Orin Adolphus Parris: At Home Across the Shape-Note Music Spectrum

We often think of Sacred Harp and gospel music as opposites. Especially for singers from the 1991 Edition, the style can seem anathema; its relative exclusion a sign of the tunebook’s fidelity to the “old paths” invoked in its dedication. According to Raymond Hamrick, the first act of the book’s music committee was to “erect a sign [proclaiming] ‘No Gospel Music.’” Orin Adolphus (“O. A.”) Parris (1897–1966), a prolific composer who contributed songs to the 1936 and and 1960 editions of Original Sacred Harp (precursor to the 1991 Edition), 1954 and 1958 editions of The Christian Harmony, and dozens of gospel songbooks, saw things differently. For Parris, as for Hamrick, shape-note genres were distinct, arrayed along a spectrum with Sacred Harp on one side, gospel music on the other, and Christian Harmony somewhere in between. Yet Parris also believed that lyrical and musical styles from one shape-note genre could serve as great inspiration for a composition intended for another.

O. A. Parris as a young man. Parris served in the armed forces in New Jersey as a bugler during World War I. Photographs courtesy of Dawn Caldwell.

In a new essay in the journal American Music, “Genre Spanning in the Close and Dispersed Harmony Shape-Note Songs of Sidney Whitfield Denson and Orin Adolphus Parris,” I describe how Parris and Denson navigated this musical landscape.1 Here I summarize and expand upon my argument by focusing on Parris’s unique and masterful approach to crafting new tunes in these three shape-note styles.

Parris contributed five fuging tunes to The Sacred Harp: three to the 1936 edition of Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision (“A Cross for Me,” “Eternal Praise,” and “The Better Land”; pp. 349, 377, and 454 in The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition) and two more to the Original Sacred Harp’s 1960 Supplement (“A Few More Years,” since removed, and “My Brightest Days”; p. 546). These songs demonstrate both his keen understanding of the tunebook’s musical styles and his interest in adding flavors drawn from gospel music. “The Better Land,” for example, features an inventive variation on the standard fuging tune entrance pattern, and four strongly melodic parts that frequently cross each other, all markers of his awareness of the conventions of the Sacred Harp fuging tune genre. Yet “The Better Land” also contains gospel sounds, such as a moment near the song’s end where, as I note in American Music, “the alto part slides through the flatted seventh scale degree creating a diminished mediant chord (iiio), a sonority that would not be out of place in a gospel song yet which occurs nowhere else in The Sacred Harp.” I also describe in American Music how “gospel may have influenced Parris’s construction of the song’s fuging form. … Although in most fuging tunes the four parts come together for a short homophonic section before ending, “The Better Land,” like many gospel songs, remains relatively polyphonic until the last note.”2 Together, these features of the song suggest it was constructed vertically, with harmonic progressions in mind, as well as horizontally, with an eye toward melody, a fusion of aspects of “close” and “dispersed” harmony songwriting strategies. Even Parris’s minor Sacred Harp songs, such as his masterful “Eternal Praise,” show a keen awareness of each part’s melodic interest as well as the rhythmic counterpoint and harmonic progressions caused by the parts’ interaction, illuminating Parris’s indebtedness to conventions of both Sacred Harp and gospel music.

Hundreds of O. A. Parris’s compositions were published in annual paperback gospel songbooks such as the Tennessee Music and Printing Company’s 1934 Pearls of the Cross. Collection of the Author.

Parris channeled the bulk of his creative energies toward the gospel side of the shape-note genre spectrum, famously claiming that he wrote so little Sacred Harp music “because there’s no do(ugh) in it.” Many of the hundreds of songs he contributed to the annually published paperback “new books” used at gospel singing conventions both exemplify the diverse styles found in such songbooks, and evince echoes of some aspects of Sacred Harp music. For example, Parris’s gospel songs feature basslines that range energetically across an octave or more in combinations of arpeggio and stepwise motion to generate melodic interest far greater than that exhibited in a typical gospel song, perhaps a result of his enthusiasm for the melodic harmony parts common to dispersed harmony. Parris’s gospel songs also feature a heaping helping of the various rhythmic effects producing textual overlap employed in the gospel genre. Historical evidence suggests that such effects originated in the mixed-race close harmony traditions of the nineteenth century and were not an outgrowth of fuging tunes. Yet in Parris’s mid-twentieth-century musical world, in which fuging tunes and gospel responsorial effects existed side by side, the composer may have envisioned a connection between the two, inspiring his unusually extensive and creative applications of textual overlap in a variety of gospel songs, most of which unfortunately are now inaccessible in long out-of-print gospel songbooks.

