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Sacred Harp

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Encyclopedia
Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of sacred choral music that took root in the Southern region of the United States. It is part of the larger tradition of shape note
Shape note
Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools...

 music.

The music and its notation


The name of the tradition comes from the title of the shape note book from which the music is sung, The Sacred Harp. This book exists today in various editions, discussed below.

"Shape note" music means that the notes are printed in special shapes that help the reader fluently identify them on the musical scale. There are two prevalent systems, one using four shapes, and one using seven. In the four-shape system, each of the four shapes is connected to a particular syllable: fa, sol, la, and mi; and these syllables are employed in singing the notes, just as in the more familiar system that uses do, re, mi, etc. (see solfege
Solfege
In music, solfège is a pedagogical solmization technique for the teaching of sight-singing in which each note of the score is sung to a special syllable, called a solfège syllable...

). The system used in the Sacred Harp is able to cover the full musical scale because each syllable-shape combination other than mi is assigned to two distinct notes of the scale. For example, the C major scale would be notated and sung as follows:

As can be seen, the shape for fa is a triangle, sol an oval, la a rectangle, and mi a diamond.

In Sacred Harp singing, pitch is not absolute. The shapes and notes designate degrees of the scale, not particular pitches. Thus for a song in the key of C, fa designates C and F; for a song in G, fa designates G and C, and so on; hence it is called a moveable "do" system.

When Sacred Harp singers begin a song, they normally start by singing it with the appropriate syllable for each pitch, using the shapes to guide them. For those in the group not yet familiar with the song, the shapes help with the task of sight reading
Sight reading
Sight-reading is the reading and performing of a piece of written music, specifically when the performer has not seen it before. Sight-singing is often used to describe a singer who is sight-reading.-Sight-reading:...

. The process of reading through the song with the shapes also helps fix the notes in memory. Once the shapes have been sung, the group then sings the verses of the song with their printed words.

Singing Sacred Harp music



Sacred Harp groups always sing a cappella
A cappella
A cappella music is specifically solo or group singing without instrumental sound, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. It is the opposite of cantata, which is accompanied singing. A cappella was originally intended to differentiate between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque concertato...

, that is to say, without accompanying instruments. The singers arrange themselves in a hollow square, with rows of chairs or pews on each side assigned to each of the four parts: treble
Soprano
A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...

, alto, tenor
Tenor
The tenor is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, to the A above middle C in choral music, and up to high C in solo work. The low extreme for tenors is roughly B2...

, and bass. The treble and tenor sections are usually mixed, with men and women singing the notes an octave apart.

There is no single leader or conductor; rather, the participants take turns in leading. The leader for a particular round selects a song from the book, and "calls" it by its page number. Leading is done in an open-palm style, standing in the middle of the square facing the tenors (see: Leading Sacred Harp music
Leading Sacred Harp music
The Sacred Harp musical tradition is unusual in choral music in that the task of leading it is not delegated to a single expert, but is rotated among participants...

).

The pitch
Pitch (music)
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...

 at which the music is sung is relative; there is no instrument to give the singers a starting point. The leader, or else some particular singer assigned to the task, finds a good pitch with which to begin and intones it to the group (see: Pitching Sacred Harp music
Pitching Sacred Harp music
In Sacred Harp music, it is the custom to sing a song not necessarily in the pitch in which it is notated in the hymnbook itself, but rather in a key chosen for the moment. Pitching is the term used to describe the task of finding a key in which to sing a song...

). The singers reply with the opening notes of their own parts, and then the song begins immediately.

The music is usually sung not literally as it is printed in the book, but with certain deviations established by custom; see Performance practice of Sacred Harp music.

As the name implies, Sacred Harp music is sacred (Protestant Christian) music. Many of the songs in the book are hymn
Hymn
A hymn is a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity or deities, or to a prominent figure or personification...

s that use words, meters, and stanzaic forms familiar from elsewhere in Protestant hymnody. However, Sacred Harp songs are quite different from "mainstream" Protestant hymns in their musical style: they are often polyphonic
Polyphony
In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords ....

 in texture, and the harmony
Harmony
In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches , or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the "vertical" aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic...

 tends to deemphasize the interval of the third
Interval (music)
In music theory, an interval is a combination of two notes, or the ratio between their frequencies. Two-note combinations are also called dyads...

 in favor of fourths
Perfect fourth
In classical music from Western culture, a fourth is a musical interval encompassing four staff positions , and the perfect fourth is a fourth spanning five semitones. For example, the ascending interval from C to the next F is a perfect fourth, as the note F lies five semitones above C, and there...

 and fifths
Perfect fifth
In classical music from Western culture, a fifth is a musical interval encompassing five staff positions , and the perfect fifth is a fifth spanning seven semitones, or in meantone, four diatonic semitones and three chromatic semitones...

