to the 4th Edition of

The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion

William Walker's The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion is a remarkable book by virtually any measure. During the nineteenth century, when advertising was mainly by word of mouth or relatively sedate displays in weekly and monthly papers, Southern Harmony sold about six hundred thousand copies.1 It is perhaps the most popular tunebook ever printed. Its longevity is also remarkable: it is still being used and sung from with loving care over one hundred and fifty years after its first edition. It is virtually unparalleled as a repository of the musical idioms current in the early nineteenth century, as well as of earlier idioms that were already becoming rare at the time of its publication. And it is one of the prime resources for succeeding generations of tunebooks. When we add to this the role of the 1854 Southern Harmony as the sole source and guide of the unique annual singing at Benton, Kentucky, which preserves in great purity the performance practices of the mid-nineteenth century, this must be considered a publication of remarkable import.

The story most frequently told about the origins of the Southern Harmony is of brothers-in-law, William Walker and Benjamin Franklin White, both married to Golightly sisters, compiling the book, which was then entrusted to Walker to take north for publication; upon its appearance, he alone was credited as the author, creating a never-to-be-healed schism in the family. The facts are difficult to establish today, but whether or not the popular account is true, White did later produce another famous tunebook, The Sacred Harp, and the two books drew on common sources, including the works of both White and Walker.2 Both books have honored, yet vastly different, niches in American musical history.

The publication history of the Southern Harmony is relatively brief. The first edition was issued in 1835, with a preface signed by Walker in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in September 1835. In January 1847 he wrote the preface to a new edition, enlarging the book by "about forty pages." Continued demand necessitated the publication of the final edition, with its preface dated July 1854. No other printings or editions appeared until 1939, when the Young Men's Progress Club of Benton, Kentucky, with the Works Progress Administration, issued a photo-reproduction of the 1854 edition, adding some material of local interest.3 The next publication was the 1966 photographic reproduction of the 1854 edition, to which were added an errata list and an index of first lines.4 What you are reading is the introduction to the fourth printing of the 1854 edition. In none of the three printings subsequent to the original, this one included, has there been any tampering with the hymnic or musical contents or the theoretical introduction. The errata list is included for those who might want to correct obvious errors in printing; this is its only purpose. The intent has been to present the book as it was originally issued, and as it has been bought, loved, and sung from during its long history.

Another reason for issuing these unaltered editions is that musical tastes change, as do other artistic concepts. Thus, had an editor of 1939, 1966, or 1987 "corrected" what he considered to be musical errors, the result would have been the expression of then-current musical and hymnic concepts. One need look no further than the Sacred Harp to see how "correction," "modernization," and "improvement" of its many editions have decimated the original musical idiom.5 Such "progress" usually reflects the currently popular taste, and this quickly becomes apparent in the performance of the music.6 Collectively, the many editions of the Sacred Harp are a valuable compendium of changing musical tastes since its first publication; but in the unaltered Southern Harmony the original idiom is uniquely preserved.

Walker himself never printed another edition of Southern Harmony after 1854, although he did incorporate over half of the contents (about 170 compositions) in his next tunebook, the Christian Harmony (1866). In virtually all of the compositions that Walker transferred to the later book, no substantive differences in either hymns or tunes are found between the two books. In the twentieth-century editions of the Southern Harmony, a deliberate effort has been made to avoid any alteration of the musical content. In the present edition, we have reset the indexes and emended the errata for more efficient use of the book, but have made no other changes.

One of the most remarkable things about the Southern Harmony is the eclecticism of its contents, which helps to account for its sustained popularity. Some 125 hymns can be assigned to specific authors. There also are some 30 to 35 lyrics for which there is no current author attribution, and another group of about that size for which attribution is tentative at present. The sources Walker names on the title page - "Watt's Hymns and Psalms, Mercer's Cluster, Dossey's Choice, Dover Selection, Methodist Hymn Book, and Baptist Harmony" - account for approximately half of the poems.7 The other sources range chronologically from the late-sixteenth-century author "F.B.P." (who wrote a variant of Augustine, who flourished ca. 400); through Samuel Crossman, who died in 1683, through the New Version of the Psalms from the 1690s, through the myriad of eighteenth-century hymnists such as William Cowper, John Cennick, Philip Doddridge, Benjamin Beddome, John Fawcett, Reginald Heber, John Leland, Anne Steele, and John Newton, in addition to Isaac Watts and John and Charles Wesley. Americans of a somewhat later period who are found in the Southern Harmony include John Granade, Joseph Hopkinson, Joel Barlow, Jezaniah Sumner, and Samuel Francis Smith. Nineteenth-century poets include Walker and several of his contemporaries, such as William Hunter, Benjamin F. White, and his own brother, David Walker. He even includes three lyrics attributed to American Indians, two of them accompanied with explanations of their origins.8

