I argue that Denson and Parris tailored their contributions to fit the genre conventions of the oblong tunebooks and gospel convention songbooks in which their music appeared while also infusing much of their work with hybrid harmonic and lyrical language and extending elements from one shape-note genre to another. Their composition and songbook editing practices reveal a musical culture in which a variety of shape-note genres coexisted, influenced one another, and attracted overlapping followings.
In pointing to these composers’ genre-crossing work, my article challenges assumptions about the stylistic boundaries of white gospel music and Sacred Harp singing. My article also contributes to “the discussion of genre classification, development, boundary work, and disruption,” suggesting that boundary-spanning can actually contribute to the reification of genres.
In addition to making these contributions, I also hope that the article’s concise treatment of topics such as dispersed harmony and categories of contrapuntal effects in gospel music, will prove useful to others. A section of the article delves into the notation systems, harmonic styles, text meters, and contrapuntal effects in different shape-note genres, along with a review of scholarship on these topics.
I also contributed an essay summarizing and expanding upon my argument to the latest issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. In “Orin Adolphus Parris: At Home Across the Shape-Note Music Spectrum,” I detail O. A. Parris’s “unique and masterful approach to crafting new tunes in … three shape-note styles”: Sacred Harp, Christian Harmony, and gospel. This essay afforded me an opportunity to comment more extensively on Parris’s virtuosic approach to composition, noting favorite harmony parts (“the bass in ‘Eternal Praise’ and the treble to ‘A Happy Meeting,'” both in The Christian Harmony), and articulating how “Parris’s harmony parts …elegantly interact with each other both rhythmically and melodically, like pieces of a puzzle snapping together.” As I note in the Newsletter, Parris and Denson were just two members of a group “that included several Densons, Kitchenses, McGraws, and Woodards” in the mid-twentieth century who applied their creativity across the shape-note genre spectrum.
But among this group, Parris seemed perhaps the most at home in the widest range of genres, capable in songs like “The Better Land” and “The Grand Highway” of mixing and matching elements from different styles while creating music that feels just right in its intended source.
Many thanks to all those who read and commented on drafts of these two essays, and to the archivists who assisted me in accessing the often obscure gospel publications featuring songs by these composers. Thanks, especially, to the descendants of Whit Denson and O. A. Parris, who shared family photographs and granted me permission to reprint their talented relatives’ songs.
In a new article, “Singing Across the Color Line: Reflections on The Colored Sacred Harp,” in CDSS News, I delve into the history of The Colored Sacred Harp, a 1934 shape-note tunebook featuring the music of black Alabamians, to shed light on the racial history of Sacred Harp singing. In the essay I argue that “cultural, social and racial histories effect the choices we make about what and how to sing” and bear reexamining. I describe the circumstances behind book’s publication in Jim Crow–era southeastern Alabama, the popularity of the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers (a performing ensemble that sang from the collection during the folk music movement), and the tunebook’s use today, limited to two largely white shape-note singings in Montgomery. I suggest that these contemporary “singing[s] demonstrates both an ethical approach to the crossing of musical color lines and the challenges these crossings pose.” I conclude that
The choices we make when we sing songs initially performed in a context different from our own can help bridge vast differences of time, space, and culture. Our repertoire choices can facilitate respectful tributes to dear friends while highlighting often marginalized histories. Yet these same choices, if they allow for mimicry of affect, can easily turn well-intentioned efforts into caricatures that reaffirm marginalization. As we embrace more inclusive musical repertoires, let’s pay careful attention to the choices we make, drawing on our shared embodied knowledge to sensitively remember and perpetuate songs and styles with which we are intimately familiar.
The article appears in CDSS News’s “CDSS Sings!” column, which features a song and its backstory with each quarterly issue. My contribution includes “Remember Me,” a lovely song from The Colored Sacred Harp by southeastern Alabama singer and singing school teacher T. Y. Lawrence.