. In their melodies, the songs often use the pentatonic scale
Pentatonic scale
A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave in contrast to a heptatonic scale such as the major scale and minor scale...

 or similar "gapped" (fewer than seven-note) scales.

In their musical form
Musical form
The term musical form refers to the overall structure or plan of a piece of music, and it describes the layout of a composition as divided into sections...

, Sacred Harp songs fall into three basic types. Many are ordinary hymn tune
Hymn tune
A hymn tune is the melody of a musical composition to which a hymn text is sung. Musically speaking, a hymn is generally understood to have four-part harmony, a fast harmonic rhythm , and no refrain or chorus....

s, mostly composed in four-bar phrases and sung in multiple verses. Fuging tune
Fuging tune
The fuguing tune is a variety of Anglo-American vernacular choral music. It first flourished in the mid-18th century and continues to be composed today.-Description:...

s contain a prominent passage about 1/3 of the way through in which each of the four choral parts enters in succession, in a way resembling a fugue
Fugue
In music, a fugue is a compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject that is introduced at the beginning in imitation and recurs frequently in the course of the composition....

. Anthems are longer songs, less regular in form, that are sung through just once rather than in multiple verses.

Venues for singing


Sacred Harp singing normally occurs not in church services, but in special gatherings or "singings" arranged for the purpose. Singings can be local, regional, statewide, or national. Small singings are often held in homes, with perhaps only a dozen singers. Large singings have been known to have more than a thousand participants. The more ambitious singings include an ample potluck dinner in the middle of the day, traditionally called "dinner on the grounds."

Some of the largest and oldest annual singings are called "conventions". The oldest Sacred Harp convention was the Southern Musical Convention
Southern Musical Convention
The Southern Musical Convention was the first Sacred Harp musical convention, organized by B. F. White and others in 1845. It was formed at Huntersville in Upson County, Georgia....

, organized in Upson County, Georgia
Upson County, Georgia
Upson County is a county located in the U.S. state of Georgia. It is a part of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area . It was created on December 15, 1824. As of 2000, the population was 27,597. The 2007 Census Estimate shows a population of 27,562...

 in 1845. The two oldest surviving Sacred Harp singing conventions are the Chattahoochee Musical Convention
Chattahoochee Musical Convention
The Chattahoochee Musical Convention is a Sacred Harp singing convention. It is an annual gathering whose purposes are the singing of Sacred Harp music and fostering of bonds of fellowship among singers...

 (organized in Coweta County, Georgia
Coweta County, Georgia
Coweta County is a county located in the U.S. state of Georgia. As of 2000, the population was 89,215. The 2009 Census Estimate placed the population at 131,936...

 in 1852), and the East Texas
East Texas
East Texas is a distinct geographic and ecological area in the U.S. state of Texas.According to the Handbook of Texas, the East Texas area "may be separated from the rest of Texas roughly by a line extending from the Red River in north central Lamar County southwestward to east central Limestone...

 Sacred Harp Convention (organized as the East Texas Musical Convention
East Texas Musical Convention
The East Texas Musical Convention, now usually called the East Texas Sacred Harp Convention, is an annual gathering of shape note singers. Songs are sung a cappella from the Sacred Harp tunebook. The Convention was organized in 1855, and is the oldest Sacred Harp convention in Texas, and the second...

 in 1855).

Sacred Harp music as participatory music


Sacred Harp singers view their tradition as a participatory one, not a passive one. Those who gather for a singing sing for themselves and for each other, and not for an audience. This can be seen in several aspects of the tradition.

First, the seating arrangement (four parts in a square, facing each other) is clearly intended for the singers, not for external listeners. Non-singers are always welcome to attend a singing, but typically they sit among the singers in the back rows of the tenor section, rather than in any particular designated audience location.

The leader, being equidistant from all sections, in principle hears the best sound. The often intense sonic experience of standing in the center of the square is considered one of the benefits of leading, and sometimes a guest will be invited as a courtesy to stand next to the leader during a song.

