The Variety of Influence: Forms of Craftsmanship in the 1960 Edition


The Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, 1960 Edition,1 produced by an august music committee consisting of A. M. Cagle (chairman), H. N. McGraw, T. B. McGraw, Elmer Kitchens, Hugh McGraw, and Ruth Denson Edwards and edited by Owel Denson, is remembered today partly as the subject of extramusical anecdotes. Singers were displeased to find the ink of its cover rubbing off onto their clothes. Owel Denson, defending the quality of its binding to a skeptical Hugh McGraw, threw a copy against the Birmingham courthouse wall, but this touching show of faith failed to prevent the eventual consignment of some 1,500 books to oblivion in the Coosa River.2

While there may have been a certain slipshod quality to the book, both as a physical object and in some of the music it contained,3 it could boast of having introduced such quintessential Sacred Harp classics as O. A. Parris’s “My Brightest Days,” A. M. Cagle’s “I’ll Seek His Blessings,” and Paine Denson’s “Peace and Joy” (pp. 546, 542, and 532 in The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition; hereafter songs mentioned are in the 1991 Edition unless indicated otherwise). It also marked the first appearances in The Sacred Harp of Hugh McGraw, John Hocutt, and Raymond Hamrick.4  The 1960 Edition thus represents a significant milestone: a crucial point of transition, but also one of continuity, between the great Sacred Harp composers of the first half of the twentieth century (Cagle, Parris, the older Densons and McGraws) and those whose names have defined Sacred Harp composition into the present day. As in previous editions of the book, the authors not only sought to emulate existing Sacred Harp musical styles,5 but also turned to established forms of arrangement and adaptation of earlier material. These adaptations provide insight into various aspects of Sacred Harp composition and creative practices.

Companions and Derivations

John Gordon McCurry

John G. McCurry.

One practice with previous Sacred Harp precedents used by 1960 Edition composers was recasting the melody of an existing minor-key tune in the major mode, or vice versa. Later composers referred to such tunes as major or minor “companions,” the best-known pair being Stephen Jenks’s “North Salem” (p. 440) and John G. McCurry’s “Raymond” (p. 441).6 In the 1960 Edition, S. Whitt Denson contributed “Love Beyond Degree” (p. 567 in the 1960 Edition, hereafter OSH1960), a minor companion to “Mount Pleasant” (p. 218), and “Land of Rest” (p. 484 OSH1960), an abbreviated minor companion to “Westford” (p. 280). Owel Denson wrote “Seaborn” (p. 468 OSH1960), a minor companion to “Fillmore” (p. 434), and “The Love of God” (p. 550 OSH1960), a major companion to “Praise God” (p. 328).

Comparing sections of "Fillmore" and "Seaborn" showing Fillmore las and Seaborn sols.

“Seaborn” and “Fillmore” (m. 23–24). In writing his minor companion to “Fillmore,” Owel Denson changed 6-las in “Fillmore” to 7-sols in “Seaborn.”

The major and minor companions have a value beyond mere novelty: they illustrate features of Sacred Harp musical style in a unique way. The companion never maintains a note-for-note (scale degree to scale degree) correspondence with the original; the deviations often occur as the composers negotiate differences in treatment between the respective (major and minor) modes. For example, the sixth scale degree (6-fa) is used frequently in major-key tunes but more sparingly in minor-key tunes; conversely, the seventh scale degree in minor (7-sol) is used extensively, the seventh scale degree in major (mi, the “leading tone”) much less so, and virtually never as the root of a chord since its triad (the “subtonic”) lacks the stable perfect fifth interval found in other triads. Thus Owel Denson changes the prominent 6-las in “Fillmore” to 7-sols in “Seaborn,” using the minor-key 6-fa only as a passing tone. Where an original minor-key tune has a stable harmony on the 7-sol (for example, measures 12–13 of “North Salem”), the major companion will transfer the harmony to some other chord, often the dominant (as in the corresponding measures of “Raymond”). Comparison of companions to their models offers a wealth of insight into the respective properties of major and minor Sacred Harp music; writing companions may have been not only a way to generate new material, but also an opportunity for composers to develop or demonstrate their mastery of the Sacred Harp idiom.

Comparing "Seaborn" and "Fillmore"

The opening bars (m. 1–6) of “Seaborn” and “Fillmore,” illustrating their similar melodic contours.

Double first cousins Robert E. "Bob" Denson and Ruth Denson Edwards, 1960s.

Double first cousins Robert E. “Bob” Denson and Ruth Denson Edwards, 1960s. Photograph courtesy of Michael Hinton.

Comparing "Alstead" and "The Choicest Blessings" reveals they are almost identical.

