The idea of revising the Sacred Harp may have arisen in the Southeastern Musical Convention. The Southeastern Convention is one of the oldest (oldest existing) in southeast Alabama, organized in 1858. Unfortunately, the Southeastern Convention is not currently able to speak for itself (as far as I know). Nevertheless, I did find a reference to a vote for revision in a report of the Sweetwater Musical Convention, held August 30, 1902 in Butler County, Alabama. It is not clear whether they had accurate information, but the Sweetwater Convention passed a resolution against revising the Sacred Harp, particularly noting, “…the Southeastern Convention did, at its last session, appoint a committee of twelve to revise and amend the Sacred Harp so as to change the music therein from sacred to instrumental music…” (Minutes of the Sweetwater Musical Convention, The Greenville Advocate, Wednesday, November 12, 1902, p. 1) At this late date it is hard to know if that was the original intent of the Southeastern Convention, or a misunderstanding on the part of the Sweetwater Convention. We do know that the revision as undertaken and completed did change keys of many songs to those most likely actually used (and therefore corresponding to instruments), but retained the four staves and four shapes. It seems reliable, though, that there was at least some kind of move on the part of the Southeastern Convention to revise the book, whether or not it was under their standard that the revision was eventually made. Since the meetings of the Southeastern Convention that I have seen referenced were in the fall, later than the meeting of the Sweetwater Convention, the assumption would be that the Southeastern Convention appointed a committee on revision in the fall of 1901.
Perhaps three or more possibilities exist for this explaining this information:
- The Sweetwater Convention was mistaken concerning the intent and extent of revision to be considered by the Southeastern Convention.
- The revision committee eventually steered the revision in a different direction than the extent of revision intended by the Southeastern Convention.
- The revision prepared by W. M. Cooper and others was not under the auspices of the Southeastern Convention.
The necessary rights
An article in the Elba Clipper (“Newsy Notes, Of South Alabama Happenings,” Thursday, July 10, 1902, page 6) tells us that “(a)t the urgent request of many friends, Mr. W. M. Cooper, the Sacred Harp Singer of Southeast Alabama, has consented to revise the Sacred Harp…” and further that “Mr. Cooper has secured the necessary rights for a revision and new compilation, and he will begin the work at once.” This latter note is interesting and important, suggesting Cooper may have been in contact with the White family to obtain “the necessary rights.” The article doesn’t add much more that we don’t know – mentions retaining church songs, adding alto, more poetry, changing keys, removing old songs & adding new ones, and retaining the “Four-Shape Notes.” It calls for a meeting at Newton, Alabama on July 17, 1902, and the creation of an “Inspection Committee” to inspect new songs to be inserted in the book.
It is a fortunate circumstance that the Weekly Enterprise newspaper in Enterprise, Alabama published a report of this meeting – “Revision of the Sacred Harp--Meeting of Committee,” Thursday, July 31, 1902, page 1. It was front-page news! “The committee on revision of the Sacred Harp” met at the Baptist Church at Newton, certainly implying there was an elected committee existing. They permanently organized by electing officers, etc. W. M. Cooper was chairman and S. C. D. Brown secretary. In this report there is discussion of “placing the sharps and flats in such as position that they will accord with an instrument.” Might this be what the Sweetwater Convention heard and feared? The article also mentions that a committee of the Clayhatchie Musical Convention “was received, and later on added to the Revising Committee.” As good Sacred Harp singers they also included singing in their meeting! The committee of twelve that we see listed in the 1902 book was appointed at this meeting. One name included in this newspaper article, Armsted Armstong, is replaced in the 1902 book with the name T. W. Loftin (at least in the earliest book I have seen). No accounting of this at this time. They agreed to meet again in Newton September 22, 1902, but I have found no notice of this meeting.
Committee listed in the Weekly Enterprise newspaper:
W. M. Cooper, Chairman; B. P. Poyner; W. R. McCoy; D. F. Stevens; J. M. C. Shaw; W. L. McGee; W. A. Robinett; W. I. Thompson; J. F. Helms; J. C. Ross; Armsted Armstong; S. C. D. Brown, Secretary.
Committee listed in The Sacred Harp, 1902:
W. M. Cooper, Chairman; B. P. Poyner; W. R. McCoy; T. W. Loftin; D. F. Stevens; J. M. C. Shaw; W. L. McGee; W. A. Robinett; W. I. Thompson; J. F. Helms; J. C. Ross; S. C. D. Brown, Secretary.
The late unpleasantness
Two newspaper sources I have found mention Cooper obtaining the rights to revise The Sacred Harp. It seems at some point a misunderstanding may have arose. In the fall of 1908 T. J. Allen writes to The Troy Messenger newspaper about “some unpleasantness between J. L. White and Prof. W. M. Cooper…” (“Card from Mr. Allen,” Troy, Alabama, Wednesday, September 23, 1908, page 6). It is hard to tell from only this letter just what happened, but one might guess it had to do with The Sacred Harp songbook – perhaps a difference on what was meant by the permission given to Cooper? Whatever it was, it appears to have gone to court in Pike County, and White had to pay court costs. Here are some excerpts from Allen’s letter:
“…this unpleasantness was settled by outside friends voluntarily paying the costs, with a distinct agreement that no more be said at the matter.”
“…since the agreement in Pike and he [Monroe Revill] was one to help pay the costs in the Law Court, where there was a charge against Mr. White.”
“…everything has been fairly settled in Alabama…the matter is settled so far as we know.”
