This past Thursday I participated in an enjoyable opening plenary session at the Music Library Association‘s 2014 annual meeting, held in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. Joyce Clinkscales, Emory’s music librarian, organized and chaired our session. After Joyce’s introduction Nathan Rees and I each presented papers. My paper, “The Publishing History of The Sacred Harp: Tunebook Revision and Musical Culture,” introduced attendees to Sacred Harp singing and its history before discussing the tunebook’s editions and some tips on distinguishing among them. I’ve posted write-ups of these tips—on identifying editions by examining front covers and title pages or page 37—to this website. Nathan’s excellent paper considered how Sacred Harp singers express identity and ideology the visual culture of Sacred Harp singing, in particular, its shape notes and the hollow square.
After Nathan and I took questions from the convention attendees, I gave an abbreviated lesson on how to sing Sacred Harp music. Then, for the remainder of the session, we sang from The Sacred Harp. In addition to the four-hundred plus music librarians present, Nathan and I were helped by twenty Atlanta-area Sacred Harp singers, who were generous enough to give up much of their Thursday morning to participate in the plenary session. The conference attendees were among the most enthusiastic group of newcomers I’ve encountered (indeed, a number had run across and even sung Sacred Harp music previously). We were able to sing nine songs from The Sacred Harp before the session concluded: “New Britain” (p. 45t in The Sacred Harp), “Old Hundred” (p. 49t), “The Golden Harp” (p. 274t), “Northfield” (p. 155), “Beech Spring” (p. 81t), “Canaan’s Land” (p. 101t), “Mear” (p. 49b), “Reynolds” (p. 225t), and “Lloyd” (p. 503). In addition to including mostly easier tunes and a few familiar melodies, our selections featured prominent Georgia contributors to The Sacred Harp, both past (B. F. White, E. J. King, and J. P. Rees) and present (Hugh McGraw and Raymond C. Hamrick).
Thanks to Joyce and Nathan for an enjoyable session, to the organizers of the conference for their support, and—most of all—to the Sacred Harp singers who made the event such a success: Laura Akerman, Amy Armstrong, Hayden Taylor Arp, Daniel Bass, Lisa Bennett, Lauren Bock, Ellen Cullpepper, Gail Denney, Philip Denney, Jeannette DePoy, Scott DePoy, Jim Neal, Erin Mills, John Plunkett, Chris Sawula, David Smead, Michael Spencer, Christine Tweedy, Eric Tweedy, and Charles Woods.
In my presentation on the publication history of The Sacred Harp at the opening plenary session of the Music Library Association’s annual meeting this past Friday, I concluded with some guidance on how to identify and distinguish among editions of the tunebook. The easiest way to distinguish among nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions of The Sacred Harp, I noted, is to examine the books’ front covers or title pages for the mention of appendices, the names of the lead revisors, and any dates. I’ve created a table with information on what to look for to identify a Sacred Harp edition in this way. But some editions have missing or illegible covers or title pages. For these cases I’ve devised what I call the “Page 37 Test,” a simple way to distinguish between seven different editions of The Sacred Harp.
You can use the “Page 37 Test” to distinguish between the B. F. White-led editions of The Sacred Harp and each of the three twentieth-century revision chains: the “Cooper,” “White,” and “James”/”Denson”/1991 books. You can also use the test to distinguish between earlier and later “Cooper” and “White” books, and between the “James” and “Denson”/1991 editions.
Benjamin Franklin White’s 1844, 1850, 1860, and 1870 editions all feature the song “China” in four parts and in D major on the top brace, and “Liverpool” in three parts and F major on the bottom brace.
In 1902, Wilson Marion Cooper replaced these two songs with a composition of his own, a setting of his wife’s last words titled “Almost Gone.” Editions of the “Cooper book” published between 1902 and 1949 feature “Almost Gone” on page 37.
In 1950 and later “Cooper book” editions through the 2012 edition a new song titled “The Christian’s Home” appears on this page.
