The Southern Harmony: A Review

Ethnomusicology 33 (Spring/Summer 1989), pp. 343-45.

William Walker. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. Ed. by Glenn C. Wilcox. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. xvi, 342 p. Facsimile of 1854 edition, with introduction, errata, indexes. $20.00

In 1835 William Walker, a 26-year-old South Carolina singing-school teacher, issued his shape-note tunebook The Southern Harmony. Like other Southern compilers, he drew upon earlier printed sources, notably Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony and its Supplement, as well as upon a rich oral tradition, from which he transcribed melodies and set them in linearly-conceived three-voiced arrangements to sacred texts. Enlarged in 1840 and 1847, and revised in 1854, the book became one of the most popular and influential tunebooks in the South, maintaining its influence in some areas after the Civil War. In 1884, citizens of Benton, Kentucky organized what came to be known as the “Big Singing,” now the sole annual use of The Southern Harmony as a printed repository of a communal folk tradition. The book, in its 1854 form, was reprinted in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, and again (by the present editor) in 1966. Both the historical importance of the book and its use in the Benton singing justify its continued availability in print. Glenn C. Wilcox, a resident of the area, and a long-time observer and participant at the “Big Singing,” is well qualified to present the work to a wide audience of singers, scholars, and observers of American culture.

The new printing contains a complete facsimile of the 1854 edition, including Walker’s original instructional “rudiments.” The editor has wisely declined to make any alterations in the music, even to correct obvious errors, which are instead listed in the errata. The copy is generally clear, but some pages were printed from stereotype plates that were old and worn even in 1854. The use of earlier printings for these pages would have improved the appearance and legibility without sacrificing historical integrity. Less useful to the Benton singers, perhaps, but of interest to scholars, would have been an appendix of about 36 pages, which would contain all the tunes that were deleted in the 1854 revision. These include some of the finest folk hymns and tunes of the early 19th century; their inclusion would make the edition historically complete.

The editor’s introduction is a great improvement over the single page preface in the 1966 printing. In ten pages it touches upon the musical and textual sources for the collection, its influence upon later collections, and the history and performance practice of the Big Singing. Especially helpful is a list of the twenty-seven songs most frequently sung at Benton. The treatment of historical and anthropological issues, however, is severely limited by the lack of reference to important recent work by Harry Eskew (1986) and Deborah Loftis (1987). Tables containing detailed source information were prepared by the editor, but were apparently omitted by the publisher. Wilcox’s belief that The Southern Harmony and the Big Singing reflect pure and authentic 19th-century practice (as opposed to the Sacred Harp tradition, whose musical idiom he considers “decimated” by 20th-century practices) occasionally leads him astray, and lends an unnecessarily combative tone to some of his remarks.

The publishers should be persuaded to keep this well-made and attractively bound book in stock indefinitely, as a basic resource in the study and practice of American music.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1989 by The Society for Ethnomusicology, Inc.

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