Walker is no less broadminded in his selection of tunes and composers. There are about 110 composers to whom about 250 compositions can be attributed. The rest of the tunes remain anonymous. To indicate the variety of composers, one must start with Louis Bourgeois and the Genevan Psalter, then John Chetham, who flourished ca. 1700. Others would include Handel, Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, Thomas Arne, Israel Holdroyd, and William Shield. Indigenous composers include Jeremiah Ingalls, William Billings, Oliver Holden, Amzi and Lucius Chapin, Ananias Davisson, Lewis Edson, Jr. and Sr., Jacob French, William Hauser, Justin Morgan, and Daniel Read. In addition to Walker, late nineteenth-century contemporaries of his include Thomas Hastings, Lowell Mason, David Walker, William Golightly, Jr. (a member of Walker's wife's family), Andrew Grambling, William Moore, Miss M.T. Durham, Benjamin F. White, and E.J. King. The last two are associated with the Sacred Harp.9

From a historical point of view, I would suggest that this wide-ranging offering in both hymns and tunes is integral to the success of the Southern Harmony. In his original preface Walker notes that he has attempted to supply both old and young with selections they will like in "ancient music" and "a sufficient number of new tunes"; that he has not neglected "fuged tunes" but has attempted to make this book a "complete Musical Companion"; and that he has printed a "number of new Songs" under the tunes. Later he writes in the preface to the 1854 edition, "many of the tunes having gone out of use, the Author determined to . . . leave out those pieces, and supply their places with good new tunes, which have been selected for their intrinsic worth [italics Walker's]." It is a moot question at this point whether Walker anticipated the desires of the buying public or whether he developed public taste through his books. Regardless of the cause, the result was the all-time best seller among tunebooks.

In later life, Walker signed himself as William Walker, A.S.H. (Author of Southern Harmony); it is clear that he took great pride in his compilation.10 For the moment I should like to assume that the same pride drove him when he assembled his subsequent Christian Harmony, and that his work habits were similar in compiling both books. In the introduction to the Christian Harmony, Walker speaks of having gone through some fifteen thousand printed pages of music to obtain the over five hundred compositions in that work. I suggest that this indicated a conscious effort on his part to compile a book of both high quality and wide consumer appeal, just as he had tried to do in assembling the Southern Harmony. Using the same ratio of approximately thirty to one, we might venture to guess that Walker sifted nearly ten thousand pages of music during the earlier compilation.

In an interesting series of comments in the 1835 preface, Walker acknowledges that some people do not like new publications of old tunes, because the compilers alter the tunes; but for this book he says that he has "endeavoured to select the tunes from original authors." He continues that "where this could not be done" he selected from among several trebles and basses "those I thought most consistent with the rules of composition." He further explains that to a "great many good airs (which I could not find in any publication, nor in manuscript)" he has written parts and assigned himself as composer. This is a key statement from our point of view, showing his tacit acceptance of the commonality of many of the tunes; the difficulty of assigning sources even at that time; and the probability that, even as he wrote, many of these had achieved the status of folk song, although he of course did not used that term.

Walker was equally diligent and discerning in his choice of lyrics. Isaac Watts, his prime source, who was perhaps the sacred lyricist best known in America at that time, accounts for some seventy-five, or approximately one fourth, of his lyrics. Selections from the other hymnbooks named on the title page, which in general did not contain music, account for another fourth of Walker's selections.11 Given this variety of the familiar, plus well chosen and well intentioned new selections, it is immaterial whether Walker anticipated or established public taste; his selections appealed to enough people to make the Southern Harmony eminently successful. Interestingly enough, the contents alone were not the sole reason for this success. It may be that the shape notation, called fasola notation today, in which the Southern Harmony was printed, played the single most important role in the success of the book.

Let us look briefly at how this form of musical notation arose and attained its popularity, which took place in the context of a remarkable movement in popular education known as the singing school movement. Early in the eighteenth century, New England ministers became concerned about the poor quality of congregational singing in their churches, which resulted from a shortage of printed music and of people who could read music.12 What was needed was a means of introducing substantial numbers of untrained people to the elements of music, and for that purpose the ministers made use of the evening "literary school," already well established in New England.13 In order to establish a music curriculum for the singing school, it was necessary to provide textbooks, which the Harvard-trained ministers were well prepared to do.14 Thus, the first tunebook printed in the American colonies was John Tufts's An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes, dating from the 1720s.15 It was published, as was the contemporary Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained, by Thomas Walter, for the singing schools. These books contain both theoretical materials and tunes for singing. The Tufts book is the more important of the two to us, because it is in nonstandard notation. Instead of a note head, the initial letter of the solmization syllable was printed on the staff, acting as a mnemonic device for solmization. This apparently was successful, as the book seems to have gone through several editions. Although there apparently were isolated instances in Europe of similar notation, it seems likely that Tufts developed the device independently. It was a pragmatic approach to the problem of teaching music to beginners. This pragmatism, which seems to be universally recognized as typically American, continued in the attempts to teach more music to more people; to make it more accessible to more people; to make it more "democratic," as many old-time singing school masters told me in interviews several years ago.16 From its beginnings in the 1720s, the singing school spread quickly throughout the colonies, and after the Revolutionary War migrants to the frontier took the singing school with them, not only because it filled a religious need but because it had become an accepted and valued means of social intercourse in most communities.17