Hamrick imparted to his music a distinctive voice that recalls the earliest American composers while embracing a fluid melodic style and expansive chordal palette all its own. He wrote hundreds of shape-note songs across a sixty-year period, contributing some of the most popular and well-loved songs to The Sacred Harp, and consenting to have some 179 of his songs published in two editions of The Georgian Harmony. Hamrick’s singing voice was renowned, an accurate bass singer with a warm and round tone. Hamrick harbored an unquenchable curiosity—he collected rare tunebooks, studied the history of the tradition’s songs and composers, and asked and answered questions about the music’s practices in the groundbreaking articles he wrote for Sacred Harp newsletters and scholarly journals. Hamrick was a gracious and generous mentor and a friend to many. He shared his knowledge of Sacred Harp’s history, his insight into composition, and his thoughtful opinions with singers young and old over decades.
My essay on Hamrick, who was a mentor to me, serving “as a gracious and humble model for combining enthusiasm for Sacred Harp singing and composing with research into its history and practices,” as I noted in my dissertation’s acknowledgments, appeared in the Newsletter‘s first special issue.
Hamrick’s unique dedication to studying and writing about Sacred Harp history and practices has largely escaped singers’ attention and was invisible to scholars unwittingly building on the foundations established by his research. I’m excited that this special issue brings Hamrick’s writings together in a single place, and grateful to have had the opportunity to draw attention to his fascinating findings and to his spirit as a person. I am also grateful to the large team of volunteers, Hamrick family members, and librarians and editors, named in my introduction, who made this issue possible.
Two new articles of mine are included in the latest issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter (vol. 4, no. 2, December 31, 2015). In “Regional Roots: Growing Sacred Harp in the Netherlands, Alaska, and British Columbia,” I recount recent trips to growing Sacred Harp singings in Utrecht, Sitka, and Vancouver, contending that while during the first wave of Sacred Harp’s expansion beyond the South, singers from Alabama and Georgia played an enormous role in connecting new singing groups and sharing Sacred Harp’s practices, increasingly
regional cores—sturdy groups of singers with substantial Sacred Harp experience—are helping ensure the success of new classes in their areas … welcom[ing] new classes into the international Sacred Harp network, fostering Sacred Harp’s growth in a period when chartered busses no longer regularly transport southern singers to new conventions[.]
In “Seasonal Songs,” written with Mark T. Godfrey, we analyze the variety of ways in which Sacred Harp “singers think about songs in relation to the calendar” when deciding what to lead. As we illustrate,
[some] songs do indeed show a measurable and statistically significant burst in popularity at specific times of the year. Yet the reasons why some songs are led seasonally vary, as do the specific contours in the leading patterns of such songs over time. [This analysis] reveals just one small piece of how … [leaders’] individual discrete decisions build over time, shaping the seasonal ebb and flow of our collective experience.
In addition to these two articles, this new issue of the Newsletter—which I edit with Nathan Rees—includes articles on a 1924 Sacred Harp trophy from Mississippi, a Sacred Harp singing weekend in Sweden, conducting Sacred Harp research online in historical newspapers, a 1965 list of “dos and don’ts” by Nashville minister and Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News editor Priestley Miller, and much more. You can access the full issue at the Sacred Harp Publishing Company website.
the day also gave a number of musicologists their first exposure to Sacred Harp singing, and provided an opportunity to reflect on how singers from generations past articulated the relevance of our tradition to their own times and places as we do so today in a rapidly changing Sacred Harp landscape.
We will celebrate the book’s publication with a joint session of the Emory singing and the annual meeting of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music. I’ll give a short talk placing the book in the social world of its editors and describing its “musical conservatism and material modernity.” We’ll then devote the first session of the Emory singing to participatory singing from the Centennial Edition. Sacred Harp singers will take turns leading songs from the new book and I’ll chime in here and there with comments on the songs, the tunebook, and their makers. The debut presentation and singing will take place from 9:45–10:45 am in Emory University’s Cannon Chapel. The event is free and open to the public. Please join us!
We’ll sing for the rest of the day from The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition, pausing for dinner on the grounds at noon. Other special events include:
Noon and 3 pm: A tour of an exhibit on hymnody and psalmody at the Pitts Theology Library including Watts, Wesley, and selections from the library’s collection of shape-note songbooks.
