“Race, Place, and Tunebook Revision”: Presenting on My Research as a Berea College Sound Archives Fellow

Black southeastern Alabama singer "Dewey [Williams] must get his own gas" at a service station outside Ozark, Alabama, June 1968. Photograph and notes by William H. Tallmadge. Courtesy of Berea Sound Archives.
Black singer “Dewey [Williams] must get his own gas” at a service station outside Ozark, Alabama, June 1968. Photograph and notes by William H. Tallmadge. Courtesy of Berea Sound Archives.
On Thursday I gave a talk at Berea College’s Appalachian Sound Archives about the research I’ve conducted as a Sound Archives Fellow. My talk, “Race, Place, and Tunebook Revision: Researching Sacred Harp’s Twentieth Century Transformations as a Berea Appalachian Sounds Archives Fellow,” drew on my work with materials in the sound archives documenting black Sacred Harp singing in southeastern Alabama in the late 1960s and oral history interviews I’ve conducted as a fellow with members of families with long histories of participation in Sacred Harp singing from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. My talk drew on examples from both sets of material to describe how folklorists’ aesthetic and economic/occupational priorities often differed from those of their subjects.

The talk was well attended by a crowd of Berea College faculty and students as well as local Sacred Harp singers. I was particularly delighted to meet friends and colleagues of William H. Tallmadge (1916–2004), the music scholar whose field recordings and interviews with black Sacred Harp singers in 1968 I was discussing. Many thanks to Harry Rice, John Bondurant, and the staff of the Sound Archives for their help during my time as a fellow and for their work promoting the talk.

Presenting on the Sacred Harp Museum at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections

Nathan Rees and I presented on the Sacred Harp Museum at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Nathan Rees and I presented on the Sacred Harp Museum at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Last Friday Nathan Rees and I presented on the Sacred Harp Museum’s new digitization and presentation efforts at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Sacred Harp Publishing Company board’s museum committee, established in 2011, is drawing on the museum’s historically strong connections to the international population of Sacred Harp singers. These singers both contributed the bulk of the museum’s collection and are the museum’s primary audience. The museum committee seeks to simultaneously encourage new donations, facilitate the digitization and preservation of the museum’s collection, and undertake new efforts to render the collection accessible. In our presentation, “Curating a Crowd-sourced Collection: Engaging Community at the Sacred Harp Museum,” Nathan and I focused on three projects to increase access to the museum’s collection:

  • Online exhibitions: Nathan Rees is curating a new exhibition on the first National Sacred Harp Singing Convention, which will be launched on the Sacred Harp Museum’s website to coincide with the thirty-fifth National Convention this June. The exhibit draws on the Museum’s collection and new interviews with Sacred Harp singers, to document the motivations behind the founding of the convention, and its structure—modeled on the earliest nineteenth-century conventions, yet reflective of the transformed 1980 Sacred Harp landscape.
  • The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter: The Newsletter, which I edit, assisted by Nathan, publishes both newly written accounts of Sacred Harp singings and singers, new research into Sacred Harp’s history by contemporary singers and scholars, and newly digitized historical documents drawn from the museum’s collection. Some of our most compelling articles have paired historical documents with writing from contemporary singers who experienced the events discussed, or who are undertaking projects now that relate to the older articles.
  • Oral History interviews: I’ve been conducting interviews with Sacred Harp singers across Alabama, Georgia, and Texas this spring as a Berea College Sound Archives Fellow, assisted by Nathan Rees, Lauren Bock, and Richard Ivey. These discussions have focused on interviewees earliest memories of singings, senses of how singings have changed over the course of their lives, and thoughts about what their participation in Sacred Harp singing has meant to them. These interviews have inspired us to launch a Sacred Harp oral history project, aimed at collecting copies of recordings of interviews with Sacred Harp singers conducted in the past, and encouraging singers to record new interviews with singers in their areas. We hope to officially launch this new project this summer.

The Association for Recorded Sound Collections conference was a great place to present on this work, and to learn about best practices for digitization, preservation, and access on a shoestring budget. I attended a pre-conference workshop called “All Things Digital: Managing Digital Audio Collections”—an opportunity to learn more about how to approach better preserving the Sacred Harp Museum’s collection. Nathan and I also benefited immensely from conversations with conference attendees from government agencies such as the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution, numerous university libraries and archives, and record companies. Michael Graves of Osiris Studio, an audio engineer who is presently digitizing twenty-two reel-to-reel tapes in the Sacred Harp Museum’s collection, was also present. We are in the earliest stages of this work toward better preserving the museum’s collection and making it accessible. It was invigorating discuss this work with such a supportive and informed audience.

