Identity Crisis: The Real M.Kyes

In the current pre-publication packet some of you may have noticed that the composer of the anthem ShH 453 CRUCIFIXION is no longer given as “M. Kyes”. The identity of this composer has been a tantalizing enigma for some time; who could write such an extraordinary piece as Crucifixion, and yet remain utterly unknown? Ten pieces are ascribed to M. Kyes in Asahel Benham’s Social Harmony, two more tunes in Benham’s Federal Harmony, and a single tune (ShH 452 SOLITUDE) in Wyeth’s Repository, Part II.

A look at Benham’s indices brings up the question: why is “Kyes” the only composer there with an initial before his surname? There is no record of any other composer of the period with the same surname, so why was the distinction necessary? The clue lies in the name actually printed in Wyeth’s index: M’Kyes – using an apostrophe or full-stop (or period) was another way of writing Mc or Mac surnames – which means we should really be looking for a ‘McKyes’. This supposition was confirmed by early American sacred music expert Nym Cooke, who shared with us his discovery of several songs in an 1803 manuscript, located in the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford and compiled by Ishmael Spicer, singing master of Connecticut.  The manuscript contains five tunes attributed to “McKyes” – four of them are from Benham’s “M.Kyes” tunes, and the fifth, ‘Rolling-Sky’, has not been found elsewhere.

I often search for old tunebooks which have recently been scanned and made available online (say what you will), so you can imagine my excitement at discovering, purely by chance, six tunes ascribed to “B. McKyes” in Mark Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist, 1832, published in Port Hope, Ontario (scanned and uploaded to by the University of Alberta). These six pieces do not sit easily with the overall style of the book (a round-note tunebook with Lowell Mason aspirations, including figured bass and containing many English compositions), but they show striking similarities to the “M.Kyes” tunes published by Benham. Four of them are in minor keys, in fact a significant proportion of the total amount of minor-key music in the book. So who was this B. McKyes?

After some eager research and correspondence, we are proud to reveal, with very little doubt, the man we believe to be the composer: Barnabas McKyes (c.1765-1835), a farmer who lived his later life in Amherst (now Cobourg), Hamilton, Ontario.
We managed to get in touch with his great-great-grandson, Edward McKyes, who told us that Barnabas’ father Daniel emigrated from the Isle of Man in the mid-eighteenth century. Exactly where in North America the family lived at this point requires more research – there  are Pennsylvania connections which still need chasing up (sometimes complicated by non-standardised spellings) – and it seems they did not stay long in one place. “Daniel McKeyes” (presumably Barnabas’ father) appears as head of a household in the 1790 census for Wallingford, CT, and Barnabas’ first son Willis was born in Vermont in 1794. Certainly more work is needed on McKyes’ connections to Benham (also a resident of Wallingford) and Spicer – was it a pupil-teacher relationship, or were they fellow singing masters?
As we can see, the McKyes family seem to have moved around a bit (we are not certain where or exactly when Barnabas was born) before travelling slowly northwards around the turn of the century to settle in “Upper Canada” as it was then known. Here they were one of the first new settler families, along with the Burnhams who were founders of the Hamilton township.
The Burnham and McKyes families appear to have became well acquainted (which explains McKyes’ tunes in Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist); Mark Burnham (1791-1864) and Barnabas were brother freemasons, members of the North Star Lodge which met at Stiles’ Hotel in Amherst/Cobourg from 1819-1822; also Zacheus Burnham, Mark’s older brother, appears as an executor of Daniel McKyes’ will in 1811.
Incredibly, not only do Barnabas’s direct descendants still live in south-east Canada, but we are told that musical ability has also been passed down through the family.


The total number of McKyes pieces known now stands at 21, with six of these currently heading for publication in The Shenandoah Harmony: 224 PREPARATION, 225 SURPRISE, 302 PARADISE, 452 SOLITUDE, 453 CRUCIFIXION, and 456 MORTALITY. That’s 10 in Benham’s Social Harmony, 2 in Benham’s Federal Harmony, 1 in Wyeth’s Repository Part II, 6 in Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist, 1 in the Ishmael Spicer MS, and 1 more in a MS Second Edition of Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist (c.1836).