A talk by Joanna Smolko on the history of Sacred Harp singing in Athens, Georgia, also part of the SCSM conference session.
The new edition is the product of four years of work by a dedicated team at Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library and Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. At 584 pages, its editing was an enormous task I could not have undertaken without the support of many people, but Danielle Pitrone, M. Patrick Graham, and Allen Tullos deserve special mention. As noted on the book’s ordering page on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company website,
This commemorative edition celebrates the century that has passed since the 1911 publication of Original Sacred Harp, the direct progenitor of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company’s Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition. Each song in the book includes a historical note written by James. These annotations comprised the most ambitious and accessible record of the history of the songs and hymns in The Sacred Harp and their writers until David Warren Steel’s 2010 reference work, The Makers of the Sacred Harp. Although of variable accuracy, the annotations [in Original Sacred Harp] are a valuable source of information, and a frequent source of humor! Original Sacred Harp included all the songs in the 1870 Sacred Harp, the last edition Sacred Harp co-compiler B. F. White edited. In addition, it restored two thirds of the songs removed from the songbook in the nineteenth century, and introduced new songs that are among the most loved in the book today including “Present Joys,” “Praise God,” and “Traveling On.”
The Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition reprints the entire contents of the 1911 tunebook in meticulously reproduced facsimile, preserving the book’s quirky then-modern typographical style. The book features a new introduction by Jesse P. Karlsberg placing Original Sacred Harp in historical and social context, describing how it came to be published, and detailing its reception and legacy.
A handsome hardbound volume reproducing the 1911 tunebook’s original cover, Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition makes newly accessible James’s fascinating historical notes and a trove of engaging music.
We published the seventh issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter on Wednesday, which “documents the continuing spread of Sacred Harp singing in Europe, sheds new light on important moments in Sacred Harp’s early history, and reports on recent developments at the Sacred Harp Museum.” I contributed to three pieces in this issue:
I coauthored an essay on Elphrey Heritage, a Philadelphia bookkeeper who was the sole northern contributor to nineteenth-century editions of the Sacred Harp tunebook. Christopher Sawula and I uncovered new details about Heritage’s life and work that help explain how his music came to be included in the book.
I recently sat down for an interview with Emory’s Bethany C. Nash about open access publishing from my perspective as a graduate student. The Robert W. Woodruff Library’s blog has just published the interview in conjunction with Open Access Week 2014. (( Emory’s scholarly communications blog has also published the conversation. )) In it, I talk about open access as a value in scholarly publishing, power and privilege in relationship to access to scholarship, the challenges of publishing open access as a graduate student, and how Southern Spaces—the journal I manage—benefits from publishing open access.
The alto entrance to the song’s fuging section features a simple figure located at the moment in the song where the two highest parts drop out, leaving the altos singing exposed, with relish, at the top of their range. ((Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Imagining ‘The Last Words of Copernicus,’” Country Dance and Song Society News (Winter 2013–2014): 19, http://www.cdss.org/tl_files/cdss/newsletter_archives/news/CDSS_News_winter_2013-2014_song_copernicus.pdf.))
This alto entrance in The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition and its predecessors shines through on recordings of “The Last Words of Copernicus,” and even caught the ear of a producer of Bruce Springsteen’s single “Death to My Hometown,” from the 2012 album Wrecking Ball. ((An identical alto part has appeared in the various editions of Original Sacred Harp published between 1911 and 1987. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball, Columbia, March 6, 2012.)) As I noted in the CDSS News, the producer sampled this portion of the tune’s Original Sacred Harp alto part and included it in a musical interlude that recurs throughout Springsteen’s song. ((Karlsberg, “Imagining ‘The Last Words of Copernicus,'” 19. See also Jesse P. Karlsberg and John Plunkett, “Bruce Springsteen’s Sacred Harp Sample,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 1, no. 1 (March 28, 2012), http://originalsacredharp.com/2012/03/28/sightings-bruce-springsteens-sacred-harp-sample/.))
Clearly integral to the song’s contemporary appeal, the alto line to “The Last Words of Copernicus” is uncredited in the 1911 Original Sacred Harp in which it first appeared in its present-day form.
Who wrote it?
