Warren musician looks to ancestor for inspiration


When Warren musician Otis Read steps up to the microphone this Sunday at the Newman Congregational Church in Rumford, he won't just have a choir accompanying him. One of his ancestors, gone for nearly 200 years, will be by his side.

Mr. Read has a reputation as an accomplished local musician who plays acoustic guitar and teaches the instrument. But on Sunday, he'll leave the six-string behind as he and two choirs present a concert of hymns written by his great-great-great-great uncle, the noted composer Daniel Read.

Born in Attleboro in 1757, Daniel Read was one of New England's most prolific hymn writers during the post-Revolutionary and Federal periods. When he died in New Haven, Conn. in 1836, he had published hundreds of songs in seven volumes and had many hundreds more that were unpublished.

Otis grew up with music and had long known about his ancestor's history in the late 18th and early 19th century music business. But he never seriously looked into the composer's life until a few years ago, when a book of hundreds of his hymns was published.

"I went and bought the book and got really into it," he said.

His far-off uncles' story is a riveting one, he said.

The elder Read was an entrepreneur, store owner and even fought in the Revolutionary War. Like many composers of his day, he wrote the music for his pieces and had lyrics prepared for him by a writer (in his case, noted lyricist Isaac Watts wrote many of his lyrics). He wrote hymns for several decades, even while running a general store in New Haven, Conn., and would often travel from town to town teaching hymn singing at local churches.

"He would make the rounds, going all over the place," Otis Read said.

Mr. Read believes his ancestor was also a keen businessman, in that several of his songs bear the names of towns in which he spent time. Thus, he has published pieces entitled "Bristol," "Warren," "Rehoboth," and others, though the name of the towns can't be found anywhere in the lyrics.

"He was just trying to sell the songs," Otis Read said, reckoning that the titles were probably an early case of marketing.

Evidently, though, his business acumen wasn't enough to please his in-laws. Records indicate that he married the daughter of a wealthy family as a young man and, though they spent their lives together and had several children, her family never approved of Mr. Read and his humble upbringing.

After learning more about his great-great-great-great uncle, Mr. Read started traveling to the historical society in New Haven, where many more of his ancestor's hymns are archived. He's also enlisted the help of a Brown University student, who with him is transcribing many of the unpublished hymns. The ultimate goal is to publish more of his pieces and write a biography of the noted writer.

Sunday's concert is the first time Mr. Read has sung any of the pieces in public. Two choirs will perform; one will sing Read pieces published in the famous "Sacred Harp" hymnal, and the other will sing songs transcribed into shape note, a style of musical tablature that was popular in Mr. Read's day, particularly in the south.

The choice of Newman Congregational as the site for Sunday's concert is especially fitting. Daniel Read's great-great-grandfather John Read (Otis Reed's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather) was one of the founders of Rehoboth and Newman Congregational Church, and he is buried in the church's cemetery.

Sunday's concert starts at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door or by calling 431-1972. Proceeds benefit the Newman Congregational Church music program.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.