Our Debt to George Pullen Jackson


At the 1965 session of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association, held in Nashville, music educator Irving Wolfe delivered a speech on George Pullen Jackson’s contributions to Sacred Harp. Jackson, whose series of books and articles published between 1926 and 1952 had inaugurated the scholarly study of Sacred Harp singing, had died in 1953. Wolfe’s speech was part of a special “memorial session for Dr. Jackson,” held on Sunday morning during the convention. His remarks were followed by comments from Ruth Denson Edwards and Jackson’s daughter Mrs. Fitzgerald Parker and by singing, with A. M. Cagle leading “Wondrous Love” (p. 159 in The Sacred Harp) and his own “Blissful Dawning” (p. 550)1 and W. B. Matthews leading “Evening Shade” (p. 209).

In his speech, Wolfe notes Jackson’s key role in drawing attention to Sacred Harp singing by telling its story in print. Wolfe also describes how Jackson sought to convince Sacred Harp singers to alter their singing habits. Some of Jackson’s recommendations, such as following the leader and observing rests resonate with teachings at today’s singing schools. Other recommendations, such as adapting volume to a song’s content, remain uncommon at singings, but speak to Jackson’s musical background. Wolfe’s remarks made an impression on the Sacred Harp singers in attendance at the 1965 United convention.

The compilers of the Georgia minutes book saw fit to reprint his speech, unabridged, in that year’s compilation. In this issue of the Newsletter, we present a newly digitized and transcribed version of Wolfe’s essay. We have also included a newly written remembrance of Wolfe offered by his daughter, Charlotte Wolfe, a member of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sacred Harp singing community. As a companion to this article, we have also published the complete minutes from the 1965 United convention as an online resource of the Sacred Harp Museum.

—Jesse P. Karlsberg

Irving Wolfe, a Daughter’s Perspective

My father, Irving Wolfe, moved his family to Nashville in the summer of 1940 when he was appointed head of the Music Division at George Peabody College for Teachers. One of the first people he met in Nashville was George Pullen Jackson who took him to a Sacred Harp singing in Alabama. Dad recognized that Sacred Harp singing was a valuable folk tradition that should be preserved. As a specialist in music education, he was particularly interested in the Sacred Harp tradition as a wonderful example of grassroots music education in action, and he wanted his students to be exposed to this. He frequently took carloads of students to rural singings in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, and from the early forties he sponsored an all-day Sacred Harp singing at Peabody College every year nearly to the end of his life in 1977.

Paine Denson leads during a session presented by Irving Wolfe at the 1948 Music Educators National Conference in Detroit, Michigan.

Paine Denson leads during a session presented by Irving Wolfe at the 1948 Music Educators National Conference in Detroit, Michigan.

In 1948 my dad presented a program illustrating the evolution of a folk song at the Music Educators National Conference in Detroit, which consisted of a talk by Dr. Jackson, followed by Tennessee folksinger/composer Charlie Bryan singing three or four secular folk songs to his own accompaniment on Appalachian dulcimer,2 each folk song followed by a group of around fifty Sacred Harp singers led by Paine Denson singing the Sacred Harp tune based on the folk song. This was followed by the Peabody Madrigalians, a small vocal ensemble led by my father, singing a concert arrangement of the Sacred Harp tune. The session concluded with a general singing by the Sacred Harp singers presented to an enthusiastic audience of some 2,000 people. Some years later, Dad and Hugh McGraw presented a program on Sacred Harp at a conference of the American Choral Directors Association, which again met with an enthusiastic and interested response. And we frequently sang Sacred Harp at home, my parents, sister, brothers, and friends making a balanced group for an evening of singing.

