Shape-Note Singing in Mississippi: A Preliminary History

While studies of Sacred Harp singing have concentrated on Georgia, Alabama, and Texas, the shape-note traditions of Mississippi have remained comparatively obscure. In 1933, George Pullen Jackson wrote, “I have not learned that there is in Mississippi any comprehensive state Sacred Harp organization.” He also suggested that “the rarity of singers from that state attending the big conventions in other states as delegates indicates the low estate of Sacred Harp singing in that commonwealth.” At that time, there was indeed a state Sacred Harp convention and many county conventions, as well as vigorous traditions of singing in The Christian Harmony and in shape-note gospel songbooks. In May 1939, Mississippi native Abbott Ferriss (1915–2014), with Herbert Halpert and other New Deal writers, recorded a Sacred Harp singing in Lauderdale County, and interviewed participants representing four counties where singings have not been held in years. Only with the 1968–70 writings of John Quincy Wolf (1901–72), English professor at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), do we begin to understand the distinctive geography of shape-note singing in the state, and the reasons for the relative lack of communication with singers in neighboring states. These included differences in solmization syllables, tempos, and other issues. In 1971, journalist Joe Dan Boyd wrote about a thriving African American tradition combining singings from The Sacred Harp with “new work” gospel music. In 1978, state folklorist Paula Tadlock published an article on all three shape-note traditions in the state, including diagrams showing varied seating arrangements. In the same year Buell E. Cobb, in The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, summarized earlier findings and provided an exhaustive “union list” of annual singings from the Sacred Harp, including thirty-eight annual and five monthly singings in Mississippi.

This article offers a preliminary history of the shape-note traditions of the state, showing the diversity of local customs, and recognizing that it is difficult to separate the Sacred Harp, Christian Harmony, and gospel traditions.

Indian Land Cessions in Mississippi. Choctaw cessions of 1830 and Chickasaw cessions of 1832 are shown at 156 and 178 respectively.

When Mississippi became a state in 1817, white settlement was confined to the Gulf Coast and the lower Mississippi Valley. There is little information on singing in this early period, but in 1831, singers at Natchez churches sang urban music printed in round notes. It was only with the Choctaw and Chickasaw cessions of the 1830s that settlers from other states brought singing schools and shape-note tunebooks, including Missouri Harmony and Southern Harmony, into the area.

In 1849, Lazarus J. Jones (1816–97) of Jasper County published The Southern Minstrel. Printed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this tunebook contained, in addition to standard tunes from other southern sources, several new compositions and arrangements by Jones and other east central Mississippians. The book went through a second printing in 1855, but subsequently faded from view, although five of its tunes appeared in a block (pages 324–27) in the 1854 edition of William Walker’s Southern Harmony. Jesse T. White (1821–94), a nephew of Sacred Harp compiler B. F. White and composer of ten songs in that book, was clerk of Winston County in the 1850s before moving on to Texas. He may have introduced The Sacred Harp to the hill country of central Mississippi.

Lazarus J. Jones.

At the close of the Civil War, there is evidence of all-day singings from The Sacred Harp in several locations around the state, at least one (1866 in Calhoun County) described as a reunion of soldiers with their families. Soon these singings became annual community homecomings and memorials, attracting thousands of attendees. W. A. Beasley (1830–1903) of Houston and H. J. “Hal” Hawkins (1824–1904) of Ellzey were among the leading singers of that period, and were involved in the formation of Sacred Harp conventions in Calhoun (1878), Chickasaw (1882), and Webster (1883) counties. In East Central Mississippi, singers founded a Newton County Convention around 1875, using William Walker’s Christian Harmony and chaired by E. G. Everett (1843–1927). These and other conventions provided a forum where established teachers met to sing together, to examine and certify new teachers, and to demonstrate the accomplishments of their classes. J. P. Wright (1892–1988) of Webster County recalled that his county convention established an examining committee consisting of three singing teachers, including the president and secretary, to test knowledge of the rudiments, including moods of time and meters of psalmody; he was examined once at age sixteen to become a song leader, and again at age twenty-three to become an accredited teacher.

Sacred Harp singing in Mississippi, especially in Calhoun, Chickasaw, Webster and adjoining counties, has long been identified by a unique practice not found elsewhere: the use of seven syllables (doremi) to name the four shaped notes, in effect, disregarding the shapes that help other singers in learning the notes. This practice appears to date back to the immediate post–Civil War period. It may derive from the transitional 1854 edition of William Walker’s Southern Harmony (p. xxxi), which offers precisely this alternative to the fasola system for singers who wish to sing the more modern seven syllables with the more conservative repertory of the four-shape books. Walker also gives examples of a seven-numeral system, a practice occasionally encountered in Mississippi among Christian Harmony singers. It was reported of Hal Hawkins that he could sing and teach “by four notes, by seven notes, or by number,” according to his pupils’ desire. At singings in this area, basses commonly sat facing the tenors, as in the stitchery depiction by Wright’s niece, Ethel Wright Mohamed (1906–92).

William Walker, Southern Harmony, 1854 edition, offering seven syllables or seven numerals with four shapes.

