Reading list

Makers of the Sacred Harp

I found a copy of Makers of the Sacred Harp by Warren Steel at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco a few eeks ago, and since then the book has been sitting in our bathroom, and I’ve been dipping into it now and then. It’s an odd book, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

On the one hand, it should be an indispensable reference work for anyone who sings Sacred Harp music from the 1991 Denson edition, very much in the tradition of the various “Companions” to different hymnals. However, usually a hymnal companion will have information on both the authors of the texts as well as the composers. Steel made the odd decision to include very little information about authors of texts, saying this information is widely available in other reference works — but the whole point of a hymnal companion is to have a one-volume reference work. And I wonder how many Sacred Harp singers are going to have access to a collection of biographies of hymn writers — I’m a working minister, and I don’t have such a reference work. So while this is a good reference work for learning about composers, this book is not what I’d consider to be an adequate one-volume reference work.

If this book is not going to be an adequate one-volume reference for the average singer, I’d expect it it to instead be a work aimed at scholars. But I can’t say it is that, either. There is good scholarly work contained in this book, and any scholar who’s interested in Sacred Harp singing will want it. Having said that, there are some bits that are not particularly scholarly, e.g., the chapter on Sacred Harp and the Civil War has too much on the war (material most scholars won’t bother paying attention to, since it’s not based original research), and not enough on the music. Given that Steel de-emphasized authors of texts so much, I expected more scholarly work on the musical aspects of Sacred Harp, and while some of that is in here, there’s not enough to make this a scholarly work per se.

So the book represents something of a compromise between a work for the non-specialist Sacred Harp enthusiast, and a work for scholars; it’s not quite either fish or fowl. But it’s still a book that most Sacred Harp singers will want to own, if for no other reason than to finally learn who Deolph was.

Singing at home


I overheard a bit of a conversation about pitching at tonight’s singing. This prompted a longer conversation with Marsha on the drive home: we know that the pitch at which we sing a tune is lower than the notated pitch, but by how much?

When I got home, I looked through some notes I had made a year ago when I decided to check actual sung pitches on vintage recordings of traditional Southern singings. Here’s what I found:

  • 38b Windham: Notated in E minor, sung in D minor by Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention, 1942 Lomax recording.
  • 45t New Britain: Notated in C major, sung at around A major on “Original Sacred Harp”, 2007 Bibletone re-release of on older recording (1960s).
  • 47b Idumea: Notated in A minor, sung in E minor, by Lookout Mountain Convention, 1968.
  • 49b Mear: Notated in G major, sung in E major on “Fasola – 53 Shape Note Folk Hymns,” 1970 Smithsonian recording.

I had also checked the pitch on one contemporary traditional Southern singing:

  • 39t Detroit: Notated in E minor, sung halfway between D and D# minor on “In Sweetest Union Join,” United Sacred Harp Musical Association, 2003.

So as a rough average, traditional sung pitch is about a third below notated pitch — but actual sung pitches could range from a minor second below notated pitch, to a fifth below notated pitch.

Update: Marsha checked the entire “In Sweetest Union Join” recording and found most songs pitched a major or minor third below notated pitch, though one song was pitched above notated pitch (!), and one song as low as a diminished fourth below.

Reading list

Original words to 117, “Babylon Is Fallen”

The 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp has no attribution for the words of 117 “Babylon Is Fallen.” But according to Warren Steele in Makers of the Sacred Harp, the original words, the words originally appeared in a Shaker hymn book, Millennial Praises, Containing a Collection of Gospel Hymns …Adapted to the Day of Christ’s Second Appearing, which was printed in Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1813. More detail on the origina of the words is offered on a post by “Burke” in this thread on the Mudcat Web site:

…The rest of this [post] is will be summary of the article:
G. W. Williams, “Babylon is Fallen: The Story of a North American Hymn,” The Hymn, Volume 44, April 1993, pp 31-35….

There is no author listed in Millennial Praises. The attribution of the hymn to Richard McNemar appears to be from an article by Daniel W. Patterson in Shaker Quarterly, v.18.

The first stanza of the text appears in a manuscript of tunes from the Enfield, Conn. [Shaker] community and may date to as early as 1810. The original 6 verses are clearly refering to images in Revelation 17-19. “It is clear … that McNemar knew the Revelation passage thoroughly and was closely following its pattern and its precepts.” The text was reprinted in an 1833 Shaker hymnal, but not in later ones.

It was reprinted in non-Shaker books, usually with variations on words, from the 1820’s on. The first verse always remains substantially the same, except for the reference to “the distant coasts of Shinar.” Shinar did not mean much more in the 19th cent. than it does to us today. It means “Babylon in its fullest extent” and is used in the Old Testament to refer to Babylon. [See this article in the online Jewish Encyclopedia for more info. — ed.] Always associated with impiety in some way, the substitution of “courts of Zion” or “our Shiloh” substantially changes the meaning of the second part of the verse. It transforms “cries of despair from the citizens of the ravished city to shouts of triumph from God’s favored people.”

The third verse from the Sacred Harp version was first published in William Houser’s The Olive Leaf in 1878. This was also the book where Chute’s tune was first published so the version most well know now traces most directly to it. Either Houser or Chute may have written the third verse; there’s not really any way to know. This new verse changes the tone of the hymn to emphasizing rejoicing in triumph rather than the desolation in destruction of the original.

Before 1878 at least 2 different tunes were paired with the words in different publications. All apparently suffered from the problem that the chorus does not follow the same 8,7 meter of the verses. The 12,10 of the chorus were somehow forced into the 8,7 pattern of the tunes used.

William Houser first published a six verse version with one of these problem tunes in The Hesperian Harp, 1852. When Houser published it in The Olive Leaf in 1878 with the now familiar tune he headed the entry with the attribution: “Prof. Wm. E. Chute, of Ontario. Prof. Chute composed this tune out of an old theme, and is too modest to claim any originality, but I do it for him.–W.H.” The “old theme” may be Sons of Sorrow [link to words and score of this song].

For completists, here are the Shaker words:

Other local singings

San Francisco Sacred Harp goes monthly

This just in:

As promised, San Francisco Sacred Harp is moving to monthly, our first meeting is February 20.

Sunday, February 20, 2011
1:30 to 4:30
St Aidan’s Episcopal Church
101 Gold Mine Drive (x Diamond Heights Boulevard)
San Francisco, CA 94131

Public transportation: BART to Glen Park BART, 52 MUNI bus to the church.
For driving directions and additional public transportation see:
Parking in the Safeway parking lot is allowed.

Info: Julian Damashek at juliandamashek AT gmail DOT com

Hooray for Julian and Carolyn Deacy for getting San Francisco Sacred Harp up and running again after the loss of the long-term venue on Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. It’s exciting that it’s going to be monthly now instead of quarterly. (Alas, I won’t be able to go, since I work on Sunday afternoons.)