Article on the Debut Singing from Original Sacred Harp in the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter

Speaking about the history and design of Original Sacred Harp at the joint session of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and the Emory singing. Photograph by Mark Karlsberg.
Speaking about the history and design of Original Sacred Harp at the joint session of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and the Emory singing. Photograph by Mark Karlsberg.

The latest issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter includes an article I wrote recounting the debut singing from Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition. The singing, held on Valentine’s Day at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel during a joint session of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and the Emory Sacred Harp Singing, brought together more than one hundred singers and scholars. The event included a talk on the history of the tunebook, an hour or so of singing from the new edition, dinner on the grounds, and singing from The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition. As I wrote in my report on the singing, “Old Strings on a New Harp,”

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.

Read “Old Strings on a New Harp” in the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter.

Spring Presentations

This spring I’m presenting on a range of topics on the cultural politics and book history of Sacred Harp singing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The topics range from the Philadelphia print culture that produced the meticulously composed Sacred Harp editions of the 1840s–1860s to 1960s black South Alabama singers’ disagreements over the politics of protest.

In February I presented a paper co-written with Christopher Sawula at the Auburn University Montgomery Southern Studies conference on the life and music of Philadelphia bookkeeper Elphrey Heritage. Our paper argues that many of the songs Heritage contributed to tunebooks like The Christian Minstrel, The Hesperian Harp, The Social Harp, and The Sacred Harp, show musical markers of close and dispersed harmony styles. Combined with evidence of social interaction between Heritage, his employer the printer Tillinghast King Collins, and tunebook compilers William Hauser and John G. McCurry, Heritage’s music offers a glimpse into a Philadelphia social scene in the 1840s and 1850s that affected the form of southern shape-note tunebooks to a greater extent than commonly acknowledged.

Leading from Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition at the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and Emory Singing with Allen Tullos, co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and Danielle Pitrone, who assisted with the production of the new Centennial Edition.
Leading from Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition at the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and Emory Singing with Allen Tullos, co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and Danielle Pitrone, who assisted with the production of the new Centennial Edition.

The next weekend I presented a lecture–participatory singing at Emory during a joint session of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and the Emory Sacred Harp singing focusing on the musical conservatism and material modernity of Joseph Stephen James’s Original Sacred Harp. My talk, which also served as the official launch of the new Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition, was a hands on tour of the book’s design and contents, articulating how its various features illuminated its revisers’ aims and social context. After a short break over 100 singers and conference attendees joined in singing a range of songs from the new edition illustrating its editors’ musical choices. Amy Kiley, a reporter from Atlanta’s NPR station, WABE, covered the event and the publication of my new edition.

I presented at another conference in Atlanta the following weekend, the Southern American Studies Association, on the politics of race and protest that emerged in a 1968 field recording in which SUNY Buffalo music professor William H. Tallmadge interviews south Alabama reverend Shem Jackson, a son of Colored Sacred Harp compiler Judge Jackson. During an interview largely about services and singings at Jackson’s church the conversation unexpectedly turns to Jackson’s resistance to his daughter Mary’s participation in student protest at Tuskegee Institute—protests which Tallmadge seems to regard positively. I presented this paper as part of a panel on race and Sacred Harp singing, where I was joined by Nathan Rees, who spoke about the Wiregrass singers’ album cover art, and Jonathon Smith, who discussed celtic imagery in representations of East Tennessee New Harp of Columbia singers. Douglas Harrison, an insightful scholar of southern gospel, chaired our session.

Pasted corrections on a page for the 1992 “Cooper book.” Collection of Stanley Smith. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

Earlier this month I presented a paper on how Texas singers associate the layout of pre–digitally retypeset Sacred Harp editions with the sound of small rural singings and find both an impediment to efforts promoting the style to urban(e) southern audiences. My paper, delivered at the annual meeting of the Society of American Music in Sacramento, drew on Buell Cobb‘s metaphor of “the South’s ring of repugnance” to describe how such singers invest the digital with the potential to erase the vernacular rusticity that some newer singers romanticize, echoing a folkloric paradigm.

Later this month I will travel to Boston for the Nineteenth Century Studies Association, where I will speak about the nineteenth century editions of The Sacred Harp. Far from a vernacular folk production, The Sacred Harp was a meticulously produced publication of T. K. and P. G. Collins, a high status firm at the center of the emerging national book trade.

Viewing the title page of Original Sacred Harp in Readux BETA.
Viewing the title page of Original Sacred Harp in Readux BETA.