As African American literacy increased, black singers established their own singing schools and conventions. The Alabama-Mississippi Singing Convention (1887), which uses gospel music today, may have originally sung from The Sacred Harp or William Walker’s Christian Harmony. Certainly the Pleasant Ridge Colored Musical Convention of Calhoun County (1898) sang from The Sacred Harp, as did its sister conventions in Chickasaw and Webster counties.

After the Civil War, singing schools and shape notes became increasingly identified with the South, while declining in popularity in other regions. Many teachers switched from the four-shape system to a seven-shape system to keep pace with new teaching methods. Leading teachers and publishers established “music normal schools” for the training of teachers. Southern firms such as Ruebush-Kieffer and A. J. Showalter began to publish small, inexpensive collections of music every year or two. These upright songbooks gradually began to supplant the large oblong tunebooks with their fixed repertoire. Showalter’s Class, Choir and Congregation (1888), a transitional book, remained in print well into the twentieth century: a “Class Choir” state convention, chaired by William E. Lane (1891–1989), was organized in Neshoba County in 1956. After 1900, mass-market publishers like James D. Vaughan (from 1902), V. O. Stamps (1924) and J. R. “Pap” Baxter (Stamps-Baxter Music from 1926) served the market by printing one or more books a year in a style known today as convention gospel music. In Mississippi, this style is often known as “new work” music, as opposed to “old Harp”; in earlier times, it was derided as “almanac music.” While traditional gospel singings, sometimes even unaccompanied, persisted in many areas among black and white singers, other local conventions came to resemble quartet concerts. A state singing convention held its first regular session in 1934 in Newton County, with W. D. Rayner presiding. The Blackwood Brothers of Choctaw County emerged from this convention to achieve fame as gospel performers. Quartet members James Blackwood (1919–2002) and J. D. Sumner (1924–1998) established the National Gospel Quartet Convention in 1956, based solely on quartet performances. In 1957 Videt Polk and Bobby Burnett established Gospel Singers of America, a group sponsoring an annual residential singing school at their campus in Pass Christian. Another residential singing school, emphasizing congregational singing, was Harmony Valley, founded in Natchez in 1970 by Elder E. D. McCutcheon (1912–2005), but later located near Ecru in north Mississippi.

Mississippi State Gospel Music Convention, Booneville, 2016.

Hugh Bill McGuire leading at Spring Creek Church in Calhoun County, 1986. Note the basses seated opposite the tenors, with the altos seated behind the trebles to the right of the tenors. The space to the left of the tenors is used by overflow tenor or bass.

During the early twentieth century, the Sacred Harp held its ground, and continued to spread into new territory. As copies of the 1870 Sacred Harp wore out and new ones became unavailable, singers had to choose among the varied revisions and editions that appeared after 1900. In the north central area covered by the three oldest conventions, Calhoun, Chickasaw, and New Harmony (Webster) and surrounding areas, where the doremi system held sway, and where African American singings and conventions also were active, the J. L. White Fourth Edition, with Supplement (1911) predominated, and came to be known as the “B. F. White book.” By the 1950s, both black and white singers were again faced with the unavailability of new books; they were unaware of the 1958 Atlanta-area reprint of the White book. By the 1970s, both groups had adopted the Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, although many White book songs remained popular, and it was a rare singing where “Don’t grieve your mother” was not heard at least once.

To the north and east of this area were two distinct groups of singers who sang the fasola syllables. Prentiss and Tishomingo Counties were influenced by the Denson family, a branch of whom had settled the area in 1875. According to George Pullen Jackson, Thomas Cicero Denson (1857–1935) reported to a Texas convention in 1930 about local activities. Although John Quincy Wolf suggested that these activities likely consisted of mainly gospel music and little Sacred Harp, I have met Denson descendants from this area who were quite competent “fasola” singers; they probably adopted the James book early on. The eastern group (Itawamba, Monroe, and Lowndes Counties) was closely connected with western Alabama: they knew both the White and James books, but eventually settled on the James book, and later the Denson.

In the southeast “Piney Woods” area, centered on Jones and Jasper Counties, singers, possibly influenced by singers in the Mobile area, adopted the W. M. Cooper revision at an unknown date. They had minimal contact with the other groups until the 1930s. There were also singings in the Meridian area. It is unknown, for example, what book was used at the 1939 singing described above: it could have been White, James or Cooper, but not Denson, judging from the page numbers. West of Meridian, the Christian Harmony prevailed, as it had done ever since the 1870s.

Elmer A. Enochs (1888–1994) was still leading music at the age of 103.

The Mississippi State Sacred Harp Singing Convention was founded in 1929 at Houston with William Thomas Gwin (1853–1934) as its first president. Despite its name, it included Christian Harmony singers from the beginning, and allowed songs from both books. Gradually this body began to attract singers from the Delta area, where immigrant hill-folk from Webster and Calhoun counties were holding singings before 1930, and from southeast Mississippi, where the South Mississippi Convention was organized in 1947 using the Cooper revision of The Sacred Harp. Black singers established the West Harmony Convention (Grenada County) in 1922, and the Negro Mississippi State Sacred Harp Musical Convention in 1934, organized by W. A. Wandwick, Frank Payne, and Elmer A. Enochs (1888–1994).

