The Sacred Harp in Northeast Mississippi

By John Quincy Wolf
Mississippi Folklore Register
Volume IV, Number 2. Summer, 1970.

The comments on the Sacred Harp in Mississippi made by George Pullen Jackson in his White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands have created perplexity out of proportion to their brevity. A careful scholar, Jackson usually made certain of his facts; yet writing less than a page on Mississippi, he made no personal investigations but based most of his statements on a bit of information out of Texas. The following passage contains the gist of his comment:

I have not learned that there is in Mississippi any comprehensive state Sacred Harp organization. And the rarity of singers from that state attending the big conventions in other states as delegates indicates the low estate of Sacred Harp singing in that commonwealth. The hoary song book still has a foothold in the northeastern corner of the state where the Prentiss and Tishomingo Counties Sacred Harp Singing Convention, under the leadership of another Denson, T.C., holds its annual two-day convention "in one county or the other," and where, as they reported in the 1930 minutes of the Texas Interstate Sacred Harp Musical Association, "we have singing somewhere [in those counties] nearly every Sunday" [of the year]. 1

Since every sentence in the quotation above is either erroneous or misleading, the question arises: why should Jackson have overlooked the very considerable interest in the Sacred Harp that Mississippi has been exhibiting throughout this century? He had accurate information about Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, as well as his own Tennessee, and to gather facts for his book he had taken long trips from the Atlantic seaboard to Texas. Yet he obviously did not visit Mississippi and did not make thorough inquiry about its rural song, for had he done so, he would have discovered the strength of the Harp in the state. A no less perplexing question is why anyone would report Sacred Harp activity in the northeastern corner of the state, i.e., in Prestiss and Tishomingo Counties, which today show no vestige of interest and virtually no memory of any. Actually the reverse of Jackson's statements appears to be true: in those parts of the state where he says the Sacred Harp had a following it had none, and in the eastern half (excepting the corners), where (along with the rest of Mississippi) he considers it nonexistent, it is strong.

His errors are difficult to understand but not to explain. As has been suggested elsewhere, 2 he relied largely upon singing school teachers and other leaders in the fa-so-la tradition to inform him of Sacred Harp singings in the South; but these leaders were of no help to him for information concerning Mississippi, because there the do-re-mi tradition prevailed. This difference, seemingly trivial, was important to the singers because they were divided into two distinct groups, one using the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti scale, the other using the fa-so-la-fa-so-la-mi scale. To each group the rival scale was rather like a different musical language, and the singing styles and preferences of the two differed somewhat. The singing school teachers east of Mississippi, using fa-so-la, were not sought in Mississippi, where do-re-me held sway and where local teachers of d-re-mi were readily available for the singing schools. As a result, the followers of each system wanted their own ways and did not visit the singing conventions of the other. For the same reason Jackson and his fa-so-la friends in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia heard little or nothing of the singers in Mississippi, who were then and are still very active.

We have yet to account for his misinformation about the activity in northeast Mississippi. Responsibility for the errors rests upon the reporter from that area, possibly Thomas C. Denson. 3 Undertaking to account for the errors, I checked the credibility and character of T.C. Denson and found that those who still remember him are positive that he was a most honest and reliable man who, as the acknowledged leader of shaped-note singing in northeast Mississippi from 1900 until his death c. 1940, would not intentionally misrepresent any facts pertaining to rural music. With this question settled, I explored the unlikely theory that because he was a first cousin of Tom and Seaborn Denson of Alabama, the two foremost teachers of fa-so-la in the South, he made his neighborhood a stronghold of fa-so-la and maintained close connections with the local singing organizations of north Alabama (but stood aloof from those of Mississippi). In this way he became known to Jackson while remaining ignorant of the do-re-mi Harp singing in his own state to the south and southwest. The theory was untenable, for, as every folklorist knows, established folkways of whatever kind do not vanish without a trace from a peaceful community in a period of less than forty years. Moreover, I was not able to establish the prevalence of fa-so-la among the singers in T.C. Denson's community; in Jackson's day do-re-mi was apparently much more often heard.

The second explanation that I tried seems to be the correct one: that the report reaching Jackson referred to all-day singing in which all kinds of old and new songs were used, and not those exclusively or principally from the Sacred Harp. The veteran singers of northeast Mississippi, and most notably Prince Albert Denson, who died in January 1969 at age seventy-five, have reconstructed for me the history of Sacred Harp in that area. 4 As early as the turn of the century the old book was already losing its following. None of my informants can recall any singings in the churches of Tishomingo and Prentiss Counties at which all or even most of the songs were selected from the Harp. But P.A. Denson remembers that his father, grandfather, aunts, uncles (including T.C. Denson), and other relatives would often gather at his home to sing the old songs in the traditional manner. Such gatherings in the absence of other activity indicate not a vigorous but a dying tradition. More than a half-century has passed since a real Sacred Harp singing was held at any church in northeast Mississippi. (I can throw no light on the reason for the use of the words Sacred Harp in the name of the singing convention reported in the minutes of the Texas Association and quoted above, but I suspect either that the organization existed in name only, without officers or books of minutes, or that there had once been such an organization in which the singers of the twenties and thirties used the name of the deceased organization whenever it suited their purpose to do so.)

Local interest in the Harp was destroyed by the popularity of the "little books" or the "new music." Early in this century small shaped-note religious songbooks, printed in the cheapest manner and selling for as little as ten cents apiece, began to appear and by 1915 were flooding the South. 5 In an effort to capture the interest of young people, the publishers offered collections of new songs that combined sentimental words with semi-ragtime melodies. The "little books" became so popular that they were published by the millions and still have a following in the rural South. Gradually they invaded the all-day singings, and before 1920 had limited the Harp in northeast Mississippi to no more than one or two numbers at the conclusions of the singings-selected only to please the old folks. The major part of the day was given over to quartets and small choirs, usually male, from various neighborhoods, who sang of "The Radio Station Called Heaven" and other similar mysteries. (This same process was repeated in hundreds of neighborhoods throughout the South, destroying much of the interest in the Sacred Harp, the Christian Harmony, and other nineteenth century books.)

If the reporter from the northeast corner had been more accurate, he would have written to the Texas Interstate Association that singers in Prentiss and Tishomingo Counties were active and that special singings were held on most Sundays, at which songs from a variety of shaped-note books were used, mainly the "little books." He might have added that occasionally a song from the Sacred Harp was included in the programs.

I hope that these explanations solve the T.C. Denson--George Pullen Jackson puzzle and for the present settle the status of the Sacred Harp in Mississippi as of 1930.

1 (Chapel Hill, 1933), pp. 109-110. Back to text

2 John Quincy Wolf, "The Sacred Harp in Mississippi," JAF, LXXXI (October - December, 1968), 337-341. Back to text

3 Jackson, p. 110. Back to text

4 Others who contributed information are Robert E. Denson, of Addison, Alabama; Ruth Denson Edsards, of Cullman, Alabama; J.V. Riddle, of Booneville, Mississippi; and J.W. Simmons, of Booneville, Mississippi. Back to text

5 Jackson, pp. 336-370. Back to text

Republished with the permission of Mississippi Folklife, published by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi.

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