Saturday, December 22, 2007

Rethinkin our thinkin: new books and the largest book

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

Myth # 4. The early 20th century revision of the Sacred Harp was driven by lack of new books.

No one has ever claimed this as a sole reason for revision, but it has been brought up as a factor. But was it ever a factor? It has been brought to light that J. L. White and C. P. Byrd made at least two printings of the 1870 book -- at least one near the turn of the century, circa 1897. There is still in existence this mythical thinking that in 1900 all Sacred Harp singers were running around with 30-year old books that were falling apart. But the 1897 printing was only five years old when the Cooper book appeared in 1902. If books were falling apart, it was perhaps more of a choice than of a need. Surely the simple need for new books wasn't much of a factor.

Myth # 5. The James revision was the largest Sacred Harp book.

In his 1978 book, Buell Cobb reported 609 songs in 1911 James revision of The Sacred Harp. I'm not sure where this number comes from, but a review of the index will show it is conflated and inflated -- several pieces being listed twice. There are 623 songs listed in the index of the copy I have. The correct number of song in the James book is 580 (or 579; depending on whether "The Great Roll Call" is counted, it being in front of the "first" song in the book and not listed in the index).

The largest Sacred Harp book (barring closer review of the 1909 work of J. L. White) was the 1911 "Fourth Edition with Supplement" by J. L. White, the son of compiler B. F. White. The J. L. White book had 597 songs (not including 6 in the "Singing School Department"), making it larger than either Cooper's or James' revisions.

J. S. James' book was the largest in its physical dimensions (and possibly weight?). But when we mean largest repertoire of songs in one of the 20th century revisions, the answer is "The Sacred Harp, Fourth Edition with Supplement", published in 1911. The largest book in the 21st century is the recently revised 2006 edition of the Cooper Book, with 600 songs/hymns.[1]

Gratuitous information concerning the books (unrelated to myths): The newest edition of the Denson (formerly James) book contains 179 of the 242 songs (74%) included in The Sacred Harp in 1844. The newest edition of the Cooper book contains 173 of 242 (71%). These two different revisions have a different historical line after 1902. They continued to be revised by different committees made up of different personalities having different priorities and yet they are very close in the ratio of songs they have retained from the original book. It is even more striking when we consider a number of 1844 songs were removed from the book in 1870, and that the James revision added back many of those songs in 1911. The J. L. White book contains 90% of the 1844 book, being mostly unrevised in the first sections. When we compare the latest Cooper and Denson revisions to the 1870 edition of The Sacred Harp, the last book issued under the supervision of B. F. White, we find the numbers reversed -- The Cooper book contains 78% of the songs of the 1870 edition, while the Denson book contains 71% of the songs of the 1870 edition.

"All of the above mentioned tunebooks are Sacred Harp books, directly tracing their ancestry back to the 1844 tunebook co-edited by White and King and maintaining the name in their book titles. All the songs contained therein are, ipso facto, 'Sacred Harp' songs. [Some disagree concerning the aptness of the editorial inclusivity on particular songs but that's a different argument.]" - Karen Willard

(to be continued, d.v.)

[1] 597 songs/tune and 3 hymns.

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