Elphrey Heritage: Northern Contributor to the Nineteenth-century Sacred Harp

All of the direct contributors to the nineteenth-century editions of The Sacred Harp lived in Georgia or Alabama with one exception: Elphrey Heritage, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.1 Heritage contributed two songs to the 1870 fourth edition of The Sacred Harp: “Warning” (p. 213b in The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition) and “The Savior’s Call” (p. 489). Who was Elphrey Heritage? How did this northerner come to have his music included in Benjamin Franklin White’s southern shape-note tunebook just five years after the Civil War?

Heritage’s connection to The Sacred Harp stems from his long tenure as bookkeeper with the Philadelphia printing firm of Tillinghast King Collins and Philip Gould Collins, publishers of the first four editions of the tunebook.2 As Warren Steel notes, “the firm of T. K. & P. G. Collins was known for the high quality of its typography and for the lavishly illustrated works of geology and natural history that issued from its presses.”3 The firm had printed editions of William Walker’s Southern Harmony since 1838, and in 1844, White contracted with the firm to print the first edition of The Sacred Harp. While none of Heritage’s songs were included in this first edition, the bookkeeper contributed songs to four other shape-note tunebooks published by Collins between 1846 and 1855.4 Remarkably, these songs and the two he contributed to The Sacred Harp constitute Heritage’s entire known compositional output. No other press published any of his songs.

Elphrey Heritage's Philadelphia, ca. 1842–1845. Photograph by William G. Mason, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-9390.

Elphrey Heritage’s Philadelphia, ca. 1842–1845. Photograph by William G. Mason, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-9390.

Born in New Jersey on January 25, 1812, Elphrey Heritage moved to Philadelphia with his brother Jason Heritage as a young adult. A Quaker, Elphrey was a relatively prominent Philadelphian during the peak of his compositional activity. He served for many years as secretary of Philadelphia’s Star of America Lodge No. 52, a branch of the Odd Fellows fraternal and service organization.5 Heritage supported temperance initiatives, and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, he was active in Republican Party politics in Philadelphia, placing him on the opposite end of the political spectrum from many of The Sacred Harp’s southern contributors.6 In addition to bookkeeping for T. K. & P. G. Collins, Heritage worked in real estate, accumulating enough money to buy back a sizable lot the city had attempted to claim for a sum of $7,600 (approximately $131,000 in today’s money).7 Given his relative social prominence and wealth, why did Heritage continue to work as a bookkeeper at the Collins printing firm? One benefit of working at Collins was access to the social world of the tunebook compilers who published his compositions.

Most of Heritage’s songs are in the reformed style of Lowell Mason. Plain tunes featuring sweet, filled-in chords with minimal part-crossing, these songs generally anchor a strong melodic line with relatively static harmony parts. Though some of his earlier songs break from this mold, adopting the “dispersed harmony” style common to the shape-note tunebooks in which he published his music, Heritage’s two contributions to The Sacred Harp, Fourth Edition, fit comfortably in reformed tune territory. These two songs were Heritage’s last, published just five years before his death on December 6, 1875.8

“Warning” is unique among all the songs in The Sacred Harp because it sets four musical parts on three staff lines, and because it notates the different endings to the song’s two phrases through the strategic use of a repeat marker and the text “(omit).” These unusual notational decisions have led to considerable confusion and occasional humor. Singers are often uncertain about which of the two parts sharing the song’s middle staff are which (the top one is the tenor, the bottom is the alto). Classes unfamiliar with the song have also misidentified “omit” as a lyric, singing it to the omitted phrase’s melody. On another occasion, singers at the weekly singing in Cork, Ireland, interpreted the “omit” as a rest, and simply remained silent for the duration of a measure in the middle of the song!

These confusing choices, however, may have been key to the song’s inclusion in The Sacred Harp. “Warning” takes up less space on the page than any other song in the tunebook. As Elder J. L. Hopper has it, the song was “picked green.” This small size enabled the song to fit on a portion of the bottom right corner of page 213 that had previously featured additional verses for the other song on the page, “The Good Old Way.” In comparison, “The Saviour’s Call” is relatively ordinary. Notated conventionally, the song was added to The Sacred Harp’s fourth edition appendix, and did not displace extra verses or a previously included song. Short and tucked into unobtrusive corners of The Sacred Harp, the songs may have been added to the book at Collins’s urging. Or Heritage may have asked to have them included and been given what limited real estate was available.

