My aunt Jerusha Henrietta Denson was born on July 5th, 1893 at Carrollton, Georgia. She was called “Rush” by her family. At school her name was changed to Ruth, which stuck for the rest of her life. She was one of eight children born to Thomas Jackson Denson and Amanda Burdette Denson—her brothers were Paine and Howard Denson, and her sisters were Annie Eugenia (Aaron) and Maggie Frances (Cagle). Three other children died as infants. Ruth also had three half-sisters—twenty years younger than her or more—who were born to Thomas and his third wife, Lola Mahalia Akers: Vera Mildred (Nunn), Violet Beatrice (Hinton), and Tommye Mahalia (Mauldin). Interestingly, Tommye was the only child named after their father.
Ruth Denson married a “dashing” young man named Lewis D. “Bud” Edwards in 1917. I only heard her mention him one time when she said, “He was a sweet ole thing.” They were divorced and little else is known about him. She never married again. Ruth spent her working life as a fourth grade teacher in Cullman, Alabama. She used to say that she liked to teach fourth graders because “I could mold them and make something out of them.” She refused offers to be promoted into administration. She lived for over forty years in a room on the second floor of a large, stately old home in Cullman that had been converted into a “rooming house.”
After retirement, she remained in Cullman until the owner of “The White House” died and the house was sold. Aunt Ruth arranged to move to Jasper, Alabama to live with one of her younger half-sisters and her husband, Earnest and Vera Nunn. Uncle Earnest was a carpenter and he built a large addition to their home where Aunt Ruth had a very nice sitting room and desk, along with a large bedroom and bath. She was quick to let us know that “I paid for the materials to build ‘my apartment.’” She had several old large book cases that had been in Uncle Paine’s law offices, with the glass doors that opened up and then slid over the shelf. She lived in that home until a few months before her death in April, 1978.
Aunt Ruth had volumes of books, Sacred Harp tunebooks, files, and other memorabilia. She was a devoted correspondent and wrote letters up until the time her eyesight prevented her from seeing well enough to write. Since I was in the Army (beginning in 1965) and away from Alabama, I corresponded with her for many years. I still have several dozen letters that she wrote to me in Texas, Vietnam, Bangkok and other locations. She was cute in responding to a letter—If I sent her a “long letter” with lots of news she would begin her reply with “I was happy to receive your good letter.” If, on the other hand, I sent her just a short note, she would simply reply “I received your letter.”
Most of her books and furniture stayed in Aunt Vera Nunn’s home until Vera died in 1989. At that time, family members were asked to look at things which were still in the house and to take anything that they would like to have. One of the items that I took was a Bible that belonged to Aunt Ruth. I also took a book of poems, One Hundred and One Famous Poems published in Chicago in 1920. Inside the cover she wrote “Property of Ruth D. Edwards, Cullman City School, 4th grade.” There was a handwritten list of twenty-six poems that were apparently important and meaningful to her. I also have some Sacred Harp books that she had, including a copy of the 1929 printing of the Original Sacred Harp (James edition) that belonged to Thomas Jackson Denson. The cover had come loose from the binding, and thread was used to keep it attached to the pages. There were a number of notations in the book that Tom Denson had written, presumably for corrections for the next edition of what was to be known as the 1936 Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision. The Denson relatives agreed to donate the book to the Sacred Harp Museum in Carrollton, Georgia.
The Bible that I inherited from Aunt Ruth is The Schofield Reference Bible; there is nothing to indicate when she purchased or received this Bible, though it lists several copyright dates, the latest being 1945. She had written many notes in the front and back pages, as well as on the partially blank pages after certain chapters. Also, there were a number of “things” that Aunt Ruth had in her Bible: letters, notes, articles, poems, place marks. More than just random notes and scraps, these items give an intimate glimpse of Aunt Ruth’s character, reflecting the things that were most important to her in her life and her belief.
One theme in the notes in her Bible was the importance of family. On a blank page near the front, she recorded part of the Denson family tree: “The elder Denson Brothers. Levi Phillips—father of T J Denson. James, Nimrod, Cicero and Ezra.” She noted that they were “educated in England in the early 1800s . . . Levi Phillip studied for the ministry. He preached his first sermon in John Wesley’s church in England, according to Grandmother Julia Ann Jones Denson, his wife.” I am unable to confirm or deny this information. Aunt Ruth told us that Levi Phillip Denson was “a circuit riding Methodist minister” who served churches in the west Georgia and east Alabama area while they lived in Arbacoochee, Alabama. On the back pages of the Bible Aunt Ruth wrote the names of “My Grandparents” and the names of all the children of Thomas J. Denson. She also wrote some genealogy of the Denson and Burdette families (Amanda Burdette was her mother).
