John Harrison Tenney

1840 - 1918

One of the most prolific and popular songwriters of our times is Mr. J. H. Tenney. His writing has been confined chiefly to the demands of Sunday-schools, churches, choirs, singing schools and choral societies, and among this class of musical people he has won for himself high rank. In addition to the many books he has edited, his name appears in almost every Sunday-school, church or anthem book that has been issued for the last thirty or forty years, and some of his gospel songs are sung by all the prominent evangelists in the field. We have said that he is a prolific writer. He began early and has had little to hinder his steady application, and everything to favor the prosecution of his work. His father was a choir leader and an enthusiastic music lover, and his mother was the leading soprano in her husband's choir, and it was no wonder that the son was humming tunes before he had learned to talk! Then, at the age of eight, he could read plain music at saight, having attended singing school, and it was not much later when his favorite pastime was composing tunes (melodies) to hymns that he found in "Watt's Select Hymns.'' He would also write out these melodies on his slate or pieces of paper.

John Harrison Tenney was born in Rowley, Essex County, Mass., November, 22, 1840. Being born just after the campaign of " Tippecanoe and Tyler too," he was given the name John Harrison, after the successful presidential hero. He was not the hearty, healthy lad that loved romping and the sterner sports natural to boyhood, but was of a delicate constitution, and his preference ran rather to mental than to physical exercise. At school he was a favorite with his teachers on account of his studiousness and proficiency, and perhaps the lack of mischievousness that is common to boys. He may not have been so popular with the boys, as he did not care so much for their rough-and-tumble sports, but he was a favorite with his mother, who, by the way, was a gifted mother in every sense of the word. Their companionship was sweet and constant, and she knew just how to sympathize with her tender, diffident boy, and encourage him in his efforts and ambitions. Like all successful men, he now more than ever appreciates his indebtedness to his mother.

His school education consisted of that received at the district schoolhouse during the winter months. In the summer he worked on the farm and in the shoeshop, for his father was a shoemaker as well as a farmer. Perhaps this is one reason why Mr. Tenney puts so much soul in his compositions. His evenings at home were usually spent with singing books, practicing in reading notes or singing favorite songs, and in this way he learned by heart every tune and anthem in his father's books. He also got hold of " Burrowes' Primer," and from it learned something about harmony and began to compose melodies and harmonize them.

Along in these times he became a subscriber to The Musical Pioneer, a paper that interested him greatly. It was food for his hungry soul. He fairly devoured its contents from month to month. By carefully observing the music in it, he soon felt encouraged to try his fortune in contributing to it. He prepared a few pieces, and with a palpitating heart and trembling hand dropped the sealed and addressed package into the postoffice to await developments. On receiving the next number of the paper his apprehensions were resolved favorably—his efforts had been well received. The editor said, among complimentary things in the correspondence column, "it will be worth while for you to study music." He afterwards sent many contributions to the Pioneer, most of which were published. In fact, in one number of the paper nearly all the music was from his pen, although some of it bore a nom de plume. He afterwards contributed freely to the New York Musical Gazette.

Mr. Tenney is a very modest man. In fact, it is hard to get him to say enough from which to weave a sketch. To give the reader an idea of how he looks at it, we quote from an interview in which we asked for some of the facts concerning his life: "I have never done anything worth the telling, and all these laudatory notices are offensive to me. But if you are to say anything about me, I desire that it should be true and fair." But the thousands who have received so much pleasure and benefit from his musical compositions will not agree with him that he has "never done anything worth telling." Those who have sung or listened to his gospel song, "Where Will You Spend Eternity?" will vote that he has served his generation pretty well, to say nothing of the popular songs entitled, "Jesus is Passing this Way," "Ever Will I Pray," "Hallowed Hour of Prayer," "My Anchor is Holding," "Beyond the Swelling Flood," "Onward Christian Soldiers," and numerous others which have been sung all over the land and are being sung now with such delight. Our author estimates the value of his labors too modestly.

Mr. Tenney has edited or has been associate editor of over thirty books, besides contributing to hundreds, and in many instances contributing largely. His books have been issued by so many different publishing houses that it is difficult to get a full list. We will mention a number of his more important works. "The Anthem Offering," ''The Singing School Banner," "The American Anthem Book," "The Crown of Praise," "Temperance Jewels," "Golden Sunbeams," "Songs of Joy," ''Songs of Faith," "Spiritual Songs, Nos. 1 and 2," "Gems of Gospel Song," "The Beacon Light," "Shining Light," "Sharon's Dewy Rose," "Sweet Fields of Eden," "Sparkling and Bright," "American Male Choir," etc., etc. This latter is his favorite book, although he takes pride in his work in "The American Anthem Book."

Mr. Tenney is a Christian—a deacon in the Congregational Church at Linebrook, Mass. For many years he gave his services as organist and choir leader.

In 1888 he married Miss Alice Potter, and two daughters and a son bless their home.

He delights in farm life, and to spend the evenings in giving vent to his musical nature in musical compositions. We are sure our many readers will jom us in assuring our friend that we feel very much his debtor for the pleasure his delightful music has afforded us.

Source: Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers by J. H. Hall; 1914