Page 213 in The Sacred Harp before "Warning." Second Edition, 1857 printing. Courtesy of Mary Brownlee.

Page 213 in The Sacred Harp before “Warning.” Second Edition, 1857 printing. Courtesy of Mary Brownlee.

Page 213 in The Sacred Harp with "Warning" added. Fourth Edition, 1897 printing. Courtesy of Mary Brownlee.

Page 213 in The Sacred Harp with “Warning” added. Fourth Edition, 1897 printing. Courtesy of Mary Brownlee.

Once in The Sacred Harp, neither song achieved much popularity. Perhaps for this reason “The Saviour’s Call” was removed from the 1936 Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, which trimmed almost ninety pages of music from the book. “Warning” has remained in The Sacred Harp, on the bottom right corner of page 213, since 1870, despite the fact that it has never been popular. Thanks to its small size the song is nearly immune to removal as it would be a challenge to replace.

The removal of “The Saviour’s Call” caused considerable conflict. Unbeknownst to the members of the 1936 music committee, most of whom lived in North Alabama or West Georgia, the song was a favorite of Plez Hardin, patriarch of an influential South Georgia singing family and chairman of the area’s South Georgia Sacred Harp Singing Convention. After discovering that the song had been omitted from the Denson Revision, Hardin declared that the area’s singings would never use the new book. Indeed, Hardin’s group continued to use the Denson Revision’s precursor—the 1911 Original Sacred Harp, commonly known as the “James book”—until the early 1970s. Singers from the area, including Raymond C. Hamrick, often first encountered the Denson Revision only when they traveled to sing outside of their region.

Hugh McGraw strove to repair ties with the South Georgia singers who had abandoned Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision because the edition omitted "The Saviour's Call."

Hugh McGraw strove to repair ties with the South Georgia singers. Photograph courtesy of Pitts Theology Library.

Hugh McGraw, elected as executive secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company in 1958, immediately began repairing ties with the South Georgia singers. In 1960 the music committee of the Original Sacred Harp: 1960 Supplement added “The Saviour’s Call” back to the book.9 The committee, which included McGraw, restored the song as a gesture of inclusion toward the South Georgia singers. McGraw also permitted the singers to print new copies of the James book in 1964.10 The music committee of the 1991 Edition of The Sacred Harp, which included both McGraw and Hamrick, added new songs attributed to South Georgia Sacred Harp singers J. Monroe Denton, Joyce Harrison, David Grant, and, of course, Hamrick himself. “Nidrah” (p. 540), one of Hamrick’s songs, is named for the Hardin family’s Nidrah Plantation (Nidrah is Hardin spelled backwards), long the site of an annual singing and twice host to the Georgia State Sacred Harp Convention.11

While never among its most popular songs, Elphrey Heritage’s two contributions to The Sacred Harp, Fourth Edition remain in the tunebook nearly 150 years after their initial publication. Their continued inclusion is a testament to the canny construction and typesetting of “Warning” and to the value the songbook’s revisers placed on including South Georgia in our singing community. Heritage’s life and music also shed light on the Sacred Harp’s early publishing history. The tunebook, compiled and sung from by southerners, nonetheless owes its form and at least a tiny portion of its contents to the place where it was published: Philadelphia. Philadelphians cut the metal type that made it possible to publish a book set in shape-notes, used modern equipment with great care and precision to execute the handsome design of the book, and, thanks to Elphrey Heritage’s involvement with T. K. and P. G. Collins, contributed a couple of songs to the book’s quiet corners as well.

