- 1 The music and its notation
- 2 Singing Sacred Harp music
- 3 History of Sacred Harp singing
- 4 Origins of the music
- 5 Other books with the title Sacred Harp
- 6 Resources
- 7 Footnotes
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. 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). 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.
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. 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, that is to say, without accompanying instruments. The singers arrange themselves in a square, with a row of chairs or pews on each side assigned to each of the four parts: treble, alto, tenor, and bass.
The treble and tenor sections are usually mixed, with men and women singing the notes an octave apart.
Typically, 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.
The pitch 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 (using the appropriate syllable). The singers reply with the opening notes of their own parts, and then the song begins immediately.
As the name implies, Sacred Harp music is sacred (Protestant Christian) music. Many of the songs in the book are hymns 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: in texture they are polyphonic, and for harmony they employ a stark and robust style which emphasizes open fifths.
Many Sacred Harp songs are fuging tunes, which are not actually fugues but resemble them in having each voice enter in succession. There are also anthems, which are longer songs sung through just once, rather than in multiple verses.
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, organized in Upson County, Georgia in 1845. The two oldest surviving Sacred Harp singing conventions are the Chattahoochee Musical Convention (organized in Coweta County, Georgia in 1852), and the East Texas Sacred Harp Convention (organized as the East Texas Musical Convention in 1855).
Sacred Harp music as participatory music
Sacred Harp singers view their tradition as a participatory, 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 perquisites 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
The earliest roots of Sacred Harp singing are found in the American colonial era. At that time, singing schools were created to provide instruction in choral singing, especially for the use of churches. In 1801, a book called The Easy Instructor¹ by William Smith and William Little was published for the use of this movement; it was the first book printed in shape notes. There was, however a rival shape system: Andrew Law (1749-1821) introduced a shape note system 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. It was the Smith and Little shapes that ultimately prevailed.
Shape notes were abandoned in most of the U.S. only shortly after their invention, as the result of a so-called "better music" movement spearheaded by Lowell Mason. But the shapes became popular in the South, where they were specifically adapted for the dissemination of sacred music. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, a whole series of shape note hymnbooks appeared, many of which were successful and were widely distributed. Probably the most successful shape note book prior to The Sacred Harp was William Walker's Southern Harmony, published in 1835 and still in use today. Even after the appearance of The Sacred Harp (next section), shape note systems continued to evolve; for a more complete history, see shape note.
Early history of The Sacred Harp
Sacred Harp singing as such came into being following the publication of Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King's The Sacred Harp in 1844. It was this book, now distributed in several different versions, that came to be the shapenote 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. He prepared The Sacred Harp in colloboration with a younger man, E. J. King, (ca. 1821-1844), who was from Talbot County, Georgia. 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 schools 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. 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 - 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 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, of Dothan, Alabama, who was a leading Sacred Harp teacher in his own region, but not part of the inner circle of B. F. White's old colleagues and descendents. 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", "Africa"). The new names were based on the text; thus "New Britain" became "Amazing Grace", "Northfield" become "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 lower keys. This is thought to have brought the notation closer to actual performing practice, which frequently transposed the written notes downward.
- 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 since then has been supervised by an editorial committee which produced new editions in 1927, 1950, 1960, 1992, and 2000.
However, 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, who would have been the natural choice to prepare a new edition, was a non-traditionalist. Ultimately, a committee headed by Joseph Summerlin James produced a new edition (1911) that largely satisfied the wishes of this community of singers.
The James edition was later revised in a version that moved somewhat further in the direction of traditionalism. This revision was completed in 1936 by a committee under the leadership of the brothers Seaborn and Thomas Denson, both influential singing school teachers. Both died shortly before the project was complete, and the remaining work was overseen by Paine Denson, son of Thomas. This version of The Sacred Harp is still often called the "Denson book". Later editorial committees produced further revisions of this book in 1960, 1967, 1971, and 1991.
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 a lawsuit by Cooper, which was unsuccessful). 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.² 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. 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 (2000). 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; out of print, but currently being republished.
- 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. As such, it is now a national phenomenon, and is strongly represented in locations such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Boston, as well as in its original southern territory. There are also a few Sacred Harp groups in other countries.
The 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
The music used in Sacred Harp singing is eclectic. Most of the songs can be assigned to one of four historical layers.
- The oldest layer 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 and Daniel Read, who worked as singing masters.
- A second layer comes from about 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, 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. Such songs often employ stark, vivid harmonies based on open fifths.
- 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", 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.
- Lastly, there are the many 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 three periods. About a sixth of the Denson edition is taken up with such compositions, dating to 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). A number of these modern compositions have become favorites of the singing community, and it is anticipated that future, 21st-century 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 layers: some very old songs of European origin, two songs by the little-known classical composer Ignaz Pleyel. The book even includes a couple of hymns by Lowell Mason, long ago the implacable enemy of the tradition that The Sacred Harp has preserved to this day.
Other books with the title Sacred Harp
The Sacred Harp was a popular name for 19th century hymn and tune books, with no less than four bearing the title. The first of these was compiled by John Hoyt Hickok and printed in Lewiston, Pennsylvania 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.
Books and scholarly articles
- Bealle, John (1997) Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820319880
- Boyd, Joe Dan (2002) Judge Jackson and The Colored Sacred Harp. Alabama Folklife Association. ISBN 0967267250
- 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 0820323713
- Jackson, George Pullen (1933) White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. University of North Carolina Press. ASIN 0486214257
- McKenzie, Wallace (1989) The Alto Parts in the 'True Dispersed Harmony' of The Sacred Harp Revisions. The Musical Quarterly 73:153-171. [Available on line; see External Links below.]
- Miller, Kiri (ed.) (2002) The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook. The Sacred Harp Museum. ISBN 1887617132
See also the bibliographic entries under Shape note.
- African-American Sacred Harp singing
- Fasola Home Page - a web site dedicated to Sacred Harp music
- Introduction to Sacred Harp singing
- Judge Jackson and the Colored Sacred Harp
- Pictures and recordings from various singings
- Sacred Harp and Related Shape-Note Music Resources - an extensive site of resources concerning Sacred Harp, other Shape-Note music, Gallery music, etc.
- Sacred Harp Music - article on Sacred Harp from the Handbook of Texas online
- Sacred Harp Publishing Company Web site
- Sacred Harp singing in Texas - includes composer sketches, including one of B. F. White
- Shape Note Historical Background
- The Alto Parts in the 'True Dispersed Harmony' of The Sacred Harp Revisions - McKenzie
- 1. Dick Hulan writes, "My copy of William Smith's Easy Instructor, Part II (1803) attributes the invention [of shape notes] to 'J. Conly of Philadelphia'." And according to David Warren Steel, in John Wyeth and the Development of Southern Folk Hymnody, "This notation was invented by Philadelphia merchant John Connelly, who on 10 March 1798 signed over his rights to the system to Little and Smith." Andrew Law also laid claim to the invention of the shape note system.
- 2. McKenzie further judges that the Cooper alto parts were more successful than the Denson ones in retaining the original harmonic style.