Other notes are more lighthearted in their approach to family, like the cartoon from the Saturday Evening Post which shows two little boys sitting on a curb. One is saying to the other: “I know I’m not adopted because if I was they would have sent me back by now.” Aunt Ruth had a good sense of humor and loved to tell stories for willing listeners.
Another important theme in her notes was her faith. Inside the front cover, she copied out part of Second Thessalonians, Chapter 3:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received from us. . . . Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. . . . But ye, brethren, be not weary of doing well.
In the pages of the Bible there is a poem which from a copy of the Sunday Birmingham News titled “Poem for the Living,” by Theodora Kroeber. A few lines of the poem:
When I am dead,
Cry for me a little.
Think of me sometimes,
But not too much.
It is not good for you
Or your wife or your children,
To allow your thoughts to dwell
Too long on the dead.
Think of me now and again
As I was in life
At the moment which it is pleasant to recall,
But not too long.
Leave me in peace
As I shall leave you, too, in peace.
While you live,
Let your thoughts be on the living.
She was also very proud of her country. One of her notes in the front pages reads, “Inscription on Liberty Bell: ‘Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ Leviticitus 25:10.” And there was one more quotation: “‘I can teach you to sing but only God can teach you to sing with the spirit.’ Thomas Jackson Denson, 1863–1935.” Aunt Ruth told us that “Dad Thomas” would tell that to his singing school students.
There was also a copy of a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of Canada in 1918. Aunt Ruth would often quote this poem if she happened to pass by a National Cemetery. Here are a few lines:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard among the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and we loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Field.
Other notes give us insight into Sacred Harp history. There is a two page typewritten letter from Paine Denson written on September 26, 1944, just after the Sacred Harp Centennial Celebration in Double Springs, Alabama from September 18–24, 1944. This event celebrated the one hundred years of Sacred Harp singing since Benjamin Franklin White published the first Sacred Harp in 1844. (A copy of the “Report of the Sacred Harp Centennial Celebration” is available online.) In his letter, Uncle Paine wrote the following:
Dear Sister: Well, the ordeal is over and it was an howling success, as far as I could see, from every standpoint. It was good to see you in your role as Secretary. The poise and dignity that accompanied you at every turn made me feel glad to have a sister who could play such a roll. . . . I guess that is enough, or rather it is about as good as I can do in an effort to communicate to how I felt about it. It won’t be done any better in the next century that you did your part that time.
This was high praise from Paine Denson. He was not known to be overly complimentary and in this instance, he was expressing his admiration to his younger sister. I am sure that is why she kept this letter for over forty years in her Bible.
The Centennial Celebration was also the occasion when the monument to Seaborn and Thomas Denson was unveiled in front of the courthouse in Double Springs, Alabama. Paine wrote these words to Ruth: “The monument was beautiful and now that it is up we MUST carry on in keeping the sentiments it represents and never let the family name down.”
There is another letter in her Bible that was written in April 1948 after Paine and Ruth had travelled to Detroit, Michigan for a program where Dr. George Pullen Jackson was an active participant. The event was a large music association convention and it is my understanding that Dr. Jackson had a group of singers give a demonstration of Sacred Harp during the meeting. Aunt Ruth also spoke during the Sacred Harp session, and apparently had to bring the audience to order. Uncle Paine wrote,
I’m still thinking over and enjoying our trip to Detroit. Your method of quieting that audience down was strictly up to the minute. It worked and worked well too. I liked the way you did that. Of course, I did not know what it would be. You have a way of keeping me guessing. It is no use trying to prime you for you will and always do the right thing when your time to act comes.
On a small piece of paper is a penciled list of numbers with “words only” written at the top of the list. The numbers are: 27, 457, 111, 68, 349, and 329. There is a note written in different handwriting that says, “Cousin Paine’s own selections for his funeral in his own handwriting.”
Another page, handwritten by Aunt Ruth, appears to be a rough draft of comments. The name at the end of the page is R. E. “Bob” Denson, but the writing is Aunt Ruth’s (Ruth and Bob were double first cousins). It is undated, but there is a reference to the 1966 edition of the tunebook.
Is the Sacred Harp Dragging Its Feet?