This letter or card from Allen is in response to a blurb appearing in The Troy Messenger, September 16, 1908, page 1 “endorsing the character of Prof. J. L. White…” Unfortunately, there is nothing in this short piece to indicate why he was endorsing the character of Professor White – other than saying “about whom there was some friction among a number of singers in this county.” The upshot of Allen’s letter is that Revill was bringing something back up that had been settled. It would be interesting to discover what happened, though we would also be bringing something back up that had been settled! (Certainly long since, by these deceased singers.)
We probably still suffer from some idea that the southeast Alabama singers were isolated and unknown to the Atlanta singers, but I think this is probably a result of them being unknown to later writers of Sacred Harp history. For example, a report of the 1906 Chanehatchie Sacred Harp Musical Convention (sp.? Perhaps Chanahatchie or Channahatchee? Eufaula Times and News, Thursday, November 8, 1906, page 3) mentions the presence of Prof. E. T. Pound and Prof. J. L. White. Further, White taught at least one singing school (probably more) in southeast Alabama at a place called Rodgers School House, probably in Pike County (The Troy Messenger, Wednesday, July 28, 1909, page 5).[i]
It will not be long
Newspaper articles suggest some of the timeline for the Cooper’s revision of The Sacred Harp. Perhaps it begins with an act of the Southeastern Musical Convention in 1901. By July of 1902 Cooper had consented to revise the Sacred Harp and had secured the necessary rights. At least two committee meetings are referenced in newspapers. On July 17th the permanent organization on revision was set in place with officers W. M. Cooper, chairman; W. A. Robinett(e), vice-chairman; and S. C. D. Brown, secretary. New compositions were solicited. Another meeting, of which we presently know nothing else, was set for September 22, 1902. By December, the work must have been substantially finished and ready for typesetting – since the preface of this revision was dated December 12, 1902. Quoting an undated Dothan Home Journal source, the Elba Clipper on December 18, 1902 says “But so far as can be seen everything has been arranged, and Mr. W. M. Cooper will go North and superintend the printing of the revised edition of the Sacred Harp” (“The New Sacred Harp,” Thursday, December 18, 1902, page 5). It is not known just how long or how many times Cooper was “gone North” (or what his superintendence entailed) but we know that “North” was Cincinnati, Ohio.[ii] On Tuesday the 3rd of February the Dothan Home Journal reported that “Mr. W. M. Cooper returned Sunday night from Cincinnati. He has been there some weeks superintending the printing of the revised edition of the Sacred Harp (“The Sacred Harp,” Tuesday, February 3, 1903, p. 4).
Though the newspapers reference the book being “printed” in Cincinnati, this apparently means the creation of the plates for printing (of which some of you know much more than I). The book itself was printed and bound by Bigham & Smith in Nashville, Tennessee (“The Revised Sacred Harp,” Elba Clipper, Thursday, April 9, 1903, page 2; “The Revised Sacred Harp,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 8, 1903, page 5). Advertising in the Roanoke Leader, October 12, 1904, on page 1 Cooper emphasized revised rudiments that were convenient for teachers, pieces not generally used replaced with new songs “some of which are very fine,” alto or counter added to every piece in the book, and superior paper and binding. (I can testify to this compared to the very brittle cheap paper on the Byrd/White reprint of the 1870 book that I own.) Books were $1.25 with special prices to teachers & dealers, and he says the first edition of several thousand copies sold out in six months.
While researching, I found it interesting to see where you could purchase The Revised Sacred Harp. For examples and where mentioned, see below (the price is given where that is included):
- J. F. Patterson, Elba, Alabama, The Elba Clipper, May 28, 1903, page 5
- Jeff D. Compton, Troy, Alabama, The Troy Messenger, June 22, 1904, page 2; $1.00
- J. D. C. Durham, Fyffe, Alabama, The Fort Payne Journal, September 27, 1905, page 1; $1 each, $10 dozen
- J. D. Compton, Troy, Alabama, The Troy Messenger, May 13, 1908, page 8 (has the latest revision and offers to exchange the new for the old, apparently pro-rated! “will allow what’s right for them”)
- J. F. Barton, Andalusia, Alabama, The Andalusia Star, July 1, 1909, page 4; $ 1 each, $9 dozen
- John W. Miller, Athens, Texas, Corsicana Daily Sun, September 7, 1909, page 2
- C. M. Wiggins, Andalusia, Alabama, The Andalusia Star, June 20, 1912, page 4
- C. A. Pippin, Newton, Alabama, Southern Star, May 3, 1916, page 4; $1 each; $9 per dozen
- Young’s Drug Store, Dothan, Alabama, Dothan Home Journal, May 26, 1903, page 5
- Tucker & Harp’s Drug Store, Elba, Alabama, The Elba Clipper, September 26, 1905, page 7
- Knox’s Book Store, Troy, Alabama, The Troy Messenger, September 5, 1906, page 6
- Adam’s Book Store, Greenville, Alabama, The Living Truth, October 19, 1906, page 5
- City Drug Store, Enterprise, Alabama, The People’s Ledger, March 5, 1908, page 1
- Fort Payne Journal office, Fort Payne, Alabama, The Fort Payne Journal, September 6, 1911, page 1
- Luverne Journal (newspaper) office, Luverne, Alabama, The Luverne Journal, February 20, 1913, page 5
- Dixie Central Company, Troy, Alabama, The Troy Messenger, 14 May 14, 1913, page 2; $1
[i] A J. L. White book singing was held at Enon Church near Brundidge in Pike County in June 1920 (The Clayton Record, Clayton, Alabama, Friday, August 06, 1920, page 1).
[ii] The Ozark Tribune in February 1903 says Cooper “has returned from Cincinnatti (sic), where he has been for several months” (Tuesday, February 10, 1903, page 5). From this, it seems he could have stayed there from mid-December to early February.