—Charlotte Wolfe

Our Debt to George Pullen Jackson

My introduction to Sacred Harp singing was through George Pullen Jackson. Twenty-five years ago he took me to my first all-day singing at the courthouse in Huntsville. There I learned the joy of singing the old songs with the genuinely friendly singers so dedicated to the Sacred Harp. Dr. Jackson loved the people of the rural South because of their sturdy belief in religious freedom and their deep love for the fine old songs of Zion. At many singings I heard Dr. Jackson talk informally with the class about the history of Sacred Harp singing and the meaning and significance of keeping the tradition alive. His brief talks always helped the members of the class to feel a little prouder of their fine old book and the singings which they loved so much. So it is fitting that we reflect today, while we are here in Nashville, on our debt to Dr. Jackson. George Pullen Jackson was recognized as the foremost scholar of the origins, history, and significance of spiritual song in America. Six books and many learned articles by Dr. Jackson on this subject attest to the thoroughness of his scholarship in this area of knowledge. He was trained at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Dresden, Germany, took two degrees including his doctorate from the University of Chicago, did post graduate work there and at the universities of Munich and Bonn. He was professor of German in several institutions including Oberlin College, Northwestern University, University of North Dakota, and Vanderbilt University here in Nashville from 1918 until his retirement in 1943. He was emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University until his death January 19, 1953.

George Pullen Jackson at his desk at Vanderbilt University, Nashville Tennessee.
Courtesy of the family of George Pullen Jackson.

Dr. Jackson was an active leader in community musical affairs. A few of his contributions while living here will illustrate:

  • Founder of Nashville Symphony Orchestra (1920) and later of Nashville Choral Club and Vanderbilt Singers.
  • Founder and honorary member of Tennessee Music Teachers Association.
  • Organizer and Manager of Old Harp Singers of Nashville.
  • Organizer of Tennessee State Sacred Harp Singing Association, 1939.
  • President of Tennessee Folklore Society, 1942.
  • President of Southeastern Folklore Society, 1946.
  • Member of council, International Folk Music Council.

What has this great man, this renowned scholar, this active music leader, done for Sacred Harp singers: Two of his books in particular have told the Sacred Harp story. In White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933) he wrote “the story of the fasola folk, their songs, singings, and ‘buckwheat notes.'” In his own words he described this book as a discussion of his work with early collections of spiritual folk-songs: “How and where I found them, what strange sorts of songs they contained, whence the unique notation in which the songs are recorded, who made, collected, and sang them, how, when and where they came into being, and how and where their singing persists at present.”

George Pullen Jackson leading at Liberty Church, Lawrence, Tennessee, 1942. Courtesy of the family of George Pullen Jackson.

Closing his Foreword to the book he wrote: “My greatest inspiration has come from the southern ‘country singers,’ scores of them, whom I have met at ‘singings’ and the bigger convention, people who seemed glad to let me sing, talk, and eat with them and become their friend.” What a friend he has been to us, and will continue to be as long as this book is read: (I understand it has been reissued recently as a paper back, which I hope many of you will read.) A dozen years later, in 1944 on the centennial of the original publication of the Sacred Harp, he wrote The Story of the Sacred Harp—its footings in the Old Baptist music, how it came to be, its growth through various editions, an analysis of common criticisms, and the new interest in Sacred Harp tunes shown by their use by recognized twentieth century composers. Through these two books George Pullen Jackson has helped the English speaking peoples throughout the world to know about Sacred Harp as a vital part of America’s musical heritage, as “a vigorously living book,” as an American institution.

George Pullen Jackson gives a speech at the unveiling of a monument to the Denson family, installed in front of the Winston County Courthouse to commemorate the centennial of the publication of The Sacred Harp, Double Springs, Alabama, Sunday, September 24, 1944. Courtesy of the family of George Pullen Jackson.

One additional incident will help us to recall the dynamic influence of Dr. Jackson. Taking advantage of the rare occasion when in the early forties the twenty-ninth day of February fell on Sunday making a fifth Sunday in February, he suggested that Sacred Harpers meet together for a special “school” to consider ways of singing more effectively. With the cooperation of several leaders the session was set up in the court house at Cullman, Alabama. Dr. Jackson and I spent the previous night in the home of Ruth Denson Edwards. I remember very clearly the points which he thought should be stressed in order to bring all Sacred Harp singing up to the best that he had heard.

  1. Singers should not try to sing higher than they can sing easily.
  2. We tend to sing all songs in a rapid tempo, whereas tempo should be according to the nature of the song.
  3. In some classes the singing is always loud, no natter what the words are about.
  4. We need to watch the leaders and stay with him exactly. Too often singers around the square try to set the speed, making for a ragged pulse.
  5. We should allow time for the rests, not come in ahead of them.