“Alstead” and “The Choicest Blessings” (m. 1–4), illustrating how rewritten versions of New England tunes often had just eighth-note passing or accessory tones added.

Another longstanding practice found, rather surprisingly, in the 1960 Edition is the unacknowledged derivation of material from early New England composers.7 “Grace So Full and Free” (p. 494 OSH1960) and “Where Ceaseless Ages Roll” (p. 505 OSH1960), both attributed to R. E. (“Uncle Bob”) Denson, are based on Lewis Edson’s “Greenfield” and Ishmael Spicer’s “Carlisle” respectively. (In the 1966 edition, “Where Ceaseless Ages Roll” was rewritten into its current form—an essentially original tune with only vestigial traces of a relationship to “Carlisle.”)8 “The Choicest Blessings” (p. 575 OSH1960), attributed to S. M. Denson, is Oliver Holden’s “Alstead.”9 The tunes are altered from the originals in a fairly consistent fashion, amounting to a cursory remodeling of all four parts, primarily by the addition of eighth-note passing or accessory tones to original quarter notes.

Interestingly, O. A. Parris’s revisions of The Christian Harmony in the 1950s contain similarly rewritten New England tunes attributed to Sacred Harp composers. The 1954 partial revision, in upright format, contained two tunes attributed to S. M. Denson: “Prison Chains” (p. 20 in the 2010 Christian Harmony, hereafter CH2010), based on Japheth Washburn’s “Voice of Nature,” and “Last Bed,” based on Timothy Swan’s “Montague.”10 The completed oblong revision of 1958, co-edited with John Deason, added “Creation” (p. 8 CH2010), attributed to G. S. Doss but based on “Venus,” (probably) by Elijah Griswold.11

Seaborn McDaniel "S. M." Denson, Sidney Whitfield "S. Whitt" Denson, and Thomas Jackson "T. J." Denson.

Seaborn McDaniel “S. M.” Denson, Sidney Whitfield “S. Whitt” Denson, and Thomas Jackson “T. J.” Denson, at the 1930 Young People’s Interstate Sacred Harp Convention in Mineral Wells, Texas. Photograph courtesy of the grandchildren of George Pullen Jackson.

One may be inclined to wonder about the attribution to S. M. Denson of tunes published some twenty years after his death (and, in the case of “The Choicest Blessings,” dated 1959),12 especially considering The Sacred Harp’s unusual practice, described by David Warren Steel in The Makers of the Sacred Harp, of “dedicatory attributions”—songs which “are credited to an individual as a form of tribute or dedication, but are actually composed by another person, perhaps a well-known Sacred Harp composer who already has many tunes to his credit.”13 “Prison Chains,” “Last Bed,” and “The Choicest Blessings” are found in an undated manuscript book, now in the collection of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company’s Sacred Harp Museum, in which S. M. Denson wrote down his arrangements of forty-four pieces from William Hauser’s 1848 tunebook The Hesperian Harp. Annotations on the manuscript suggest it was later reviewed by others, including S. Whitt Denson and R. E. Denson (S. M. Denson’s sons) and A. M. Cagle, and was the source of the material published in The Christian Harmony and The Sacred Harp.14

Also among the arrangements in S. M. Denson’s manuscript book are those published as “Grace So Full and Free” and the 1960 version of “Where Ceaseless Ages Roll.” These can thus be identified as examples of dedicatory attributions—doubtless considered fitting in light of R. E. Denson’s status as S. M. Denson’s son and a much respected and beloved singer in his own right.

Melodic Re-mappings

The above examples show how the 1960 Sacred Harp perpetuated historical practices of deriving tunes from earlier material. Close analysis suggests that another of its tunes is also derived from an existing tune, but this time in a more distant and unusual way that provides insight into its composer’s creative process and how he may have thought about music.

John Hocutt leading

John Hocutt at the 1995 National Convention, Birmingham, Alabama. Photograph by Ginnie Ely.

John Hocutt’s tunes, described as “thumping, robust” and “sturdy, cleverly crafted pieces” by Buell Cobb in Like Cords Around My Heart, have quickly established themselves as favorites in all the books where they have appeared. Hocutt also sang Christian Harmony and “new book” music; his compositions had appeared in the 1954 and 1958 editions of Christian Harmony before he contributed three new tunes to the 1960 Sacred Harp. One of these, “The Resurrection Day” (p. 498), shares some unusual features—despite outward differences in musical style and content—with a tune from the 1958 Christian Harmony, John Deason’s “Among That Band” (p. 322 CH2010). The tunes not only have the same peculiar meter15 but are in fact rhythmically identical, except at the end of the penultimate phrase where Hocutt draws out the words “snow white throne.” They also have the same structure of paired voices in the fuging section, with the alto and treble exchanged (in “Among That Band,” the treble, rather than the alto, enters with the bass). Could there be a deeper relationship between the tunes?

