The Sacred Harp that we sing from today was not the first book by that name. In fact, it was not even the first oblong shape-note tunebook with that title. A decade before B. F. White published the first edition of The Sacred Harp, brothers Lowell and Timothy Mason published their own Sacred Harp in Cincinnati. The Sacred Harp Museum is fortunate to have an exceptionally well-preserved copy of the 1835 edition of Timothy and Lowell Mason’s Sacred Harp thanks to the generosity of P. Dan Brittain. Originally from Boston, the Mason family is hardly associated with the promotion of shape-note (or “patent note”) notation—indeed, Lowell Mason would become a famously successful antagonist of shape-notes, which he derided as an obstacle to “scientific” music education.
So how did the Mason brothers come to publish a shape-note tunebook? Shape-notes were flourishing in the Ohio Valley in the 1830s, and the music publishers recognized that a shape-note version of the hymnal would boost its commercial prospects. The Masons were clear that their use of shape-notes was in no way intended as an endorsement, however: the preface acknowledges that “the Sacred Harp is printed in patent notes (contrary to the wishes of the Authors) under the belief that it will prove much more acceptable to a majority of singers in the West and South.”
If the notation style of both Sacred Harps is the same, the contents are dramatically different. While B. F. White’s Sacred Harp largely followed its shape-note predecessors in reprinting a broad range of early American singing-school repertoire, southern vernacular hymnody, and new compositions based on those styles, the Masons’ Sacred Harp features music by European composers and new compositions based on a European aesthetic, many by Lowell Mason himself. In fact, the Masons intended their volume to supplant the American hymnody then popular in the region—the “patent notes” would be but a minor concession if the tunebook could succeed in pushing local musical taste toward the style that the Masons favored. As the preface elaborates,
The Sacred Harp was undertaken at the request of many highly respectable individuals, who have long felt the importance of the introduction of an elevated style of Sacred Music arranged on the immovable basis of science and correct taste. … It is now given to the public with the hope that it will meet the wishes of those who have for a long time felt the need of a collection of scientific music adapted to the improved and improving taste and judgement of the western community.
In the few examples of eighteenth-century American music they included, Lowell and Timothy Mason altered the harmonies to better conform to the European style they favored, eliminating parallel fifths and open chords.1
Furthermore, Lowell Mason seems to have purposefully given many of his tunes the same names as earlier compositions by American composers—hoping, apparently, that his new, European-style hymns would supplant the old-style music whose names they appropriated.
B. F. White’s Sacred Harp followed a markedly different musical model. The year after the Mason’s tunebook entered circulation, White’s brother in law, William Walker, published The Southern Harmony, perhaps the single-most popular repository of southern vernacular music. White’s Sacred Harp would follow in the spirit of The Southern Harmony, but it is important to note that he was not categorically opposed to the work of Lowell Mason or the European composers Mason emulated. Indeed, White included music in this style—and even tunes by Mason himself—in the early editions of his Sacred Harp. Nonetheless, the musical style that the Masons’ Sacred Harp promoted was only a minor element in White’s book, especially in the first edition, where Warren Steel counts just three tunes as representing the “contemporary reform style,” with only one by Lowell Mason.2 Furthermore, White and his associates changed the harmonies in several “reform style” tunes, tweaking them to better fit the sonic vocabulary of southern vernacular music.3
Given the dramatic differences between the two Sacred Harps, why did White select the same name for his tunebook just a decade after the Mason brothers? It’s impossible to say. It may have been a simple coincidence, since nineteenth-century tunebooks were often named after instruments and the phrase “sacred harp” was surprisingly common in book titles and in poetry at the time. In fact, J. H. Hickok had published a four-shape tunebook titled The Sacred Harp in Lewiston, PA, just two years before the Masons published their Sacred Harp. In the introduction to his Union Harp and History of Songs, 1909, J. S. James noted that early twentieth-century singers “would like to know something about the origin of the naming of books in connection with the word ‘Harp.’” He was able to compile a list of forty-nine different songbooks with “harp” in their titles.4
Or, perhaps B. F. White’s use of the title was not a coincidence at all. Could White have appropriated Mason’s title in much the same way that Mason repurposed the tune-names of early American compositions, creating an entirely new and radically different volume with the intent of supplanting its namesake’s influence? However coincidental, it is remarkable that a shape-note tunebook published with the intent to drive shape-note music from the south and west would share its name with the tunebook most associated with the survival of the form. In any case, by the mid twentieth-century, singers had arrived at a creative interpretation of the tunebook’s name that gets to the heart of our experience of the music whether or not it has any historical basis: the “Sacred Harp” is the human voice, the only God-given instrument.
A digitized version of the same edition of Lowell and Timothy Mason’s Sacred Harp that P. Dan Brittain donated to the Sacred Harp Museum is available at the Internet Archive. For further reading, see James Scholten, “Lowell Mason and his Shape-note Tunebook in the Ohio Valley: The Sacred Harp, 1834–1850,” in Contributions to Music Education 15 (Fall, 1988), 47–52; John Bealle, “Timothy Mason in Cincinnati: Music Reform on the Urban Frontier,” in Public Worship, Private Faith (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), chap. 1; Warren Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 9, 49–51, 134–35.
- James Scholten, “Lowell Mason and His Shape-Note Tunebook in the Ohio Valley: The Sacred Harp, 1834–1850,” Contributions to Music Education, no. 15 (1988): 48. [↩]
- David Warren Steel with Richard H. Hulan, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (University of Illinois Press, 2010), 9. [↩]
- Ibid., 50. [↩]
- J. S. James, Union Harp and History of Songs (Douglasville, GA, 1909), vi–vii. [↩]