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The Shenandoah Harmony, 2012 - A ray of light in an otherwise troubled world 

by Sheila Girling Macadam and Edwin Macadam


In a time of recession that stretches beyond national and geographical boundaries, there is a lot to be said for comfort derived from the past.  For many the arrival of The Shenandoah Harmony, in content and form an homage to sacred and secular music over more than two hundred years, will be welcomed as a ray of light in an otherwise troubled world.  It has been a privilege to be asked to review The Shenandoah Harmony as members of the United Kingdom shapenote singing community, a task made easier by the provision of an electronic copy, using LaTeX, a powerful typesetting program, complete with interactive hyperlinks between commentary, indices, and scores.

The Music Committee used as their starting point works contained within the five editions of a publication by Ananias Davisson, The Kentucky Harmony, together with three editions of A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony, published collectively between 1816 and 1825. The intention to produce such an anthology of music expanded to include sacred and secular tunes from a wide range of 18th - and 19th-century American sources, and to embrace tunes of the 20th and 21st centuries. With the inclusion of pieces in two and three parts as well as standard four part harmony, The Shenandoah Harmony offers a wide corpus of music to explore for groups ranging from duos and trios to larger singing schools and shapenote gatherings.   The committee’s enlightened decision to resource, or to commission the composition of alto lines for many of the tunes which were originally in three parts only, is applauded. 

The use of Lilypond 2.14 as a publishing tool has made lighter work of producing such a large collection of material than other compilers may have experienced in the past.  Both the modification of the software to create slightly larger noteheads, and the fonts chosen, allow for greater legibility, clarity and ease of singing than those found in tune books from the early 19th century.  There are a few instances where dotted slurs over notes in a tune with a peculiar metre might have been more helpful than splitting a syllable.

The ordering of the book, for the most part, follows a traditional historical format starting with exemplars of the earliest, and often simplest, compositional forms.   From Bruce Randall's 'Frewsburgh' onwards, compositions from the late 20th and early 21st centuries appear at a steady rate, judiciously placed with an eye to key, metre, form – whether strophic or fuguing – and text.   A little lighter in weight, but of similar dimensions to The Sacred Harp, Ed. 1991, with 480 pages (including indices) The Shenandoah Harmony comprises 469 tunes. Slightly more than half of them are in minor keys, going a long way to redress what has been perceived by some singers as an imbalance of choice between major and minor in other publications.

From a British perspective, it is very rewarding to see the inclusion of several pieces from the west gallery canon, especially those by William Knapp.  In the case of his 'Funeral Hymn', however, additional rests appear which are not in the stated source, and disturb the integrity of the text. With William Tans'ur's 'Barby' tune, by 1755 he had extended this plain tune with an attractive fugue, which was reproduced in Boston in Thomas Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained, in 1764. Perhaps an instance of a missed opportunity to include what might have been a superior version of the tune?

Two tunes that have been part of the English carolling tradition in and around the city of Sheffield, documented for more than a century, appear in The Shenandoah Harmony. Contrary to the practice of the time, John Wainwright’s 150-year old tune 'Walworth', (known to him as 'Christmas Day Hymn'), had the air in the soprano/treble line, and a much beloved variant, 'Old Christians', continues to be sung thus on this side of the Atlantic.  To some native ears, the switching of Wainwright's air to the tenor line produces a harmony which sounds at odds to their tradition.

Known also as 'Tunbridge', 'Invitation' and principally as 'Knaresborough', Abijah Forbush had included a four part version of James Leach's tune 'Jacob’s Well' as 'Stillman' in The Psalmodist’s Assistant, Ed.2, Boston, 1806.  The Shenandoah Harmony three part version of 'Jacob's Well' seems to be missing the emotive strength of 'Knaresborough', the four part version predominantly found in English publications and MSS, and together with that which has come down as part of the Sheffield carolling tradition.  Much more could be said about the history of these tunes and their transmission to America, would space permit.

The committee are congratulated on giving Daniel Read's 'Stafford' a less pejorative text than that used almost exclusively since its first publication in 1782, together with the restoration of the fugue in his tune 'Lisbon';  it is a delight to find it whole again in The Shenandoah Harmony following its 'fugectomy' in The Sacred Harp.  The reviewers look forward to this practice being extended to other similarly treated tunes.   It was pleasing to see the inclusion of Ezra Goff's 'Sutton New' and the Babcock tune 'Springfield', personal favourites of several years, together with Elias Mann’s tune 'Foster'.