Recently I heard some pessimistic people prophesy that in fifteen or twenty years Sacred Harp singing would become extinct. When asked why they thought so, the reply was, “Because people have lost interest in Sacred Harp music and do not support the singing as they did in past years. Therefore the life is being dragged out of the singings.”
I cannot and will not accept that idea. The Sacred Harp is not dragging its feet. For the past twelve years, I have attended a singing almost every Sunday somewhere in Georgia, Mississippi or Alabama, and every singing has been well attended. Local singers give visitors a warm welcome and each time the day is too short for all the leaders to be used. At the social hour the singers enjoy the delicious food prepared by the ladies of the community and the delightful fellowship of friends. No, the Sacred Harp is not dragging its feet. In fact, it is more popular today than ever before and with the advent of the 1966 Edition, it will enter a new era of popularity and prosperity.
On a small piece of paper, Aunt Ruth wrote a quotation by Richmond Flowers, a political figure in Alabama: “The mantle of leadership is not the cloak of comfort, but the robe of responsibility.” Aunt Ruth would often say that the mantle of Sacred Harp leadership passed from the Densons to Hugh McGraw during the 1960s. He and Aunt Ruth talked weekly for many years. She loved him and was a constant source of encouragement to him. He was very good and kind to her and would drive from Georgia to Cullman, Alabama to pick her up to go to singings. In many ways she looked to Hugh as the “son she never had.”
Reminding us of her long career as a primary school teacher, she also placed a poem in her Bible about teaching. It was clipped from what appears to be a National Retired Teachers Association magazine. The title is “After Fifty Years in the Classroom” by Miss Clare Audrey Sission, Warsaw, KY:
I’ve finished my work and laid aside
My paper, my pencil, and my pen,
As I look about I see my boys,
Who have all become worthwhile men.
The little girls that I taught to read,
To cipher, to count and to spell,
Have now become grown, and I see,
Them serve their homes and their country well.
“What’s my reward?” you’re eager to ask,
“And now what will I do today?”
I’ll find my gift in the lives of those
I have guided along the way.
And when at last the shadows shall fall,
And I am looking up to pray,
I can say, “Dear God, I did my best,
I pine not for my yesterday.”
This was a very appropriate poem for Aunt Ruth to keep and cherish. She truly took delight in the hundreds of children that she taught. She received dozens of cards from former students at Christmas and other times during the year. She taught the children and even grandchildren of some of her early students. She would often talk about her students and was very proud of so many of them.
Finally, I will quote the words that I used as part of the memorial lesson at the United Kingdom Sacred Harp Convention in September, 2012. These words have no title, date, or any other indication of their intended purpose. It is my belief that she wrote these words to use at a memorial lesson where she would be a participant. She was often asked to be a participant well into her later years and she was honored to be asked to participate. She was eloquent and much the teacher and would not speak until everyone in the room stopped talking. These are the words she wrote:
You know, when death comes to each old and well-loved friend, we die a little too. Something goes out of us – Something that is missing to the end of our lives. Somehow though the long days pass on into line – – – the Loom of Life goes on and on weaving a beautiful pattern even though one, two or three lovely strands are gone.
Ruth Denson Edwards was a “one of a kind” person. She loved her family, she was very proud of her heritage; she lived and loved Sacred Harp music and devoted much of her life to the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. She served as the recording secretary for many years and wrote the poignant and eloquent section titled “Music” that is still featured at the front of The Sacred Harp songbook. She was happiest sitting in the alto section in the last seat on the front row next to the treble section. She had an almost “regal” bearing and formality about her when she was at singings; she enjoyed a good laugh, but she reveled in the singing. Minutes of singings where she was present show that she led a great variety of tunes. She was the “matriarch” of our family for many years. She would tell marvelous stories of her Dad and Mother and other family members, and about growing up and attending singings with her father. She was very much a “presence” in family gatherings and she relished that role. She was our primary “link” to her “set” of children and to our grandfather. Here we are, thirty-five years after her death and her legacy of promoting Sacred Harp singing has not faded. As she wrote, “Music . . . is the sweet union which keeps men in close relation with the hearts of men while they live in the world and which will strike the sweet chords in that spirit land where mortality does not enter and where spiritual songs are sung throughout Eternal Ages.” A fitting tribute, the epitaph that Hugh McGraw composed for her tombstone in the Denson family plot at Fairview Cemetery in Double Springs, Alabama reads, “Here lies a queen of the Sacred Harp.”