Editors’ Note: Sacred Harp singers from across the South wrote to Paine Denson expressing their condolences and sharing their memories after the death of his father, singing school teacher, leader, and composer Thomas Jackson Denson. T. J.’s death on September 14, 1935, shortly after returning home from the United Sacred Harp Musical Association, interrupted work on a planned revision of Original Sacred Harp. Col. Paine kept these letters, later passing them along to his sister, Ruth Denson Edwards, who in turn gave them to Hugh McGraw, who placed them in the Sacred Harp Museum. The excerpts from these letters presented below express the profound impact T. J. Denson had, as a leader, teacher, and friend, on the “hundreds, yea, thousands, of people throughout the country whose hearts [were] lacerated with grief” by his death.
Letter from C. J. Griggs
C. J. Griggs was a member of the committee appointed by the United Sacred Harp Musical Association that endorsed the 1911 Original Sacred Harp, ancestor of the current 1991 edition. Griggs’ picture appeared just to the right of J. S. James’ on a page at the front of the book depicting all the members of the committee tasked with supervising the production of the book. Griggs authored the second and third verses to “The Happy Sailor” (p. 388 in The Sacred Harp), which were added to the song in 1911. Griggs wrote a short essay on The Sacred Harp, titled “A Sketch or Brief History of the Sacred Harp Song Book,” in 1936. Born in Cobb County, Georgia, and later based in Atlanta, he served as assistant president of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association under Joseph Stephen James, and was a member of the Methodist Church.
Atlanta, Georgia, 445 Langhorn Street, S. W.
September 18, 1935
My highly esteemed friend and brother:
This letter comes to you in tears of condolence, evidencing the sadness that joins me with hundreds, yea, thousands, of people throughout the country whose hearts are lacerated with grief by the death of your distinguished father, our lifelong friend, companion, and brother. Its sorrow impresses us with such force that we hardly can realize its meaning. When we think of his long life of unparalleled usefulness, our minds reflect upon the happy communities and homes filled with sweet singers which are the fruit of his labor. He laid not up for himself treasures of silver and gold, for his life was filled with the milk of human kindness which he demonstrated in his profession and daily attitude to the people. But the melancholy day has come when one and all must lament his departure. We can hear it among the old and the grown-ups, but the saddest of all are the lamentations of that army of sweet children that he has taught to sing. We can hear them say, as they learn of his passing, “Oh, Uncle Tom has gone—our dear old teacher, into whose arms we have fallen so many times and welcomed him to our schools and conventions!” And how sad now is the threshold of his home, where he was kissed goodbye on his outings, where he was welcomed back again to take his hours of rest.
It can truly be said of him that he gave his life to the Sacred Harp song book and its contents, of which he was master. There are and have been more fine singers and teachers credited to his instruction than to any other teacher in the southern states. We hope his humble and simple way of living, together with his famous professional life, which has been of such value to the people, will immortalize for years to come the name of T. J. Denson.
In sadness, but in love, I am
C . J. Griggs.
O may my last end be like theirs,
Like theirs my last reward!
Letter from T. S. McLendon
Thomas Simpson McLendon (1876–1965) was one of four sons—all active Sacred Harp singers—of Isaac Newton McLendon. A resident of Carroll County, Georgia, T. S. served as an officer of the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, as did his brothers. One brother, Augustus Jackson McLendon, composed “Sister’s Farewell” (p. 55) and served with C. J. Griggs on the committee tasked with revising The Sacred Harp that produced the James revision. Members of the McLendon family continue to sing Sacred Harp in West Georgia today.
Carrollton, Georgia, Rt. 3
September 22, 1935
My Dear Sir and Brother, my sincere sympathy goes out to you children and Mrs. Denson in the death of Uncle “Tom.” He was loved by more Christian singers than any man living in our day. He was the best and most correct director of sacred music I have ever seen on the floor. I have known him for about 50 years and I can truth[ful]ly say he was a man of integrity and honor—you could depend on what he promised or told you at all times.
It seems to us we needed him more just now than any time—But God knows best. Sometimes it seems like the loss of a Great man causes his desires or his work to be hastened on. So we hope and believe his most cherished work—the revision of the dear old Sacred Harp—will be finished to completion. Don’t let the [illegible] interest interfere with the work because we the lovers of your Father and the Old music want it as near like uncle Tom had planned it as possible. We need the books now because the supply of the other [edition] is exhausted and we can’t carry on our practice as we should. As one that loves the whole family, I ask God in my little humble way, to give you all as much as possible reconciliation. We can reflect back to the great work he has done in the cause of Sacred music. May we all live as he lived so when the summons comes that we may be prepared as I believe he was.
May I remain as ever. Sincere good wishes to every one of the family.
T. S. McLendon
Letter and Remembrance from Wilber E. Morgan
Wilbur E. Morgan was an active Sacred Harp singer and a close friend of the Denson family. He lived in Atlanta.
Atlanta, Georgia, 898 Allene Ave.
