Sacred Harp Singing at the Music Library Association’s Annual Meeting

Poster for the Music Library Association's 2014 annual meeting.
Poster for the Music Library Association’s 2014 annual meeting.

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).

Conference attendees posted their comments, photos, and videos of the plenary session to Twitter. University of Iowa librarian Katie Buehner linked to her YouTube video of the group singing “Northfield,” which I’ve embedded below.

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.

The Page 37 Test: Identifying Basic Editions of The Sacred Harp

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.

Page 37 of The Sacred Harp, third edition, 1859.
“China” and “Liverpool,” page 37 of The Sacred Harp, third edition, 1859.

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.

"Amost Gone," page 37 of The Sacred Harp, "Revised and Improved by W. M. Cooper,"  1927.
“Amost Gone,” page 37 of The Sacred Harp, “Revised and Improved by W. M. Cooper,” 1927.

In 1950 and later “Cooper book” editions through the 2012 edition a new song titled “The Christian’s Home” appears on this page.

"The Christian's Home," page 37 of The B. F. White Sacred Harp, 1960.
“The Christian’s Home,” page 37 of The B. F. White Sacred Harp, 1960.

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.”

"Remember Me" and "Newman," page 37 of The Sacred Harp, "Fifth Edition, Much Improved and Greatly Enlarged," 1909.
“Remember Me” and “Newman,” page 37 of The Sacred Harp, “Fifth Edition, Much Improved and Greatly Enlarged,” 1909.

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.

"China" and "Liverpool," page 37 in The Sacred Harp, "Fourth Edition, with Supplement," 1911.
“China” and “Liverpool,” page 37 in The Sacred Harp, “Fourth Edition, with Supplement,” 1911.

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.

"China" and "Liverpool," page 37 in Original Sacred Harp, 1911.
“China” and “Liverpool,” page 37 in Original Sacred Harp, 1911.

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.

"Ester" and "Liverpool," page 37 in Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, 1936.
“Ester” and “Liverpool,” page 37 in Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, 1936.

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.”