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a relatively obscure storekeeper in Philadelphia, John Connelley, seems to have developed a system of using geometric shapes for the heads of notes, a system which was to revolutionize music teaching.18 He developed only four shapes, for at that time scales were sung using only four syllables. These are the shapes used in the Southern Harmony, known as fasola notation. The right triangle is fa, the circle is sol, the square is la, and the diamond is mi. Although these shapes had been used in various notations since medieval times, this was the first systematic use of them together to indicate degree of the scale, using their individual shapes as position indicators. The complete scale was then sung from bottom to top; fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa. So only the four shapes were needed. They were first used in the Easy Instructor, about 1800, which conveys the purpose of the system through its name.19 By the time the Southern Harmony appeared, fasola notation had been in existence a third of a century and was in widespread use.

Two other things were happening around the turn of the nineteenth century that were to have great impact on American music. One of these was the call for the reform of music used in churches, which had the effect of gradually replacing indigenous music with European compositions and inferior imitations of those models by American composers. These shifts of taste can be seen in succeeding editions of various tunebooks of the period.20 As the seaboard churches become more and more sophisticated by their own standards, the native musical product they were discarding found a home to the south and west on the frontier of the expanding nation.

The other important development, which contributed to the acceptance on the frontier of the native idiom being rejected in the East, was the tremendous religious fervor rising along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, which was expressed in the camp meetings. These great assemblies sometimes brought together thousands of people for extended periods; they needed just the kind of religious music that was being discarded along the seaboard. Happily for the participants - and for the musical historian - the music, the hymns, and the notation seem to have been considered an entity, for all were warmly embraced in the camp meetings. It is in this milieu that we find some of the earlier tunebooks of the nineteenth century, and it is certainly out of this that the Southern Harmony came.

The religious theme of the camp meetings disassociated itself from the tenets of organized religious bodies in favor of a return to the simplicity of New Testament authority for all religious matters, including unaccompanied congregational singing as practiced by the New Testament church. Thus, the rugged, highly individualistic music of the native American composer, the popular paraphrases and versifications of Watts, the Wesleys, and others, and the use of singable, easily learned and remembered tunes with words of the same characteristics, all fit perfectly the needs of the frontier. In a short time, as singing schools became better established, the pragmatic shape notes that had accompanied much of this music in its tunebooks were in common use as an efficient way of teaching the reading of music.

One other factor contributing heavily to the ready acceptance of shape notes in the South and West was the summary dismissal of all things American by those who, in the 1830s, introduced music into the public schools in the East.21 The advocates of public-school music thus disregarded a well established corpus of music and lyrics as well as pedagogical tools and techniques. These very materials. developed in the singing schools, had prepared the public to accept music in formal education, but these leaders consciously adopted different methods, theories of learning, and materials, rejecting anything indigenous. The publication of the native tunebooks was at this time a thriving industry; when it was denied participation in the formal classrooms of the East, as it recently had been rejected in the urban churches, it had to move with the frontier to survive - although it never left the rural areas of the seaboard. It is unfortunate for later generations that all this native material was discarded by the schools; especially is this true of shape notation, which is the single most valuable device ever developed for the teaching of music reading.22 This same notation, however, like the music of American composers and the singing school itself, was welcomed by popular sentiment on the frontier, where it became an integral part of life.23

This is a brief and perhaps simplistic summary of the conditions giving rise to the Southern Harmony, which came along at precisely the right time in its geographical appeal, its lyric content, its musical astuteness, and its pedagogical simplicity.

It is evident that William Walker foresaw in 1854 the coming demise of fasola notation and the necessity of a seven-syllable solmization and a seven-shape notation. In the rather poignant "On the Different Plans of Notation" (p. xxi) he speaks of the several methods then in use and provides examples of them for "a very respectable number of my patrons" who were partial to their use. Although he was soon to forsake fasola notation, Walker seems to be resisting the inevitable change, for his final paragraph denies that one must use seven shapes to sing correctly. On the basis of his twenty-five years of teaching he defends his "patent note" (i.e. shape note) pupils, who "learn as fast, and sing as correct as any." Then stating that "the main thing is to get good teachers [italics his]," he suggests that with proper teaching "the various plans of notation and solmization may be considered more a matter of taste than necessity."

