Sojourn in the South: Billings Among the Shape-Noters

Cover of the special William Billings issue of the Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, courtesy of Richard Colwell.

Editor’s Note: Raymond C. Hamrick contributed this article to a 1996 special issue of the Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning 7, no. 1, devoted to eighteenth-century New England composer William Billings. In an April 2014 interview, Hamrick recalled that the journal’s associate editor, Jonathan Bellman, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado where the journal was based,

wrote me and asked if I would write [about Billings], and I told him, I said, “Well, I’ll do the best I can.” But I thought to myself, “You know, when you’re writing something for college people you’re probably going to get a lot of corrections and go back and do this over.” They didn’t go back and correct a single word, and I thought—I was very proud of that.1

In his essay, Hamrick describes Sacred Harp singers’ stewardship of Billings’s music during a period when it otherwise largely fell out of favor. Indeed, Billings’s popularity in The Sacred Harp contributed to his eventual acceptance as part of the American choral music canon. Hamrick also offers a nuanced exploration of the particular place Billings’s often challenging music occupies in the texture of contemporary singings.

History tells us that in the early nineteenth century, a tide of European musical influences poured into the fledgling New England Colonies, bringing the music of the Yankee Tunesmiths into disfavor and leading to its eventual disappearance there. In the usual course of events, this music would have existed only in old musty books to be dug out now and then for a nostalgic moment. In truth, that did take place—but only in New England. I personally feel that the appearance of shape-notes from 1798 on was probably the main factor in insuring the safe retreat of early American religious music to other areas more likely to appreciate it.

First, the Midwest (via the Missouri Harmony)2 where it eventually lost out, and then to the Southeast, where European influence was long in arriving and had little dissemination outside the cultural centers. These centers were the port cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, and the like. The Southern population was mostly the small farmer and his family, of English, Scots, Irish, and German descent—all inherently musical people with a strong feeling for folk music.

Into this mold was poured the rejected music of the Yankee Tune-smith, that music being taken—via shape-notes—into the tunebooks of the Southern compilers, i.e., Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony (1816), the several Tennessee books, William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) in South Carolina, followed closely by B. F. White’s Sacred Harp of Georgia (1844), and its several revisions into the 1990s. Thus was this music brought into the life of the Southern Rural.

It was accepted in part into the religious services. Most major denominations still have many Sacred Harp tunes in their hymnals. The Primitive Baptists, who use the Lloyd’s Hymnal in their services, gleaned most of their tunes from this source. I was raised in a Primitive Baptist home and grew up very familiar with these tunes. The historical background caught my interest, and an early meeting with George Pullen Jackson3 solidified that interest.

I noticed very early that while the “Southern Folkstyle” was by far the most popular in The Sacred Harp, the music bearing the name of William Billings seemed to command a higher level of attention from the singers. His pieces were used mainly when the class was composed of the best singers and leaders. Where the tunes of other New England composers such as Read, Swan, Holden, et al., were used frequently and with a casual ease, those of Billings were approached with much closer attention. It was recognized that his music was, shall we say, “different.”

Billings’s music, I think, had two special qualities that insured it a “special” place. Charles Atkins says:

His music was aimed at the man at the plow and the woman at the loom. He wanted everyone to sing and enjoy it. His music appealed to primitive emotions. However, it was not the highly trained, sophisticated musicians he was interested in. He wanted the singing to be the natural outpouring of the common man and woman.4

From an article by Richard Crawford and David McKay:

The main influence behind Billings’ music seemed to be declamation and the momentum that metrical declamation can generate. There is evidence that Billings sought in his performances to generate momentum through strict maintenance of tempo.5

Anyone who has attended shape-note singings will recognize these qualities as basic performance characteristics.

Did Billings’s style help mold these characteristics or did it fit naturally into a pre-existing environment? Regardless, the union was permanent. In the 1991 Sacred Harp revision, the previous Billings tunes—“Assurance,” “Easter Anthem,” “Rose of Sharon,” “Bear Creek,” “Petersburg,” “Funeral Anthem,” “Phoebus,” “Vermont,” “David’s Lamentation,” “Majesty,” “Chester,” “Beneficence“—were joined by “Africa” and “Jordan,” making a total of fourteen—a sizable contribution, bearing clear witness that Billings found a home in the South.

The first printing of William Billings’s “Africa,” in his tunebook The Psalm-singer’s Amusement (1781), courtesy of the Archives and Manuscript Dept., Pitts Theology Library, Emory University.

It is an interesting thought that the music of America’s first religious composer should have been born, and flourished, in Colonial America, withered and become extinct in its native habitat, then retreated to the South to be welcomed and nurtured for nearly 200 years, then emerged to a far greater popularity that is not only national but now international. Billings’s music is sung in Canada, and we recently mailed fifty copies of The Sacred Harp to London—at their request.

We in the Southern shape-note tradition take great pride in having served as the preservers of this uniquely American musical tradition.


This article was originally published in the Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning 7, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 10–11. Thanks to Richard Colwell, founder and former editor of the journal, for granting the Newsletter permission reprint Hamrick’s article on December 31, 2014. Thanks to Debra Madera of the Pitts Theology Library for digitizing William Billings’s “Africa” and to the library’s director M. Patrick Graham for permission to include the image as an illustration in this essay.

  1. Raymond Hamrick, interview with Jesse P. Karlsberg, April 3, 2014. In his letter, Bellman notes that John Garst, editor of the “Rudiments of Music” in The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition and a professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia, had recommended Hamrick. At Garst’s urging, Bellman made a hard sell to try to entice Hamrick to contribute: “He [Garst] also said, and (don’t blame me) I quote, ‘Tell Raymond I sent you, and that he has to do it!’ Later, when I expressed reservations about delivering this kind of message, he said ‘Just tell him that I think he owes it to humanity.’” Jonathan Bellman, letter to Raymond C. Hamrick, October 13, 1995. Box 5, Folder 1, Raymond Hamrick Papers, Archives and Manuscript Dept., Pitts Theology Library, Emory University. []
  2. Allen D. Carden, ed. First published in 1820, The Missouri Harmony had been revised seventeen times by 1857, and was the most popular tunebook in the Midwest. (Harry Eskew and James C. Downey, “Shape-Note Hymnody,” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (London and New York: Macmillan, 1986), 4:202. []
  3. George Pullen Jackson (1874–1953). Scholar and educator of folksong. European-educated, he published White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands in 1933. []
  4. Charles L. Atkins, “William Billings, His Psalm and Hymn Tunes,” in Addresses at the International Hymnological Conference, September 10–11, 1961, New York City (Papers of the Hymn Society, no. 24, 1962). []
  5. Richard Crawford and David McKay, “The Performance of William Billings’ Music,” The Journal of Research in Music Education 21, no. 4 (Winter 1973), 327. []

About Raymond C. Hamrick

Raymond C. Hamrick (1915–2014) served as a member of the Music Committee that edited The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition and was president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. A watchmaker by trade, Hamrick was a prolific composer. In addition to his six songs in The Sacred Harp, hundreds of his compositions are collected in The Georgian Harmony.
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