David Warren Steel with Richard H. Hulan. The Makers of the Sacred Harp. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 321 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03567-8 cloth; 978-0-252-07760-9 paper.

Musical notation has been produced in several formats: lute tablature, numbers, letters, and graphic notation. Most typical scores for classical musicians today employ staff notation. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shape notes were used as a means of simplicity in teaching pitches to be sung. In congregational singing, churches utilized the Sacred Harp and similar tunebooks prevalent in early American psalmody. Tunebooks were oblong quartos, folded to approximately 16 x 25 centimeters. During the nineteenth century, this design was typical of a tunebook, though today it is a rare sight.

The Makers of the Sacred Harp is an account of people who made the Sacred Harp: composers, poets, and singers. In Part One, David Warren Steel presents essays on the Sacred Harp and its creators in the context of the region, migrations, the Civil War, and family traditions. In Part Two, Richard H. Hulan discusses the camp meetings and hymnody. Part Three provides a biographical dictionary. Part Four lists songs of the Sacred Harp by page number. Steel and Hulan originally conceived this book to contain biographical sketches of all poets for songs of the Sacred Harp. But since much of this would duplicate John Julian’s 1892 Dictionary of Hymnology, Hulan contributed narrative sections to cover this sufficiently.

Brief chapters trace the origins and history of the Sacred Harp and Indian removal. The author situates the Sacred Harp in the political history of Georgia during the 1820s and 1830s: from George Troup’s governorship to the various treaties with Indian tribes, which eventually forced Creeks and Cherokees to migrate west.

The ancestors of composers and compilers of the Sacred Harp—S. M. Denson and T. J. Denson in Alabama and E. J. King in Georgia—had moved into the new acquired western territories of the early republic.

The Civil War exerted a strong influence upon Sacred Harp. The original songbook, issued in 1844, with new editions in 1850 and 1859, expanded from 263 to 432 pages. At least fourteen Sacred Harp composers and song leaders served in several capacities in the Confederate Army, while others fought for the Union. B. F. White served in the Confederate militia, and later as the mayor of Hamilton, Georgia, during the Civil War. William Hauser was a preacher, chaplin, and physician. Canadian-born W. E. Chute, for example, joined General William T. Sherman as he marched to the sea in 1864.

As was famously the case with the Bachs in Germany, musical activity in the South drew on familial traditions. Sacred Harptestifies to this reality, and Steel lists numerous family relationships in the narrative texts. In eighteenth and nineteenth-century America, many compilers of tunebooks taught psalmody or sacred music. Full time musical employment was not frequently found, as exemplified by William Billings (tanner), Daniel Read (comb maker), Timothy Swan (hatter), and Jeremiah Ingalls (innkeeper). Nearly all Sacred Harp musicians were farmers at one time or another. Among those who owned plantations and slaves were Leonard P. Breedlove and James Lafayette. Also represented were schoolmasters, ministers, and carpenters.

The energetic camp meeting was significant to nineteenth-century music. Steel discerns differences between arrangements of southern compilations and those of New England (such as Billings). He notes how various singing masters employed songs, as various compilers maintained books of older repertory, and experimented with the less formal camp meeting hymn. Part of this simplification involved eliminating notational signs, like sharps and flats, with some tunes being rendered as modal. To understand this chapter completely requires some musical knowledge. Steel explains that while several tunebooks of the 1840s and 1850s use three-part settings and fuging (fuguing) tunes, the first two editions of The Sacred Harp avoided both, concentrating on plain tunes, often derived from folk music. Four-part songs found their way into the 1859 edition, with compositions by Albsalom Ogletree and H. S. Reese. The 1870 edition added more of these fuguing tunes. The next wave was gospel music—during the twentieth century, and especially the Great Depression, many Sacred Harp musicians sang gospel music to gain income.

Hulan’s essays address the fact that over 75 years, while scholars analyzed the* Sacred Harp* as music, few explored the hymnology or text. He traces the evolution of a folksong and spiritual to their printed manifestation, a broadside without music, but sung to a familiar tune. Camp meeting songs appeared in revival songsters, like Richard Allen’s A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors (1801). Hulan elucidates the other tunebooks published during the early nineteenth century, and their significance. Most hymn writers remain anonymous. As a source of additional income, many itinerant preachers would sell copies of their songsters as the traveled. Hulan then describes five poets/hymn writers: John Leland, John Adam Granade, Caleb Jarvis Taylor, George Askins, and John Poage Campbell.

The book includes three genealogical charts, and ten plates, but no facsimiles of music. The biographical dictionary is very detailed (81–172), presenting the hymn titles associated with each person. One then searches for the “Songs of the Sacred Harp,” (179–245) by the number indicated in the biographies. Steel presents data on text and music sources, their meters, and their history in the Sacred Harp. This proves to be an indispensable source for those studying the music of the South.