The music itself is also meant to be participatory. Most forms of choral composition place the melody on the top (treble) line, where it can be best heard by an audience, with the other parts written so as not to obscure the melody. In contrast, Sacred Harp composers have aimed to make each musical part singable and interesting in its own right, thus giving every singer in the group an absorbing task. For this reason, "bringing out the melody" is not a high priority in Sacred Harp composition, and indeed it is customary to assign the melody not to the trebles but to the tenors. Fuging tunes, in which each section gets its moment to shine, also illustrate the importance in Sacred Harp of maintaining the independence of each vocal part.

History of Sacred Harp singing


Marini (2003) traces the earliest roots of Sacred Harp to the "country parish music" of early 18th century England. This form of rural church music evolved a number of the distinctive traits that were passed on from tradition to tradition, until they ultimately became part of Sacred Harp singing. These traits included the assignment of the melody to the tenors, harmonic structure emphasizing fourths and fifth, and the distinction between the ordinary four-part hymn ("plain tune"), the anthem, and the fuging tune
Fuging tune
The fuguing tune is a variety of Anglo-American vernacular choral music. It first flourished in the mid-18th century and continues to be composed today.-Description:...

. Several composers of this school, including Joseph Stephenson and Aaron Williams, are represented in the 1991 Edition of The Sacred Harp. For further information on the English roots of Sacred Harp music, see West gallery music
West gallery music
West Gallery Music, also known as "Georgian psalmody" refers to the sacred music sung and played in English parish churches, as well as nonconformist chapels, from 1700 to around 1850...

.

Around the mid 18th century, the forms and styles of English country parish music were introduced to America, notably in a new tunebook called Urania, published 1764 by the singing master James Lyon. This stimulus soon led to the development of a robust native school of composition, signaled by the 1770 publication of William Billings
William Billings
William Billings was an American choral composer, and is widely regarded as the father of American choral music...

's The New England Psalm Singer, and then by a great number of new compositions by Billings and those who followed in his path. The work of these composers, sometimes called the "First New England School", forms a major part of the Sacred Harp to this day.

Billings and his followers worked as singing masters, who led singing schools. The purpose of these schools was to train young people in the correct singing of sacred music. This pedagogical movement flourished, and led ultimately to the invention of shape note
Shape note
Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools...

s, which originated as way to making the teaching of singing easier. The first shape note tunebook appeared in 1801: The Easy Instructor by William Smith and William Little. At first, Smith and Little's shapes competed with a rival system, created by Andrew Law
Andrew Law
Andrew Law was an American composer, preacher and singing teacher. He was born in Milford, Connecticut. Law wrote mostly simple hymn tunes, and arranged tunes of other composers. His works include Select Harmony and a Collection of Best Tunes and Anthems...

 (1749-1821) in his The Musical Primer of 1803. Although this book came out two years later than Smith and Little's book, Law claimed earlier invention of shape notes. In his system, a square indicated fa, a circle sol, a triangle la and a diamond, mi. Law used the shaped notes without a musical staff. The Smith and Little shapes ultimately prevailed.

Shape notes became very popular, and during the first part of the nineteenth century, a whole series of shape note tunebooks appeared, many of which were widely distributed. As the population spread west and south, the tradition of shape note singing expanded geographically. Composition flourished, with the new music often drawing on the tradition of folk song
Folk music
Folk music is an English term encompassing both traditional folk music and contemporary folk music. The term originated in the 19th century. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted by mouth, as music of the lower classes, and as music with unknown composers....

 for tunes and inspiration. Probably the most successful shape note book prior to The Sacred Harp was William Walker
William Walker (composer)
William Walker was an American Baptist song leader, shape note "singing master", and compiler of four shape note tunebooks, most notable of which was The Southern Harmony.-Life:...

's Southern Harmony
Southern Harmony
The Southern Harmony is a shape note hymn and tune book compiled by William Walker. The book was released in 1835 under the full title of The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion. It is part of the larger tradition of shape note singing....

, published in 1835 and still in use today.

Even as they flourished and spread, shape notes and the kind of participatory music which they served came under attack. The critics were from the urban-based "better music" movement, spearheaded by Lowell Mason
Lowell Mason
Lowell Mason was a leading figure in American church music, the composer of over 1600 hymn tunes, many of which are often sung today. His most well-known tunes include Mary Had A Little Lamb and the arrangement of Joy to the World...

, which advocated a more "scientific" style of sacred music, more closely based on the harmonic styles of contemporaneous European music. The new style gradually prevailed. Shape notes and their music disappeared from the cities prior to the Civil War, and from the rural areas of the Northeast and Midwest in the following decades. However, they retained a haven in the rural South, which remained a fertile territory for the creation of new shapenote publications.