Nevertheless, when Walker presented his new work, the Christian Harmony, in 1866, he used both a seven-syllable scale and seven shapes in the notation. He also prints a rather impassioned plea for the seven-note system, pointing out that parents normally would use seven different names rather than four for seven children. Speaking of the four-note system he says "we were for many years opposed to any other . . . and were not convinced of our error till we taught our first normal school [his italics]." Apparently many of his supposedly loyal patrons didn't agree with him, for this book never attained the success of the Southern Harmony. Obviously, he attempted to attract many of the same people, since some thirty to thirty-five percent of the music in the new book came from the Southern Harmony. It has been said that the fasola singers refused to buy his new book, feeling that Walker had betrayed a trust by changing notation. Another factor working against the new book was that the "standard" seven shapes of John Aiken were then taking precedence over all other systems, and Walker had chosen another seven-shape system.24 Whatever the reasons, Walker seems to have missed the flood tide with his new book, although he had ridden it for a long time with the Southern Harmony. Notation seems to have played a part in the fortunes of both books.

We have said that the Southern Harmony was an excellent source for later tunebooks. Two of the most influential of these were the Social Harp and the several editions of the Harp of Columbia.25 Approximately thirty-five percent - about eighty compositions - of the Social Harp apparently came from the Southern Harmony; some seem to be literal copies. About eighty-five compositions, or slightly more than thirty-five percent of the Harp of Columbia, can also be found in the earlier Southern Harmony. These calculations refer only to entities in which there are no substantive differences in either hymn or tune. All other cases - e.g., an identical melody with different harmony, or a hymn set to a different tune - are not counted. In George Pullen Jackson's Spiritual Folk Songs, thirty-nine sources are named; just one of these, the Southern Harmony, contains about thirty percent of the compositions he lists.26 These statistics alone seem to show that William Walker chose well when he compiled the Southern Harmony.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss some of the more recondite aspects of the music of the Southern Harmony. Jackson went to great lengths to examine and classify modality, and to show derivations from secular sources of many of the melodies Walker used.27 Perhaps we can summarize these things by saying that the seemingly ubiquitous modality in the Southern Harmony is a valid testimony to the antiquity of the music. The frequent absence of a fifth in chordal structures reinforces the modality and also the age of the music. In examining the music, one becomes increasingly aware of the primacy of the linear aspect of each voice part, as opposed to a vertical or harmonic concept. This also attests to the antiquity of the music, for it is a vestige of the polyphonic writing of the Renaissance. This does not mean that the harmonic concepts were neglected. Rather, the very strong harmonic structure, which later generations have called "dispersed harmony," was typical of the late eighteenth-century indigenous idiom.

In writing for three- or four-part mixed voices today, it is normal to put the melody in the top voice: the harmonies are literally between (in frequency or pitch) those sounds and the bass line. In the Southern Harmony and many of its American predecessors and contemporaries, as well as numerous English publications, the melody is in the tenor voice, written on the G clef. Thus the upper voices (in frequency or pitch) are outside the envelope of the printed bass and melody, contrary to modern practice. When this music is performed with the traditional octave doublings, the resultant sound is both different and far richer than it appears to be in print.

Having analyzed hundreds of the compositions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth-century American composers, I am convinced that most of them wrote precisely for the voice distribution they were using. It was not by chance. This is the prime reason music of this genre sounds so delightful when performed as written. On the rare occasions when I meet people to whom this kind of music has no appeal, I find that in general their acquaintance with it has come through modern transcriptions, in which some editor did the commonly accepted switching of the tenor and soprano parts, which completely destroys the composer's concept and does a great disservice both to the music and to the performers. The result is highly unsatisfactory esthetically, and calls to mind Walker's astute observation that his patrons disliked reprinting of old tunes because the tunes were usually changed by the new editor.

At least one more aspect of the Southern Harmony should be discussed, and that is the performance of this music. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to document. As far as is known, Benton, Kentucky, is the only place where the Southern Harmony is still used regularly. The Big Singing, now held on the fourth Sunday in May (this changed to the fourth Sunday in April in 2003, in an attempt to eliminate conflicts with Memorial Day and graduations at various schools but was changed back to the fourth Sunday in May in 2005 ed.), has been an annual event since 1884. Before World War II it is said that many thousands attended; as many as four extra trains in each direction were added to bring the crowds. Since that time, with the ever-increasing quantity and quality of leisure-time activities, attendance has been much smaller. In the last few years it has been steady at several hundred. Not all of these come to sing. Many come only to listen, some to reminisce and socialize. The number of singers has not exceeded about a hundred in recent times.

