A Brief History of A Brief History of the Sacred Harp

Trenton, Georgia, singer David Saylor recently came across an extraordinary piece of Sacred Harp history. A friend of David’s saw a thin book for sale at a used bookstore. Noting the name “Sacred Harp” in the book’s title, and remembering David’s involvement with the tradition, the friend bought the book for a dollar and gave it to David. The book is a copy of Joseph Stephen James’s A Brief History of the Sacred Harp. This 1904 volume is the first historical study of Sacred Harp singing, and the first publication by James, who would go on to edit Original Sacred Harp (the ancestor of The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition) and two other shape-note tunebooks. David generously gave the book to me, and I’ll be placing it in the Sacred Harp Publishing Company’s Sacred Harp Museum.

Front cover of the Library of Congress's B Copy of A Brief History of the Sacred Harp.

Front cover of A Brief History of the Sacred Harp. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

A copy of A Brief History of the Sacred Harp is hard to come by. Only four libraries hold copies of the book.1 But the copy David Saylor happened upon is particularly special. Markings in the front of the book indicate it was at one time the Library of Congress’s “B Copy” of the publication—one of two copies sent to the library by James when he registered the book for copyright protection. Printed as a softcover book, this copy was hardbound by the library. Todd Harvey, archivist of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture, notes that the library frequently sold or gave away B copies of books deemed insignificant during much of the twentieth century. How the library’s B copy of this quite significant volume found its way from Washington, DC, to rural northwest Georgia remains a mystery.

James’s Brief History is no longer required reading for Sacred Harp singers interested in the stories behind our music. Newer books by George Pullen Jackson, Buell Cobb, and (most recently) David Warren Steel have superseded it.2 Yet James’s book remains an important source of information about early Sacred Harp singers, conventions, and songbooks. A Brief History is the source of an infamous and widely retold story—since called into question—about the falling out between Benjamin Franklin White, the co-compiler of The Sacred Harp, and his brother-in-law William Walker. As James tells it:

Major [B. F.] White and his brother-in-law, William Walker, wrote a music book known by the older people as the Southern Harmony, in four shape notes, the same as those used in the Sacred Harp.

Walker and White married sisters and lived not far apart in South Carolina. An arrangement was made between them for Walker to go north and have the book published, there being no publishing houses in the South with plant suitable to print the book. Walker took the manuscript, and he and the publishers changed the same without the knowledge or consent of Major White and brought it out under the name of Walker, giving Major White no credit whatsoever for its composition. Walker also entered into a combination with the publishers and in this way managed to deprive Major White of any interest in the Southern Harmony, although all of the work, or most of it, was done by Major White.

On account of this transaction and treatment, the two men never spoke to each other again. It was such an outrage that Major White would never have anything to do with Walker and he soon after moved to Harris County, Georgia and engaged in composing and writing the songs in the Sacred Harp.3

The story of White and Walker’s dispute is probably not as simple as James makes it out to be. White remained in Spartanburg, attending the same church as Walker, for seven years after the publication of the Southern Harmony. Shortly before his move, however, court records show that “the Spartanburg sheriff seized and sold a cotton gin owned by White to pay $390 in court costs and damages; Walker, formerly a co-owner of the property, subsequently swore that he had sold his interest two years earlier,” as Steel reports in The Makers of the Sacred Harp.4 It may be that this disagreement, rather than conflict over the Southern Harmony, led White to move to Georgia.

But even if the details are wrong, it’s clear there was resentment between the two. White included songs by various contributors to The Southern Harmony (apart from Walker) in The Sacred Harp with credit. But although he reprinted several of Walker’s own Southern Harmony songs without changes, he left them uncredited. Walker’s name never appeared in editions of The Sacred Harp during B. F. White’s lifetime. [Read the memorial lesson delivered in memory of White at the 1880 Chattahoochee Musical Convention elsewhere in this issue—eds.]

Not just an entertaining story, James’s account of the split between White and Walker is important because it tells us how Sacred Harp singers who knew White’s descendants described the falling out. In 1904, James was a friend of White’s son, James Landrum White, and knew other White descendants.5 James likely heard the story of White and Walker’s split from White’s family.

Stamp on the Library of Congress's "B Copy" of A Brief History showing that the library received two copies of the book on August 19, 1904.

Stamp on the Library of Congress’s “B Copy” of A Brief History showing that the library received two copies of the book on August 19, 1904. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

The conflict between White and Walker is just one of many significant and humorous stories about Sacred Harp history that trace their origin in print to James’s A Brief History of the Sacred Harp. While the details may not always be right (indeed, they are sometimes quite dramatically wrong), the book remains an important historical artifact, and a source of valuable information about Sacred Harp singing in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Sacred Harp Museum thanks David Saylor for donating this significant copy of a rare and important book.

  1. The UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library has George Pullen Jackson’s copy. Additional copies are at the Claremont Colleges Library, Pepperdine University Libraries, and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Library. The University of West Georgia Library holds a photocopy of the book. Microform copies are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Davis Library and the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Roberts Library. A few other copies are in private collections.  []
  2.  George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings, and “Buckwheat Notes” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933); Buell E. Cobb, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989); and David Warren Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010). []
  3.  J[oseph] S[tephen] James, 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. []
  4.  Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp, 5. []
  5. As a young man, James may have actually met B. F. White. He sang at sessions of the Chattahoochee Musical Convention in the 1860s, when White was also in attendance. See Kiri Miller, ed., The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852–2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook (Carrollton, GA: Sacred Harp Museum, 2002). []

About Jesse P. Karlsberg

Jesse P. Karlsberg is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. He edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Born in Boston, he lives in Atlanta and is senior digital scholarship strategist at Emory University.
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