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Publication: Music Library Association. Notes
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 27634
ISSN: 00274380
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The Makers of the Sacred Harp. By David Warren Steel with Richard H. Hulan. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. [xv, 321 p. 9780252035678 (hardcover), $70; ISBN 9780252077609 (paperback), $25.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

In the twentieth century, The Sacred Harp emerged as the preeminent nineteenthcentury shape-note sacred tunebook in the South. In fact, in my experience, many people today believe shape-note singing and Sacred Harp singing are synonymous; for them there is no other shape-note music. The library world reinforces this understanding slightly in the way it places the heading "Sacred Harp singing," but no other tunebook-specific heading, within the syndetic structure of the "Shape note singing" subject heading. David Warren Steel's book fills an important gap in the scholarship about The Sacred Harp by focusing to a large degree on the individual people and songs associated with the early years. Before I comment specifically on the importance of Steel's book, I would like to place The Sacred Harp within the broader field of shape-note music as a whole.

When The Sacred Harp was first published in 1844, many similar oblong-style tunebooks already had been published (more than 100, according to the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association's Web site:, accessed 6 July 2011). The compilers of The Sacred Harp copied liberally from existing tunebooks that utilized a four-shape-notation system- a system that was most popular in the South-including the Southern Harmony, published in 1835. Such tunebooks, which typically contained a few hundred religious songs notated in three- or four-part harmony, were widely sung in a congregational style at community singing events outside of formal church services. In the decades that followed, several other oblong-style tunebooks, many of which incorporated a newer seven-shape system such as the Christian Harmony and the Harp of Columbia, enjoyed substantial success. In the twentieth century, over thirty Southern publishers, most notably James D. Vaughan and Stamps-Baxter, published hundreds of smaller shape-note gospel songbook titles that typically featured newer songs. Shapenote hymnbooks such as Heavenly Highway Hymns and Favorite Songs and Hymns, both published by Stamps-Baxter, became very popular and are still found in many Southern church pews. The history and variety of shape-note music traditions are complex and rich, and stretch far beyond The Sacred Harp.

That being said, the extraordinary popularity of The Sacred Harp music is undeniable, and for reasons that will perhaps never be fully understood, the singing traditions associated with most other shapenote tunebooks have diminished or ended (although singings and singing conventions can still be found that use The Southern Harmony, The Christian Harmony, The Missouri Harmony, The New Harp of Columbia, and various newer shape-note gospel songbooks). The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association Web site lists over 375 locations where Sacred Harp singers gather regularly, mainly in Georgia and Alabama but also throughout the world. The tunebook, which has gone through numerous revisions, has become the primary song book used at informal singing events not only in rural churches and community buildings in the Deep South, but also at college campuses, music-related conferences, and informal house gatherings on a national scale. Typically, the songs are sung by everyone in attendance at a Sacred Harp singing, and the singers, who are organized by vocal part, sit in a square facing a song leader. The Sacred Harp has been the subjects of several books and recordings, innumerable articles, and a feature-length documentary titled Awake, My Soul (the movie's trailer is, in and of itself, a striking piece). The tunebook clearly deserves the attention of researchers of American music traditions.

With his book The Makers of the Sacred Harp, David Warren Steel makes an important contribution to the scholarship on The Sacred Harp, in large part because he includes biographical sketches of over 250 composers and poets whose songs are contained in its early editions. He also includes data on over 550 Sacred Harp songs, including source information. Most of this information is presented in list form; the people are listed alphabetically and the songs are listed numerically by their corresponding page number. Although the lists give the work a reference-book feel, the format will be much appreciated by researchers. The tendency in some books about music traditions is to string profiles of people together into a series of paragraphs, perhaps to maintain a narrative quality, and we can be thankful that Steel did not succumb to that temptation. The clarity of his information is commendable.

