5 Occasions When Amish Sing
“Give me gas for my Ford, keep me truckin’ for the Lord!”
That’s not a line you expect to hear in a song sung by Amish people. But that’s what I heard while visiting Amish last week in Lancaster County.
I was being entertained by a friend’s children, who put on an impromptu concert one evening, helped along by their father.
They had learned the line about the Ford from a non-Amish friend. It brought smiles and laughter from everyone.
There are few things sweeter than small boys enthusiastically belting out lines of song while acting out what they’re singing–mimicking fish swimming or stomping on the ground.
Even the three-year-old joined in, and did surprisingly well with the English words. Children are exposed to song early, and it’s something that stays with them all their lives.
For the Amish, song is an important part of both daily life and religious occasions. Song can fill a void, give praise to the Maker, or lighten a daily burden. Here are five occasions where you’ll hear Amish sing.
Five Occasions When Amish Sing
Church songs come from the Ausbund, or in some churches another source like the Unparteiische Liedersammlung. Singing in Amish church is in High German, in a characteristic drawn-out manner.
If you ever follow along while Amish are singing, you’ll notice it takes longer to get through one line in the Ausbund than probably any other song you’ve ever heard. The shortest word grows extra syllables and lingers in the air before yielding to the next.
Tunes are not included in the book but known by heart, learned from the experienced and passed on to the next generation. The oldest hymns of the Ausbund were composed by Anabaptists imprisoned in Oberhaus Castle in Passau.
The image above is from an 1846 edition of the Ausbund. That may sound old, but it’s a relatively new printing of the book. In use since the mid-1500s, the Ausbund is the oldest Christian hymnal in continuous use.
2. At Work
In more casual settings, Amish prefer to sing in English. Amish women might sing while doing housework, for instance. Since song is an important and frequent part of their lives, Amish people come to know many tunes by heart.
Song puts a pep in your step, and makes the work go quicker. We all know this. So English people turn on the radio while working. Amish people sing.
And some sing very well. I assume those who don’t sing so well, do less of it.
Singing is a standard part of the school day, which opens with prayer and song. Hymn sources vary. For example, children in Swartzentruber Amish schools typically sing three hymns from the Liedersammlung hymnal (see Train Up a Child, p. 48).
Children also sing in English, as you can see and hear in this video recorded in a Wayne County, Ohio Amish school.
4. Youth Singings
An Amish youth singing is not just about singing, though that is the centerpiece event. Youth singings in Lancaster County feature volleyball games and supper before the singing begins (I recently learned that youth play cornerball at some singings in colder months), and socializing afterwards.
Parents also attend these events, held Sunday evening at the home of a church member. The singing can last two hours, so snacks and water are passed around to provide refreshment. Songs may be all in German, or may include English in some churches.
D. Rose Elder, author of Why The Amish Sing: Songs of Solidarity and Identity, describes hearing English songs at a New Order singing. They included “Hide Me, Rock of Ages”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, and “What A Day That Will Be”, from a hymnal called Inspirational Songs (see Why The Amish Sing, p. 80-81).
5. For Outsiders
The story I opened this post with is one example, but it’s not the first time I’ve been treated to song in an Amish home–usually after breakfast, or in the evening.
Amish may also sing outside the home for the benefit of non-Amish people, such as at local nursing homes.
We’ve even seen the unusual example of Amish children singing at the Ohio state legislature.
Wherever you happen to hear it, Amish singing is usually religious in nature and usually, though not always, done with others.
Image credits: Musical notes- threar/flickr; Field work- ShipshewanaIndiana;
I really wasn’t aware that singing is that much a part of Amish life. Thanks for educating me on this subject.
Like you Eric I have also been treated with song at Amish friends homes, usually after breakfast while we are all still sitting around the table. At church services even without understanding the words just the sound is “heavenly” enough! I would have to say that is on of the things I miss the most between visits.
I have to agree Jerome. I love the after breakfast singing even if just a few voices. I always choose “Camping in Canaan’s Happy Land” if given the choice. I think the kids like it but I do too 🙂
I remember that song the school children sang. Haven’t heard it in years. I also watched the Amish Girls at Pinecraft. I was surprised that even there they were allowed to use musical instruments. Are exceptions made outside of church services?
The harmonica is probably the most commonly seen instrument among Amish, at least in Lancaster County, I’m not sure how popular it is say in Ohio communities like Holmes County comparatively. You might see some limited use of other instruments like the guitar in that Pinecraft video, of course easier to do that before marriage and settling down. Musical instruments aren’t used in church though.
