Friday, December 21, 2007

Rethinkin our thinkin: new areas and dispersed harmony

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

Myth # 2. The spread of "revisions" to new areas.

In his article
Stormy Banks and Sweet Rivers: A Sacred Harp Geography, James B. Wallace writes, "Although the Denson revision of The Sacred Harp is by far the most popular, two other revisions [by W. M. Cooper & J. L. White, rlv] maintain followings, especially where the shape-note tradition was somewhat late spreading."

Wallace implies that the revisions of Cooper & J. L. White picked up areas that were not well-settled on the Sacred Harp, with the James/Denson revision occupying the traditional strongholds of the Sacred Harp.1 In my opinion, this is based on an earlier misunderstanding that has not been corrected. For example in his 1978 book, Buell Cobb wrote, "The Cooper revision won wholesale acceptance in the newer western areas of the tradition, but it was never adopted in the territories where the original editions flourished." This seems to ignore: (1) All territories that used The Sacred Harp used the "original editions" before 1902. Surely the original editions flourished in some other of these places. Some of these territories received heavy migration from the Sacred Harp heartland of Georgia.2 (2) The J. L. White edition was adopted in some of the very same places Cobb intends by "the territories where the original editions flourished."

Do we really know that Sacred Harp traditions were later spreading to south Alabama and south Mississippi (where Cooper is used) than to north Alabama and north Mississippi (where Denson is used)? Wasn't there popularity of the J. L. White book in many of the same areas as the James/Denson book -- north Georgia, north Alabama and north Mississippi? What was the effect of strong leaders who were partisans for a particular revision? There is an element that is correct in what Wallace writes.3 It is far too simplistic to explain why certain regions preferred certain revisions. I don't think all the possible different factors have ever been contemplated in a scholarly study.

I suspect that Texas must be considered among the "newer western areas of the tradition". But the East Texas Musical Convention, some six or seven hundred miles from B. F. White's home, was organized only 11 years after White & King published the first edition of The Sacred Harp.4 Somewhat contrary to notions, the Cooper book won acceptance in the areas of Texas where the oldest conventions had been organized. The James book seems to have prevailed in some of the more western areas of the state. In the 1970s, Texas would have been considered "Cooper book country". But "in the beginning it was not so." For whatever reason(s) the use of the James book died out, and the Denson book was not adopted until the latter part of the 20th century. So in Texas the role was reversed -- "newer western areas of the tradition" adopting the James book, and the older established areas adopting the Cooper book. Does this trend mean anything? Possibly not much, since we don't know what other factors were at play in these regions.

Evidently the Cooper, James and White books all found some favor in the Sand Mountain area of Alabama. The Denson descendant of the James book has prevailed there, but the other revisions enjoyed acceptance as well. Elder Colonel Gibson Keith (1852-1926) of DeKalb County, AL has at least two arrangements in the Cooper book. I first heard songs from the J. L. White book on a tape of the
Wootten family that an Alabama preacher friend, Billy Mosteller, supplied me years ago. Within one regional area and perhaps within one community and/or family, we find some affinity for all three revisions of the Sacred Harp. Does this mean anything? Possibly not too much beyond what is seen on the surface, since we don't know what other factors were at play in this region (Perhaps some of the singers in this area know some factors that led to the prominence of the James/Denson tradition).

The above two paragraphs are not defining, but simple illustrations to show that there multiple circumstances in each area that would ultimately lead to the choice of one revision over the other. In my mind I can see Texas singers showing up at singings in the 1910s -- this one with the Cooper book, that one with the James book, another with the J. L. White book. What confusion might have prevailed for a time before some "shaking out" occurred?

Myth # 3. All songs were always written in dispersed harmony by Sacred Harp singers.

Scholars have never really claimed this. This seems to be a common misconception nevertheless. Objecting to J. L. White's 1909 changes to The Sacred Harp, the Mulberry River Convention of Alabama resolved that any new songs added to the book be "composed by old Sacred Harp singers only." (Cobb, p. 108) Certainly this Convention was asking that any new revision stick closely to the style of the old songs.5 But it was never true that all the songs in book were written "by Sacred Harp singers only." Is a song by Lowell Mason (who musically loathed much of what we Harpers hold dear), which B. F. White and company chose to use, really a Sacred Harp song? Is "Martin" by Simeon B. Marsh, included in every edition/revision of The Sacred Harp since 1869, a Sacred Harp song or a gospel song? What about "Shawmut" (added to the Denson book in 1960) by Mason? Does it have dispersed harmony and free moving parts? "The Marriage in the Skies" (added in 1909) is another example. It is nice song that I enjoy, but is in close harmony with parts that are moved along by the tenor. And there's always "The Great Roll Call" that the James book snuck in the front.

Instead of a generic "Sacred Harp is always..." it is better to address each edition and revision. Most songs in the 1844-1870 books fit the concept of "dispersed harmony". A few songs like "Martin" might be suspect. The James book varies little from this, but allowed a few to pass muster (likewise the Denson book). The Cooper book maintains the old harmonies from the 1844-1870 editions (with alto added, as James), but makes room for 19th century gospel songs with more close harmony (and some 20th century ones written in that style). The J. L. White book, after being unsuccessful with reharmonizations of many of the old songs, reprints the 1870 book pretty much intact -- with a few reharmonizations but few added altos -- and an appendix of close harmony 19th-century gospel songs in four-part harmonies. At least that's how I see it.

1. Footnote 5 in
yesterday's post briefly addresses the "newness" of Sacred Harp in southeast Alabama.
2. East Texas became home to at least 10 Sacred Harp composers: Oliver Bradfield, Reuben E. Brown, Sarah (Lancaster) Hagler, Elias L. King, John S. Terry, M. H. Turner, M. Mark Wynn, David P. White, J. T. White and William L. Williams.
3. On first glance the area theory seems like a plausible explanation, and it is generally true that the use of various revisions correlate to various areas of the south. The question for further study is how and why. I don't believe the "newer areas" idea considers all the facts playing into the decision.
4. It is interesting, though not necessarily telling, that two of the three oldest Sacred Harp conventions still in existence are in "Cooper book territory" and use the Cooper book.

5. Often unmentioned is that the Mulberry River Convention was itself only about 4 or 5 years old at the time they issued their complaint.

(to be continued, d.v.)


bildad12 said...

Hey Robert,

this is a nice write up....what do you know about W. L. Williams in Texas? wasn't aware of that...


R. L. Vaughn said...

This is based on the research of Warren Steel. I think he cc'ed it to you, but sometimes these electronic communications have a wonderful way of disintegrating into ethereal non-existence.

William LaFayette Williams (1833-1905), a doctor and possibly also a preacher, was born in Georgia, married 1858 in Tallapoosa Co. AL. 1870 census: physician in Tallapoosa Co.; 1880 census: physician, Roanoke, Randolph Co., AL; later moved to Upshur Co. TX died at Gilmer, Upshur Co., TX. He is supposed to be buried in the Lafayette Cemetery with no marker. Some of his family is buried there. I had hoped to get to the Longview and Gilmer libraries to follow up on this, but haven't had a chance.

Third person on this list
His father
Query by Janette Patterson
An Elder W. L. Williams in the same area