In 1920, Sallie Hume Douglas, a widowed, 53-year-old teacher from Honolulu, and Helen Hill, a student from Bryn Mawr College (Class of ’21), met at the Silver Bay Association on Lake George, in New York. The occasion was a YWCA conference; one of the many activities that summer was a song competition.
Sallie Hume Douglas was something of a hobbyist in song writing. She had published her “Garden of Paradise: Hawaiian Love Song” in 1915, and “Her Pink Mumu” in 1916.
Having heard of the song contest, Douglas was probably on the prowl for a lyricist with whom she could collaborate and perhaps even win. She found Helen Hill.
As it turned out, both women were interested in the Arthurian legends, and familiar with Tennyson’s 1889 poem, “Merlin and the Gleam,” about the quest for the Holy Grail, which ends:
“O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow The Gleam.”
On the shores of Lake George, together they wrote a hymn, “Follow the Gleam,” that goes like this:
“To knights in the days of old,
Keeping watch on the mountain height,
Came a vision of Holy Grail
And a voice through the waiting night.
“Follow, follow, follow the Gleam,
Banners unfurled o’er all the world;
Follow, follow, follow the Gleam
Of the chalice that is the Grail.
“And we who would serve the King,
And loyally Him obey,
In the consecrate silence know,
That the challenge still holds today:
“Follow, follow, follow the Gleam,
Standards of worth o’er all the earth,
Follow, follow, follow the Gleam,
Of the Light that shall bring the dawn.”
Their song was the contest winner, and more. It became an anthem that closed every YWCA gathering, sung at the end of vespers, sung by soloists, sung by the assembled masses, sung at girl’s camps all over the country, even today.
Margaret Flenniken, the national secretary for student conferences of the YWCA, wrote in Missionary Review of the World (January 1921), “The prize song at Silver Bay this summer states what young women themselves conceive conferences to be. Let us beware lest we build at cross purposes with their ideal. To live thus is to be in the vanguard of one’s generation.”
“Follow the Gleam” now had a life of its own, but in the years to come, its composer and lyricist took markedly different paths.
Living in Honolulu, Sallie Hume Douglas taught and was active in the League of American Pen Women, the Honolulu Press Club, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons. She pursued her hobby of genealogy, and wrote more songs: “Ocean of Love,” “Idol of My Heart,” “Deep in My Heart” and “Hawaiian Holiday” among them. “Garden of Paradise” was recorded at least twice, once on the Victor Talking Machine label by Keeaumoku Louis, a famed Hawaiian operatic baritone.
Douglas even became the inadvertent composer of the University of Idaho alma mater, “Our Idaho.” In 1917, when “Garden of Paradise” was popular, a student at the University of Idaho “adapted” its melody for a song contest, with lyrics by another student. The song became a regular feature at university athletic events. New verses were written to create “Here We Have Idaho,” the state song. In 1930, the fact came out that the composer of the melody was, in fact, Sallie Hume Douglas. By this time, stadium-loads of the Idaho faithful knew the songs by heart and there was no turning back. The state’s regents and legislature cut a deal with Douglas and gained formal permission to use the melody.
Before she died in 1944, Sallie Hume Douglas said that “Follow the Gleam” was the high point of her life.
Such was not the case with Helen Hill. She received her A.B. from Bryn Mawr in 1921, a diploma in economics from Oxford in 1922, and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago in 1928. She married Francis Pickens Miller in 1927, and traveled and studied in Europe.
In Washington, D.C., she was a writer on the staff of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Executive Director of the National Policy Committee, the American correspondent for The Economist, and Washington Bureau correspondent of Newsweek. She was President of the Women’s National Press Club. She wrote articles on history and economics for the Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and other journals, and wrote more than 20 biography, history and travel books.
So how did this serious and prolific writer feel about her youthful role in “Follow the Gleam”?
Helen Hill Miller once offered to pay the YWCA if they would remove her name from the piece. From what I gather, it haunted her. She found it overly sentimental, did not share in the sentiment, and wanted it to go away.
In at least one way, her efforts to distance herself bore fruit. In 1933, when Sallie Hume Douglas had “Follow the Gleam” published in Hawaii, the Oahu Publishing Company listed the composers as “Sallie Hume Douglas” and “Bryn Mawr College Student.” And the Internet, perhaps aided by Miller’s ghost, is today filled with incorrect information on the song.
For those of you who need to hear it again, you can click here.
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My thanks to Dante Gabriel Rossetti for the use of his 1874 painting, “The Damsel of the Sanct Grael.”