Such was Dr. Jackson’s spirit toward Sacred Harp. He lauded its virtues and strengths to the whole world; at the same time he worked for greater effectiveness. So as long as Sacred Harp songs and voices are lifted up in praise we shall be indebted to him.

—Irving Wolfe
Sunday, September 12, 1965
Nashville Convention of the United Sacred Harp [Musical] Association

  1. The minutes of the 1965 United convention record Cagle as having led the song on page 570. “Blissful Dawning” appeared on this page in A. M. Cagle, et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp: 1960 Supplement (Cullman, AL: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1960).  []
  2. Charles Faulkner Bryan (1911–1955) was a composer, folksong collector, and professor at Peabody along with Wolfe. Bryan composed Singin’ Billy, an opera based on the life of South Carolina shape-note music composer-teacher-compiler William Walker. []

About Irving Wolfe

A promoter of Sacred Harp singing based in Nashville, Tennessee, Irving Wolfe (1903–1977) was head of the music division at George Peabody College for Teachers. He co-authored the school songbook series Together We Sing.

About Charlotte Wolfe

Charlotte Wolfe is a retired librarian music cataloger at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she facilitates a monthly Sacred Harp singing at The Ark Coffeehouse.
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6 Responses to Our Debt to George Pullen Jackson

  1. Mr. Laurens A. Blankers says:

    I met Irving Wolfe in 1972 when I was a Peabody graduate student, studying Library Science, when he hosted a Sacred Harp singing on campus. I’m a graduate of Iowa State Teachers College, Cedar Falls, B. of Music Ed, 1955, and I knew a few of his relatives when I was a ISTC student. I played the carillon, 1953–1955. I’m currently researching E. L. Ashford who lived on Vanderbilt campus, 1884–1925. She wrote over 900 compositions, most of which were for use in worship—400 organ voluntaries, 300 or more anthems—as assistant editor of Lorenz’ Choral Leader, and senior editor of The Organist. Her best known work is music for “My Task.” I’ve been reading old Nashville newspapers at the Tennessee State Library and Archive. I have compiled over 160 pages of material about The Vanderbilt Glee Club, which was founded by John Ashford, E. L.’s husband. Emma Louise always identified herself as E. L. Ashford in her printed compositions. She wrote many compositions used on Vanderbilt campus, the music for “The Ode” which celebrated Vanderbilt’s twenty-fifth anniversary. And I regularly sing Sacred Harp in Nashville. I play alto clarinet in bands, and I’ve played keyboards, [organ] for worship about sixty-six years. I spent the summer of 1960 at Interlochen in Michigan. Best wishes to you!

  2. Chloe Webb says:

    Charlotte, thank you for your personal insights on the friendship of your father, Irving Wolfe, and George Pullen Jackson. The article presents them as lovers of Sacred Harp music, such as those of us who are reading this right now. To my thinking, Dr. Jackson’s remarks about singing the music are as valid today as when your father wrote about him in 1965. It’s good to know he also planted love of the music in you.

  3. John R. Hall says:

    I am overwhelmed! At age eight a man named Kelley Doyle took an interest in me—demanded that I learn to spell flat and sharp key signatures, and told me I might have some talent. Doyle was the newly minted music department chair at a tiny college in the small West Tennessee town where I grew up. He’d just completed a baccalaureate in music in Nashville and was to spend his summers at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville studying for a Master’s Degree in Music. As I grew Doyle regaled me with stories of “Dr. Wolfe” (always spoken in tones of reverence), Charles F. Bryan, and George Pullen Jackson—and of course The Sacred Harp. Doyle taught me to love The Sacred Harp. … A career conducting college students in chorus is now ended. I’m singing in a community choir. Doing research for the background of Aaron Copland’s “Zion’s Walls” I came across this article. Thank you. Dr. Wolfe’s influence continues down the generations.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Old Harp Singers session on January 19, 1938 in a radio station in Nashville for Musicraft. Details sitting here!

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Musicraft album 41 by the Old Harp Singers. George Pullen Jackson signed the contract 1/18/1938 with the session the next day!

    Anyone interested in the details?

    Bill Daniels
    Boscawen, NH

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