Re-mapping the triad. "The Resurrection Day" above and "Among that Band" below. the 1-doe, 3-mee, and 5-sole of "Among That Band" become, respectively, the 3-la, 5-sol, and 1-fa (in the upper octave) of "The Resurrection Day."

Re-mapping the triad. “The Resurrection Day” above and “Among that Band” below. the 1-doe, 3-mee, and 5-sole of “Among That Band” become, respectively, the 3-la, 5-sol, and 1-fa (in the upper octave) of “The Resurrection Day.”

Comparing "The Resurrection Day" and "Among That Band."

Hocutt’s re-mapping of the tonic triad in action. “The Resurrection Day” above, and “Among That Band” below.

“Among That Band” has a strongly triadic melody—the notes on the first and third beats of each measure are almost entirely from the 1-3-5 tonic triad. To look at it another way, the melodic contour—the rising-and-falling shape of the melody—is articulated on a root-position triad. Hocutt, I believe, has fashioned the melody of “The Resurrection Day” by “re-mapping” the contour of the Deason melody onto a first-inversion rather than root-position triad.16 That is, the 1-doe, 3-mee, and 5-sole17 of “Among That Band” become, respectively, the 3-la, 5-sol, and 1-fa (in the upper octave) of “The Resurrection Day.” While the correspondence (as with the major/minor companions) is not exact throughout—Hocutt applies the re-mapping scheme loosely where appropriate for the new tune—I think the overall similarity of contour, and the triad-to-triad correspondence of at least one entire phrase, are sufficient to suggest that such a “thought experiment” involving melodic structure was the initial seed from which the new tune germinated.18 It is a testament to his skill and grasp of the idiom that, while “Among That Band,” with its varied harmonization, exemplifies a certain type of Christian Harmony style, Hocutt is able in “The Resurrection Day” to turn the remodeled tune into an equally compelling example of a different Sacred Harp style, which quickly found and continues to enjoy a well-deserved popularity.


It is perhaps unfair, though understandable, that the 1960 Edition is often remembered today for its failures, its musical content becoming partly inaccessible19 as newer revisions of the book superseded the old, leaving behind only a memory of ink-stained clothes. Its symbolic importance (of which its architects may well have been conscious) as a point of continuity in the lineage joining the 1911 James revision to later editions of the book, including the 1991 Edition, is considerable—all the more so in that many of its living links to the 1911 and 1936 editions, including Cagle, Parris, Whitt and Owel Denson, and T. B. and H. N. McGraw, would pass away in the decade following its publication. At this significant moment in the book’s history, its authors hewed to the classic adage. The music of the 1960 Edition enlarges our understanding of the many ways in which Sacred Harp composers have sought the old paths, to walk therein.