Early history of The Sacred Harp


Sacred Harp singing came into being with the 1844 publication of Benjamin Franklin White
Benjamin Franklin White
Benjamin Franklin White was a shape note "singing master", and compiler of the shape note tunebook known as The Sacred Harp. He was born near Cross Keys in Union County, South Carolina, the twelfth child of Robert and Mildred White.-Musical career:White and Elisha J...

 and Elisha J. King
Elisha J. King
Elisha James King was, with B. F. White, the compiler of The Sacred Harp, a shape note hymnbook that came to be used widely in the rural South. In revised form, the book continues to be popular among singers to this day....

’s The Sacred Harp. It was this book, now distributed in several different versions, that came to be the shape note tradition with the largest number of participants.

B. F. White (1800-1879) was originally from Union County, South Carolina, but since 1842 had been living in Harris County, Georgia
Harris County, Georgia
Harris County is located in the U.S. state of Georgia. It was created on December 14, 1827. As of 2000, the population was 23,695. The 2007 Census Estimate shows a population of 29,073. The county seat is Hamilton...

. He prepared The Sacred Harp in collaboration with a younger man, E. J. King, (ca. 1821–44), who was from Talbot County, Georgia
Talbot County, Georgia
Talbot County is a county located in the U.S. state of Georgia. The 2000 Census showed a population of 6,498. The 2009 Census Estimate showed a population of 6,355. The county seat is Talbotton.-History:...

. Together they compiled, transcribed, and composed tunes, and published a book of over 250 songs.

King died soon after the book was published, and White was left to guide its growth. He was responsible for organizing singing school
Singing school
Historically, singing schools have been strongly affiliated with Protestant Christianity. Some are held under the auspices of particular Protestant denominations that maintain a tradition of a cappella singing, such as the Church of Christ and the Primitive Baptists...

s and conventions at which The Sacred Harp was used as the songbook. During his lifetime, the book became popular and would go through three revisions (1850, 1859, and 1869), all produced by committees consisting of White and several colleagues working under the auspices of the Southern Musical Convention
Southern Musical Convention
The Southern Musical Convention was the first Sacred Harp musical convention, organized by B. F. White and others in 1845. It was formed at Huntersville in Upson County, Georgia....

. The first two new editions simply added appendices of new songs to the back of the book. The 1869 revision was more extensive, removing some of the less popular songs and adding new ones in their places. From the original 262 pages, the book was expanded by 1869 to 477. This edition was reprinted and continued in use for several decades.

Origin of the modern editions


Around the turn of the 20th century, Sacred Harp singing entered a period of conflict over the issue of traditionalism. The conflict ultimately split the community.

B. F. White had died in 1879 before completing a fourth revision of his book; thus the version that Sacred Harp participants were singing from was by the turn of the century over three decades old. During this time, the musical tastes of Sacred Harp's traditional adherents, the inhabitants of the rural South, had changed in important ways. Notably, gospel music
Southern Gospel
Southern Gospel music—at one time also known as "quartet music"—is music whose lyrics are written to express either personal or a communal faith regarding biblical teachings and Christian life, as well as to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music...

 - syncopated and chromatic, often with piano accompaniment - had become popular, along with a number of church hymns of the "mainstream" variety, such as "Rock of Ages." Seven-shape notation systems had appeared and won adherents away from the older four-shape system (see shape note
Shape note
Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools...

 for details). As time passed, Sacred Harp singers doubtless became aware that what they were singing had become quite distinct from contemporary tastes.

The natural path to take—and the one ultimately taken—would be to assert the archaic character of Sacred Harp as an outright virtue. In this view, Sacred Harp should be treasured as a time-tested musical tradition, standing above current trends of fashion. The difficulty with adopting traditionalism as a guiding doctrine was that different singers had different opinions about just what form the stable, traditionalized version of Sacred Harp would take.

The first move was made by W. M. Cooper
Wilson Marion Cooper
Wilson Marion Cooper of Dothan, Alabama, was a notable musician and music teacher within the Sacred Harp tradition. Marion Cooper was born in Henry County, Alabama, the son of W. S. and Elizabeth Ann Cooper. He was a cousin of Alabama governor William C. Oates.- Overview :W. M. Cooper prepared a...

, of Dothan, Alabama
Dothan, Alabama
Dothan is a city located in the southeastern corner of the US state of Alabama, situated approximately west of the Georgia state line and north of Florida. It is the seat of Houston County, with portions extending into nearby Dale County and Henry County...