I’ll travel from Boston to Portland, Oregon, to present one final paper, discussing the Readux platform under development at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship at the Library Publishing Forum. Readux is a new tool for reading, annotating, and publishing digital critical editions of digitized texts. The open source platform is designed to foreground scanned page images, paired with fully searchable text and robust multimedia annotations mapped to page regions. A digital critical edition of Original Sacred Harp will serve as a proof of concept demonstration of the tool’s capacity and will be the first in a series of editions featuring nineteenth- and twentieth-century sacred tunebooks and manuscripts, but the platform will also be available for use, for free of charge, by others interested in editing and publishing digital critical editions.

Echoes of John Leland’s “Mammoth Cheese”?: Reviving #BigBlockOfCheeseDay at the White House

Today the White House celebrates #BigBlockOfCheese day, reviving an open-house tradition dating back to President Andrew Jackson’s day. But for Sacred Harp singers, and Jeffersonians, the story of a 1,400-pound cheese at the White House recalls the even older story of Connecticut preacher John Leland’s journey to Washington to present a “mammoth cheese” (also weighing 1,400 pounds) to Thomas Jefferson at his inauguration. The event—and its retelling by Joseph Stephen James in the historical note accompanying “Bound for Canaan” on p. 82t of Original Sacred Harp—gave rise to the name “cheese notes” for James’s annotations. It’s great to see the White House bringing back such a cheesy tradition!

Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition Debut, February 14

My first book, Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition, is printed and on its way to the publisher’s warehouse in Georgia. We will be officially launching the book at Emory’s annual Sacred Harp singing on Saturday, February 14, 2015.

Front cover of Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition.
Front cover of Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition.

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.

John Leland and the Mammoth Cheese: Original Sacred Harp Historical Notes, Volume 2, Cheese Notes Edition

John Leland, engraving by T. Doney, 1845.
John Leland, engraving by T. Doney, 1845.

The design of the Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition was widely hailed as a great improvement over previous editions, yet many singers bemoaned the loss of James’s historical notes. By far the crowd favorite among these notes is James’s comment on John Leland, author of the hymn-text “O when shall I see Jesus, and reign with Him above,” which accompanies Elisha James King’s “Bound for Canaan” (p. 82). James wrote:

Rev. John Leland was born in 1754 and died in 1844. He was a Baptist preacher. In 1801 he took a preaching tour from his home in Massachusetts to Washington with his Cheshire cheese, which made his name national on account of that trip. … The farmers of Cheshire, for whom he was pastor, conceived the idea of sending the biggest cheese in America to President Jefferson. Mr. Leland offered to go to Washington with an ox team with it and preach along the way, which he did. The cheese weighed 1,450 pounds. He died with great hope of rest in the glory world.

This note led some singers to adopt the name “cheese notes” for James’s annotations. Singers in the Boston area even established an annual “cheese notes singing,” featuring dramatic readings of this and other choice historical notes from Original Sacred Harp.

Two other notes in which James touches on Leland’s character are less widely known. James’s comment on “Ecstasy” (p. 106) evinces an awareness of Leland’s friendship with Jefferson, which began during the minister’s time in Virginia from 1776–1791:1

Rev. John Leland … was a Baptist minister, and was a great friend of President Thomas Jefferson. … He was popular among his people, but had many peculiarities. Further notice of him appears under the tune “Bound for Canaan.”

Baptist colleagues of Leland commented widely on the preacher’s peculiarities.2 James’s juxtaposition of Leland’s eccentric nature with the story of the mammoth cheese in his note on “Religion Is a Fortune” (p. 319) suggests he was aware of and attempting to reproduce the story’s humor through including it in his annotations:

John Leland was … a Baptist minister, and composed his own hymns. He was also the author of several tunes. Some persons claim he was very eccentric. He traveled all the way to Washington from Cheshire, Mass., to carry President Jefferson a cheese weighing 1,450 pounds: He went through the country on an ox team, and preached all along wherever he could get an audience. He was a good man; and it is said on his deathbed he quoted the words of this hymn: “O When shall I see Jesus?”

Cheshire cheese monument, Cheshire, Massachusetts, September 25, 2012, CC SA
Cheshire cheese monument, Cheshire, Massachusetts, September 25, 2012, CC BY-SA

Undeniably comical, the propensity of the notes to encourage jokes at the tunebook’s expense, along with the uneven display of pages after seventy-five years of additions and substitutions, was embarrassing to the tunebook’s revisers, in whose cultural context Sacred Harp singing was often regarded as “old fogy.” In its time and place, however—Cheshire, Connecticut, in November 1801—Leland’s journey to Washington was serious business. The journey was a political statement in favor of the separation of church and state and against slavery, as well as a celebration of the newly elected Jefferson. More on that in a future post!