The Big Singing was begun in 1884 under the leadership of James R. Lemon, a respected newspaper owner and publisher. As a child Lemon had migrated to Western Kentucky with his family from Guilford County, North Carolina, not far from William Walker's Spartanburg, South Carolina, home and certainly within range of Walker's singing school activities. It is not implausible to conjecture that the Lemon family knew William Walker personally and had participated in one or more of his singing schools. Be that as it may, they brought the Southern Harmony with them to Kentucky, and the love of Southern Harmony singing was deeply imbedded in the Lemon mind. And it is obvious that there were many in the frontier community who shared that feeling; otherwise the Big Singing could not have grown and endured as it has done.28

The Big Singing has retained a purity of performance unequaled by any other singing of whatever tunebook. That the book itself has remained unaltered, as explained earlier, is one contributing factor. Geography has also played a part. By the time the Big Singing was begun in 1884, the ravages of the Civil War had passed but the cultural, economic, and political isolation of the South was well established. Benton is located in the Jackson Purchase area of Kentucky, bounded by the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers; it was not until about the time of World War II that bridges were built over the rivers. This geographic isolation meant that there was little immigration to alter any part of a deeply rooted way of life. Those who began and maintained the Big Singing thus performed their music in the unfettered, unaltered simplicity they had learned from their forefathers, which today is called a true folk tradition. A proud, self-reliant, independent, and self-sufficient people took pride in maintaining the status quo; nowhere was this more true than in their beloved Big Singing.

Thus, when we listen to or participate in the Big Singing, we are part of a unique concentricity: of ancient solmization with its roots in the teachings of Guido nearly a thousand years ago; a hymnody of commensurate age, with at least one example originating a millennium and a half ago and the most recent almost a century and a half old; a notation nearly two hundred years old; harmonic settings that retain traces of the linear polyphonic writing of the Renaissance; melodic settings some of which have sources lost in antiquity, while younger ones show vestiges of pre-Renaissance modality; and the ineffable folk tradition of performance handed down from generation to generation. All of these are assembled in only one time, place, and event - the Big Singing of Southern Harmony in Benton, Kentucky. The description that follows is based on a rather complete journal of nearly all rehearsals and performances for twenty years, in which I have tried to record all aspects of performance.

As traditional as the day of Big Singing are certain rituals. There are two sessions, one in the morning beginning at 10:30, one in the afternoon about 1:15. At the morning session there is the call to order, the traditional opening song, "Holy Manna," followed by an invocation, and "New Britain," better known as "Amazing Grace." Various leaders then lead selections either of their own choosing or by request; traditionally, each leads only two songs, and one round for each leader usually consumes all the available time for the morning. Traditionally, too, only men lead the singing. The afternoon session generally begins with welcoming remarks, recognition of out-of-state guests, acknowledgment of floral offerings, and any communications regarding death, illness, or absence of regular members. "Holy Manna" again begins the singing and is followed by a short welcoming address, delivered by someone who, by virtue of his office or position, is presumed to be able to greet officially those in attendance. Subsequently, various leaders direct songs throughout the afternoon.

A printed program lists leaders who are expected to attend and selections each is expected to lead - favorites of that leader or songs associated with him - for most of the afternoon session. The leader does not have to lead the selections listed on the program, but usually does. Leaders not on the printed program follow, and choose their own selections or lead requests. It is during the afternoon that the more difficult choices, such as the longer anthems, are sung. After all leaders and selections have been accommodated, the traditional closing song, "Christian's Farewell," is sung, followed by a benediction.

In actual performance, the leader pitches the song either by himself or (upon his request) with the aid of another leader who is recognized as being good at pitching songs. In general, songs are pitched lower than written, on occasion as much as a third lower, making them easier to sing for most of the participants. Only on rare occasions does anyone even bring a pitch pipe or pitch fork; apparently this has not always been true, but it has been for a number of recent years.

Traditionally, the pitch and syllable for each part are sung by the leader as he establishes the pitch for the singers, and he comes to rest on the pitch and syllable for the tenor, or lead. There are rare exceptions to this: for example, in "Easter Anthem," which begins with the bass; here the leader comes to rest on the bass note - the old-timers will say, "bass lead." Then the leader says, "by the note," and with the beat the solmization is sung completely through. After a short pause, "by the line" prepares for singing the words. In some cases, the leader will determine ahead of time whether or not to sing any repeats; such a decision is commonly made only if the musical repeat uses the same words. In such a case, the leader may elect not to repeat and will tell the ensemble before singing by the line. It is common not to sing more than one stanza if several are printed. If a choice is to be made among many stanzas, again the leader usually conveys this information before starting.

In the more than twenty years of my attendance, I have heard only one song sung with a verse not printed with the music. This is "New Britain" or "Amazing Grace," which usually is ended with the stanza "When we've been there ten thousand years." In all other cases, verses to be sung are chosen from those printed with the music. There is occasional repetition of songs, but in general the group seems to prefer singing additional selections rather than repeating those already sung.