, a leading Sacred Harp teacher in his own region, but not part of the inner circle of B. F. White's old colleagues and descendants. In 1902 Cooper prepared a revision of The Sacred Harp that, while retaining most of the old songs, also added new tunes that reflected more contemporary music styles. Cooper made other changes, too:
  • He retitled many old songs. These songs were formerly named by their tune, using arbitrarily chosen place names ("New Britain", "Northfield", "Charlestown"). The new names were based on the text; thus "New Britain" became "Amazing Grace", "Northfield" became "How Long, Dear Savior", and so on. The old system was intended in colonial times to permit mixing and matching of tunes and texts, but was unnecessary in a system where the pairing of tune and text was fixed.
  • He transposed some songs into new keys. This is thought to have brought the notation closer to actual performing practice.
  • He wrote new alto parts for the many songs that originally just had three vocal lines.


The Cooper revision was a success, being widely adopted in many areas of the South, such as Florida, southern Alabama, and Texas, where it has continued as the predominant Sacred Harp book to this day. The "Cooper book," as it is now often called, was revised by Cooper himself in 1907 and 1909 and by his son-in-law in 1927; subsequent revision has been supervised by editorial committees which produced new versions in 1950, 1960, 1992, 2000 and 2006.

In the original core geographic area of Sacred Harp singing, northern Alabama and Georgia, the singers did not in general take to the Cooper book, as they felt it deviated too far from the original tradition. Obtaining a new book for these singers was made more difficult by the fact that B. F. White's son James L. White
James Landrum White
James Landrum White was a shape note singing teacher, composer, and a reviser of his father's shape note tunebook known as The Sacred Harp.-Musical career:...

, who would have been the natural choice to prepare a new edition, was a non-traditionalist. His "fifth edition" (1909) won little support among singers, while his "fourth edition with supplement" (1911) enjoyed some success in a few areas. Ultimately, a committee headed by Joseph Stephen James produced an edition entitled Original Sacred Harp (1911) that largely satisfied the wishes of this community of singers.


The James edition was further revised in 1936 by a committee under the leadership of the brothers Seaborn
Seaborn McDaniel Denson
Seaborn McDaniel Denson was a notable Alabama musician and singing school teacher within the Sacred Harp tradition. He was a son of The Rev. Levi Phillips Denson, a Methodist minister, and Julia Ann Jones Denson. Seaborn Denson was born April 9, 1854 in Arbacoochee, Alabama. He married Sidney...

 and Thomas Denson
Thomas Jackson Denson
Thomas Jackson Denson was a notable Alabama musician and singing school teacher within the Sacred Harp tradition. He was the youngest of the four sons of the Levi Phillip Denson, a Methodist minister, and Julia Ann Jones Denson. Thomas J. Denson was born in 1863 in Arbacoochee, Cleburne County. He...

, both influential singing school
Singing school
Historically, singing schools have been strongly affiliated with Protestant Christianity. Some are held under the auspices of particular Protestant denominations that maintain a tradition of a cappella singing, such as the Church of Christ and the Primitive Baptists...

 teachers. Both died shortly before the project was complete, and the remaining work was overseen by Paine Denson, son of Thomas. This book was entitled Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision, and was itself revised 1960, 1967, and 1971; a more thorough revision and remodeling of this book, overseen by Hugh McGraw
Hugh McGraw
Hugh McGraw is a leading figure in contemporary Sacred Harp singing. He was the General Chairman of the committee that created the 1991 Denson revision of The Sacred Harp and played an important role in promoting the spread of Sacred Harp singing...

, is known simply as the "1991 Edition," though some singers still call it the "Denson book."

Even the highly traditionalist James and Denson books followed Cooper in adding alto parts to most of the old three-part songs (these alto parts led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Cooper). Some people (see for instance the reference by Buell Cobb given below) believe that the new alto parts imposed an esthetic cost by filling in the former stark open harmonies of the three-part songs. Wallace McKenzie (reference below) argues to the contrary, basing his view on a systematic study of representative songs. In any event, there is little support today for abandoning the added alto parts, since most singers give a high priority to giving every side of the square its own part to sing.

It was thus that the traditionalism debate split the Sacred Harp community, and there seems little prospect that it will ever reunite under a single book. However, there have been no further splits. Both the Denson and the Cooper groups adopted traditionalist views for the particular form of Sacred Harp they favored, and these forms have now been stable for about a century.

