The Sacred Harp is the best-known shape-note
song book used in Georgia.
was published in 1844 by west Georgians B. F. White of Hamilton (1800-79)
and E. J. King of Talbotton (ca. 1821-44). This tune book—both the
original version and its revisions—has helped promote the style of
unaccompanied singing known as "Sacred Harp," "shape-note," or "fasola"
Sacred Harp singing|
Development of Shape-Note Singing
The Sacred Harp uses notation developed by the
progressive New England singing masters William Little and William Smith,
who published the Easy Instructor in 1801. Their shape-note system
was designed to teach sight-reading and enable users to sing complex,
The practice of singing the scale in syllables—"Do, re, mi,
fa, sol, la, ti"—originated in Europe long before 1800. Sometimes not
seven but four syllables were used: fa, sol, la, and mi.
major scale is expressed as fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa. Smith and
Little gave each of the four syllables a shape: a triangle (fa), a circle
(sol), a rectangle (la), and a diamond (mi). The musical phrase (right)
from the hymn "Wondrous Love" shows these shapes in use.
|The shaped tune
Singing masters taught sight-reading by having students
first "sing the shapes." The line above, for example, would be sung as "La
la sol mi sol la sol mi la la sol." This practice survives in Sacred Harp
singing today. Singers first sing the shapes, or syllables for the notes
of their parts, and then the words.
Shape-note tune books and the singing masters who produced
them, as well as the social and cultural forces that affected shape-note
singing, have been widely studied. Scholars have written extensively about
The Sacred Harp itself, its editions, and its survival as the most
resilient of the four-shape books. Neither the Civil War nor the
introduction of seven-shape books and round-note denominational hymnals
extinguished singers' enthusiasm for The Sacred Harp. Nor did the
coming of radio and records or such newer styles of sacred music as
Singers today are likely to use one of two revisions. The
B. F. White Sacred Harp, known as "the Cooper book," descends from a
1902 revision by W. M. Cooper of Dothan, Alabama.
widely used in south Georgia, north Florida, and the Gulf region extending
to Texas. It has a strong following among white singers but is also
favored by African American singers in that area. (The Colored Sacred
Harp, by Judge Jackson of Alabama, a Cooper book singer, was published
in 1934. It contains shape-note songs composed or arranged by Jackson and
other African American singers. This collection has been popularized by
Alabama's Wiregrass Singers.) The other revision, arising from White's
circle of friends, children, and pupils, came to be called "the Denson
book." It began with a 1911 revision chaired by J. S. James of
Douglasville, Georgia. This edition, in turn, was the basis for revisions
by members of the Denson family of Alabama. Thomas J. Denson established
the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, which published The Original Sacred
Harp (Denson Revision) in 1936. The 1991 edition of The Sacred
Harp was produced with an editorial committee headed by Hugh McGraw of
Bremen, Georgia, where the Sacred Harp Publishing Company is now located.
This 1991 book is the choice among singers in northern Georgia and
Alabama; moreover, it is the edition most widely used nationally and
|Singing from the
Today's popularity of Sacred Harp singing owes much to B. F.
White and the subsequent singers who collected and arranged tunes, taught
singing schools, and wrote about and faithfully supported shape-note
singing. Especially deserving mention is Hugh McGraw, who has worked
tirelessly to promote learning and to reach new singers. McGraw was named
a National Heritage Fellow in 1982 for his efforts on behalf of Sacred
Harp singing. Another singing master is Richard DeLong of Carrollton, who
served with McGraw and others on the 1991 revision committee. Among
Georgia singers who use the Cooper revision, David Lee of Hoboken has
traveled and taught. The efforts of these singers and many others have
spread Sacred Harp singing, and today singers gather in Chicago, Boston,
and Albuquerque, as well as in Tallapoosa, Atlanta, and Birmingham.
A Sacred Harp Singing
Sacred Harp singings follow a characteristic pattern
established by White and maintained by such later singing masters as the
Densons and McGraw.
singers sit in a hollow square with four sections—tenor, bass, treble, and
alto. Tenors face altos, and trebles face basses. In a manner reminiscent
of the singing schools, a leader chooses songs that are called a "lesson"
and the singers are the "class." Leaders take turns standing in the center
of the square, beating time in a traditional method appropriate to the
song's time signature. Singing continues all day, with a noontime break
for dinner on the grounds. These singings require stamina and musical
athleticism, since the group may sing as many as ninety songs in the
course of one day.