There are many evidences of traditional performance in the Big Singing. Among these are the rhythmic truncation of the anacrusis or pickup note, especially if it is long - e.g., a whole note. Another example is the rhythmic eliding of a repeat, a first ending, or a second ending, with the next phrase.

In fuge tunes, we sometimes find one of the entries will vary from the printed notation, resulting in either a more literal or more harmonic imitation of the preceding voice. The use of accidentals is quite interesting. Sometimes they are sung as written; sometimes ignored; sometimes inserted where unwritten. From my observations, their use tends to reinforce the modality of the music, rather than to strengthen a key feeling. Such altered tone use is found most frequently on the third, fifth, or seventh tones; this practice seems to be a precursor of the "blues" of a later generation. One also hears on occasion the neutered third; it is neither major nor minor. All of these factors seem to vouch for the antiquity of the basic music in the Southern Harmony; some can be traced farther back than the origin of a particular composition and may well be examples of traditional folk performance.

In his theoretical introduction, Walker concurs with most of his American predecessors and many of his contemporaries by assigning tempos to meter signatures (pp. vii, viii). This practice is no longer common, as current teaching does not establish such a correlation.29 And, again, we do not find this relationship in modern singings of other tunebooks. But in the Big Singing, tempos and meters are intertwined. As practiced, the tempos do not always agree specifically with what Walker prescribed. There is enough conformity within meter signatures, however, to establish that they do have meaning. I believe this to be a subconscious thing with Big Singing leaders. I don't recall a leader asking about or discussing the tempo of any song. The principal deviation has been when a visitor has led some song at a speed at variance with the normal Big Singing tempo. During the years I have been keeping records I have found very little variation in tempo for any specific song. Generally the variances will be within ten percent on a metronomic scale (i.e., beats per minute). I consider this to be valid evidence of the vitality of the traditional performance concept.

In the printed music of the Southern Harmony, the melody is in the part just above the bass line. (There is one exception to this, "Portuguese Hymn," in which the top line is marked "Tenor.") In either three or four voices, the top line is the treble (soprano); if there are four voices, the second staff is the counter (alto). In the Southern Harmony almost exactly eighty percent of the songs are scored for three voices; bass, tenor or lead, and treble. In practice, only male voices sing the bass line. Male and female voices sing the lead; males may sing the treble, but usually only females do. The counter may be sung by both males and females, but the male voices singing it usually sing up an octave so that the voices are in unison rather than in octaves. When this is impossible because of the range, the male and female voices sound an octave apart. The actual sound is thus from four to seven parts, depending on the number of written voices, the range of the parts, and the abilities of those singing. The resulting sound is rich, at times almost overpowering in its intensity, and very different from the way the music reads on the printed page. This music has been described as music for singers rather than for listeners, and certainly it is more enjoyable to be part of the singing ensemble than just to be sitting on the fringe listening, although there is a certain pleasure in that also. At the Big Singing, everyone who wishes to participate is urged to do so; neophytes are welcome to sit in and sing with the group.

Twice in this century, a shortage of tunebooks has threatened the very existence of the Big Singing. When most of what was sung had to be sung from memory or from an inadequate supply of shared books, the situation came to resemble that in the early eighteenth century which gave rise to the singing schools. With the reprintings of 1939 and 1966 came a resurgence of interest in both the Southern Harmony and the Big Singing. Since the 1966 printing, the repertory has slowly increased so that now well over sixty songs are sung regularly. I believe this number will continue to expand as more books, specifically this edition, become available. There seems to be an ongoing expansion of the repertory, especially as compositions not used for some years are reestablished. It has been a frequent pleasure to me to inquire about singing a specific song and have someone point out that it was the favorite of a certain person but that it hasn't been sung for several years. (I have compiled a list of the most popular tunes over the past twenty years. Though the number shown is somewhat arbitrary, there was a statistical break after these songs.)


Songs Most Frequently Sung at the Big Singing

Holy Manna and Christian's Farewell, the traditional opening and closing songs, are not listed. The following are in descending order of popularity.

