Recovering Sacred Harp History through Newspapers

So many exciting facets of our Sacred Harp history can seem hopelessly lost to time. Many old singing conventions have been disbanded for years. Many singers and singing families are gone and forgotten. Hopes of uncovering their stories may seem dim, but, there are resources available that can offer surprising glimpses of the history of our tradition. Newspapers, correspondence, family histories, county histories, living singers, even genealogists and church minutes, can be sources of otherwise hidden information about Sacred Harp’s past. In this essay I offer some tips for recovering Sacred Harp history by searching historical newspapers online; but first, a word on why I think such work is important.

The Need for Recovery

There is a need to recover Sacred Harp history. Our knowledge of Sacred Harp’s past is sketchy at best. No scholar or singer wrote a history of Sacred Harp before Joe James’s A Brief History of the Sacred Harp and Its Author, B. F. White, Sr., and Contributors (1904).1 [Read more about how a copy of James’s Brief History found its way from the Library of Congress to the Sacred Harp Museum—Ed.] Little else followed James’s book until the work of George Pullen Jackson in the 1930s.2 People, places and events are forgotten. Time is passing away. Each passing day is one day farther away from the beginning of our Sacred Harp history, regardless of the area in which we live, or whether its history in that area dates from 1885 or 1985. Waiting increases the likelihood that meaningful data will never be recovered. Much information is missing. Minutes have been lost, destroyed, or are otherwise decaying. Memories fade.

Yet some things associated with the passing of time are helpful. The rise of the Internet made much information available that was previously inaccessible. The continued interest in and compilation of historical and genealogical materials gather many resources in a single, accessible place. Cemetery enumerations, such as Find a Grave, often are surprisingly comprehensive. Old newspapers are digitized and find their way onto cyberspace. All is not lost. Hope arises.

Old Time Music Heard at an All Day Singing

Report of the DeKalb and Fulton County Sacred Harp Singing Association’s quarterly singing.
From the Atlanta Constitution, August 5, 1901, 9.

The Way of Recovery

Recovering our history requires research—intensive research. Don’t let that scare you. If you like history and love Sacred Harp (or vice versa), the research will be a labor of love rather than a chore. I would like to focus on recovering history through newspapers and other digital media.

You can search through newspapers in physical and digital form. Physical searching involves paging through hard copies of newspapers or microforms (film reproductions requiring a special reader). This is a time and labor intensive process that can be tiresomely challenging. To cut down on the tedium and increase the chance of success, searching through physical newspapers should begin with an idea of the time and place where relevant information might lie. Digital searching includes online newspaper archives and search engines such as Google that can lead to digitized newspaper articles. At least a few libraries have begun to digitize their microfilm holdings to make them searchable. Others have digitized hard copies of newspapers in their collections. Digital searching vastly reduces the time and labor, but introduces the problem of Optical Character Recognition (OCR, a technology in which computers attempt to automatically recognize text) not reading or recognizing what the human eye can and will.

Here are some tips for (mainly digital) searches, most of which I have learned by trial and error.

Big Singing Convention newspaper advertisement

Advertisement for the Douglasville Sacred Harp Musical Convention. From the Atlanta Constitution, July 25, 1908, 7.

  • Take advantage of free online newspaper archives, such as the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America or state-based archives such as the Portal to Texas History. publishes a list of online newspaper archives, which includes several free newspapers in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.
  • Read newspaper microforms at the library, where they’re available for free. You can also purchase newspaper microfilm, from the Georgia Newspaper Project for example, but doing so is expensive.
  • Subscribe to an online newspaper archive. Many of the most comprehensive archives only sell subscriptions to academic libraries.3 Some archives that offer subscriptions to individuals have newspapers of interest to Sacred Harp singers, but be sure a given archive has papers that are specific to the time and location you are researching before signing up. (I subscribed to, which has some issues of the Anniston Star, Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Journal, Carroll Free Press, and Dothan Eagle.)
  • Vary your searches
    • Search without quotes. This opens up the largest amount of results, though often with much peripheral or unrelated material.
    • Search with quotes. This narrows the results to the exact phrase that is placed within quotation marks and makes the finding more likely to be relevant. (Be aware that quotation marks do not always function the same in all searches.)
    • Use “advanced search” for resources with this capability, in order to narrow findings.
    • Vary search engines for online searches (e.g. Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo). Sometimes one will find something another will not.
    • Use variations of a person’s name. Trying to find out more about a significant alto composer, I searched for “Mrs. R. D. Blackshear,” “Anna Cooper Blackshear,” “Anna C. Blackshear,” “Mrs. Anna Blackshear,” – even misspellings such as Blackshere, Blacksheare and Blackshire. Just because we know “W. M. Cooper,” “S. M. Denson,” and “J. L. White” doesn’t mean they won’t show up in a newspaper as “Marion Cooper” or “Seab Denson” or “Jim White.” Start simply. Search for a name, then narrow by time or place from the results page.
    • Search for the common first, and then the uncommon to narrow results. I searched for the hymn “The Lord Is in this Place.” Using the first line, I got 2046 results on Chronicling America. Changing to the second line, “We see his smiling face,” I got only twenty-two. (Unfortunately, none of the results were the hymn.) When researching people, search for uncommon names over common names when possible. If you are researching a Sacred Harp convention of which John Smith was the president and Hachaliah McMath was the vice-president, try searching for Hachaliah McMath first!
  • Remember that many search results are based on OCR text. In material where the image is not clear, OCR processing might read words incorrectly or miss them altogether. Finding nothing doesn’t mean there is nothing. Revert to old fashioned search methods when you feel you should have found something.
  • Even misinformation can help. When trying to identify the J. M. C. Shaw who was credited with several songs in the Cooper revision, I found that “J.M.C. SHAW was a well known author of sacred music for the harp” and that he was a “noted writer of Sacred Heart music” (emphases mine). The genealogists did not get it right. They probably did not understand what sort of music Shaw composed—but they got it close enough for me to believe I had found the right man.
  • Remember and record what you’ve searched, where and how—so you don’t duplicate your efforts by searching for the same terms over and over in the same context. (But do go back and search later; material is always being added to the web and newspaper archives; just because you don’t find something today does not mean you won’t find it next month or next year.)
  • Create a good filing system. I’ve learned this the hard way. I’m always looking for something that I filed away who knows where! Keep insignificant bits of information. They might seem worthless now, but could help you figure out something later.
  • Realize that just because something is printed in a newspaper doesn’t mean it is correct. Learn to discern what can be relied on and what cannot. Verify from other sources where possible. For example, if you find someone’s obituary in a paper it is most likely that they really died, but it may get other facts wrong—the day of death, when and where they were born, etc. Singers’ submittals (such as minutes) are usually more reliable than a newspaper reporter; a journalist’s opinions and observations are just that.
  • Search, search, search. Persistence can be the mother of discovery. “If at first you don’t succeed: try, try, try again.”

