Monday, December 17, 2007

This day in 1850

On December 17, 1850, Wilson Marion Cooper was born in Henry County, Alabama. Cooper might have lived and died in relative obscurity, had he not become inextricably entwined with the history of a popular southern tune book -- The Sacred Harp.

In 1844 Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King published a song book titled The Sacred Harp. King died shortly after the book was published. This left B. F. White as the guiding force behind the book and the upbuilding of its cause. During White's lifetime, the book went through three editions -- 1850, 1859, and 1869/70. The 1850 and 1859 editions added new songs to the back of the book. In the 1869/70 edition some songs were removed new ones added in their places. B. F. White died in 1879.

1902 -- enter Marion Cooper. Some call him songwriter and revisionist; some call him interloper
*. Whatever one's musical opinion of Cooper, it seems that we must admit that Cooper knew the old book and its tradition needed a shot in the arm -- particularly alto parts added to the songs -- if it was to weather the wintry onslaught of "contemporary" music. "To boldly go when no man had gone before," Cooper -- with a cadre of Sacred Harp singers and composers in tow -- undertook an all out revision of The Sacred Harp. The majority of the songs in the old Sacred Harp were written with three vocal lines -- treble, tenor, and bass. When Cooper and company turned out their revision in 1902, all the songs were fitted with a fourth harmonic part. The revision also added new tunes to include another music "style" not found in the original compilation -- the late 19th century gospel song.

For his trouble, Cooper brought the awe of some and the ire of others. Whether agreeing or disagreeing, they could not ignore him. Whatever might be said about him, Cooper was bold enough to take on the project while others dawdled. Others would also revise The Sacred Harp to their own tastes. Only Marion Cooper would ever be the first to do so.

*Word of the day: One that intrudes into some field of trade without a proper license; one that interferes with the affairs of others; a meddler.

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