Also welcomed are arrangements of tunes from the tradition of the Lee family of Hoboken and from the Sand Mountain tradition; John Bayer’s arrangement of the latter's 'Symyadda' is another gem in the collection.  The Glen Rock Carollers have their origins in an English oral tradition of carol singing which has been perpetuated in southern Pennsylvania for more than 150 years.  Having heard them at the Festival of Village Carols in both 2002 and 2012, it was exciting to find the committee had selected their 'Hark, Hark' – a version of the tune 'Sheffield Park' by John Hall, now known as 'New Hark'.

Given that the original project had as its crux the tunes from Ananias Davisson's publications in the second and third decades of the 19th century, the decision to include more than sixty 20th- and 21st-century compositions in The Shenandoah Harmony was a bold one, but a wise one.  It would be invidious to single out particular tunes and their composers for praise, but if there was one modern song which might tip the balance as to whether to purchase a copy of The Shenandoah Harmony or not, Richard Popp's 'Stony Island' is a strong candidate.  A minor fuguing tune in the best tradition, with a text presaging changes in theology, and a memorable alto line; the only complaint would be the absence of additional verses, James Montgomery’s fourth verse would certainly serve.

Another inspired move by the committee was to draw on D.H. Mansfield’s seminal publication, The American Vocalist, 1848. This edition was a source first encountered by the reviewers through Larry Gordon, Anthony Barrand and Carole Moody Crompton’s Northern Harmony, rev. 3rd Ed., 1995. It is a joy to be given the opportunity to revisit these versions of 'All Is Well' and 'Amazing Grace', in particular. 

This leads to consideration as to how the content of The Shenandoah Harmony mirrors the expansion of interest in the shapenote genre over the past 30 years or so.  1991 saw the publication of the latest edition of The Sacred Harp, offering new compositions together with exploring previously untapped sources of psalmody that predated the compilation of Smith and Little's Easy Instructor, 1801.  Eleven years previously, in Vermont, Larry Gordon et al had collaborated to self-publish Northern Harmony, containing for the most part compositions from the First New England School.  The second edition in 1990 expanded to include new works, and in 1993 the third edition continued this process, adding music from what had become to be recognised as the west gallery tradition in the United Kingdom.  The fifth edition, published in 2012, offers the same eclectic mix as in previous years, but celebrates the growth of modern compositions in the genre on both sides of the Atlantic.  The selection of tunes over the years by Gordon et al have become widely known and loved by singers in the United Kingdom, and the inclusion in The Shenandoah Harmony of 28 of those previously published in Northern Harmony 1993 bears testament to the Vermonters' innate sense of a good tune.

In similar vein, the scholarly Norumbega Harmony, 2003, offers historic tunes from the First New England School and modern works, together with pieces from the Western and Southern States, indicative of the emergence of interest in folk tunes, exemplified, inter alia, by those that appear in the Kentucky Harmony. There, 38 of the choices of the editorial committee in Boston chime with those of The Shenandoah Harmony, and several pieces appear in all three collections.

It is possible the resonances between the three books will appeal initially to those singers in the UK who were first made aware of shapenote music by Larry Gordon, but there is so much more to The Shenandoah Harmony than just a happy coincidence of some old favourites in a new publication.  What started out as an intention to bring the music and the times of the Kentucky Harmony to a 21st -century audience, has patently expanded to embrace the demands of a new generation of singers and composers who have been eager for the opportunity to be more involved with this exciting genre.  Were there any doubt about this, the YouTube videos and recordings of enthusiastic renderings of The Shenandoah Harmony sampler collection from early 2012 onwards, are more than sufficient testament. Thanks are due to the groups of singers on both sides of the Atlantic who, over the past year, have welcomed these tunes into their shapenote repertoire. The leap of faith shown by The Shenandoah Harmony Music Committee in their decision to self-publish a new anthology for a new millennium is well justified.  The times certainly are a-changing, order your copy now.

Sheila Girling Macadam and Edwin Macadam
February 2013


This Web Site has been set up for the United Kingdom Sacred Harp and Shapenote Community in order to provide a resource centre for singing in the United Kingdom.  Any correspondence, helpful suggestions and contributions as to content, amendments, additions and new web links should be sent to      Contents of this website © 1998-2019 Edwin and Sheila Macadam, Oxford, United Kingdom.