The issuance early last year of the reproduction of the 1911 Original Sacred Harp (the James Book) caused me to reflect upon the extraordinary influence that historic old book and its predecessors had on common community life throughout the deep South a century ago. I knew from childhood that my grandfather, M. F. McWhorter (1858–1940) had a significant role in the production of the James Book. In 1906, he was named by the United Sacred Harp Musical Association as a member of a committee to bring forth this new revision of the 1870 Sacred Harp. The first printing of the book had a page of photographs of leading men of the Sacred Harp movement: the chairman of the committee, Joseph S. James, and all members of the music editorial committee, including Grandpa McWhorter. Like my grandfather, many of the singers depicted on this page were leaders in their communities. In many cases, I believe Sacred Harp singing was a key to their prominence and orientation toward service. My grandfather’s life demonstrates this influence of The Sacred Harp on everyday life in Alabama during his era.
The Sacred Harp was recognized in its day as second only to the Holy Bible; it was seemingly prevalent in nearly all “cultivated” homes. Before there was radio, television, the internet and other forms of communication and entertainment, choral music was a major facet of southern society, and The Sacred Harp from mid-nineteenth century onward was the king of choral music. Nearly every community crossroads hosted at least one singing a year. George Pullen Jackson, the Vanderbilt University professor who “discovered” Sacred Harp for academia, wrote in one of his several books that in a typical year, 1929, there were 150 singing events of note in the north half of Alabama alone. “Nine of these,” he wrote, “[were] three-day affairs, eight last[ed] two days, and the rest [were] merely for one day.”1
Millard Fillmore McWhorter was an obscure dirt farmer of the Mars Hill community in far northeast Cleburne County, Alabama, a stone’s throw from the Georgia state line. Obscure except for one thing: he had in some manner now unknown become addicted to the Sacred Harp song movement, and had given himself to teaching that widely-accepted art form in communities all around him in Alabama and Georgia. It is apparent that he had come under the tutelage of a pair of brothers, Seaborn M. Denson (1854–1936) and Tom J. Denson (1863–1935), both born in Cleburne County’s Arbacoochee community, who had taught singing schools far and wide and eventually became the deans of Sacred Harp. The 1911 edition of the song book included a song McWhorter wrote, at page 515, titled simply “Denson,” testimony to the author’s friendship with the pair. Another piece of Grandpa’s, Jackson, at page 518, continues in the current Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition (now on p. 317).
Grandpa followed the Densons and became a leading teacher of the music, which leads me to believe that his resulting widespread popularity was the single factor that led to his success when he offered for the elective position of county sheriff in the early 1920s. He thus quit the farm and moved his family to the two-story brick jailhouse behind the courthouse in the county seat of Heflin, which became a center of music on the first floor where the sheriff and family resided, whereas the second floor was given to housing county inmates, all supplied by a first floor kitchen. The brood of eleven McWhorter children, who by that time had many children of their own, must have felt it quaint to gather for annual family reunions and singings at the county’s jailhouse!
After that four-year term ended, McWhorter moved back to the farm and offered himself for another county leadership position: commissioner for his district on the county governing body. He was successful there also.
As unlikely as it may seem, some of those same factors seem to be at work in 2016 in DeKalb County, Alabama, quite possibly the most Sacred Harp-centric county of the state’s sixty-seven, that county alone hosting about a dozen singings each year. There, three major current county leaders are ardent Sacred Harp people, led again by a man who taught Sacred Harp throughout the area in his younger years. Ricky Harcrow of Ider, sixty-four, taught many singing schools until his calling into the ministry redirected the emphasis of his life. He became a Primitive Baptist pastor but that did not supplant his interest in the old music; he continues today as an active leader of song, as well as a popular preacher in his denomination at large. But he also is in his second term as the county’s CEO, the head of the county commission, after first having served three terms as a commission district member. He also is retired from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Terry Wootten of Ider, sixty-year-old farmer, is in his sixteenth year as a member of the county’s board of education. He is of the famous Wootten family which is widely known in the singing world. And Terry’s cousin, Shane Wootten of Henagar, in his forties is the newest and youngest Sacred Harp mainline singer-turned-politician. He is a member of the county commission, filling the position Harcrow had when he was elevated to chairman.
It seems that history still repeats itself, and in this case we’re all the better for it. The resurrection of these stories from the distant past serves to reinforce the value we justly place on The Sacred Harp in shaping and ordering society in the early singing South, instilling qualities of community leadership in that day as well as this.
- 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), 105. [↩]