fatigue compelled her to shift the burden to the other limb (483).

In this matter they did continue for several hours, into the early morning, until the roosters crowed and the song was completed.

Macfarlane, “…played over the accompaniment, at first with extreme care, listening for any concealed awkwardness or flaw in the music. It satisfied him” (Larson 484). Upon completion he realized that little of what Charles L. Walker’s had written was left in the song. Despite this, MacFarlane felt that his friend should receive some of the credit for the piece. After hearing the song, Walker told him, “ that he could not, in honesty, claim any part of the song…he could not feel right about taking any of the credit for the song which was so clearly the work of one individual”(Larson 484).

The song was a success and it is rare these days to see a Christmas program where this song is not played. Its themes are universal, and not just Latter-Day Saint. Because of John Menzies MacFarlane’s exercise of faith in the Lord and turning to him in prayer, he was able to receive revelation to write a song that is beloved my many people throughout the world.

Works Cited

Larson, Andrew K. I Was Called to Dixie. The Deseret News Press, 1961.

Parhsnall, Ardis E. "John Menzies Macfarlane: Far, Far Away and Not So Long Ago." Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog. 14 Dec. 2008. 01 Apr. 2009 .

Richards, Franklin D. "List of Persons Sent from Great Britain by the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Co., in the Months of January and February 1852." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 21 Aug. 1852. 01 Apr. 2009 .

1 comment:

  1. John Menzies Macfarlane is spelled with a small f. It is even stated that way in your works cited.

    Thanks, Cathy Macfarlane