The strength of traditionalism can be seen in the front matter of the two hymnbooks. The Denson book is forthrightly Biblical in its defense of tradition:
DEDICATED TO

All lovers of Sacred Harp Music, and to the memory of the illustrious and venerable patriarchs who established the Traditional Style of Sacred Harp singing and admonished their followers to "seek the old paths and walk therein".


The Cooper book also shows a warm appreciation of tradition:
May God bless everyone as we endeavor to promote and enjoy Sacred Harp music and to continue the rich tradition of those who have gone before us.


To say that both communities are traditionalist does not mean they discourage the creation of new songs. To the contrary, it is part of the tradition that musically creative Sacred Harp singers should become composers themselves and add to the canon. The new compositions are prepared in traditional styles, and could be considered a kind of tribute to the older material. New songs have been incorporated into editions of The Sacred Harp throughout the 20th century.

Other Sacred Harp books


Two other books are currently used by Sacred Harp singers. A few singers in north Georgia employ the "White book," an expanded version of the 1869 B. F. White edition edited by J. L. White
James Landrum White
James Landrum White was a shape note singing teacher, composer, and a reviser of his father's shape note tunebook known as The Sacred Harp.-Musical career:...

. African-American Sacred Harp singers, although primarily users of the Cooper book, also make use of a supplementary volume, The Colored Sacred Harp, produced by Judge Jackson (1883-1958) in 1934 and later revised in two subsequent editions. In his book Judge Jackson and The Colored Sacred Harp, Joe Dan Boyd has identified four regions of Sacred Harp singing among African-Americans - eastern Texas (Cooper book), northern Mississippi (Denson book), south Alabama and Florida (Cooper book), and New Jersey (Cooper book). The Colored Sacred Harp is limited to the New Jersey and south Alabama-Florida groups. Sacred Harp was "exported" from south Alabama to New Jersey. It appears to have died out among the African-Americans in eastern Texas.

In summary, three revisions of and one companion book to The Sacred Harp are currently in use in Sacred Harp singing:
  • The B. F. White Sacred Harp, Revised Cooper Edition (2006). Samson, AL: The Sacred Harp Book Company.
  • The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition (the "Denson book"). Carrollton, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company.
  • The Sacred Harp, J. L. White Fourth Edition, with Supplement (the "White book"). Atlanta, GA: J. L. White. Released 1911; republished 2007.
  • The Colored Sacred Harp. Ozark, AL: Judge Jackson. [3rd revised edition (1992) includes rudiments by H. J. Jackson (son of J. Jackson) and an autobiography of Judge Jackson].


Sacred Harp books generally contain a section of Rudiments, describing the basics of music and Sacred Harp singing.

The spread of Sacred Harp singing in modern times


In recent years, Sacred Harp singing has experienced a resurgence in popularity, as it is discovered by new participants who did not grow up in the tradition. There are now strong Sacred Harp singing communities in most major urban areas of the United States, and in many rural areas, as well. One of the first groups of singers formed outside the traditional Southern home region of Sacred Harp singing was in greater Chicago. The first Illinois convention was held in 1985, with enthusiastic and strongly proactive support by prominent Southern traditional singers. The Midwest Convention is now acknowledged to be one of the major American conventions, attracting hundreds of singers from all over the US and abroad. Similarly, the Sacred Harp singing community in western New England has become a prominent one in recent years. In March 2008, the 2008 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention attracted over 300 singers from 25 states and a number of foreign countries. Other prominent singing conventions outside the South include, for example, the Garden State Sacred Harp Singing Convention in New Jersey and the Minnesota State Convention, which is now in its 19th year. Sacred Harp singing has now spread even beyond the borders of the United States. There is an active Sacred Harp community in the UK, for example, and in 2008, a singing community was organized in Poland.

New singers typically strive to follow the original southern customs at their singings. Traditional singers have responded to this need by providing help in orienting the newcomers. For instance, the Rudiments section of the 1991 Denson edition includes information on how to hold a singing; this information would be superfluous in a traditional context, but is important for a group starting up on its own. The tradition of the singing master is still carried on today, and singing masters from traditional Sacred Harp regions often travel outside the South to teach. In recent years an annual summer camp has been established, at which newcomers can learn to sing Sacred Harp.

Origins of the music

Main article: Sacred Harp hymnwriters and composers
Sacred Harp hymnwriters and composers
The Sacred Harp is a shape note tunebook, originally compiled in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King in Georgia and used to this day in revised form by Sacred Harp singers throughout America and overseas...



