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.