  1. Elihu Barrett, “Correspondence of Sylvanus Urban: The Great Cheshire Political Cheese,” in Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 3 (London: Bradbury, Evans, and Co., 1869), 636.
  2. Eccentric John Leland; Baptist Pastors Tell Stories of a Once Noted Preacher,” New York Times, October 26, 1886, 8,

Original Sacred Harp Historical Notes, Volume 1

Here’s the first in what I hope will be several installments of gems mined from Joseph Stephen James’s historical notes in Original Sacred Harp (1911). James authored a note for each of the book’s 609 songs. The notes are always interesting, sometimes humorous, and just about as often historically accurate. They were a source of embarrassment to singers seeking to shed the “old fogy” label often applied to Sacred Harp singing in the mid-twentieth century. For this reason the notes were removed from The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition and eventually replaced with David Warren Steel and Richard L. Hulan’s impressively researched Makers of the Sacred Harp. I’m rereading James’s notes as I review page proofs from my Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition, forthcoming from Pitts Theology Library and the Sacred Harp Publishing Company in February 2015.

From the Dictionary of Musical Terms in James’s “Rudiments of Music” (p. 24):

Musical Science—The theory of music.

… [several entries later] …

Theory of Music—The science of music.

From James’s note on “Clamanda” (p. 42):

This tune is on page 42 of the “Sacred Harp” … Like some other tunes we have been unable to find any trace of its history or the words in the tune.1

This didn’t stop James from attributing the minor folk hymn to F. F. Chopin.


  1.  The rest of James’s note on “Clamanda” is suggests that the song was the “Murillo’s Lesson” of 1911, frequently requested by older listeners seated toward the back of the church: “It is a great favorite among the older people who sung it from thirty to fifty years ago … and is often requested to be sung in conventions and other musical gatherings, especially by those who used shaped note books.”

Seventh Issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter

We published the latest issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter on Wednesday. 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 introduced and annotated this issue’s “Just a Minute” feature: an 1880 memorial to Sacred Harp co-compiler B. F. White included in the minutes of that year’s Chattahoochee Musical Convention.
  • Finally, I wrote a “brief history” of Joseph Stephen James’s 1904 A Brief History of the Sacred Harp. Singer David Saylor recently donated a unique copy of this rare book to the Sacred Harp Museum. I discussed the unusual history of this particular copy and the broader significance of the book.

Nathan Rees and I wrote introduced the issue:

The seventh issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 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.

Our issue opens with three writers exploring transatlantic Sacred Harp connections from different angles. Álvaro Witt Duarte’s account of the first Germany Sacred Harp Convention documents an important milestone for European Sacred Harp—and a moving and energetic weekend. Ellen Lueck writes from a broader viewpoint on the recent spread of Sacred Harp singing across the Atlantic. Singers who have wondered about what Sacred Harp is like in Europe will be interested to read her thoughtful observations about these dedicated communities far from the singing’s homeland. Chris Brown takes a historical perspective, investigating nineteenth-century English manuscripts to document thesurprising flow of New England hymn and fuging tunes across the Atlantic long before most historians assumed this ever happened. Jesse P. Karlsberg and Christopher Sawula share another tale of music traveling long distances, revealing the fascinating story of how Elphrey Heritage, a Philadelphia bookkeeper, became the sole northern contributor to the 1870 Sacred Harp. We turn from nineteenth-century printing to cutting-edge technology in Clarissa Fetrow’s review of “FaSoLa Minutes,” an iPhone app for searching Sacred Harp songs, singers, and singings. The latest installment of our series on the stories behind our singings’ minutes reprints the 1880 memorial in memory of Sacred Harp co-compiler Benjamin Franklin White, with new commentary on the text’s historical context. Concluding the issue, Nathan Rees reports on the recent digitization of the Sacred Harp Museum’s collection of open-reel tapes, and Jesse describes a rare copy of Joseph Stephen James’s A Brief History of the Sacred Harp, recently donated to the Sacred Harp Museum.

Please leave your comments on these articles and write to us with your feedback. We also welcome your suggestions of topics for future Newsletter issues.

Vol. 3, No. 2 Contents


Printings of J. S. James’s Original Sacred Harp

There were five early printings of Original Sacred Harp between the book’s initial publication in 1911 and 1929. (Two later printings date from 1949 and ca. 1964.) Each of these early printings features a similar cover. Of the differences among the books’ covers, the most prominent are the colors of the ink, paper boards, and cloth on the spine.

