A Sketch or Brief History of the Sacred Harp Song Book
By C. J. Griggs
It has long since been an outstanding fact that Sacred music has been one of the leading attractions of the human mind that has been and is, one of the indispensable parts of religious worship. There are many beautiful sacred songs from the pens of eminent writers 300 years ago that have sparkled before countless thousands that have lived to sing, to hear and enjoy the riches of their blessings. We loving refer to the living hymns of Charles and John Wesley, William Billings, William Cowper, John Newton, William Doddridge, B. F. White, E. J. King, Lowell Mason, William Walker, Aldine S. Kieffer, Charles Gabriel, A. J. Showalter and hundreds of others that gave their lives to a work that stands as a monument to their immortal memory. It would be a great pleasure to the writer to give a personal story on the life and work of these great and useful dignitaries of hymns and songs, but time will not permit. But as the subject is before us we will endeavor to make a brief story of the Sacred Harp from its first publication to the present.
Benjamin Franklin White was born a Spartanburg, S. C. in the year 1800 and spent his early life in that state. In growing up he soon chose as a pursuit the study of vocal music. Incidentally, he met with a talented young man by the name of William Walker. The two boys became close friends and joined their efforts in the study of vocal music. They both soon became teachers, writers, and selectors of the best grade of sacred songs. Another coincidence was their social companionship which led them into the acquaintance of a prominent family in South Carolina by the name of Golightly. In this family were two beautiful girls, (sisters). All being good singers the boys made good use of their opportunities and soon won the hearts and hands of the two sisters and automatically became brother-in-laws. They still kept up their interest in music and later compiled a song book in four-shape notes and named it the Southern Harmony which met with great favor and was used many years in that section.
After revising the Southern Harmony several times their aspirations grew stronger for musical progress, and after several consultations their views on the subject of notation differed. William Walker's idea was to change to seven-shape notes while Mr. White desired to hold on to the four-shape notes. This caused the road to fork with the two musicians, which resulted in the compilation of the Christian Harmony made in seven-shape notes by William Walker that proved to be a very fine book and is used by several singers of the old school to this day. B. F. White moved from South Carolina to a little place called Hamilton in Harris Co., Georgia, in 1842 and immediately launched into the musical atmosphere. He first put up a printing establishment and published a little country paper, called it the "Organ". In each issue of the paper he wrote two or three songs in four-shape notes. This pleased the people so well that he called some of his students together and in 1844, he led the way in the compilation of a small song book known as the Sacred Harp. Written in four-shape notes it being the first hymn or song book in that section of note, it was used in churches, Sunday schools and other places where sacred music was in vogue for a period of many years. When the book was compiled, B. F. White put his whole energy into the work and taught singings schools in Georgia, Alabama, and Texas until the War Between the States started. Music had to share its part with the general destruction of the South; therefore, music suffered a set-back for five or six years. However, after this great catastrophe, Prof. White moved on with the great work by teaching and organizing conventions throughout the country.
In the years 1850 and 1859 the book was revised, and again in 1869, it being the last revision made by B. F. White according to a conversation between the writer and Prof. White in the year 1875. Another revision was planned but did not materialize due to an accident that happened to Prof. White on Marietta St. in Atlanta, Ga., which resulted in his death. This was in the year 1879, after which time the Sacred Harp ceased to be in active demand. In 1902, about 23 years after the death of B. F. White, William Cooper of Dothan, Alabama, published a book called the Revised Sacred Harp. In the year 1907 after Mr. Cooper's death, the book went into the hands of William and B. F. Fause, of Ozark, Alabama. The United Sacred Harp Association of Atlanta, Georgia was organized in 1904 and in 1911, a committee from this convention was appointed to revise the Sacred Harp, there being very few of the old books accessible in Georgia. This committee was composed of 22 members of which J. S. James was chairman and really financed the book which according to dollars and cents made him the owner of the book. The book only had one revision owing to the death of J. S. James on January 20, 1931, at which time the copyright plates and all that belonged to the original Sacred Harp which was named by the committee went into the hands of J. R. James, a nephew of J. S. James.
The original Sacred Harp was not revised again until 1936 since there was a move on foot for the three books to be consolidated into one volume. However, this did not materialize as in the instance of White and Walker as quoted above. As a result of this disagreement, the Original Sacred Harp was bought from J. R. James by the Sacred Harp Publishing Inc., at Haleyville, Alabama, and is now known as the Denson revised Original Sacred Harp which is the latest revision at present. There are numerous local classes and conventions that affiliate with all three of these books. All friends of ours as well as all the publishers have taken as their guide the old songs published by B. F. White who was the founder of this great musical enterprise 93 years ago. It is truly hoped by the multitudes of fine singers throughout the South that the highly educated musicians who are perpetuating this unparalleled grade of music will realize the fact that the eyes of this great band of singers are fixed on their activities. Then why leave us longer in a three-cornered state of affairs, but come together as a family whose chain is now broken and give us the privilege of working under one vine and fig tree, thus leaving your post of duty at the end of the way so you can feel contented that thousands have been made happy at the work of your hands.
[Taken from Minutes of the State Sacred Harp Music Association and Texas Young People's Interstate Sacred Harp Musical Association, Shady Grove, Texas, August 7-9, 1936, page 11-13. "A motion was made and adopted at a recent call meeting of the board, December 26, 1936, to accept and insert in the minutes, A Sketch or Brief History of the Sacred Harp Song Book by C. J. Griggs of Atlanta, Georgia. This is indeed an excellent article, and we wish to express our sincere gratitude for such an interesting discourse on a subject that all Sacred Harp lovers are tremendously interested in." (1936, page 15; obviously they did not get the minutes printed until near or after the end of December 1936.)]
Click to see footnotes for A Brief History.