In his 1909 first attempt at revising The Sacred Harp, James Landrum White moved two songs from elsewhere in the tunebook to this page: “Remember Me” and “Newman.”
Yet in editions of The Sacred Harp he published in 1910 and 1911 (and later printings), White retained “China” and “Liverpool” but added an alto to “Liverpool” and reharmonized both songs. He also changed their keys: “China” appears set in Bb major; “Liverpool” in Eb major.
In the 1911 Original Sacred Harp, edited by Joseph Stephen James, both songs appear. As with White’s 1910 and 1911 editions, “Liverpool” appears with an alto part added, but both songs retain the keys and other harmony parts they featured in the 1870 fourth edition. Each carries an extensive historical note.
The 1936 “Denson book,” a revision of Original Sacred Harp by a committee led by members of the Denson family, retains the version of “Liverpool” included in the “James book” but shortens the song’s historical note. The edition also replaces “China” with a song “Ester” from elsewhere in the book.
Denson editions through 1987 feature these two songs with this layout. In the retypeset 1991 edition, both songs appear, but with James’s historical notes removed.
Enabling distinguishing among the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sacred Harp editions, the major Sacred Harp revision-chains, and earlier and later editions within each chain, the “Page 37 Test” is a simple way to narrow down which edition a songbook belongs to. But you’ll have to look at pages other than 37 to narrow things down further. In fact, details of The Sacred Harp‘s publishing history are still emerging. If you’d like help identifying which edition an old Sacred Harp tunebook you have belongs to, feel free to contact me.
Note: Thanks to Nathan Rees and Lauren Bock for their feedback on this post. Thanks as well to Joyce Clinkscales for organizing and chairing our Music Library Association plenary, “Sacred Harp Singing: Shape Notes, Songbooks, and Southern Culture.”
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.1
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.2 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.3
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.”4 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.”5
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.6
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.7
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 fuging tune. 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.8
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.9 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).10 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.11 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.12
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?
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. ↩
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. ↩
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/. ↩
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). ↩
David Warren Steel with Richard Hulan, Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 194. ↩
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”. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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). ↩
Twenty-seven of the notes in Denson’s fuging section are shared by all three parts, and many should thus be credited to Floyd. ↩
Thanks to Warren Steel for helpful comments on how to describe Denson’s work assembling the alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus.” ↩
In June 2012 I wrote for the Southern Spaces Blog about the opening of “Georgia Harmonies,” a two year traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program in collaboration with the Georgia Humanities Council. In the blog post, I describe how “the exhibit focuse[d] on the connections between musical cultures and place.” In addition to a small museum exhibition, “Georgia Harmonies” included a variety of “[e]vents and performances at each of the small towns at which the exhibit stop[ped] featur[ing] musics with historical ties to the town and region, and present-day roots in the area,” including several Sacred Harp singings.1
On Saturday I organized a Sacred Harp singing for the concluding event of the touring exhibition, a day-long “Georgia Roots Music Festival” at the Woodruff Arts Center in downtown Atlanta. After an introduction by Jared Wright of the Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia, I taught a brief singing school, which led into an hour-long singing. Thirty-five Sacred Harp singers from across Georgia (with a little help from Tennessee) were joined by over one hundred festival attendees for what turned out to be quite a strong singing.
In addition to introducing Sacred Harp singing to Georgians across the state, “Georgia Harmonies” events proved engaging to the Sacred Harp singers who participated. As I wrote for the Southern Spaces Blog, the events led white Sacred Harp singers “to meet, share histories, and compare and contrast our musical practices” with participants in the a black shape-note gospel singing style called “note singing.” Exhibition events also brought singers to locations with historical or civic importance, ranging from the Woodruff Arts Center (Atlanta’s premier arts institution) to the Long Cane Baptist Church near LaGrange (which J. L. White identified in 1920 as the site of the first Sacred Harp convention in 1845), where Lauren Bock and I taught a singing school in conjunction with another of the exhibition’s stops.