In researching the publication history of this book while preparing a facsimile edition for publication in early 2015, I’ve run into trouble honing in on the colors of the third printing. The Sacred Harp Museum owns copies of the first (1911), second (also dated 1911), fourth (1921), and fifth (1929) printings of Original Sacred Harp with relatively unblemished covers. Yet the museum’s two copies of the third printing (also dated 1911) are in much rougher shape.

I’ve posted scans of covers of the first, second, third, and fourth, and fifth printings of the James book below. (I’ll be adding a scan of the cover of the fourth printing soon!) [Update, 9/2/14: Added!; Update 2/17/15: new printing identified thanks to your responses, post altered accordingly.] Have you seen a copy of the third printing of the James book in better shape than the third image posted below? If so, please contact me!

Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1911), [first printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1911), [first printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1911), [second printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1911), [second printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1911), [second printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1911), [third printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1921 [1911]), [third printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1921 [1911]), [fourth printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1929), [fourth printing].
Front cover of J. S. James et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, GA, 1929), [fifth printing].
Thanks to Danielle Pitrone and Wade Kotter for scanning the front covers of these books.

Stitched Together: S. M. Denson’s Alto Part for “The Last Words of Copernicus”

“Perhaps the most instantly recognizable musical feature of” Sarah Lancaster’s song “The Last Words of Copernicus” (p. 112 in The Sacred Harp) “was not in [the composer’s] original three-part setting,” I wrote in the winter 2013–2014 issue of the Country Dance and Song Society News. I continued:

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

Grave of Sarah "Sallie" Lancaster Hagler, Oakwood Cemetery, Oakwood, Texas. Photograph by Ed and Sue Anderson, July 16, 2009.
Grave of Sarah “Sallie” Lancaster Hagler, Oakwood Cemetery, Oakwood, Texas, July 16, 2009. Photograph by Ed and Sue Anderson.
Used by permission.

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

Miss Minnie Floyd's alto part for "The Last Words of Copernicus," included in Wilson Marion Cooper's revision of The Sacred Harp, 1902.
Miss Minnie Floyd’s alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus,” from Cooper’s revision of The Sacred Harp, 1902.
Alto part for "The Last Words of Copernicus," as rearranged by J. L. White for his The Sacred Harp: Fifth Edition, 1909. Blue notes are identical to those identical to the notes Floyd wrote for the "Cooper book." Black notes are original to White's version.
J. L. White’s alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus,” from his The Sacred Harp: Fifth Edition, 1909.
Blue notes are identical to the notes Floyd wrote for the “Cooper book.” Black notes are original to White’s version.

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.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.

Seaborn McDaniel Denson's alto part for "The Last Words of Copernicus," in Joseph Stephen James's Original Sacred Harp, 1911.
Seaborn McDaniel Denson’s alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus,” in James’s Original Sacred Harp, 1911.
Blue notes are identical to the “Cooper book” version, red notes are identical to the “White book” version, and purple notes are the same in all three alto parts. Black notes are original to Denson’s version.

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?


  1. Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Imagining ‘The Last Words of Copernicus,’” Country Dance and Song Society News (Winter 2013–2014): 19,
  2. 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.
  3. 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),
  4. 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).
  5. David Warren Steel with Richard Hulan, Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 194.
  6. 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”.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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).
  11. Twenty-seven of the notes in Denson’s fuging section are shared by all three parts, and many should thus be credited to Floyd.
  12. Thanks to Warren Steel for helpful comments on how to describe Denson’s work assembling the alto part for “The Last Words of Copernicus.”

J. S. James, Leading, Composition, and Starting a Singing – Classes at Camp Fasola

I taught several classes this June and July at the two sessions of Camp Fasola, a weeklong summer camp for learning Sacred Harp singing, history, and traditions held in Alabama.
With Aldo Ceresa, I co-taught a class on the music and historical context of the revision of The Sacred Harp by J. S. James in 1911. Our class mixed singing with the telling of stories about James and his collaborators and rivals. The class was timed to mark the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the “James Book.”

I also taught an intermediate class on leading songs at Sacred Harp singings, moderated a discussion on starting, feeding, and maintaining a regular or annual singing, and led a session where singers led and discussed collaborative Sacred Harp composition exercises and new songs they had written in the styles of The Sacred Harp. 

Attendance at Camp was quite high this year and the campers came from across the United States as well as from Canada and several European countries. The campers ranged from singers with over 60 years of experience singing from The Sacred Harp to those who had never attended a singing. As always, teaching such a motivated and diverse group of learners was an enriching and enjoyable experience.