Sixth Issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter

The Sacred Harp Publishing Company recently published the latest issue of the Newsletter. The issue includes my and company executive secretary Karen Rollins’s tributes to 2014 posthumous citation award recipients Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard. I also contributed a short introduction to a 1965 essay by music educator Irving Wolfe on George Pullen Jackson’s contributions to Sacred Harp. Nathan Rees and I introduced this issue of the Newsletter as follows:

The sixth issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter features stories about key figures and events from Sacred Harp’s history and celebrates the Sacred Harp Museum’s rich collection of songbooks, papers, and recordings.

Our issue begins with company executive secretary Karen Rollins’s and vice president Jesse P. Karlsberg’s tributes to 2014 posthumous citation award recipients Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard. Matt Wells follows with the second installment of our series telling the stories behind the more unexpected moments reported on in the minutes, writing about his and Lara Andersen’s “surprise wedding” at the 2002 Minnesota State Convention. Karen Freund shares excerpts from a conversation 2013 citation award recipient Jerry Enright recorded with Lookout Mountain singer Barrett Ashley about his lifelong love of Sacred Harp singing. Another article features a speech by music educator Irving Wolfe on Sacred Harp scholar George Pullen Jackson’s contributions to our music, which was printed in the minutes of the 1965 United convention. Charlotte Wolfe, Irving’s daughter, introduces the speech with memories of her father’s involvement in Sacred Harp. Rebecca Over shares new findings about the life of Sacred Harp composer Lee Andrew McGraw, shedding light on the role Sacred Harp played in the lives of singers during early decades of the twentieth century. Finally, Nathan Rees reports on a recent donation of a rare 1909 edition of The Sacred Harp to the Sacred Harp Museum and a new initiative to digitize and make available rare and significant items in the museum’s collection.

The Sacred Harp Museum presents three new online resources which complement these articles:

As always, we encourage you to leave comments on these new articles and to write us with your feedback and suggestions of topics for future issues of the Newsletter.

Vol. 3, No. 1 Contents

Why Do We Sing Sacred Harp?

Panel discussion at the Alabama Folklife Association's "We'll All Sing Hallelujah" Symposium.
Panel discussion at the Alabama Folklife Association’s “We’ll All Sing Hallelujah” Symposium.

On Saturday March 15 I moderated a panel discussion in Columbiana, Alabama, on Sacred Harp music. The event was part of a daylong program called “We’ll All Sing Hallelujah” celebrating the opening of Sacred Sounds of Alabama, a new traveling exhibition created by the Alabama Folklife Association. The panel featured an esteemed and varied group of Alabama and Mississippi Sacred Harp singers, teachers, and authors:

Steve Grauberger, folklife specialist at the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, recorded the day’s events and posted them to YouTube. I’ve embedded his video of the panel discussion above.

I asked the singers on the panel about how they became involved in Sacred Harp singing, what Sacred Harp singing means to them and why they choose to participate, how the style has changed over the course of their involvement, and what they imagine the future holds for Sacred Harp. The panelists spoke openly and with great feeling about their involvement in Sacred Harp singing. I’m grateful to them for their participation.

Our discussion followed two excellent talks: Buell Cobb reading two excerpts from his new memoir, and Warren Steel discussing the relationship between oral and written in Sacred Harp and related music. After the panel we walked over to the old Shelby County Courthouse, now the home of the Shelby County Historical Society, where David Ivey led a Sacred Harp singing.

“We’ll All Sing Hallelujah: Sacred Sounds of Alabama” was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Alabama Council on the Arts, Alabama Humanities Foundation, and the “Support the Arts” car tag fund. Thanks to Alabama Folklife Association executive director Mary Allison Haynie for her work organizing the event, and to Nathan Rees, who chaired the day’s talks and introduced the participants in our panel.

Racial Imaginaries and Folklorization at the Society for American Music

The Society's Fortieth Annual Meeting was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The Society’s Fortieth Annual Meeting was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I spent an exhilarating and productive four days this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music (SAM) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I presented a paper at the conference titled “Shifting Racial Imaginaries in the Folklorization of Black Sacred Harp Singers from Southeastern Alabama.” ((This paper represented my first attempt at drawing on the research I conducted as a Sound Archives Fellow at Berea College in January. I’m thankful to the college’s Appalachian Sound Archives staff, especially Harry Rice and John Bondurant, for their support. I’m just as thankful to Kent Gilbert, who housed me during my stay in Berea, and to Meredith Doster, Nathan Rees, and Alan Pike, who offered feedback on an earlier draft of the paper.)) In it I analyzed May 1968 interviews between white Buffalo, New York, music scholar William Tallmadge and black Ozark, Alabama, Sacred Harp singers Thomas Y. Lawrence and Dewey President Williams. I argued that the preconceptions of these three people represented (uneven) shifts in the racial imagination since George Pullen Jackson had interacted exclusively with white Sacred Harp singers a generation earlier.

