In a previous post, I spent a little time looking at shape note music and sacred harp singing, mostly in the context of considering the authenticity — whatever one takes that to mean — of various settings of “What Wondrous Love is This”. Because I am such a dreadful magpie about this sort of thing, I have found myself distracted from thinking about authenticity and the aesthetics of vernacular music by the curious, interesting properties of the written texts used to share, preserve, and perpetuate vernacular musical practice (hymnody in particular). They encode tunes, teach style and musical theory, outline the performance practice of singing, provide a handy guide to the structure of communal worship, and embody a variety of theological norms (sometimes didactically, in their text, and sometimes structurally or symbolically, by virtue of their editorial choices).* They also, perhaps accidentally, hint at the broader politics of religious life and music’s role in that life, and at internal disputes among composers, hymn writers, and others invested in the practice of music for congregational worship.
Consider, for example, a comparison of The Methodist Hymnal (1905) to the 1911 and 1991 editions of B. F. White’s The Sacred Harp.** All of these collections include a popular and very widely-published tune called “Boylston”, which was supposed to have been composed in 1832 by Lowell Mason (1792-1872; AKA “the father of American church music”). Mason was both a prolific composer of hymns and a prominent popularizer of European formal music; he is also, as it happens, credited with a substantial contribution to the slow demise of the older shape note/sacred harp tradition, which he actively campaigned to replace with formal musical education, performance, and composition for congregants and church musicians alike.
“Boylston” appears twice in The Methodist Hymnal of 1905, both times (naturally) accompanying text written by Charles Wesley.
Note the “title” here, which speaks to the purpose of the text sung. Some hymnals use the first line of text to name the hymn, while tune books may alternate between using the first line of the text or some other text-derived name and the title of the tune itself. The other use of “Boylston” in The Methodist Hymnal (388) is titled “The Christian Life.” The abbreviation “S.M.” after the tune name refers to the meter of the hymn (short meter, iambic 18.104.22.168); metrical designations are used in hymnals and tune books to associate text with tune.
While Dr. Mason himself may not have been a friend to the shape note tradition, his music still appears in The Sacred Harp from at least the early 20th C. forward. Here’s its entry in the 1911 edition, accompanying text from 1707 by the great English hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748), AKA “the Godfather of English Hymnody”:
Text at the bottom reads: ‘Original title to this hymn was “God All in All,” in hymns of “Spiritual Songs,” book two, published 1707, by Dr. Watts. it is based on Psalm 73, 25. It is claimed by some that this tune was not originally composed by Lowell Mason; that it was taken from Pilsbury. It is conceded, however, by most writers, that at least the tune in its present shape was either composed or rearranged by Dr. Mason among the large number of others he composed in 1832.’
One can imagine an editorial committee in 1911 reluctantly adding that very civil explanatory note about the tune’s composition, probably in response to ongoing disagreement in their own musical and religious community about it. The caption, interestingly, is omitted in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, in which “Boylston” also appears earlier in the collection; it seems that the old dispute about authorship (and perhaps also the competition between Mason’s approach to church music and the shape note tradition) is no longer something of current interest to the editors and users of the book. By 1991, Mason had already won.
One wonders what Mason himself would make of the use of his composition in a shape note collection, given his own interest in superseding that particular tradition and moving folks on to proper formal notation. As the ongoing use of The Sacred Harp attests, the tradition hasn’t yet died out in spite of Mason’s best efforts, although it has long since ceased to be the dominant form of musical worship practice in Protestant Christian congregations the United States. The popularity of shape note practice in some parts of the South seems to have hit a high point just before WWII, long after Lowell Mason’s death, and many of the very oldest original texts for the practice still remain in use, although some of this may be attributed to active efforts to preserve the material for historical purposes.
Here, for example, is the cover of a 1939 reprint of William Walker’s foundational collection, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (typically referred to as Southern Harmony), much of the content of which was eventually absorbed by The Sacred Harp (B. F. White, as it turns out, was Walker’s brother-in-law):
This edition of the text is interesting for two reasons. The first is because it provides a then-contemporary snapshot of one of the longest continuously running singing meetings still using the original Southern Harmony in the 20th and 21st centuries, the annual Big Singing in Benton, KY (which will meet once again at the Marshall County Courthouse on May 26-27 2018). The 1939 edition was reprinted by the WPA through the Federal Writers’ Project of Kentucky, sponsored (and copyrighted) by the Young Men’s Progress Club of Benton. In addition to reprinting Walker’s material as it appeared as of 1847, the 1939 reprint tells the story of Benton’s Big Singing, founded by James R. Lemon, his brother George, “and a few others” in 1884. Lemon was deeply attached to Southern Harmony, and the Benton Big Singing meeting clung to it even after the collection went out of print in 1854. Among the photos included in the prefatory matter created by the reprint’s editors, there’s a lovely crowd shot of the courthouse lawn, from a time in the 1920s and 30s when as many as 10,000 people might descend on tiny Benton to sing (which tells you how important this practice was in its community). The Federal Writers’ Project came across the Big Singing and its problem — a badly aged, out-of-print text available in dwindling numbers — and joined in the efforts of the Young Men’s Progress Club of Benton to reproduce the collection and tell the story of the Singing as a part of an effort to document the unique customs of Kentucky.
The second interesting thing about this piece of Southern Harmony — more specifically, about its continued use — is that it strikes a blow for the four-shape side of the dispute between four-shape and seven-shape systems (which folks who listen to musicals a lot would recognize) of musical representation, even after Walker himself switched to his own seven-shape system.*** Preserving the four-shape system, in fact, probably played some part in the FWP’s assessment of the value of reprinting the text in 1939. Even now in Benton, four shapes still rule the day — singers there still use Southern Harmony, now supplemented with The Sacred Harp (which is in current use in several different communities in the tradition) and other texts of the kind. Numbers have dwindled (200 or so instead of thousands), and the participants tend to be older now, but they still sing.
Oh, and “Boylston” is not in it, although three other Mason arrangements — “Rockingham,” “Ripley,” and “Eltham” — are. Make of that what you will.
*A little technical aside: hymnals and tune books (particularly in the shape note/sacred harp tradition) are not identical things. They may be distinguished from each other by size or shape, but one of the most significant differences is in terms of the content that relates to their purpose. Hymnals in the US (especially in the period from the 19th C. onward) often serve as guides to the order of worship services, and may include ritual descriptions, a psalter representing responsive readings as ordered according to the liturgical calendar, and other material relevant to the norms of worship practice of some given community or denomination. Their musical contents are often indexed by liturgical purpose or use, by composer/author, by meter, and by a title sometimes drawn from the first line of the hymn’s text. Tune books, on the other hand, were originally written for use in “singing schools” and in all-day singings rather than regular church services, and usually include introductory matter on music (teaching basic music theory, introducing the shape-note notation, tips for good singing technique, etc.). The word “hymn” technically refers to the poetic text, not necessarily to the tune.
**It may seem a bit anachronistic to compare a 1905 hymnal to a more contemporary edition of a sacred harp collection, but it’s not too poor a comparison. The Sacred Harp (originally published in 1844) has only been subject to four substantial revisions (1869, 1911, 1936, and 1991), with an appendix added in 1850, 1859, 1960, 1967, and 1961. Each of those revisions and appendix expansions involved adding new material and clarifying or rearranging the order of present material in order to keep the book in current use (or so the Music Committee’s preface to the 1991 edition assures the reader).
***Walker’s defection from four-shape notation took the form of a new collection entirely, The Christian Harmony (1867), in which he retained and re-harmonized the bulk of the material he had first assembled in Southern Harmony.