(1) New Britain, p. 8 (14) Greenland, p. 332

(2) Long Sought Home, p. 302 (15) Green Fields, p. 71

(3) Indian Convert, p. 133 (16) Thorny Desert, p. 83

(4) Happy Land, p. 89 (17) Ionia, p. 165

(5) O Come, Come Away, p. 144 (18) Easter Anthem, p. 189

(6) Rock of Ages, p. 275 (19) Wondrous Love, p. 252

(7) Disciple, p. 123 (20) Coronation, p. 299

(8) Willoughby, p. 277 (21) Lone Pilgrim, p. 256

(9) Newburgh, p. 296 (22) Ortonville, p. 10

(10) Pisgah, p. 80 (23) Resignation, p. 38

(11) Jerusalem, p. 11 (24) Bozrah, p. 39

(12) New Haven, p. 159 (25) Alabama, p. 116

(13) Sweet Rivers, p. 166

Some events of recent years have contributed to renewed interest in the Big Singing. In 1973, when Kentucky was the focus of the Smithsonian Institution's summer American Folklife Festival, the Southern Harmony singers of Benton were selected to give daily performances in Washington, D.C. on the Mall.30 This generated so much pride in the Benton-Marshall County community that contributions were obtained to pay all expenses for most of the nearly fifty people who attended. The performances were highly praised, and the excitement of the trip lasted for a long time, as evidenced by larger numbers in attendance and increased participation in the Big Singing. During the Bicentennial celebration of 1976, the Big Singing was cited as one of fewer than a hundred "Landmarks of American Music," selected by the National Music Council. The bronze plaque, which is mounted in the Marshall County courthouse, describes the Big Singing as "the oldest indigenous musical traditional in the United States," and is regarded with pride not only by those who participate in the singing but by the entire community. Another Bicentennial event introduced Southern Harmony music to a completely different audience, when the Bicentennial Concert for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, presented at Kennedy Center in Washington, included a fasola number from the Southern Harmony. Also in 1976, the music of Southern Harmony was recorded on a commercial disk by a large contingent of Big Singing participants. Many of the favorite songs of the Big Singing are to be found on this record, which is still in print.31

These activities of the 1970s also brought the singers more attention and recognition in their state and region; they were asked to sing at festivals and concerts in Tennessee and Kentucky. Even the public schools of Benton and Marshall County introduced high school students to the Southern Harmony, though this program unfortunately did not last, lacking sufficient knowledge among the music teachers or interest among local school administrators.

With this new printing of the Southern Harmony, I hope this venerable tunebook will receive new life, and that it will not only continue as the inspiration and guide of the Big Singing but will find new followers among those who share a love for early American music.

Glenn C. Wilcox

(Reprinted with permission by APAD Digital Recordings, 810 West Kilpatrick, Cleburne, TX 76031-1614)


1. Walker makes this claim in the preface to his Christian Harmony (1886).

2. Benjamin F. White and E. J. King, The Sacred Harp (Philadelphia, 1844). Apparently the only authentic reproduction of an early edition is a facsimile reprint of the 1859 third edition, edited by William Reynolds (Nashville: Broadman, 1968).

3. The title page of this edition reads: The / Southern Harmony / Songbook / American Guide Series / Reproduced, with an Introduction by / the Federal Writers' Project of Kentucky, Works Progress Administration / Sponsored by / The Young Men's Progress Club / Benton, Kentucky / Hastings House, Publishers New York, N.Y. / 1939.

4. This title page reads: The / Southern Harmony / by / William Walker / Edited by / Glenn C. Wilcox / First Line Index by / Charles L. Atkins / A Pro Musicamericana Reprint / Los Angeles / 1966.

5. The 1911 edition by Joseph S. James seems to have been the most active one in "correcting" voice lines and harmonies, while concurrently adding the fourth part. Discussing this edition in the preface of the Reynolds reprint cited in note 2, David C. Wooley says that it "may have been more satisfying to twentieth century singers, but the sound and character of these folk tunes were altered." See also Buell E. Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: U Georgia P, 1978), especially chapter 4.

6. Although Cobb, Sacred Harp, mentions this, my statement is based on my own attendance at Sacred Harp singings. There is virtually no correlation between the indigenous idiom originally printed by White and King and current up-tempo, ragtime-influenced performances of early twentieth-century harmonies. In fact, I have even heard singers, while ostensibly reading from a fasola printing, sing "do, re, mi . . ." !

7. Because many editions of Isaac Watts were then in print, it seems impossible and perhaps unnecessary to identify a specific edition used by Walker. Similarly, Walker's "Methodist Hymn Book" has proved elusive. He may have been referring to the Wesleyan Camp-Meeting Hymn Book, which was in its second edition by 1823. His other sources seem to be: Jesse Mercer, The Cluster of Divine Hymns and Social Poems (Augusta, Georgia: ca. 1817); William Dossey, The Choice (ca. 1820); Andrew Broaddus, Dover Selection of Spiritual Songs (1828; 2nd ed. 1829); and Staunton S. Burdett, The Baptist Harmony) Pleasant Hill, S.C.: 1834).

8. Although much of the source information derives from Walker himself, from standard works such as Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology, and from various first-line indexes of the numerous Watts publications, some of it is from the manuscript index of first lines and tunes by the late Charles L. Atkins, who catalogued the contents of several hundred American tunebooks and hymnbooks over a nearly sixty-year period.

9. Again, no single source contains this information. It has been gleaned from examination of numerous tunebooks and also from Atkins' index.