An example of a recent significant newspaper discovery is one made by Sarah Kahre while researching her doctoral dissertation at Florida State University.4 Although the copyright notice and introduction to W. M. Cooper’s revision of The Sacred Harp are both dated 1902, period newspapers indicate the book wasn’t available to the public until May of 1903.

The Goal of Recovery

Recovering and recording facts can help us learn things we did not know and better understand things we already knew. Finding previously unknown and unsearched for Sacred Harp history brings new data to today’s singing community. New facts can be considered in the framework of already recovered knowledge, and pooling this data can help grow the reservoir of easily accessible information on Sacred Harp singing from which future writers and researchers can draw. Understanding who we are as Sacred Harp singers is one of the higher goals of recovering our history. Knowing our past gives us a sense of our present and a guide for our future.

Contributing to this communal project means sharing the results of your research. Posting information to the Fasola Discussions listserv is one way to dispense information. It gets the attention of the wider community, where some may offer interpretations. An individual can start a Sacred Harp related website or offer the information to an existing site such as Texas Fasola or Warren Steel’s “Sacred Harp Singing.”5 Writing is another way to preserve some of our history. You might think about writing a short article for a Sacred Harp, historical, or genealogical newsletter. They are usually looking for good material. [The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter certainly is. Contact us if you are interested in writing—Eds.]

What about the long term? Keep discoveries and documents for a time to use in your own research. You may want to pass down some materials through your family. For other items, plan ahead by looking into options for a permanent repository. Placing Sacred Harp materials or historical research with such an institution will typically grant broader access to the items and ensure their preservation using proven techniques. Consider these possibilities:

  • An organization operated by singers, like the Sacred Harp Museum in Carrollton, Georgia, or the Sacred Harp Music and Cultural Center in Bessemer, Alabama;
  • A university library, music library, or special collections department;
  • Your state archives; or
  • Your local library.

Many of the online materials we find will lack appeal for archives and museums, but they might find a nice home in the vertical files of your library’s genealogy department.

However you decide to go about it, let’s start recovering the missing pieces of our Sacred Harp history. By combining our efforts, we can make a valuable contribution to this important effort.

  1. J. S. 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). The minutes secretaries of Sacred Harp singings compiled mark an important exception. Some nineteenth century singing conventions, such as the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, have preserved minutes from some of their earliest sessions, forming an important record of our music’s past. For excerpts from the Chattahoochee Convention’s record books, see Kiri Miller, ed., The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852–2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook (Carrollton, GA: Sacred Harp Museum, 2002). []
  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). More recently, historical writing on Sacred Harp has proliferated, beginning with Buell E. Cobb, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989 [1978]) and continuing, most recently, with David Warren Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010). []
  3. If you do have access to an academic library, Sacred Harp Museum conservator and historical consultant Christopher Sawula recommends the following databases, which include a number of local and regional papers: 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, America’s Historical Newspapers (a great place to start), African American Newspapers, 1827–1998, African American Newspapers: The 19th Century, America’s Historical Imprints, American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals, American Broadsides and Ephemera, Accessible Archives (South Carolina Primarily), and ProQuest Historical Newspapers. []
  4. Sarah E. Kahre, “Schism and Sacred Harp: The Formation of the Twentieth-Century Tunebook Lines” (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 2015). []
  5. The Texas Fasola site has pages dedicated to historical material and biographies. The “Sacred Harp Singing” site includes “Articles and Essays on Sacred Harp Singing.” []

About Robert L. Vaughn

Robert L. Vaughn is a Sacred Harp singer, composer and Baptist preacher, living in East Texas. He descends from several generations of singers on both sides of his family.
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