A couple of Benham’s M.Kyes/McKyes tunes were republished in The Easy InstructorThe Tennessee Harmony, and The Hesperian Harp ; other than this, his music seems to have fallen into obscurity for about 150 years. Interestingly, N. Little used McKyes’ tune 456 MORTALITY as the model for his tune MEDITATION in The Easy Instructor.


It’s a good feeling to uncover a little bit about the life of a composer, especially a little-known and talented person such as Barnabas McKyes. I hope that we find more!
Thanks to Rachel Hall for encouraging me to do this write-up, and for following up leads on the right side of the pond, and thanks to Nym Cooke for sharing his research on McKyes – also, apologies for my UK English spellings!

Update: you can read more about this discovery in an article about Nym Cooke’s forthcoming shape-note book, The American Harmony.  We’re eagerly looking forward to his book!



Disclaimer: We have no indisputable proof that Barnabas McKyes, B. McKyes, and M.Kyes are the same person. However, we have presented the facts as we know them, and the available evidence reasonably suggests we may be correct in our supposition. We would be glad to hear of any information that either supports or undermines our theory!


9 responses to “Identity Crisis: The Real M.Kyes”

  1. Wade Kotter Avatar
    Wade Kotter

    Nice detective work; sounds pretty convincing to me. I hope you will keep us informed as you search for more information on Barnabas. You might want to consider posting this on the Fasola discussions list as well.

  2. Phillip Roberts Avatar
    Phillip Roberts

    Fantastic research project here! I came to the internet with the exact same inquiries about M. Kyes and this is the first article that popped up. Interestingly I too am a collector of these online uploads of old harmony books, so I do not think that strange at all. I think all of your conclusions sound valid, this would make a great article for a journal of musicology. Thank you for making my day!

  3. Fynn Titford-Mock Avatar
    Fynn Titford-Mock

    Thanks guys! Wade – I’ve just posted a link on fasola discussions. Phillip – I agree that an article in a journal would be an idea, though I’d have to spruce up my academic language and referencing a little. I’d rather wait till we’ve gathered some more information, and hopefully some more concrete proof!
    Thanks again.

  4. James P. Page Avatar
    James P. Page

    Nice Work! You could now publish a “Collected Works of Barnabas McKyes.” More seriously, it’s interesting because Burnham was himself born in the US. According to John Beckwith in an article in The Halcyon: The Newsletter of the Friends of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Issue 28, November 2001, Burnham “was the youngest in a family of four brothers and one sister who came to Upper Canada from the United States between 1797 and 1812.” It would be interesting to know if the Burnham and McKyes families knew each other in the US.

    While Burnham may have had “Lowell Mason aspirations,” HERMITAGE, at least, probably would not have thrilled Mason had he heard it. It’s a fun tune.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks, James! We now have all the known McKyes compositions except ROLLING-SKY, which Nym Cooke found in a manuscript by Ismael Spicer in Hartford, CT.

      It’s possible that the Burnham and McKyes families knew each other in the US, although the 25-year age difference between Barnabas and Mark makes it unlikely that they were friends until much later, when both were in Ontario. Perhaps Barnabas taught Mark music? Who knows. Mark and Barnabas’ oldest son Willis were close in age.

      The Burnham family was in New Hampshire in the 1790s and Barnabas McKyes’ oldest child was born in Vermont in the late 1790s. Here’s Mark Burnham’s genealogy:

  5. […] that we’re keeping in the book, at least for now, though it’s tricky.  The composer, Barnabas McKyes, also wrote 453 CRUCIFIXION, which may be familiar from the Norumbega […]

  6. […]  I’ve got a soft spot for Barnabas McKyes, since a Facebook post I made indirectly led to the discovery of his identity.  This is my favorite of his short pieces—I just love the spectacular bass run at the end of […]

  7. […] – A big wow on this anthem. It is not easy by any means, but it is worth the work. It is another Baranabas McKyes gem and if you’ve got the alto’s the end of this is gonna be amazing. Think of that note […]

  8. […] Paradise. Along with Nora and Rachel, I’ve been absolutely captivated by the music of Barnabas McKyes. Or at least the all-minor selection we’ve included in the book. What appeals to me about […]