The sound of Sacred Harp may vary a bit from region to
region, and white singers have different styles from African American
singers. But regardless of location or voices, Sacred Harp sounds unlike
academic choral singing or gospel singing in which melody dominates and
harmony embellishes and supports it. The tunes of The Sacred Harp
do have a melody part, the tenor, but it coexists with three other parts
in no way merely supportive of a dominant melody. The parts in shape-note
singing are so distinct that traditional tune books like The Sacred
Harp print them on separate staves, displaying what is called
Gapped scales (having less than the usual seven notes) and
unusual harmonies help account for this traditional music's characteristic
sound. Also unique is the doubling of two parts, both men and women
singing tenor and treble. Untrained voices prevail, so the singing sounds
loud and exhilarating. Although singers in different communities may
prefer slower or faster times, leaders set the tempo. One occasionally
hears singers warn each other, "Watch the leader," when the class goes too
slowly or runs over a fermata (pause sign).
Sacred Harp Tunes
In the 1844 Sacred Harp and its various revisions
many writers' works appear, but most of the texts are eighteenth-century
English hymns by such poets as Isaac Watts,
Charles Wesley, William Cowper, Samuel
Stennett, and John Newton. Some of these texts, as modified by
nineteenth-century American singers, have acquired choruses in the
camp-meeting spiritual style. In addition to the hymns, the tune book also
includes anthems—passages of prose, usually scripture—and other texts
including odes and "set pieces," words written for a particular tune or
|Singing from The Sacred
Some hymn tunes, both English and American, were originally
associated with work songs, sea songs, drinking songs, or similar tunes of
secular folk origin. Some, like the familiar "Old Hundred," came from the
psalm-singing tradition. Others are "fuging tunes," complicated settings
in a style originating in the English Renaissance and based on metrical
psalm-tunes. The fuge, like the fugue of Bach and other
eighteenth-century composers, takes its name from a word that means "to
fly" or "to flee," but a fuging tune is not the same thing as a fugue. A
shape-note fuging tune has one or more sections with staggered entrances;
the various parts begin the fuge in different measures, rest, enter again,
and sing over each other, indeed making the music soar.
Composers of fuging tunes and other settings include New
Englanders William Billings, Timothy Swan, and Daniel Read and a number of
Georgians as well: White and his coeditor, the young E. J. King; John P.
Reese and his brother H. S. Reese, born in Jasper County; and Elder Edmund
Dumas of Forsyth. (Contributors did not always compose the tunes
associated with them. In The Sacred Harp a tune may be ascribed to
a composer, an arranger who learned it from older singers, or merely to an
earlier tune book.) Some tunes, either from their origin or because of
shaping through generations of traditional singers, may properly be called
Sacred Harp singing preserves traditional ways from earlier
times but is also a living art form in which composers write new songs.
The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition, for instance, contains notable new
compositions along with texts and tunes from previous centuries.
Since 1844 Sacred Harp singers have defined, nurtured, and
passed along their art and their beliefs. Participants agree on two
points. First, this singing is democratic and independent. Free of
denominational ties, it represents a religious expression outside the
limits of any church's doctrine and discipline. Second, it is for singers,
not listeners. Those who sing enter into a community where sophisticated
musical skills, veneration for singers of previous generations, and
constant immersion in the poetry of the songs make for a powerful
John Beall, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp
and American Folksong (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
The B. F. White Sacred Harp: Revised Cooper
Edition, ed. John Etheridge, et al. (Samson, Ala.: Sacred Harp Book,
Joe Dan Boyd, Judge Jackson and the Colored Sacred
Harp (Montgomery: Alabama Folklife Society, 2003).
Buell E. Cobb Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its
Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978).
Dorothy D. Horn, Sing to Me of Heaven: A Study of Folk
and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books (Gainesville:
University Press of Florida, 1970).
George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals of the Southern
Uplands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933).
The Sacred Harp, 1991 Revision, ed. Hugh McGraw, et
al. (Bremen, Ga.: Sacred Harp Publishing, 1991).