In northeast Mississippi, where Sacred Harp singers used the “fasola” system popular in Alabama and elsewhere; the area was a fertile field for Alabama singing-teachers such as S. M. Denson (1854–1936), R. A. Canant (1883–1984), and F. M. Frederick (1893–1960). Outside this area, however, Mississippi singers had little contact with their counterparts in Alabama and other states. In 1959 R. A. Stewart (1897–1977) of Houston began a weekly half-hour radio program of Sacred Harp singing and announcements that continues to this day. He also attended Alabama singings, promoted the Denson book, and established an annual singing in Houston, re-established in Oxford after his death, where singers from both states were encouraged to meet.

During the 1960s, the Mississippi State Convention reported as many as seventy annual singings, not counting black singings and northeast Mississippi “fasola” singings unaffiliated with the state convention. Since 1970, singings from the Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony have declined over most of the state; some conventions have been discontinued, while other three-day conventions have been reduced to two or even one day. Shape-note gospel singings and conventions have declined as well, though the Gospel Singers of America celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2007 by hosting the National Gospel Singing Convention in Pass Christian. Sacred Harp singing has entirely died out among the African American groups, although some gospel singings and conventions remain. The remaining singers, however, travel more widely and stay in touch more effectively with the aid of online forums. Calhoun County native Mark Davis has chaired the National Sacred Harp Convention since 2008; it can no longer be said that Mississippi singers are unknown and unrecognized at out-of-state gatherings.

Audio Recordings

Author’s Note

This is an expansion of an article appearing in the Mississippi Encyclopedia (2017), with permission of the editors. Among those who shared information in personal interviews are George W. Boswell, Everette Driskell, Cleo Hawkins, Hugh Bill McGuire, Stephen Shearon, and J. P. Wright.

Further Reading

  • Boyd, Joe Dan. “Negro Sacred Harp Songsters in Mississippi.” Mississippi Folklore Register 5, no. 3 (Fall 1971): 60–87.
  • Cobb, Buell E., Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.
  • Eskew, Harry. “Christian Harmony Singing in Alabama: Its Adaptation and Survival.” In Singing Baptists: Studies in Baptist Hymnody in America, edited by Harry Eskew, David W. Music, and Paul Akers Richardson, 265–76. Nashville, TN: Church Street Press, 1994.
  • Fasola: Fifty-three Shape Note Folk Hymns: All Day Sacred Harp Singing at Stewart’s Chapel in Houston, Mississippi by Amelia and Frederic Ramsey, Jr. LP recording, Asch Folkways Asch Mankind Series AHM 4151.
  • Olson, Ted. “‘The Voices of the Older Ones’: The Sacred Harp Singing Tradition of Calhoun County, Mississippi.” Mississippi Folklore Register 25/26 (1991–92): 11–29.
  • Simmons, Murray. “Loosascoona.” Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter 7, no. 4 (December 1991).
  • Steel, David Warren. “L. J. Jones and The Southern Minstrel (1849).” American Music 6, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 123–57.
  • ———. “The W. T. Gwin Old Harp Singers Trophy: A Unique Piece of Sacred Harp Memorabilia from Mississippi.” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 4, no. 2 (2015).
  • Tadlock, Paula. “Shape-Note Singing in Mississippi.” In Discourse in Ethnomusicology: Essays in Honor of George List, edited by Caroline Card, John Hasse, Roberta L. Singer, and Ruth M. Stone, 191–207. Bloomington: Ethnomusicology Publications Group, Indiana University, 1978.
  • Walls, Chiquita. The African American Shape Note and Vocal Music Singing Convention Directory, a special publication of Mississippi Folklife 27 (1994).
  • ———. “Mississippi’s African American Shape Note Tradition,” La-Miss-Ala Shape Note Newsletter (November–December 1999).
  • Wolf, John Quincy. “The Sacred Harp in Northeast Mississippi.” Mississippi Folklore Register 4, no. 2 (Summer 1970).
  • ———. “The Sacred Harp in Mississippi,” Journal of American Folklore 81, no. 322 (October–December, 1968): 337–41.

About David Warren Steel

Warren Steel is professor of music emeritus at the University of Mississippi. He has sung in the Sacred Harp since 1972, and lived in Oxford, Mississippi since 1980. He edited the works of early American composers Stephen Jenks and Daniel Belknap. His The Makers of the Sacred Harp was published in 2010. He has taught at Camp Fasola and maintains an extensive web site for Sacred Harp singing. Steel also plays organ and harpsichord and performs with an early music ensemble.
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One Response to Shape-Note Singing in Mississippi: A Preliminary History

  1. Sue Perry says:

    I am a descendant of B. F. White and the daughter of Elwyn McCutcheon (mentioned in the about article as founding the Harmony Valley singing school at Natchez, MS) and a retired Florida music educator. As a child I attended some shape-note singings in Mississippi. I now live in Rockledge, Florida, and recently attended a gathering of fasola singers in Micanopy, Florida.

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