Three Early Twentieth-Century Alto Parts
Joseph Stephen James, and his colleagues on the five-member “sub-committee on revision” that edited Original Sacred Harp, credit Seaborn McDaniel Denson with 327 “altos composed … and added [in] 1911” in the book’s “Summary Statement.” ((Joseph Stephen James et al., “Summary Statement,” in Joseph Stephen James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA: United Sacred Harp Musical Association, 1911).)) The book’s editors explicitly list Denson as alto author on many songs’ pages, but a number of additional alto parts, though uncredited, may represent his work as well. For this reason, Warren Steel suggests that “The Last Words of Copernicus” alto part, as it appeared in Original Sacred Harp, is “probably by S. M. Denson.” ((David Warren Steel with Richard Hulan, Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 194.))
As Steel and others have shown, however, many of the alto parts Denson added to Original Sacred Harp were his arrangements or selections of alto parts published in earlier works. In particular, Denson often drew on the alto parts included in Wilson Marion Cooper’s 1902 revision of The Sacred Harp (commonly known as the “Cooper book”), and William Walker’s 1866 The Christian Harmony.
Lancaster’s “The Last Words of Copernicus” does appear, with an alto part by “Miss Minnie Floyd” (a prolific writer of alto parts) in the 1902 “Cooper book.” The song is also included, with an uncredited alto, in the “remodeled and improved” second half of James Landrum White’s 1909 The Sacred Harp: Fifth Edition, the first of three attempts by this son of Sacred Harp co-compiler Benjamin Franklin White to revise the tunebook. ((W. M. Cooper, ed., The Sacred Harp (Dothan, AL: W. M. Cooper, 1902), 112; J. L, White, ed., The Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA: J.L. White, 1909), part 2, 112. Thanks to John Plunkett and Sarah Kahre for reminding me of these two pre-1911 publications including four-part versions of “The Last Words of Copernicus”.))
How Do the Alto Parts Line Up?
While J. L. White’s 1909 alto part and Minnie Floyd’s 1902 parts have significant differences, close comparison reveals that over 60 percent of their notes are identical. ((Though the author of the alto part that appears in J. L. White’s The Sacred Harp: Fifth Edition is uncredited, I describe the part as White’s in this post both for the sake of simplicity and because White takes credit elsewhere for “remodeling” the book’s songs. In making this comparison I’ve ignored other changes White made to Lancaster’s song such as lowering the key from F major to E flat major; replacing pairs of half notes with dotted half notes and quarter notes; and replacing the half note, half rest, and half note at the midpoint of the plain section with two quarter notes whose durations are extended by holds.))
Some of these forty-seven matches seem likely to be coincidental. In other places, though, such as measures four through seven in the middle of the plain section (four through six in White’s version), and fifteen through eighteen toward the middle of the fuging section (fourteen through seventeen in White’s version), the similarities are striking, last for multiple measures, and feature unusual musical figures. It seems overwhelmingly likely, then, that White had access to a copy of Cooper’s Sacred Harp revision, and drew on Minnie Floyd’s alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus” in fashioning his own alto part.
Among White’s deviations from Floyd is the addition of a catchy flourish at the start of the song’s fuging section. This quarter note 5-sol, three 3-la quarter notes, and second 5-sol quarter note comprises the first publication of the recognizable figure from “The Last Words of Copernicus” noted above (though to be fair White’s version is in a different key, and starts with a quarter note, rather than half note, pickup). Aside from this addition, White’s changes generally seem aimed to lower the part’s range. ((White decreased the time the alto part spends in the upper part of the alto range by replacing 5-sol and 4-fa notes with lower notes in a few cases. He seems to have been particularly concerned with replacing instances of the 4-fa notes with 1-fa or 3-la notes, perhaps creating more conventional chord voicings while also lowering the part. In measure fourteen (thirteen in White’s version), White removed a flourish from Floyd’s part and added a quarter note enabling the altos to sing the entire Doddridge hymn text.))
Seaborn McDaniel Denson’s alto part for the 1911 Original Sacred Harp, though presented as an addition to the three-part version of the song added to The Sacred Harp in 1870, appears to draw on both alto parts that preceded it in print.
