The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music: A Review

The American Historical Review 84 (October 1979), p. 1154.

Buell E. Cobb, Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 1978. Pp. ix, 245. $10.00

In 1844 B.F. White and E.J. King, two Georgia singing teachers, published a book of religious choral music which they called The Sacred Harp. Hundreds of similar tunebooks appeared in nineteenth-century America, but none showed the staying power of White and King’s work. Revised and reissued in every generation, it is still in print today. Moreover, the book has given its name to a living tradition—a social and religious subculture that defines itself through music.

Buell E. Cobb, Jr.‘s The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music is a worthy successor to the works of George Pullen Jackson, whose White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933) first called attention to the harmonized folk hymnody of the South. Cobb, a professor of English and a Sacred Harp singer himself, is well qualified to write an “inside” history of the movement. Drawing on personal interviews, archives, and secondary literature, he describes in detail the tradition as a whole, its music, its early history, the editions of The Sacred Harp, and the rise and decline of the big singing conventions. If, as the final chapter explains, the outlook for the movement’s future is uncertain, the author has too much respect for its adherents to sentimentalize about its possible disappearance. As Cobb puts it, “the fact that students at Harvard or Berkeley find this music engaging will not help much if the boys and girls in Haleyville, Alabama, or Tallapoosa, Georgia, are not interested in learning to sing it.” (160)

Cobb is an enterprising scholar; his narrative is engaging and well-written. Best of all, he lets the singers speak for themselves in numerous well-chosen quotations that help illuminate the way of life that has supported The Sacred Harp for over a century.

Two appendixes round out the book. The first is a virtual “union list” of some six hundred traditional singings held each year, including dates and locations. This collation of dozens of smaller listings affords a truer picture of the extent of the tradition than has previously been available. The second, a selection of forty pieces from The Sacred Harp, seems an afterthought. A note explaining why these pieces were chosen and a separate index to them would have been welcome.

David Warren Steel
Richard Crawford
University of Michigan

Copyright © 1979 by The American Historical Review

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