Happily, The Christian Harmony contains several examples of this hybrid approach. In “The Grand Highway” and “Longing for the Day” (pp. 172 and 320 in The Christian Harmony: 2010 Edition, hereafter CH2010), virtuosic choruses begin with staggered part entrances typical of fuging tunes followed by call-and-response effects more common to gospel songs. These two songs as well as “Weary Rest” and “He’s Holding My Hand” (pp. 1 and 296 in CH2010), which hew more closely to the standard fuging tune form in The Christian Harmony, originated in gospel songbooks where they featured less part crossing, more chromatic harmony, and in some cases additional responsorial effects.3 That Parris adapted songs he published in gospel songbooks for The Christian Harmony illustrates his sense that hybrid compositions had a place in both sources. The changes he made demonstrate that he saw their stylistic ranges as distinct.

O. A. Parris’s “Longing for That Sweet Day,” composed for a gospel songbook, mixes close and dispersed harmony as well as fuging and gospel responsorial effects. In Pearls of the Cross (Cleveland, TN: Tennessee Music and Printing Company, 1934), no. 82. Collection of the author.

O. A. Parris revised “Longing for That Sweet Day,” removing some accidentals and call-and-response rhythmic flourishes associated with gospel. He included the resulting song, “Longing for the Day,” in his 1954 Christian Harmony: Book One (Birmingham, AL: Christian Harmony Publishing Company, 1954), no. 108. Collection of the Sacred Harp Museum.

Parris also seems to have felt that some gospel genres fit better in The Christian Harmony than others. Of the twenty-three songs he contributed to 1954 and 1958 editions of the tunebook, only “A Happy Meeting” (p. 182 in CH2010) approaches the complexity and pure gospel flavor of the two-page-long songs that typically occupy openings just past the midpoint of convention books. In addition to the gospel fuges mentioned above, and more conservatively written fuging tunes with less overt gospel influence, Parris contributed several adaptations of simpler gospel songs that occupied a secondary position in gospel songbooks, the three or four braces left over on the right side of a page opening, following a longer and more virtuosic composition. Examples in The Christian Harmony include “The Heavenly Throng,” “A Good Time Coming,” “Sunrise,” and “The Weary Soldier” (pp. 43, 149, 168b, and 305 in CH2010). Parris seems to have felt that this shorter and less elaborate gospel genre fit more easily along the varied nineteenth-century genres in The Christian Harmony.

Mae Lewis Parris and O. A. Parris, ca. 1925. Photograph courtesy of Dawn Caldwell.

From his gospel show-stoppers to his minor fuging tunes, Parris’s music evinces a great ear for melody, expressed not only in his tenor lines but in all the parts. Favorite harmony parts of mine are the bass in “Eternal Praise” and the treble to “A Happy Meeting.” Parris’s harmony parts also elegantly interact with each other both rhythmically and melodically, like pieces of a puzzle snapping together.

Like many of his mid-twentieth-century contemporaries—a group that included several Densons, Kitchenses, McGraws, and Woodards—Parris applied his creativity across the shape-note music spectrum. As I note in American Music, genre-spanning composers were especially prominent in the northern Alabama area “stretching roughly from Birmingham north to Cullman and west to Jasper.”4 But among this group, Parris seemed perhaps the most at home in the widest range of genres, capable in songs like “The Better Land” and “The Grand Highway” of mixing and matching elements from different styles while creating music that feels just right in its intended source.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the Christian Harmony Music Company for permission to include “Longing for the Day” as an illustration to accompany this essay, and to the descendants of O. A. Parris for permission to include “Longing for that Sweet Day,” its gospel precursor. Thanks to Dawn Caldwell for sharing photographs of her grandfather.

Notes

  1. Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Genre Spanning in the Close and Dispersed Harmony Shape-Note Songs of Sidney Whitfield Denson and Orin Adolphus Parris,” American Music 35, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 94–132. []
  2. Ibid., 110 []
  3. Parris published an earlier version of “The Grand Highway” as “Don’t Turn from the Grand Highway” in O. A. Parris, ed., Music Waves No. 2 (Jasper, AL: O. A. Parris, Gospel Song Publisher, 1946), 88. Versions of “Longing for the Day” and “Weary Rest” appear as “Longing for That Sweet Day” and “Then I’ll Be Satisfied,” respectively, in Otis L. McCoy, ed., Pearls of the Cross (Cleveland, TN: Tennessee Music and Printing Company, 1934), 34, 82. []
  4. Karlsberg, “Genre Spanning,” 95. []

About Jesse P. Karlsberg

Jesse P. Karlsberg is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. He edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Born in Boston, he lives in Atlanta and is senior digital scholarship strategist at Emory University.

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