Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rethinkin our thinkin: The interloper

Rethinkin' our thinkin': some comments on Sacred Harp "myths"

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Much of Sacred Harp history has been written by the "victors" -- that is, the majority who are followers of the James/Denson tradition of Sacred Harp -- beginning with Joe S. James and his "Brief History".

Myths is a loaded term. Perhaps a little too strong for the subject. But maybe it will get the attention of some who unintentionally perpetuate the following "myths" as absolute fact.

Myth # 1. W. M. Cooper was an interloper, somehow outside the Sacred Harp establishment.

It is not uncommon to read that W. M. Cooper and his revision of 1902 was not in the tradition of the Sacred Harp of B. F. White. Two main reasons are usually given: (1) Cooper added some songs in a style outside the tradition [e.g. Rock of Ages]; (2) Cooper was not part of White's "inner circle" of Sacred Harp singers, nor from the "Sacred Harp territory". I believe there are some anachronistic glasses being used here -- reading the future back into the past -- as well as conclusions based on things that have not been sufficiently investigated.

First of all, the Sacred Harp of B. F. White was never static, but a progressive work. Compiled and published in 1844, the book had been enlarged in 1850 and 1859, then revised in 1869.

Songs in the pre-20th century versions of the Sacred Harp can be studied to develop a frame of reference to determine the musical "loyalty" of the Cooper and James books to their predecessors. Most songs in the older books fit the modern concept of "dispersed harmony"1 -- though defining that in itself is problematic. There are a few songs I consider suspect (though I don't have the musical expertise to really debate it that well). I will touch on that in another post. A thorough study of 1869/70 revision would be helpful here. As far as I know this has never been done. Such a study would undertake to compile information about all the songs that were deleted and all the songs that were added -- as to style (e.g. camp meeting songs, hymn tunes, fuging tunes), makeup (e.g. 3-part or 4-part, major or minor, dispersed or close harmony), etc. This compiled data would be analyzed to determine any trends in the 1870 book -- perhaps away from the "style" of the original compilation, or reflecting only that "style". In so doing, we might learn whether the 1870 showed a move toward the type of song that Cooper would introduce into the book in 1902.2

Another factor to consider is the actual practice of the singers at the conventions. In the late 19th century, many other shape note tune books were being compiled and conventions were using these books as well as The Sacred Harp. The first convention founded by B. F. White -- the Southern Musical Convention -- succumbed to this trend and eventually moved away from the Sacred Harp. So while we look at the songs and the book on one hand, on the other hand we must understand that these songs in that book were not the only songs Sacred Harpers were singing. Sacred Harp did not exist in a musical vacuum. The entire Sacred Harp movement was in a state of flux between 1870 and 1902. The seven-shape note system and gospel songs garnered popularity in the Sacred Harp regions. Most new music was being written in four-part harmonies. Most Sacred Harp songs were in three-part harmonies. "Should we accept the new shapes or reject them?" "Should we sing the new songs or ignore them?" Some Sacred Harpers were not happy with the changes; some embraced them. Some Sacred Harp singers moved in both circles. We should not read future developments back into the past record and determine who were "real" Sacred Harp singers based on the outcome. What happened with the revisions of W. M. Cooper, J. L. White and J. S. James reflects not that some parties were "real" Sacred Harp singers and some were not, but rather that different groups of "real" Sacred Harp singers responded in different ways to the changing musical world in which they lived. [Interestingly, Cooper, James and J. L. White were all "second generation" Sacred Harpers, born within three years of one another.]

The second part of the "charge" against Cooper is based partly on incorrect interpretation and partly on lack of information. It seems to be incorrect to determine from our side of history that W. M. Cooper and south Alabamians were not part of the "inner circle" and outside the foundational territory. On a map it looks like south Alabama is about as close to Harris County, Georgia (where White published the Sacred Harp) as north Alabama is. Oh, I think there is an element of truth about the territory.3 But the fact remains (perhaps since history is written by the victors) that up until recent years little research has been done on the south Alabama connections to White's movement. There is evidence that B. F. White taught singing schools in south Alabama. It is in the realm of possibility that W. M. Cooper was taught by White. Some of the Georgia crew drifted into south Alabama -- Reuben E. Brown and David P. White (B. F.'s son and a music teacher) lived in the very area from whence the Cooper book arose.4

Maybe there is even a little circular reasoning going on here -- W. M. Cooper was not part of the "real" Sacred Harp establishment, so he couldn't properly revise the book. And since he didn't "properly" revise the book, he wasn't part of the "real" Sacred Harp establishment.

I think "W. M. Cooper the interloper"5 is a myth that needs to be laid to rest. By 1902 south Alabama likely had a long and well-established relationship with Sacred Harp and its conventions. Further study should be conducted on this relationship.6 Cooper's revision of the existing songs in the book -- particularly the alto parts -- indicate he was familiar with the style of the old songs. Wallace McKenzie's The Alto Parts in the "True Dispersed Harmony" of The Sacred Harp Revisions indicates that Cooper had at least as good, if not better, record in maintaining the "dispersed harmony" while adding an alto part to the three-part harmonies. Specifically, McKenzie notes that "no changes were made in the existing parts to reduce the parallel intervals or fill in incomplete triads" and that "the added alto parts actually increase the total number of parallels..." Further he noted that "Cooper's altos maintain some features of the contrapuntal-harmonic style...more closely than do those of Denson" though "many of the Denson altos make more interesting melodies...", finally stating that "the alto melodies are consistent with the contrapuntal-harmonic style of the three-part pieces." So McKenzie sets forth some empirical evidence that W. M. Cooper understood the general nature of the songs -- unless one argues that he just accidentally maintained the style of them. The fact that he included other songs not in this style is really another discussion altogether.