The music used in Sacred Harp singing is eclectic. Most of the songs can be assigned to one of four historical layers.
  • The oldest of these layers comes from 18th century New England, and represents a rendition in shape notes of the work of outstanding early American composers such as William Billings
    William Billings
    William Billings was an American choral composer, and is widely regarded as the father of American choral music...

     and Daniel Read
    Daniel Read
    Daniel Read was an American composer of the First New England School, and one of the primary figures in early American classical music.-Life and work:...

    , who worked as singing masters.

  • A second layer comes from the decades around 1830, following the migration of the shape note tradition to the rural South. Many of the songs in this layer are believed to be originally secular folk tunes
    Folk music
    Folk music is an English term encompassing both traditional folk music and contemporary folk music. The term originated in the 19th century. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted by mouth, as music of the lower classes, and as music with unknown composers....

    , harmonized in parts and given religious lyrics. As one would expect from the folk origin of such music, it often emphasizes the notes of the pentatonic scale
    Pentatonic scale
    A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave in contrast to a heptatonic scale such as the major scale and minor scale...

    . They often employ stark, vivid harmonies based on open fifths. Most of the songs of this layer were originally composed in just three parts (treble, tenor, bass), with the altos added later, as noted above.

The sound of this musical layer, as well as to some extent The Sacred Harp in general, can be observed by comparing versions of the well-known hymn "Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace
"Amazing Grace" is a Christian hymn with words written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton , published in 1779. With a message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sins people commit and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God,...

", which is familiar to many Americans in a form such as the following:



In The Sacred Harp (1991 edition), "Amazing Grace" is harmonized quite differently:



Many listeners feel that while the Sacred Harp version is perhaps not as pretty as the one given above, it has more character. (As noted above, the title "New Britain" is the name of the tune, not the song as a whole.)

  • A third layer of Sacred Harp music is from the mid nineteenth century and represents the popular sensibility of that era. A number of these mid-century works have an almost primal simplicity—the harmony is essentially a single extended major chord, and the parts a decoration in slow tempo of that chord.

  • The most recent layer consists of the songs that were added to the books during the twentieth century. These are the work of musically creative participants in the Sacred Harp tradition, who strove to create songs that would fit into the existing tradition by adopting the style of one of the earlier periods. About a sixth of the Denson edition is taken up with such compositions, dating from as recently as 1990. The twentieth-century composers often have recycled their lyrics from earlier Sacred Harp songs (or from their sources, such as the work of the 18th-century hymnodist Isaac Watts
    Isaac Watts
    Isaac Watts was an English hymnwriter, theologian and logician. A prolific and popular hymnwriter, he was recognised as the "Father of English Hymnody", credited with some 750 hymns...

    ). A number of these modern compositions have become favorites of the singing community, and it is anticipated that future editions of The Sacred Harp will also include new songs.


There are a few additional songs in The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition that cannot be assigned to any of these four main layers. There are some very old songs of European origin, as well as songs from the English rural tradition that inspired the early New England composers. There are also a handful of songs by European classical
Classical music
Classical music is the art music produced in, or rooted in, the traditions of Western liturgical and secular music, encompassing a broad period from roughly the 11th century to present times...

 composers (Ignaz Pleyel
Ignaz Pleyel
Ignace Joseph Pleyel , ; was an Austrian-born French composer and piano builder of the Classical period.-Early years:...

, Thomas Arne, and Henry Rowley Bishop). The book even includes a couple of hymns by Lowell Mason
Lowell Mason
Lowell Mason was a leading figure in American church music, the composer of over 1600 hymn tunes, many of which are often sung today. His most well-known tunes include Mary Had A Little Lamb and the arrangement of Joy to the World...

, long ago the implacable enemy of the tradition that The Sacred Harp has preserved to this day.

The description just given is based on The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition, also known as the Denson edition. The widely-used "Cooper" edition overlaps considerably (about 60%) in content, but also includes many later songs. A detailed comparison of the two editions has been made by Sacred Harp scholar Gaylon L. Powell, available here.

Other books with the title Sacred Harp


The Sacred Harp was a popular name for 19th century hymn and tune books, with no fewer than four bearing the title. The first of these was compiled by John Hoyt Hickok and printed in Lewiston, Pennsylvania
Lewistown, Pennsylvania
Lewistown is a borough in and the county seat of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, United States. It lies along the Juniata River, northwest of Harrisburg. The number of people living in the borough in 1900 was 4,451; in 1910, 8,166; and in 1940, 13,017. The population was 8,998 at the 2000 census,...

 in 1832. The second was compiled by Lowell and Timothy Mason and printed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1834, as part of the "better music" movement mentioned above. Amusingly, the Mason brothers' publisher brought this book out in a shape note edition, much against their wishes.