The lists are preceded by a collection of brief yet informative essays in parts 1 and 2 of the book. In part 1, Steel explores eight topics under the larger theme of early Sacred Harp history. In his opening essay "The Origins of the Sacred Harp," he reviews the earlier sources that influenced The Sacred Harp, summarizes the various editions of the tunebook, and shares what he can about one of the most dramatic stories in nineteenth-century music publishing. The truth behind the story will probably never be known definitively, and Steel strives to be fair to all parties by pointing out discrepancies in different accounts, but the basic story is that in 1835, brothers-inlaw William Walker and B. F. White wanted to publish a large shape-note tunebook they had compiled. It was decided Walker would travel to Philadelphia to arrange for it to be printed, but when he got there-so the story goes-he decided on his own to change the name of the compilation, and to remove any mention of White. The tunebook was The Southern Harmony, which Walker claimed decades later had a sales total of 600,000 copies. White went on to coauthor The Sacred Harp with Elisha J. King in 1844. This story has circulated since the 1830s, and it was published in Joseph James's 1904 book A Brief History of the Sacred Harp and Its Author, B. F. White, Sr., and Contributors ([Douglasville, Ga.: New South Book and Job Print, 1904], 29-30). Whether the story played a role in the ultimate triumph of The Sacred Harp over The Southern Harmony is unclear, but uncovering more details about the impact of the story would be a worthy-though politically perilous-research goal.

Steel's seven other essays explore topics such as westward migration, the Civil War, families, professions, teachers, and musical stylistic elements. He goes beyond simply reviewing existing scholarship, and also shares new insights, thought-provoking reflections, genealogy charts, and musical analysis. Through his research, he establishes that the songs in The Sacred Harp are linked to a variety of styles, some folk in nature but most with strong connections to New England tunebooks and singing practices of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (pp. 7-9). This contrasts somewhat with the views of the famous shape-note music scholar George Pullen Jackson, who argued in 1944 that Sacred Harp melodies were linked largely to folk songs (George Pullen Jackson, The Story of the Sacred Harp, 1844-1944 [Nashville: Vanderbilt Univer - sity Press, 1944], 4). A full discussion of the musical roots of The Sacred Harp is in Steel's essay "The Styles of Sacred Harp Music." After reading the essay, I was left with a sense that a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the music of early shape-note tunebooks has yet to be completed.

In part 2, Richard H. Hulan contributes two essays on early camp-meeting songs and lyricists. He analyzes the contents of eighteen camp-meeting songsters published between 1801 and 1805, which was the period immediately following the creation of the camp-meeting movement in 1800. Along with his discussions about the songsters and people that were influential during that period, Hulan discusses the nature of camp-meeting songs and how some of them found their way into The Sacred Harp. He then offers biographical sketches of five influential poets and hymn writers during that time period.

The limitations of this book are minor and are what one might expect in such a work. Some pages are thick with information, and will be useful primarily to serious researchers looking up specific data. The variety of presentation formats in the book made it necessary to create a complex and sometimes confusing collection of bibliographies. Regarding the list of songs, I was unclear at times about the page number symbols, and whether page numbers corresponded to specific editions of The Sacred Harp. With an emphasis on historical documents and other written sources, the authors only address in passing the significant role of oral tradition in early-nineteenthcentury Southern religious singing, especially camp-meeting singing. This is understandable, however, and we can appreciate the authors' desire to bring hard data about the early years of The Sacred Harp to the current scholarship, which often focuses on social dynamics. For more wideranging historical information, readers will want to refer to Buell Cobb's The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989), and for more information about how Sacred Harp traditions have developed and changed since the early twentieth century, readers will benefit from John Bealle's Public Worship, Private Faith (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997) and Kiri Miller's Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

Steel and Hulan have written an important book that adds substance and clarity to existing research on the early decades of The Sacred Harp. At the same time, they have presented short essays on a wide range of topics that together serve as a useful introduction to readers seeking general information about the tunebook and its traditions. Highly recommended for all libraries that maintain collections on American music.

Author affiliation:

Drew Beisswenger

Missouri State University

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