Only eight notes in Denson’s alto part differ from both Floyd’s and White’s alto lines. In a couple of other measures Denson’s part is original as well. ((In the song’s first measure, and its ninth, for example, its contour is sufficiently distinct that the instances where individual notes are identical to those in one or both of the two other alto parts are likely incidental.)) Just about everywhere else, however, Denson’s part largely follows Floyd’s, or White’s or both.
While White’s changes lowered the alto’s range, Denson’s shift the part higher. Denson seems to have selected the higher of the two available figures from Floyd or White with few exceptions. And three of the eight notes original to Denson’s parts replace the lowest note in the other two alto parts (the 7-mi) with a higher note (the 2-sol). In including high 5-sol notes but avoiding notes below the bottom space in the G clef, these changes are consistent with other alto parts in F major that Denson contributed to James’s Original Sacred Harp.
Comparing all three parts suggests that Denson likely used both Floyd’s and White’s alto parts as models. For much of the part’s plain section (measures three through eight), Denson follows Floyd almost exactly, copying note for note the unusual figure in measures seven through eight where the part soars upwards. Yet for much of the song’s fuging section, Denson’s alto imitates White’s, particularly at the start of the fuge (measures ten through twelve) and from the song’s alto treble duet nearly to its end (measures fifteen through twenty). ((For parts of each of these three sections of the song all three alto parts are the same. (See, for example, measures three, fifteen, sixteen, and twenty.) Identifying the presence of notes I’ve marked red and the absence of those marked blue around and between purple notes (or vice versa), however, is a strong indication that Denson’s model in that place was Floyd’s part (or White’s, in the case of red notes and not blue).)) While Denson may not have composed much of the Original Sacred Harp alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus,” he does seem to have intentionally selected from the two previously composed alto parts available to him in putting the part together.
The Last Word
Who, then, composed the alto part to “The Last Words of Copernicus” that appears in The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition?
S. M. Denson likely stitched together pieces of the two previously published alto parts by Minnie Floyd and J. L. White, making alterations or substituting his own inventions as he saw fit. Perhaps Minnie Floyd can take credit for portions of the plain section, though its final few notes owe more to J. L. White. White’s alto part seems to have been the model for the song’s fuging section, including the much loved entrance, though White’s fuging section cribbed extensively from Floyd’s. ((Twenty-seven of the notes in Denson’s fuging section are shared by all three parts, and many should thus be credited to Floyd.)) The alto entrance that Springsteen sampled is most effective in Denson’s version, which retains Sarah Lancaster’s half note pickup, lengthening the high 5-sol at the start of the fuge.
In assessing Denson’s methods for adding alto parts to songs in Original Sacred Harp we might add to the three strategies already well documented,
composing the alto part himself,
copying the alto part, unchanged, from an earlier source, or
arranging the alto part from an earlier source, with minor—or major—modifications,
a fourth strategy,
piecing the alto part together from two or more earlier sources.
Should we credit Denson as the probable composer of the alto part? Our answer may tell us more about our contemporary understanding of the word “composer” than it reveals about Denson’s activities or motivations. ((Thanks to Warren Steel for helpful comments on how to describe Denson’s work assembling the alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus.”))
A better approach might be to continue to document the range of strategies Denson employed in devising 327 alto parts during the rush to bring Original Sacred Harp to publication between 1910 and 1911. How many other alto parts in the book (if any), did Denson stitch together in this manner? Are there alto parts where Denson stitched more of his own original writing together with music from one or more precursors?
We recently published volume 2, number 3 of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. This issue includes an article I co-wrote with Mark T. Godfrey and Nathan Rees on the quantitative effect of Cold Mountain on Sacred Harp singings, an essay by Harry Eskew that I revised on William Walker’s contributions to shape-note hymnody, and a collection of letters of condolence after the death of Sacred Harp patriarch Thomas Jackson Denson that I edited. Nathan Rees and I introduced the new issue of the Newsletter as follows:
The fifth issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter recounts the extraordinary lives and achievements of significant figures across Sacred Harp’s history and presents new insights drawn from the minutes of Sacred Harp singings.