Public Sacred Harp singings were held in conjunction with the Calhoun, Perry, Waycross, and LaGrange tour stops. The Bremen stop included a concert featuring West Georgia shape-note singing styles, among them Sacred Harp singing. The LaGrange stop’s singing was preceded by a singing school I co-taught with Lauren Bock. ↩
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.
A short article of mine on the history of Sarah Lancaster’s song “The Last Words of Copernicus” appears in the Winter 2013 issue of the CDSS News. The essay provides context for the song, touching on the composition of its hymn text by Philip Doddridge, Lancaster’s life as a composer, the addition of an alto part in the early twentieth century, and the song’s subsequent life in the popular imagination thanks to the dissemination of a recording by Alan Lomax later sampled in a hit song by Bruce Springsteen.
I’ve had some great opportunities this fall to start thinking through the research I’ve been conducting in connection with my dissertation project and to get feedback on my work from colleagues.
In October I traveled to the American Folklore Society annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, where I presented a paper on the sometimes fraught relationships between Sacred Harp singers and the folklorists who have studied and promoted their music. My paper, titled “Folklorization and Sustainability in the Twentieth-Century Spread of Sacred Harp Singing,” recounted the style’s folklorization during the twentieth century and then assessed how two twenty-first-century efforts to spread Sacred Harp singing1 cultivated particular audiences and examined how sustainable these efforts have been.
In November I participated in the Atlanta Graduate Student Conference on U.S. History held at Emory University. My paper, “Modernity and Historicization in Joseph Stephen James’s Original Sacred Harp (1911),” examined the circumstances leading to James’s 1911 revision of the nineteenth-century Sacred Harp tunebook. I argued that James sought to both modernize the book so that it better aligned with his vision of a “New South” and to historicize it so that it stood for noble, Christian values James associated with his past and worried might be lost in the shift from rural to urban and antebellum to postbellum. I was grateful for to my session’s respondent Scott L. Matthews, a lecturer in history at Georgia State University who studies documentary expression in the U.S. South.
Later in November I presented a paper as part of a session I organized for the American Studies Association annual meeting titled “Folklorization on the National Mall: Representations of Culture through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” My co-panelists Virginia Myhaver, Olivia Cadaval, and Diana Baird N’Diaye presented papers that differently interrogated the interactions between curators, presenters, interpreters, and audience members at Smithsonian Festivals from the 1970s to the 2010s. William S. Walker, author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), who has presented and written extensively on the Smithsonian Institution, offered insightful feedback on the papers. My paper, “Participation on Folklore’s Terms: Sacred Harp Singing at the 1970 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife,” focused on an evening performance by two groups of Sacred Harp singers—one black, the other white—at the 1970 folklife festival. I analyzed how folklorization conditioned the singers’ presentation and reception, and assessed how the two groups approached their appearance and were later affected by it.
A particularly strong and lively pair of songs from the after-dinner session on Sunday are “Montgomery” (p. 189 in The Sacred Harp, led by Ted Mercer from Chicago) and “Panting for Heaven” (p. 384, led by Coy Ivey from Henagar, AL, father of David Ivey, recipient this year of the NEA’s National Heritage Award). Or, for something slower, you could listen to Lauren and me bringing the class back to order for the last hour of the day on Sunday singing “Devotion” (p. 48t).
Thanks to all who worked to make the convention a success. Next year’s convention will be held at Union Missionary Baptist Church, west of Warrior, Alabama.
On Thursday, September 12, I’ll be teaching a Sacred Harp singing school during a session of an American popular music class taught by Tracey Laird at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. The class meets from 2–3:15 pm in Presser Hall’s Maclean Auditorium.
I’ll also be teaching a singing school in Dahlonega, Georgia, from 5:30–8 pm on Wednesday, September 18, at the Georgia Mountain Unitarian Universalist Church. The singing school will be held in conjunction with a class on the history of Appalachian music at the University of North Georgia taught by Barry Whittemore.
Both singing schools are open to the public. Come join us!