Religious Music in the South

Article excerpt

The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion Containing a Choice Collection of Tunes, Hymns, Psalms, Odes, and Anthems Selected from the Most Eminent Authors in the United States and Well Adapted to Christian Churches of Every Denomination, Singing Schools, and Private Societies, by William Walker. Ed. Glenn C. Wilcox. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1987. 342 + xvi, xxxii pages, introduction, errata list, fascimile of 1854 edition, index of first lines, index of tunes, index of meters. $20

Devout students of Southern literature will have heard of Donald Davidson's libretto Singin' Billy: A Folk Opera or even have read it in an edition issued by The Foundation for American Education in 1985. But many of them probably have no familiarity with the historical figure on whom Davidson based this libretto, the South Carolina singing master and tunebook compiler William Walker (1809-1875). Ironically, William Walker's celebrity in the South has been far greater and of longer duration than that of Donald Davidson. Folklorists and musicologists have been aware of him since 1933, when Davidson's friend and colleague at Vanderbilt University George Pullen Jackson announced his "rediscovery" of Walker's tunebooks in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. Among plain people in the rural South Walker has in fact never been wholly forgotten. Since the 1830's his musical compositions have held continuous popularity, and they remain favorites still in hundreds of Sacred Harp Singing Conventions in the Deep South and in a smaller number of Christian Harmony Singings in northern Alabama and western North Carolina. Walker's The Southern Harmony has for 104 years served the annual "Big Singing" at Benton, Kentucky. In Walker's lifetime the book went through five editions and numerous printings and was far more popular than any contemporaneous work of Southern literature: Walker claimed that it sold 600,000 copies, and the tattered and thumb-stained condition typical of surviving copies of these early editions testifies that they had a degree of use unequaled by Southern novels and books of verse. The present facsimile of the 1854 edition is the third issued since 1939.

Walker's title page describes the users he hoped for--"Christian churches of every denomination, singing schools, and private societies"--but it appears that singing schools were his chief customers. The locally trained, itinerant, part-time "singing masters" (including William Walker himself) who sold and taught from these books were paradoxical figures. On the one hand they led working-class Southerners into more educated tastes. They taught them how to read music, and in singers who held a traditional preference for unaccompanied monophonic song they developed a new taste for harmonized music. They introduced them to a repertory of American religious compositions gathered from tunebooks published in New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and the South since the last third of the 18th century. In all this they appealed to an aspiration for education and social advancement. At the same time the singing master championed an unorthodox (and, in genteel circles, despised) form of musical notation, "shaped notes," in which the circular, rectangular, triangular, or diamond-shaped heads of the notes indicate their relative positions within the scale. And the singing masters themselves published collections featuring their own transcriptions of melodies then current in Baptist and Methodist worship or borrowed from ballad and dance tunes, harmonized in unconventional but appropriate three- and four-voice settings. …