Introduction: Observations and Impressions of a Grandson
From the earliest years of my life I have heard of my grandfather, Tom Denson. “Pappy Denson,” “Dad Thomas,” “Uncle Tom,” “Professor Denson,” T. J. Denson, Thomas Jackson Denson, and “Mr. Denson” are some of the names I have heard him called. Although I never knew him as he died several years before I was born, I have read about him in old newspaper articles and books about Sacred Harp, and I have heard stories about him from many relatives and friends of the Denson family. My Mother and her two sisters were his “second set” of children and were born in 1913, 1915, and 1916. Howard Denson, youngest child of T. J. and his first wife, Amanda Burdette Denson, was sixteen when T. J.’s first child with Lola Akers Denson was born. T. J. Denson’s immediate family spanned an astonishing time range—his first child was born in 1862 and his last in 1916. His first grandchild was born in 1904 and his last grandson in 1947.
During the years that I have been singing Sacred Harp I have been amazed by the number of people I have met who attended T. J. Denson’s singing schools in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. They were all eager to share stories about his teaching, his sense of humor, and his great ability to inspire them to sing. He spent much time traveling to teach singing schools, some lasting two to three weeks. My mother told us stories about going to singings in a horse-drawn wagon when she was young. Her parents would make a pallet in the wagon and would awaken the three young sisters, as she told it, “in the middle of the night and we would get dressed with everything on but our dresses. We would get in the wagon and sleep until we got close to the singing location and Pappy Denson would stop the wagon, and we would get up and put on our dresses and go on to the singing.”
My mom and her sisters, Vera and Tommye, would also tell stories about Pappy Denson talking about his schools and students after coming home from his travels. They lived in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, for some time when the three children of T. J. and Lola Akers Denson were young. They stayed in houses that were owned by Lon Odem, a great singer and successful businessman who helped T. J. Denson while he taught schools and provided the capital for the 1936 Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision. Mom used to tell about her daddy coming home from teaching a singing school and being disappointed because his three young daughters had been playing in a pile of sawdust that their father had bought. They had spread the sawdust all over the place and their daddy was unhappy. As they ate dinner that night, he started telling a story with a familiar plot: “One time there was a man who had three fine young daughters. Now this man got a load of sawdust to use for his plants and garden and he told his fine daughters not to play in that sawdust. Well, the man came home one day and the sawdust was all over because the three girls had been playing in it.” He got no farther with his story before, as my mom would tell the story, “we three girls started crying and went running to our room. We never played in sawdust again!”
Mom told another story about her Pappy Denson coming home from a convention in which as they ate dinner he said “I was surprised when I was asked to pray before the dinner on the ground today.” They asked him, “What did you pray?” He smiled and said, “I don’t know. When I came to myself I was taking out the beans.” They all laughed and wanted to hear him tell the story again. When he was not feeling well, he would tell his girls that “Pappy is camping in the low ground today.”
Pappy Denson bought some kind of used automobile in the late 1920s. He was apparently not a very good driver. Aunt Vera, the oldest of the three daughters, used to tell us that she was riding with him as he drove along a dirt road that had ruts in it from a recent rain. Along the way, they met a man on a wagon pulled by a team of horses. As they got close to the wagon, one of the horses “got spooked and reared up on his hind legs.” Pappy Denson’s reaction was to turn the steering wheel to the right and into a muddy ditch. After another man pulled the car out of the ditch with horses, Pappy Denson said, “Sugar girly, you are going to have to drive from now on. Pappy is too strong to drive.” And he never drove again.
I have learned much about my grandfather from hearing stories from singers who attended his singing schools, as well as from descendants of his students. A number of times I have been told “Your grandfather taught my grandfather to sing!” I have been surprised at the number of people who sing today who have connections to T. J. Denson. It has been a source of joy to meet people and hear stories about my grandfather.
It has also been a joy to hear the tunes that T. J. Denson composed that are still being sung. Some of his tunes are difficult and have lots of notes! From things I have heard about his leading, he moved around the hollow square and was a “lively” leader.
I had long heard stories about the last lesson that T. J. Denson lead at a singing. He led the lesson in Georgia, just a few days before his death in 1935. Howard Denson’s daughter, Amanda Denson Brady, told us about the lesson, and that her father, Uncle Paine, and Aunt Annie Aaron were with him. Recently I found a copy of an article written about T. J. Denson’s last lesson. Following the contemporary custom that allotted leaders a certain amount of time to lead for the deceased from individual areas, he was asked to conduct a memorial lesson for singers from Alabama who had died in the past year.
The article, “Observations and Impressions of a Son” was printed in The Haleyville [Alabama] Advertiser-Journal in September, 1935.
