The Advancement of Sacred Harp Music


Ruth Denson Edwards directs the class at a singing, ca. 1970. Around her neck, a magnifying glass for when her eyes were "giving [her] problems." Also pictured: Walter A. Parker (left) and Charlene Wallace (right). Photograph courtesy of Michael Hinton.

Ruth Denson Edwards directs the class at a singing, ca. 1970. Around her neck, a magnifying glass for when her eyes were “giving [her] problems.” Also pictured: Walter A. Parker (left) and Charlene Wallace (right). Photograph courtesy of Michael Hinton.

An exceptional singer and unparalleled supporter of Sacred Harp, Ruth Denson Edwards was also one of the most eloquent chroniclers of the music and its community. Singers today who were not fortunate enough to have known her might recognize her thoughtful, polished voice from the preface titled “Music” that introduces The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition. While we are unsure of its original purpose, the following essay, preserved at the Sacred Harp Museum, makes a similarly impassioned case for the historical, aesthetic, and religious significance of Sacred Harp singing.

Ruth Denson Edwards’ history is conventional in its chronology, following the narrative established by George Pullen Jackson, but in other respects, her work stands out. Rather than seeing shape-note singing as a historical relic, she focuses on its continuing relevance in the present. Furthermore, instead of envisioning a quaint, idyllic past, she notes that Sacred Harp has always existed in a troubled and threatening world—and has always offered profound comfort.

In her conclusion, Ruth Denson Edwards asserts that Sacred Harp was beginning to stir interest outside its southern homeland, even in foreign countries. As we reprint this work fifty years later alongside accounts of singing schools and conventions in countries around the world, it is worth noting the prescience of her remarks.

—Nathan Rees

The Advancement of Sacred Harp Music

The world was in a bad way when the famous Sacred Harp was born, one hundred and twenty-one years ago. Then, as now, the planet was at war.

Britishers were enlarging their empire by armed forces in China, India, and Africa. The French were doing the same among the Arabs in North Africa. The Danes were making war on their neighbors to the South. Russia was doing the same to the North, and we, here at home, were arming for war with Mexico, fighting the Indians, and putting down race-riots in Philadelphia.

It would not be strange if the singing master, B. F. White, on his way then from his peaceful Georgia home, to his publisher in turbulent Philadelphia, with his manuscript of the “Sacred Harp” in his carpet bag valise, wondered whether the world would come to an end before Southern country singers would be able to open his book and sing.

But it didn’t, and the first edition of the Original Sacred Harp, by B. F. White, was published in 1844, and that type of music became very popular in his home state of Georgia.

“The Chattahoochee Sacred Harp Singing Convention”, (organized in 1852—the oldest convention in existence) adopted it, as did other conventions in Georgia, Alabama, and other Southern States, and it was used extensively for a period of 65 years.

In the early years of the Sacred Harp’s life, singers made great sacrifices, and endured many hardships, in order to attend singings and conventions. Travel was slow; at first, they rode in ox-carts and on horseback. Roads were only rough trails; creeks and rivers had to be forded; to get to a singing required three or four days of travel. They spent nights along the way and enjoyed the age-old “Southern Hospitality.”

At the conventions, these loyal devotees sang together and enjoyed the fellowship of mutual friends, for three or four days. Opening and closing prayers were offered and a memorial lesson was sung for those singers who had died since the last session of the convention. Dinner was spread on the grounds. At the close of the session, they sang “The Parting Hand” and while singing, all singers grasped the hands of friends and bade them a fond farewell. The next day, they began the long trek home.

The casual listener is often prone to complain that all Sacred Harp songs sound alike, and that he cannot understand that type of music. This is because “Sacred Harp music” is “four-part music”. It has been composed in such a manner that each voice-part is equally balanced. The tune part is submerged more deeply because each part (except bass) is sung by both men and women. This gives “Sacred Harp music” distinctive qualities which differentiate it from all other types of music, for it is known as Dispersed Harmony.

In every Sacred Harp singing, the notes are sung first, then followed by the words. This fidelity to the old traditions is commendable, for the notes and shapes are a valuable birthright, without which the “Sacred Harp” would not be the “Sacred Harp.”

Paine Denson and Ruth Denson Edwards (ca. 1945–1950).

Siblings Paine Denson and Ruth Denson Edwards (ca. 1945–1950). Photograph courtesy of Michael Hinton.

B. F. White said, “Seek the old paths and walk therein.” “Sacred Harp” singers today endeavor to do just that, for they sing in traditional style and follow the pattern set for them by the illustrious and venerable trail-blazers, William Billings, J. P. Reese, B. F. White, Seaborn M. Denson, Thomas J. Denson, Paine Denson, and many others.

No family has contributed more to the development, perpetuation, and advancement of “Sacred Harp music” than have the Densons. For more than half a century, the brothers, Seaborn M. Denson and Thomas J. Denson, dedicated their lives and talents to the cause of “Sacred Harp music.”

Their wives were sisters and were members of a well-known singing family—the Burdettes. Sidney Burdette became the wife of Seaborn M. and Amanda became the wife of Thomas J. Denson.

These ladies were gifted singers and were a great help and inspiration to their husbands. In their early years, the “four-some” rode hundreds of miles, on horseback, to attend singings throughout Georgia and Alabama.

Seaborn M. and Thomas J. Denson were pioneers in the field of “Sacred Harp music”, and were recognized as the greatest singers, leaders, teachers, and writers of that particular music. They taught singing schools in many sections of the Deep South and many of their compositions appear in the Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision, 1960—Edition.

Their work is gratefully commemorated by a beautifully engraved granite monument which stands on the courthouse lawn at Double Springs, Alabama, in Winston County.

We know that “Uncle Seab” and “Uncle Tom” will live on in the hearts of the hundreds they taught to sing, but this marker will remind generations to come of their great work.

Paved roads and automobiles have “shortened the distance”, and removed many handicaps for present-day singers. They often drive 250 or 300 miles on Sunday morning to attend a singing. Because of improved methods of transportation and adequate heating facilities, singings are not only held in the summer season, but are held every Sunday throughout the year. In the Deep south more than 800 annual singings, 47 of which are two and three day conventions, are attended by 10,000 singers.

Ruth Denson Edwards, bound for Nassau, on a cruise with a retired teachers group, early 1960s. Photograph courtesy of Michael Hinton.

Ruth Denson Edwards, bound for Nassau, on a cruise with a retired teachers group, early 1960s. Photograph courtesy of Michael Hinton.

More than a century has gone by since the Sacred Harp’s birth (1844) and the present day (1965), and thousands of rural singers are enjoying its long and vigorous life, at all-day singings, in countless churches, courthouses, and school auditoriums throughout the Deep South. The very fact of the longevity of the book gives courage and confidence to its devotees. It proves to them that some good things and beautiful things last, while so many other sorts of things are destroyed, and so many of God’s creatures die in man’s combats.

Interest in this music, known as “White Spirituals”, has spread to many sections of our nation and foreign countries. It is being taught in our colleges and universities, now, since leading educators appreciate the beauty and realize the potentialities of “Sacred Harp music”—Our American Heritage.

About Ruth Denson Edwards

Ruth Denson Edwards (1893–1978), a "Queen of the Sacred Harp," was a member of the committee that revised the Original Sacred Harp in 1971 and composed the essay on music in The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition.

About Nathan Rees

Nathan Rees is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and associate editor of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Originally from Utah, he lives in Carrollton, Georgia, where he is assistant professor of art history at the University of West Georgia.
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