In 1844 two Georgia Baptist laymen – one in his youth and the other in his middle age – compiled an endearing and enduring song book they titled The Sacred Harp. The younger, Elisha James King (1821-1844) died before he could enjoy the fruit of his labor. The elder, Benjamin Franklin White (1800-1879), lived to guide the book through three more successful editions.
The book contained music such as psalm tunes & plain tunes, works of early New England composers, sturdy folk hymns and camp meeting songs set to music by Southern composers, reformed hymnody (songs by more professional musicians such as Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings) – as well as long anthems, odes, and set pieces. Much of the music reflected what was being sung in Baptist churches of the day (and in turn influenced what was being sung), while the more difficult pieces were popular in singing schools and singing conventions. The book used the remarkable American invention of shaped notes for teaching young scholars the art of music. In 1845 B. F. White organized the Southern Musical Convention. This far-reacging institution worked with White to produce the 1850, 1860 and 1870 editions of the tunebook. The success of the convention helped set the stage for the book to have a continuous life in the 21st century.
The Sacred Harp book itself was never widely used in church services, but its tunes were. In fact, at the time the Sacred Harp was produced most Baptist churches – probably all in the South – were singing from words-only hymn books such as Jesse Mercer’s Cluster and The Psalmist by Smith & Stow. They did not use books with tunes/music printed with the hymns. Uncle Dave Waldrop explained it to us this way: “In the western part of Panola County [Texas], where I was raised, we did not know any tunes except what was in the Sacred Harp. This was true for much of the south in the county. For use in our churches we had a very small hymn book called ‘Ever Green’ with about a hundred hymns printed in it. An interesting thing, probably, never observed is that in these old hymn books at the top of each hymn you can find characters like: ‘CM,’ ‘SM,’ ‘LM,’ and sometimes figures like 7-8-9, etc. In our older Sacred Harp books you can find the same characters. Now this little hymn book is small enough to carry in your pocket and has the same characters as the big book which has music. Many hymns will have the same. ‘CM,’ ‘LM,’ etc. in either book. That is the meter indication. So any hymn listed ‘CM’ will sing with any tune listed with the same meter in the Sacred Harp. It is the same with all other characters. So ‘Amazing Grace’ (CM) will sing with any tune listed as CM. Old leaders in revivals could sing all day on the same tune and never use the same words!” David Waldrop was born in 1891, and his explanation fits many rural East Texas Baptist churches up into the first two or three decades of the 20th century.
1. But some Baptist churches have used The Sacred Harp, and a few still do.
2. “Sacred Harp,” Loblolly, Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 1974 Page: 16