September 22, 1935
I was grieved beyond expression when I heard of the death of your father. I was away on vacation with my father at the time, he too sends condolence to you with me.
All the Morgans loved your father like a brother. I guess you recall the good times we all had together in the Standing Rock community.
I recieved a letter from Ora Morgan this week, she spoke very highly of your father; they were the best of friends. He will be greatly missed by all our people. He had many loyal admirers in and around our old home town.
Some how I wanted you to attend our singing at Standing Rock this year. I wish now that you could have attended more than ever, in the event of your father’s passing.
I have tried to write the Denson family some heart felt sentiment regarding your father’s life. I hope you will take this as an expression from the Morgan family.
I have wanted to come to the singing at Jasper, Ala. the first sunday in Oct. ever since the invitation was given, I want to go more than ever now, as I guess your father’s memorial will be held at this time.
I am sending Howard a copy of the paper I am inclosing to you, also a note of condolence.
Write me what time I could reach B’ham by rail or bus in time to get to Jasper by singing time on Saturday and Sunday. I want to come in auto if I can find some one that is going that is not loaded.
With kind regards to you and yours.
I am your friend,
Wilber E. Morgan
Morgan enclosed the following remembrance along with his letter.
THOMAS J. DENSON
Since The Morning Stars sang their sweet melody out to the world of mankind, there has been a musician beloved by all who knew him, yet not one loved more than our good friend, Tom Denson. He was a man of unusual ability, perhaps somewhat limited in his education, yet the cords of sweet music found lodgment in his soul, where they gave birth to a melody that is beyond human expression. His presence in a class of singers was a leaven that permeated all of the audience.
“Uncle Tom,” as he was most familiarly known, was not only a good singer, but a man who wrote good music. He and his brother, Seaborn Denson, with the help of some more good friends, revised The Sacred Harp and made it one of the best books of sacred music that the South has ever produced.
Mr. Denson has been a teacher of music for more than half a century. He has taught classes in many different kinds of books during his life time, but the old Sacred Harp was his favorite book of them all. He used to recall how his sainted Mother and kind old Father sang these sacred old songs to him in the tender years of his life.
Thousands of people will rise up and call him blessed because of their own musical training. We can never forget his visit to our home and community many years ago. Tom Denson taught the first singing school I ever attended. He was a young man then, full of life and vigor. The class would do their best to help him sing and he would play games with them during the noon hour.
The world has been made a sweeter place to live because of Tom Denson’s life of service in song to God and humanity. We will always cherish his memory, remembering the good times we have had together along life’s pathway.
Friends, may each of us take some good deed of Brother Denson’s life, put it into practice in our own life. May we live a life of service to God and humanity, so that when this pilgrimage is over we can meet OUR FRIEND and loved ones on the other shore, where we will never more take the Parting Hand.
Wilber E. Morgan
Letter from W. T. Coston
Coston’s note came typed on letterhead representing its author as President of the Texas Young People’s Interstate Sacred Harp Musical Association. A long-time advocate of Sacred Harp singing in Texas, W. T. Coston (1861–1938) brought T. J. Denson to the Lone Star State in 1932 to teach a singing school. Coston was a regular attendee of major singing conventions in Alabama and Georgia. Denson dedicated the song “Coston” to him (p. 382 in The Sacred Harp). Lorraine Miles McFarland, a singing school student of uncle Tom’s who had won a gold piece at a children’s song-leading contest in 1930, recalls that Coston, the contest’s sponsor, was so pleased with the young leaders that he invited them to stay at his home in Dallas for the weekend. McFarland remembers the wealthy man’s home as “more like a grand hotel, not just a house.”
1012 N. Marsalis Avenue, Dallas, Texas
September 30, 1935
My dear Friend:
Yours of September 18th received in due course of mail and I would have answered ere this but for the fact we arrived home sick, and have neither one of us been able to be around since. Glad to state, however, we are feeling better now and hope that we will continue to improve.
Your father’s sudden death was such a shock to us all that we have hardly been able to gather our wits together since we learned of it, and I want you to know that you letter, giving detailed account of how he came to his death, was a great satisfaction to us, as well as his many other friends in our state that we have passed the information to.
In his passing I, myself, as well as so many of his other friends in our state, deeply realize that we have lost one of the greatest Sacred Harp Divines that has ever lived, and that his place can not be filled. It was my pleasure to ride with him from Atlanta, Ga. to Jasper, Ala. on September 9th, and I don’t think he was ever more jubilant when I was with him on that occasion. … As the train neared the station at Jasper, and the time approached to say Good Bye, Uncle Tom, as I have always called him, looked me in the face and said to me, “Brother Coston, we may never meet again on this earth, but if we don’t, we will meet in a better world than this.” I shall never forget how he looked at me when he spoke those words, when he said, “I want you to remember that I am your friend.” I replied to him, “It is mutual.” God bless his memory and his influence to the edification and building up and forward march of our organization throughout the South. …
Give our love to all inquiring friends and write me again a long letter at your earliest convenience, and believe me, as ever,
W. T. Coston