10. Walker adds "A.S.H." to his name even in The Christian Harmony (p. 41). In the same publication he paid tribute to his friend William Hauser by adding the initials A.H.H. (for Author of the Hesperian Harp) to his name.

11. This is by Walker's own attribution, with some supplementation from Atkins' index.

12. The concerns of the New England ministers may be seen in Thomas Symmes, Utile Dulci, or, a Joco-Serious Dialogue, Concerning Regular Singing (Boston: B. Green, 1721); John Eliot, A Brief Discourse Concerning Regular Singing (Boston: B. Green, Jun., 1725); and Cotton Mather, The Accomplished Singer (Boston: B. Green, 1721).

13. Early night school classes are described in Robert F. Seybolt, The Evening School in Colonial America, Bulletin No. 24, Bureau of Educational Research, College of Education, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1925.

14. Alan C. Buechner, "Yankee Singing Schools and the Golden Age of Choral Music in New England 1760-1800" (Ed.D. diss., Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1960).

15. For a study of the Tuft's book see "The First American Music Textbook," in Irving Lowens, Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964).

16. See Glenn C. Wilcox, "The Singing School Movement in the United States," in Report of the Eighth Congress of the International Musicological Society, vol.2 (New York, 1961).

17. For an account of this movement and of one family of musicians and entrepreneurs who helped to spread singing schools, see James W. Scholten, "The Chapins: A Study of Men and Sacred Music West of the Alleghenies, 1795-1842" (Ed.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1972).

18. This is more fully discussed in Richard Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist (Evanston: Northwestern Univ., 1968).

19. See "The Easy Instructor (1790-1831)," in Lowens, Music and Musicians.

20. This change from predominantly American to mostly European compositions can be seen by comparing successive editions of such long-lived tunebooks as Village Harmony, Easy Instructor, Worcester Collection, Bridgewater Collection, and Missouri Harmony. A parallel change in one denomination is documented in Raymond J. Martin, "The Transition from Psalmody to Hymnody in Southern Presbyterianism, 1735-1901" (S.M.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1963).

21. The best account of this is in Edward B. Birge, History of Public School Music in the United States (Boston: Ditson, 1928; reprint Washington: Music Educators National Conference, 1966).

22. Experimental demonstration of the value of shape notes in public school music is reported in George H. Kyme, "An Experiment in Teaching Children to Read Music with Shape Notes." Journal of Research in Music Education 8(1): 3-8 (1960).

23. For the ubiquity of shape notes see George P. Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1933; reprint New York: Dover, 1965); Earl Loessel, "The Use of Character Notes and Other Unorthodox Notations in Teaching the Reading of Music in Northern United States During the Nineteenth Century" (Ed.D. diss., Univ. Michigan, 1959); and Musical Million, Aldine S. Kieffer, editor, a journal devoted to the propagation of shape notes published at Dayton, Va., by Ruebush-Kieffer and Co., January 1870-December 1914.

24. Jesse Aiken (spelled also Aikin) developed the seven-shape system that became the standard of the industry. His success was due not only to his seven shapes, but also his interaction with rivals, which apparently included intimidation and threatened lawsuit. Jackson, in White Spirituals, p. 352,, has an amusing anecdote about this. The prosaic official version of the same incident is in the author's preface to Aldine S. Kieffer, The Temple Star (Singer's Glen, Va.: Ruebush-Kieffer, 1877).

25. The Social Harp, an extremely rare book by John G. McCurry, is available in an excellent reprint edited by Daniel W. Patterson and John F. Garst (Athens: U Georgia P, 1973). The most accessible of various editions of the New Harp of Columbia is a reprint edited by Dorothy D. Horn, Ron Petersen, and Candra Phillips (Knoxville: U Tennessee P, 1978).

26. George P. Jackson, Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America (Locust Valley, N.Y.: J.J. Autustin, 1937; reprint New York: Dover, 1964).

27. See Jackson, Spiritual Folk-Songs and his other works, especially White Spirituals and Down-East Spirituals and Others (Locust Valley, New York: J.J. Augustin, 1937), which he considered to be supplementary to Spiritual Folk-Songs.

28. The best single source of information on Benton's Big Singing is the 1939 reprint of the Southern Harmony (note 3 above). For journalistic account, see "A Reporter At Large: The Big Singing," in the New Yorker, January 19, 1987.

29. There are some indications that denoting tempo by meter signature is another vestige of antiquity: from the tactus of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and/or the even older theory of mensural notation by Franco of Cologne in the mid-thirteenth century.

30. During the festival special copies of Southern Harmony were presented to President Nixon and the White House Library.

31. The record may be obtained through Dr. Ray Mofield, President, Society for the Preservation of Southern Harmony Singing, Inc., Benton, Ky., 42025.