Musical Heritage of Odd Fellowship -by Toby Hanson, Sovereign Grand Musician

by Toby Hanson, Sovereign Grand Musician
Host/Producer The Three Links Odd Cast

Odd Fellowship was a major part of 19th Century North American life. As the trappings of civilization spread across the continent, Odd Fellowship prevailed. Often times our lodges were the first signs of what would eventually become civic life. Our lodges were the places where people would gather for mutual aid and counsel, for entertainment, or for a feeling of community. We ensured that the dead were buried, the widows and orphans cared for, and the workers who built our communities had a social safety net. It’s no surprise that music played
a major role in fraternal life in that era. Home music making was a common form of entertainment in the 1800s. Most well-to-do homes had at least a piano or pump organ in their parlors. Those without the means for larger home instruments would often play banjo, guitar, or mandolin for entertainment. Bands and singing clubs based around community and fraternal organizations were quite common at the time, as depicted in the Broadway musical “The Music Man” by Meredith Willson. Such communal music making was often a very common component of lodge life.

Lowell Mason was one of America’s first great composers and music scholars. He had studied in Germany and believed strongly in the German system of musical education and choral singing that was derived from classical music of the era. He brought those ideas to Boston where he began a major campaign to include musical education in public school curricula and also to change congregational music making in churches. His approach was to replace the homegrown practice of heterophonous music making with its multiple melodic parts occurring simultaneously with the more staid, controlled homophonic style of chorale singing accompanied by an organist. That homegrown style of church music lived on in the rural parts of the South with the Shape Note and Sacred Harp traditions.

Mason’s influence on American music was profound. He replaced the folksy church “orchestras” and untrained congregational singers with professional organists and practiced choirs singing hymns arranged using the principles of strict classical music. The musical influence of his church music, combined with his efforts at music education in the public
schools, shifted American musical culture away from the tradition of informal music making to a more practiced, polished style that sought to emulate classical tradition.

Lowell Mason judging your tablature

The proliferation of homophonic, four-part choral church music throughout American life brought that tradition into our lodges. Soon, the older idea of belting out raucous drinking songs before a lodge meeting was replaced with the more sober and sedate practice of singing
Odes written to the tune of popular hymns. Our 1877 IOOF Odes book has no less than *NINE* settings of the Opening Ode, none of which is to the tune we use today, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” At the time, many Odd Fellows would have been familiar with the various hymn tunes spelled out in four-part male harmony in the Ode Book and it’s no doubt that
singing the various settings of the Opening and Closing Odes would have
been an important part of lodge activities.

The church choir-style singing did not stop there. The Initiation has instances of music with their own texts that can be sung to various common hymns of the era, most notably Pleyel’s Hymn. Dramatic music can also be provided to cover some of the staging changes that happen during the Initiatory Degree. There were settings of Odes for lodge anniversaries, for laying the cornerstone of a new lodge hall, for funerals of members… there was a thriving musical scene just for the use of Odd Fellows in our lodges. Even the Encampment had Odes for opening and closing and various other events and observances, most notably the Opening Ode which is set to the melody of Lowell Mason’s Missionary Hymn.

As Odd Fellowship was a visible part of 19th Century daily life, there was no shortage of popular music written by and for Odd Fellows. There were marches, rags, waltzes, two-steps, and other popular forms of the day, all written to commemorate members, lodges, or entire jurisdictions. One of the notable examples is from the 1840s, the Pennsylvania Odd Fellows’ Grand March, written to be an impressive spectacle to accompany the equally impressive Odd Fellows of Pennsylvania. Several pieces still exist in various collections like the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive, the Indiana University Music Library, and others.

As the 20th Century developed, there were fewer and fewer pieces written by, for, or about Odd Fellows. As music became a more passive activity that people listened to more than made themselves, there was much less demand for music written for amateur performance. The influence and visibility of Odd Fellowship also declined during that time. Now, it’s extremely unlikely that most lodges have a musician capable of playing the Odes during a meeting. Several jurisdictions have to share the talents of a regional Grand Musician among them.

However, as there is a resurgence in all things pertaining to Odd Fellowship, there is also renewed interest in our musical heritage. New arrangements of the Odes have been written and are available for distribution and new recordings of the Odes are on their way. For more information about the musical heritage of Odd Fellowship and to hear examples of the various musical pieces in this article, listen to Season 1, Episode 23 of the Three Links Odd Cast entitled, “Musical Heritage of Odd Fellowship.” It’s available on all major podcast platforms like Apple, Google, Amazon, Stitcher, Spotify, Podcatcher, Podbean, etc. and also directly from our website at

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