The third Sacred Harp was the one by B. F. White and E. J. King (1844), the origin of today's Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Lastly, according to W. J. Reynolds, writing in Hymns of Our Faith, there was yet a fourth Sacred Harp - The Sacred Harp published by J. M. D. Cates in Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is the capital of the U.S. state of Tennessee and the county seat of Davidson County. It is located on the Cumberland River in Davidson County, in the north-central part of the state. The city is a center for the health care, publishing, banking and transportation industries, and is home...

 in 1867.

See also

  • Shape note
    Shape note
    Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools...

  • Sacred Harp hymnwriters and composers
    Sacred Harp hymnwriters and composers
    The Sacred Harp is a shape note tunebook, originally compiled in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King in Georgia and used to this day in revised form by Sacred Harp singers throughout America and overseas...

  • List of shape-note tunebooks
  • Chattahoochee Musical Convention
    Chattahoochee Musical Convention
    The Chattahoochee Musical Convention is a Sacred Harp singing convention. It is an annual gathering whose purposes are the singing of Sacred Harp music and fostering of bonds of fellowship among singers...

  • East Texas Musical Convention
    East Texas Musical Convention
    The East Texas Musical Convention, now usually called the East Texas Sacred Harp Convention, is an annual gathering of shape note singers. Songs are sung a cappella from the Sacred Harp tunebook. The Convention was organized in 1855, and is the oldest Sacred Harp convention in Texas, and the second...

  • Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention
    Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention
    The Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention is an annual gathering of shape note singers. Songs are sung a cappella from the Sacred Harp tune book. The Convention was organized on April 28, 1900 at the Round Top School House, in Caldwell County, Texas, as the South Union Singing Convention....

  • Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp
    Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp
    Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp is a 2006 documentary film directed by Matt and Erica Hinton, and narrated by Jim Lauderdale. It follows the folk tradition of Sacred Harp singing, a type of shape-note singing, kept alive by amateur singers in the rural American South.-Cast:The Sacred...


Books and scholarly articles

  • Anonymous (1940) Georgia: A guide to its towns and countryside. Compiled and written by workers of the Writers' Program of the Works Progress Administration. University of Georgia Press.
  • Bealle, John (1997) Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-1988-0
  • Boyd, Joe Dan (2002) Judge Jackson and The Colored Sacred Harp. Alabama Folklife Association. ISBN 0-9672672-5-0
  • Campbell, Gavin James (1997) " 'Old Can Be Used Instead of New': Shape-Note Singing and the Crisis of Modernity in the New South, 1880-1920." Journal of American Folklore 110:169-188.
  • Cobb, Buell E. (2001) The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-2371-3
  • Eastburn, Kathryn (2008) A Sacred Feast: Reflections on Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-1831-4
  • Horn, Dorothy D. (1970) Sing to me of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books. University of Florida Press.
  • Jackson, George Pullen (1933a) White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-486-21425-7
  • Jackson, George Pullen (1933b) "Buckwheat notes," The Musical Quarterly XIX(4):393-400.
  • Marini, Stephen A. (2003) Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. University of Illinois Press. See Chapter 3, "Sacred Harp singing"
  • McKenzie, Wallace (1989) "The Alto Parts in the 'True Dispersed Harmony' of The Sacred Harp Revisions." The Musical Quarterly 73:153-171.
  • Miller, Kiri (ed.) (2002) The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook. The Sacred Harp Museum. ISBN 1-887617-13-2
  • Miller, Kiri (2004) "First Sing the Notes": Oral and Written Traditions in Sacred Harp Transmission. American Music 22:475-501. The article is available on line at a pay site: http://am.press.uiuc.edu/22/4/miller.html
  • Miller, Kiri (2007) Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252032144
  • Sommers, Laurie Kay (2010) "Hoboken Style: Meaning and Change in Okefenokee Sacred Harp Singing" Southern Spaces ISSN: 1551-2754
  • Steel, David Warren with Richard H. Hulan (2010) The Makers of the Sacred Harp. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252077609
  • Temperley, Nicholas (1983) The Music of the English Parish Church. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521274579.
  • Wallace, James B. (2007) "Stormy Banks and Sweet Rivers: A Sacred Harp Geography" Southern Spaces ISSN: 1551-2754


See also the bibliographic entries under Shape note
Shape note
Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools...

.

External links


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