So I'd say: (1) There have always been some different kinds of songs in the Sacred Harp -- hymn tunes, campmeeting songs, fuging tunes, anthems -- and a few of the songs may not be strictly in the pervasive style of the rest of the book. If it's OK to have a few, why wasn't it OK for Cooper to add a few more? (2) The Sacred Harp gives us a view into what music was popular among and preferred by its original compilers and editors. We probably should place as much emphasis on that fact as on viewing them as making a concerted effort to compile a book containing only dispersed harmony songs. The southeast Alabama revisers were probably doing the same in principle. (3) Analysis of Cooper's work vindicates him of the charge that he did not understand the style/harmony of the songs that were in The Sacred Harp. One can contrast his work with some of the songs rewritten by J. L. White, which shows White understood the need to reharmonize entire songs (as opposed to just adding alto) in order to bring them into the newer style. (4) More study needs to be done on the spread of Sacred Harp into south Georgia, south Alabama & Florida, and a better understanding needs to be developed concerning their relationship to the Harris County center of Sacred Harp.

1. My personal working definition of dispersed harmony is harmony with open chords and freely moving parts (that is, parts not merely following and complimenting the melody).
2. In my opinion, songs like "Loving Jesus" and "Let Us Sing" prefigure the call and response of some gospel songs.
3. Considering that B. F. White moved north to Atlanta before his death.
4. Reuben E. Brown, Sr. (333 Family Circle) and Reuben E. Brown, Jr. (230 Converting Grace, 1991 Revision) are in Barbour County, Alabama in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, listed as minister and music teacher, respectively.

5. But there is a sense in which I would consider both W. M. Cooper and J. S. James "interlopers" -- it seems the White family had the rights to revise the book rather than others. Apparently the Sacred Harp community as a whole did not view it that way.
6. Buell Cobb lists about seven Sacred Harp conventions formed in southeast Alabama between 1855 and 1889, and the 2006 Minutes of Cooper Book Conventions (published by the Sacred Harp Book Company) lists singings of at least nine southeast Alabama and west Florida conventions that are over 100 years old. The Southeast Convention (org. ca 1858) is "the oldest Alabama singing assembly still in existence." (Cobb, p. 139) I believe it is the third oldest Sacred Harp Convention in existence in the U.S., after Chattahoochee and East Texas.

(To be continued, d.v.)


Writer said...

R L,

Is there someplace online where we could hear some of this kind of music?


Anonymous said...


May I pick this up and run it in the Jan 08 edition of the Sacred Harp Colorado newsletter which I edit. Your writing on this subject is very clear and far more than I have yet to dredge out of wikipedia.


R. L. Vaughn said...

Les, the Sacred Harp Singing in Texas web site has an audio clip or two. Voices Across America Shape-Note Music by Pilgrim Productions has a lot of live recorded Sacred Harp and other shape-note singing. I think I remember seeing a YouTube video or two with Sacred Harp singing, but I'd probably have to have my daughter find it. Anyone else feel free to mention any other sites where Les can listen to this kind of music.

Pete, yes you may use this if you'd like. I'll look over it for typos or other errors, but if you don't hear from me just use it as it is. And if you find any typos feel free to correct them.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Dr. Warren Steel has links to "Video clips of Sacred Harp singing" here.

Unknown said...


I wonder -- and it's pure speculation on my part -- what role the "Cooper v. Denson" copyright case had on setting the boundaries of who was "in" and who was "out" of the separate camps. But it is the sort of thing that gets people talking about what the 'real' way of doing something is. In any case, how the alto lines were set seems like they should be evidence of staying within or without the bounds of what one would consider 'dispersed harmony'.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Pete, I have made a few corrections and refinements. I'd appreciate your using the current version instead of as originally posted. Let me know that you found this comment. Evidently the e-mail I have for you is no longer current.

Will, I'm going to think about that a bit before I reply about the copyright case.

Anonymous said...


I saw your comment above and have picked up the corrected article for pasting into our newsletter.
upon review, I had more in the Jan 08 issue than I thought and so this will run in February.

The correct e-mail address is:

Thanks for all you do and may God grant that in His time you will have closure on your missing MIL.


R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks, Pete. As far as the newsletter, anytime you choose to print it will be OK with me.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Will, I thought about this a bit, and will put down some comments. For sure all of this is speculation on my part. I don't know what role the "Cooper vs. Denson" copyright case had on setting the boundaries of who was "in" and who was "out" of the separate camps. Perhaps the camps were pretty well established before. One thing that could have hurt Cooper (I'm just theorizing) is that some Christians who hold a biblical principle against law suits could have been turned toward James by something like this. But on the other hand, we often have an amazing capacity to justify the actions of those whom we know, love and/or support. If I remember correctly, James later tried to sue J. L. White. So if this "suit idea" was a factor, it would seem that would have in turn turned against him.

Another angle I have wondered about is that of Freemasonry. This society was fairly prominent in the South in that era, and I believe James was a member of it. If so, that might have given him some leverage in some areas. Just something to wonder about, I guess.