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
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
The publication history of the Southern
Harmony is relatively brief. The first edition was issued in 1835, with a
preface signed by
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
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
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
In later life,
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.
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
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a
relatively obscure storekeeper in
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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 "
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 "
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,
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.
(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)
(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
(10) Pisgah, p. 80 (23) Resignation, p. 38
(13) Sweet Rivers, p. 166
events of recent years have contributed to renewed interest in the Big Singing.
In 1973, when
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
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,
F. White and E. J. King, The Sacred Harp (
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.
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 /
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 . . ." !
many editions of Isaac Watts were then in print, it seems impossible and
perhaps unnecessary to identify a specific edition used by
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.
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).
night school classes are described in Robert F. Seybolt, The Evening School
in Colonial America, Bulletin No. 24, Bureau of Educational Research,
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).
Glenn C. Wilcox, "The Singing School Movement in the
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
best single source of information on
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.
record may be obtained through Dr. Ray Mofield, President, Society
for the Preservation of Southern Harmony Singing, Inc.,