  1. As Robert L. Vaughn points out, at least two composers had moved from Georgia to Texas by the time their contributions to the fourth edition of the Sacred Harp were published in 1870. []
  2.  An obituary noted that “Mr. Elphrey Heritage, an old book-keeper for the ‘Collins Printing House,’ … had been in the employ of the establishment for twenty-five years.” See “Local Summary,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 7, 1875. []
  3.  David Warren Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 7. An obituary for T. K. Collins in the April 8, 1870 issue of the Philadelphia Public Ledger claims that the printer’s firm “turned out some of the finest specimens of typography ever produced in America.” []
  4.  If Heritage kept books for Collins for exactly twenty-five years he would have begun working at the firm a year after The Sacred Harp’s publication and just a year before his first song, “Vernon,” appeared in James B. Aikin’s The Christian Minstrel (Philadelphia: T. K. & P. G. Collins, 1846), 219, “[c]omposed … expressly for this work.” Heritage contributed songs to the Collins books The Hesperian Harp (1848), The Timbrel of Zion (1853), and The Social Harp (1855). After Heritage’s death, William Hauser, compiler of The Hesperian Harp, reprinted three of Heritage’s songs in his Olive Leaf (1878). []
  5.  “E. Heritage” posted numerous Star of America Lodge No. 52 meeting notices in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in the 1850s. His participation in the lodge falls off in 1863. []
  6. Heritage participated in an 1852 meeting trying to prevent the production of liquor for drinking purposes. He was named a representative of Philadelphia’s Ward 20 on the Committee of Resolutions at the 1867 Republican City Convention. See “Take Notice—A Meeting … Prohibiting the Manufacture and Sale of All Intoxicating Liquors as a Beverage …,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, April 24, 1852; “The Republican City Convention,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1867.  []
  7. Heritage ran notices advertising rental properties, including one listing “to let—several new houses, with gas, bath, hot and cold water … rent 8.50.” See “To Let,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1861. The City of Philadelphia had attempted to claim a plot of land adjacent to Wills’s Hospital at the northwest corner of 18th and Cherry Streets. After the city began construction on a new part of the hospital there, Heritage was able to prove that James Wills, the property’s namesake and former owner, had granted Heritage the land in his will. The city agreed that the property was legally his, abandoned their claim, and Heritage paid the Board of Managers of the Hospital for the property. See Philadelphia Inquirer, May 19, 1868, and Journal of the Common Council of the City of Philadelphia for the Year 1868, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: King & Baird, Printers, 1868), 295.  []
  8.  Although the Inquirer’s December 7 notice of Heritage’s death states the bookkeeper “fell dead yesterday morning of heart disease,” a notice in the same paper the following day reports on a “coroner’s inquest … in the case of Elphrey Heritage, who died suddenly on Monday at No. 705 Jayne Street. Verdict, death from fatty degeneration of the liver.” See “Coroner’s Inquests,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 8, 1875. []
  9. Thanks to Aldo Ceresa for pointing out that “The Saviour’s Call” was restored in 1960. An earlier version of this article stated in error that the song was added back to The Sacred Harp in 1991. []
  10. The Publishing Company had also permitted a reprint of the James book around 1949. []
  11.  See Jesse P. Karlsberg, “List of Locations, Officers, and Committee Members of the Georgia State Sacred Harp Singing Convention,” http://jpkarlsberg.com/research/. []

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.

About Christopher Sawula

Christopher Sawula is a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Alabama. He began singing Sacred Harp in 2011 and serves as the Historical Consultant and Conservator for the Sacred Harp Museum.
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4 Responses to Elphrey Heritage: Northern Contributor to the Nineteenth-century Sacred Harp

  1. Steve Cackley says:

    Jesse and Christopher, Thanks for this piece on Mr. Heritage. I called 489 last Sunday here in Portland, entirely by coincidence, just because I like the tune. And for a few years I thought of 213b as “my” tune, mostly because I never heard anyone else lead it. I think it’s apt to say that they’re in Mason’s style: they’re both “pretty” tunes and contrast with some of the hair raising dissonance that we love so much in the red book. I look forward to reading more of what you both turn up in your excavations at the museum and the other sources where your researches take you.

  2. Aldo Thomas Ceresa says:

    Hey guys,

    Great article. Just one small correction: “The Saviour’s Call” was actually reinstated in The Sacred Harp in 1960, not 1991. This demonstrates SHPC’s commitment to mending fences with the South Georgia singers, even before the 1964 reprint of the James book.


  3. Jesse, Christopher—

    Great article about Heritage and his songs. It is good to learn more of him and his contributions. I always thought the word “Peculiar” in parentheses (apparently referring to the meter) was quite apt for the song “Warning.”

    The introductory line “All of the direct contributors to the nineteenth-century editions of The Sacred Harp lived in Georgia or Alabama with one exception…” is probably technically incorrect, though this does not affect the substance of the article. At least M. M. Wynne and D. P. White were living in Texas before 1870 and had new contributions published at that time (though they may have been still living in Georgia or Alabama at the time they actually contributed the songs). This might also apply to a few other composers who migrated westward to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

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