Great post! We were treated to singing by the staff in an Amish bakery in Yoder, KS, once. We don’t think they realized we had walked into the store, but once they saw us, it didn’t stop their singing, either. It is a very special, happy memory for us — and, yes, we bought lots of goodies! 🙂
I enjoyed the video from Wayne County Ohio. The children are very good singers. I noticed it looked like some Englischers looked to be among them. A little Amish boy sharing his book with an English boy. The Amish in this video didn’t seem camera shy. Some Amish feel it is a sin to have their pictures taken so avoid the camera. I’ve noticed the Amish of Pinecraft in Florida don’t seem to mind having their pictures taken either. Very good post. Thanks.
I love listening to Amish singing. It reminds me of the old ballad singing style that can be found deep in the Appalachians mountains.
We were sitting at breakfast at an Amish friends’ place on a slow, in-between Sunday, when we heard girls’ singing voices from upstairs. Our host’s response was, “well, the girls are awake.” They had some friends sleeping over. What a wonderful way for young people to begin their day.
Like turning on the radio, except takes a bit more effort 🙂 Singing probably helps you wake up I would think. Maybe that’s what I need in the morning!
My mother died when I was 15 and two years later my dad remarried – to a Mennonite woman who was known as a “smiley, friendly woman!” She generally sang while doing anything around the house – hymns, choruses of the time(1952)and “folk” and humorous songs. I, naturally, learned some of these. When my daughter’s son was about 2 or 3 years old, I asked her to tape some of these songs, both for me and for my grandson, (her great grandson), as a memory keepsake. She did so, and I have it yet; I consider it a treasure! So, yes, Mennonites love to sing!
When Mark was over here at my house today, I asked him to look at this video clip to identify if English children attended. He said that all of the children were Amish but ranged from Schwartzentruber Amish, General Run Old Orders, and New Orders. The little boys on the far right, according to Mark, are a General Run Old Order boy on the left, and the little boy with the sweatshirt on, a New Order Amish boy. The New Order boy is probably wearing suspenders under his sweatshirt. This is a parochial school supported by all of the Amish in the neighborhood, thus the wide range of Amish churches represented. He recognized a little Schwartzentruber boy up in the front row on the far right. In Mark’s community the three parochial schools are only attended by children of the Belle Center Amish and are considered outreaches of the Church.
It’s neat to see in Holmes County that Amish of all stripes, even the plainest churches, are comfortable having their children in one school. The person who posted and I assume filmed this says it was in the Apple Creek area so would be in the Swartzentruber area of Holmes County. New Orders are scattered in different places around the community and mainline Old Order are everywhere. There may have even been Andy Weaver represented here.
That video caught my attention right away when I noticed the little Swartzentruber fellow in the front there – I live near the Apple Creek area and don’t think I’ve ever seen the “mixing” in a school quite like that, it’s definitely not common! I was very surprised. There has been a lot of land for sale around here recently with a number of New Order moving into this area where the Swartzentrubers are predominant, so maybe that will start happening more often (although I would still be surprised).
I’m not sure how common it is but I know it does happen. Karen Johnson-Weiner or her book on Amish schools could probably give us a better picture. When I visited an Amish school in northern Holmes Co. in 2008 there was at least one Swartzentruber student.
Saw a strange song choice in a documentary!
Recently, I watched a BBC documentary on YouTube which included a scene that surprised me: At an informal gathering of some moms and their young children, an adult led the kids in singing the Sunday school song about being in “the Lord’s Army.” (The video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtNXvE_rLoE, and the particular song appears at 41:03.) I would have thought that military images, even if used metaphorically, would be uncomfortable for the Amish.
However, I also noticed that the particular family they had gained access to film was sounding less and less Amish and more and more like evangelicals still clinging to an Amish identity and living in fear of being “found out” and excommunicated for their changed beliefs. They had even gone so far as to be rebaptized. From my own non-Amish perspective, that sounds like it would be a very valid reason for excommunication. I think an American film crew might have been a little more savvy to such subtle distinctions because of the great religious diversity in our culture, but the British crew was just so glad to get any Amish family to film, I think they really didn’t quite get that this might not have been the most typical example they could have chosen.
All of that is a roundabout way of wondering out loud whether typical Amish children would sing about “I might not march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, or shoot the artillery, but I’m in the Lord’s army.”
Mark mentioned that another time that singing occurs is when the youth get together on a Sunday afternoon. This usually happens when the host family is taking their turn holding church at their home and is also going to host the Sunday evening singing. If the family has boys, the youth boys will either come for church and spend the day or attend services in their home district and then come over for the afternoon and evening. If the host family has both sons and daughters with the youth then the girls will go to a neighborhing home or the boys will. The youth don’t mix the girls and boys together at occasions like this. Then, often, the youth will spend a couple of hours singing that afternoon. I’ve never been but as Mark is single he is always included and often still goes.