Although the newspaper didn’t print the author’s name, the article must have been written by one of T. J. Denson’s two sons, Paine or Howard. If I had to guess who wrote it, I would say that it was Howard Denson; the writing style is much less formal and eloquent than what I have seen of Paine’s writing in his letters. I sent a copy of the article to Frances Robb, who is a great-granddaughter of T. J. Denson, and granddaughter of Maggie Frances (Denson) Cagle. Frances has done considerable research on the Denson family. As she notes, “Paine’s writing was more elaborate and lawyerly. A bit pompous at times and often self-conscious in ways I don’t see in this article. But I do think that the son in the title is one of T. J. Denson’s sons; it strikes me as too observant for someone not in the family and not keeping a hawk eye on him. I’d pick Howard as the author for, if nothing else, the article’s objectivity.”
Regardless of who actually wrote it, the article is a poignant account of the last lesson Pappy Denson lead. I submit it on behalf of his family in appreciation and remembrance of a man who taught many to sing Sacred Harp and who touched many lives during his seventy-five years. He often told his students: “I can teach you to sing, but only God can teach you to sing with the spirit.”
Observations and Impressions of a Son
Reprinted from The Haleyville [Alabama] Advertiser-Journal, September, 1935
Thomas J. Denson died suddenly at his home near Jasper, Alabama, early Saturday morning, September the 14th 1935, and was buried by the side of his wife, Amanda Burdette Denson, in Fairview Cemetery near Double Springs on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 15th. The funeral was attended by hundreds and hundreds of his friends throughout North Alabama and from Georgia and Tennessee.Truly, Tom Denson, or “Uncle Tom,” as he was affectionately called, was the Dean of Sacred Harp Singers and Teachers. He had taught two twenty day schools in the Sacred Harp during the past summer, and claimed that they were the best he had ever taught, with students enrolled from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. During the past year he had attended more of the leading Sacred Harp Singings and Conventions than during any similar period of his life. He had just returned from Atlanta where he attended the United Sacred Harp Musical Association which convened there on the 6, 7 and 8th of September, last, and his last appearance as a Leader was to conduct the Memorial lesson in that convention for the members and their friends, who had died during the past twelve months throughout the entire state of Alabama. When his call came to take charge of the class he proceeded to the Leader’s position as usual with eagerness and determination. He looked over the audience and at the class about him and said: “We can’t help our friends who have gone on, but we can warn the living.” Then after a short pause, he continued. “I don’t feel like I can lead you now.” One friend seated near replied, “We have never seen you fail.” He then announced, “We will sing,—STRUGGLE ON, Page 400, Just the words”
“Our praying time will soon be o’er, Hallelujah,
We’ll join with those who’re gone before, Hallelujah,
To love and bless and praise the name, Hallelujah,
Of Jesus Christ, the dying Lamb, Hallelujah,
Struggle on, Struggle on, Hallelujah,
Struggle on for the work’s most done, Hallelujah”
At this point he hesitated and looked about, —(We do not know what he was thinking, but we do know he had visited Fairview Cemetery recently, where his wife, the mother of his older children, Paine Denson, Mrs. Annie Denson Aaron, Mrs. Maggie Denson Cagle, and Mrs. Jerusha Denson Edwards and Howard Denson, had lain for nearly twenty-five years with no other of the family near, and requested that he be placed by her side)—and then deliberately announced, “We will sing,—THE LONE PILGRIM, Page 341.”
“I came to the place where the lone pilgrim lay,
And pensively stood by his tomb,
When in a low whisper I heard something say,
How sweetly he sleeps here alone.
The Tempest may howl and loud thunders roar,
And gathering storms may arise,
Yet calm are his feelings, at rest is his soul,
The tears are all wiped from his eyes.”
He looked at the audience again and then at the class about him, and with apparent sorrow announced,
“We will sing,—WHEN I AM GONE, Page 339.”
“Shed not a tear o’er your friend’s early bier,
When I am gone, When I am gone;
Smile when the slow tolling bell you shall hear,
When I am gone, When I am gone.
Weep not for me as you stand round my grave,
Think who has died His beloved to save,
Think of the crown all the ransomed shall wear,
When I am gone, When I am gone.
Plant you a rose that shall bloom o’er my grave,
When I am gone, When I am gone;
Sing a sweet song such as angels may have,
When I am gone, When I am gone.
Praise ye the lord that I’m freed from all care,
Pray ye the Lord that my joys ye shall share,
Look up on high and believe that I’m there,
When I am gone, When I am gone.”
Again he looked over the class, first turning to the Bass Section where one son sat, then to the Tenor Section where the other son sat, then to the Treble Section where one daughter sat and then to the Alto behind which the Officials of the Convention sat, and slowly announced, “I would like to sing one more piece.” He paused, as if in deep thought, the moments grew tense, this tension was relieved by the calm and gentle voice of his good friend, Fred Drake, the chairman of the Convention, announcing “Time is up, Uncle Tom.” He looked over the class again, as if to say, “Farewell,” and walked slowly to his seat.
We do not know and never will know what the last song he wanted to sing was but, from the foregoing, we do know that his lesson was completed and the addition of anything more would have been repetition of something already stated, or the introduction of new subject matter. He must have anticipated that the end was not far distant.
Lovers of Sacred Harp music, and there are many and their friends everywhere, will mourn his passing. Truly he was a good father, a good citizen, a good neighbor and a good singer.
May his work and influence continue.