I was thrilled to meet Doris J. Dyen and Deane L. Root at the conference, and especially grateful for their presence at my session. Dyen and Root conducted extensive fieldwork with the same group of black Sacred Harp singers in southeastern Alabama just a few years after Tallmadge visited and shared their memories and insights during the question and answer period after I delivered my paper. ((Doris J. Dyen’s dissertation, “The Role of Shape-Note Singing in the Musical Culture of Black Communities in Southeast Alabama” (PhD diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1977) remains the most thorough scholarly treatment of black Sacred Harp singing in southeastern Alabama. Dyen is particularly attentive to manifestations of racial inequality.)) My session also featured Florida State musicology doctoral candidate Sarah Kahre, who presented a fascinating paper on what revisions of the tune “Boylston” in different editions of The Sacred Harp tell us about revisers’ priorities. Nikos Pappas, assistant professor of music at the University of Alabama, served as a gracious and effective session chair.

Other highlights of the SAM conference included singing with southeastern Pennsylvania Sacred Harp singing friends Oliver Kindig-Stokes, Ted Stokes, Ruth Wampler, and Tom Tucker, among others, at the SAM singing; good conversation with too many friends, old and new, to name; a memorable evening program featuring the music of seven Anabaptist groups; and a tasty dinner at the world’s largest Smorgasbord! I look forward to continuing to develop the ideas I presented, and to many more SAM conferences to come.

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.”

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. ((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.))

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. ((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.))

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. ((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.

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. ((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?

The Georgia Roots Music Festival and the “Georgia Harmonies” Traveling Exhibition

Cover of booklet for "Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music," 2012. Booklet designed by Debby Holcombe. Image courtesy of the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia.
Cover of booklet for “Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music,” 2012. Booklet designed by Debby Holcombe. Image courtesy of the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia.

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. ((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.))

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.

Micah Roberts leads during the Sacred Harp singing at the Georgia Roots Music Festival, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, January 18, 2014. Photograph by Sam Culpepper.
Micah Roberts leads during the Sacred Harp singing at the Georgia Roots Music Festival, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, January 18, 2014. Photograph by Sam Culpepper.
Jesse P. Karlsberg and Lauren Bock teach a singing school at Long Cane Baptist Church, near LaGrange, Georgia, October 27, 2014.
Jesse P. Karlsberg and Lauren Bock teach a singing school at Long Cane Baptist Church, near LaGrange, Georgia, October 27, 2014. Photograph by Ann Gray.

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.

Fifth Issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter

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.

Our issue begins with Sacred Harp Publishing Company Executive Secretary Karen Rollins’ remembrance of the four 2013 recipients of posthumous citations from the company: Harrison Creel, Jerry Enright, Lonnie Rogers, and George Seiler. Two additional pieces focus on one of the first recipients of a Publishing Company citation, singing school teacher, composer, and Publishing Company co-founder Thomas Jackson Denson. Company President Michael Hinton recounts family stories about “Uncle Tom” Denson, his grandfather, and introduces an account by Denson’s son Howard of his father’s last lesson, at the 1935 United convention. Another article collects letters of condolence written by prominent singers to T. J.’s other son, Paine, in the wake of Denson’s death. Harry Eskew recounts the contributions of nineteenth-century composer, arranger, and songbook editor William Walker, and in an excerpt from a 1964 speech, Hugh McGraw addresses some common criticisms of Sacred Harp singing and describes the state of the tradition in the mid-1960s. Turning to the present, Cheyenne Ivey contributes an account of the eventful trip twenty-two Sacred Harp singers made to Washington, D.C. this fall to join 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow David Ivey in a celebratory concert. Two additional articles mine the Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings. Nathan Rees shares the story of M. B. Forbes and his harmonica, and Jesse P. Karlsberg, Mark T. Godfrey, and Nathan Rees draw on minutes data from 1995–2013 to measure the effect of Cold Mountain on our singings.

We invite you to leave comments on these new articles and to write us with your feedback and suggestions of topics for the future.

Vol. 2, No. 3 Contents