Similarities to Tennessee mountains!
We moved from Detroit and a new home there, to Tenn. mountain country where we lived for three years and farmed (with horses). I was a 10 year old girl and was really a fish out of water in a grade school with only two grades – the “big room” and the “little” room for all 8 grades. I had just enrolled in a 7th grade “consolidated school” in Detroit. In
Tennessee, we all walked to school; our walk was only 7/10 of a mile. The people’s southern accent was strong and we couldn’t understand our classmates – and conversely. In today’s words, we were “bullied” by being mocked and told there were only two kinds of people – “hillbillies and fools! – we knew where we were placed! As time went on, things changed, as we three girls knew many things they didn’t, in our games and play, while we learned “Aintny Over” and swinging on small trees and large grapevines. My parents started a small country church, and adopting the times and the place, occasionally had an “All-Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground(s)”! Once we even had a “singing master” from another mountain community, and felt honored. Yes, we did have music to go with the songs – in shape notes! Apparently this is a very valid way of notating music – if the singers know it – but all the tunes were from ‘way back and we knew them even without music. Since we had no musical instruments, our singing probably sounded much like the Amish singing; I still have a hymnbook with my mother’s writing on the side. I have a cousin who lives in Nashville and goes to a large city church – their hymnal still has shape notes! My cousin had no idea why and no one else there does.
Barb, where in TN? I was born in the Knoxville area and my dad’s family goes way back. I was not born Mennonite, but my husband and I are now members of a conservative Mennonite church. Our hymnbooks use shape notes, and most people in the congregation rely on the shapes to sing new songs. My husband and I met in college where we were music majors, and we love the four part a cappella singing. I love hearing and learning about traditional singing styles. The plain anabaptist churches have such a rich musical heritage.
I really like this sample of amish children singing in school:
My Tennessee Heritage
Thank you for the singing website. Naomi, my ancestors came from the Tennessee mountains, and due to the terrain, were “insulated” from the average Americans of the day.
My father wanted to go back in 1945, after many years in Detroit (auto industry)so he could farm. Our old split-log house was rather crude, so my dad made many changes to update it, as far as he could. Neighbors and relatives loved to come to our house and take home some ideas, so both my mother and dad helped to “update” the people in Monroe, pop. 67!
We had no electricity nor running water; it was probably hard on my mom. In school, we sometimes sang out of a gold songbook, and of course, in the new church (meeting in the two-room school) on Sundays, acapella, of course! Like the Amish, my bicycle was my transportation to “town” to get mail and take in eggs to the only store that sold everything from horse harnesses to chicken feed (material for my first dress) to candy.
Oh, we lived near the northern Tennessee border, close to Dale Hollow Lake and Dam. That dam had been made by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the 30’s, I think. We swam there occasionally when my father had a borrowed car, and he would tell us where to swim, as he lived where it is now under water! He would point out where the school was and where he and relatives lived. The graves all were moved. (On the computer, I found a picture of a school building underwater in the lake.) Ironically, we had no electricity available until the year we moved to Albuquerque, after living in the mountains for three years. To us girls, we loved it, but it must have been hard on my mother to drop back in time and learn to do things by hand – by herself, as Dad worked in Detroit for quite some time after we moved in order to put more money on the mortgage on our 117 acres. Do you suppose that’s why I’m interested in Amish and Mennonites via computer?
Thanks for your comments, Barb. I really enjoyed reading them. I think I can relate a little to your mom’s experience. We heat with wood, and we’ve been without running water for two years (it’s a long story and I look forward to having it again someday)!
My parents were part of the hippie movement, and a lot of their friends were of the “back-to-the-land” persuasion. It made for some pretty interesting childhood memories. Lots of beautiful memories of the Smokey Mountains, too.
Amish Boys Singing
As part of a tour group, my husband and I along with the others had dinner in an Amish home in Ohio several years ago. After the meal the 3 young sons sang several songs for us. It was very nice and we all enjoyed their singing.
Christmas Time Singing...
In the Amish newspapers I read where a youth group at Christmas time will go to this or that persons place and sing Christmas songs. From the way it read to me, the people do not always know that the carolers are coming over, so they get a nice surprise.
I wonder if they are all asked inside for something to eat or drink after they get done. If so, I bet the person in the house is listening to the singing, but thinking a mile a minute…”What can I give them?”
When a Amish girl was in the local hospital after a buggy accident the youth from her area came up and sang. This also seems to be true, according the the Amish papers, when anyone is feeling sick.
Tom in Lincoln