  1. Called the “1960 Supplement” on its title page. It added 103 tunes (91 of them new compositions) to the back of the book, but otherwise left the 1936 edition unchanged. []
  2. Hugh McGraw shared these and other stories at Camp Fasola in 2008 where they were recorded in the camp’s minutes. See Jesse P. Karlsberg and Aldo Ceresa, “Camp Fasola Session I (Adult Emphasis),” in Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings, June 28, 2008. []
  3. The book’s physical and musical shortcomings may possibly be due to the sheer haste of its production. The music committee was only appointed on February 7, 1959, so the book, with 116 pages of new material, must have been produced in barely a year. Acknowledging the uneven quality of the 1960 book’s music, the 1966 edition advertised the correction of “all errors and irregularities in the music contained in the 1960 supplement,” bringing it “up to the standard” of the rest of the book. The 1971 edition went even further, calling the 1960 edition “a great disappointment to those most concerned” and noting that the 1966 revision committee “was careful to secure high-quality workmanship and good printing.” []
  4. Credited with arranging the Southern Harmony/Christian Harmony tune “Kambia” and selecting William Billings’s Beneficence (p. 486) for inclusion in the book. Hamrick later acknowledged his authorship of “Millard” (p. 572t OSH1960), dedicated to South Georgia singing school teacher Millard Hancock, and credited to Mrs. Raymond Hamrick. []
  5. Over half the new compositions added in 1960 were fuging tunes, most of them in much the same vein as the Denson and McGraw fuging tunes in the 1936 edition. []
  6. McCurry also created a major companion to “Stratfield” (p. 142) called “Hermon” (p. 70 in The Social Harp). “North Salem” and “Raymond” first entered The Sacred Harp in the 1911 James revision; an earlier companion, from the 1870 edition, is “St. Peters” (p. 389t), but in this case the original model, Billings’s “Savannah,” was not included. Revisions of the B. F. White Sacred Harp contain several major and minor companions by Cooper Book composers, the earliest predating the addition of “North Salem” and “Raymond” to the James revision. See Robert L. Vaughn’s Songs Before Unknown: A Companion to The Sacred Harp, Revised Cooper Edition, 2012 (Mount Enterprise, TX: Waymark Publications, 2015) for identification of these tunes. []
  7. The nineteenth-century editions contained New England pieces, by Abraham Maxim, Samuel Holyoke, and others, arranged without acknowledgment (until later editions) or claimed outright by Sacred Harp composers. The practice continued into the twentieth-century Cooper Book revisions as well. It is hard to say whether the inaccurate (by modern standards) or incomplete attributions reflect a conscious attempt at deception, or a different concept of authorship than is generally held today, or perhaps in some cases (such as the attribution of Lowell Mason’s “Shawmut” (p. 535) to Ruth Denson Edwards in the 1960 Edition) were accidental. []
  8. The bass, treble, and alto parts of “Grace So Full and Free” were also rewritten. Both tunes were re-credited “Re-Arranged by R. E. Denson 1966”. []
  9. “Showers of Blessings” (p. 528), now acknowledged as an arrangement of Joseph Stone’s “Grafton” but in the 1960 Edition credited outright to A. A. Blocker, might also be included in this list, but is much closer to what we would consider an actual arrangement, with alterations to the fuging structure and (unlike the other examples) completely new bass, treble, and alto parts. []
  10. Thanks to Rachel Wells Hall for pointing out “Last Bed”/”Montague” to me. “Last Bed” was removed in the 1958 revision. Christian Harmony tune dates are from copyright dates in the 1994 edition. []
  11. Later often printed with the title “Creation” and, beginning with Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony, attributed to Nehemiah Shumway. []
  12. This type of careless oversight occurred in several other cases in the 1960 Supplement where there is otherwise no apparent reason to doubt the authorship. Tunes by Paine Denson (d. 1955), T. J. Denson (d. 1935), and L. A. McGraw (d. 1957) were also dated 1959. On the other hand, two other newly-published tunes by T. J. Denson were “correctly” (or at least plausibly) dated 1935 while other new compositions were not dated at all. In the 1966 Edition, “The Choicest Blessings” and T. J. Denson’s “Admonition” were re-dated to 1935, and the new Paine Denson tunes to 1950. []
  13. Examples identified by Steel include “Humility” and “Shining Star” (pp. 50b and 461; both written by Raymond Hamrick) from the 1991 Edition, and “The Lamb of God” (p. 572; written by T. B. McGraw) from the 1966 Edition. []
  14. The arrangements in Denson’s manuscript were untitled and had no texts. O. A. Parris wrote a text for “Prison Chains;” texts found elsewhere in The Sacred Harp were used for “Last Bed” and “The Choicest Blessings.” []
  15. Three couplets of 6s & 10s followed by a concluding 8, 6. O. A. Parris wrote the text for “Among That Band.” []
  16. Inversions of triads are described in the 1991 Edition rudiments, p. 22. []
  17. Spelling per the Christian Harmony rudiments, p. vii. []
  18. This may also at least partly explain the relationship between Hocutt’s own “Hocutt” (p. 464 in The Sacred Harp, Revised Cooper Edition, 2012; printed during Hocutt’s lifetime in The New Millennium Harp, a 2001 collection of new compositions edited by Lisa Grayson) and his earlier Christian Harmony tune “This Heavy Load” (p. 316 CH2010). The tunes seem obviously related somehow, with their distinctive double fuge and even shared melodic material (transposed and exchanged from one part to another in places), but the exact nature of the relationship is elusive. A plausible reading is that Hocutt again experimented with taking the contours of one melody and re-mapping them onto a different range of pitches to create a new melody. []
  19. The new tunes in the 1960 Edition are, of course, still under copyright, even if since deleted, and thus (unlike material from older public-domain tunebooks) have not been widely reprinted in later compilations or editions. In recent years, with the permission of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, all deleted tunes from the 1960 and 1966 editions have been made available online, first by Berkley Moore, later by Robert Stoddard at “The Sacred Harp: Deletions for the 1991 Edition,”, This is a valuable resource, although its picture of the 1960 Edition is not quite complete, since where 1960 tunes were revised in 1966 or 1971, the revised version rather than the original is presented. (The original version of “Where Ceaseless Ages Roll”/”Carlisle” is not included, since technically the tune was never deleted. []

About David Wright

David Wright is a Sacred Harp singer and composer from Seattle, Washington. He has been singing since the mid-1990s and has contributed songs to The Sacred Harp: Revised Cooper Edition and The Shenandoah Harmony.
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