The Makers of the Sacred Harp

By David Warren Steel, with Richard H. Hulan. 2010. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 352 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-07760-9 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Robert Bowman, York University

[Review length: 855 words • Review posted on November 4, 2011]


First published in 1844, The Sacred Harp is certainly the most well-known and, arguably, the most important American shape-note hymnal. Consequently, a book such as The Makers of the Sacred Harp, whose primary focus is on the individuals who wrote the words and/or the music for the several hundred songs that are included in the various editions of the hymnal, is a most welcome addition to the literature.

Approximately one-hundred pages of Steel’s book are dedicated to biographies of over two-hundred composers and five “selected poets and hymn writers.” The five biographies of the most prominent American wordsmiths (as opposed to British evangelical poets) who contributed to The Sacred Harp are included in chapter 10 and total eight pages. The biographical sketches of the composers, included in chapter 11, take up just over ninety pages and are much shorter, some consisting literally of three or four lines. The longest do not go much beyond a page. Each biographical entry includes whatever information Steel was able to find with regard to birth and death dates and places, names of parents and spouses, religious affiliation, musical training, employment, compositional activity, and place of burial, followed by a listing by number of the composer’s compositions that are included in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp.

Steel has taken much of the biographical information from sources found on the internet, particularly “local and family histories” largely archived by “amateur genealogists and historians.” By the author’s own admission, “it is prudent to exercise caution with such sources and to acknowledge their shortcomings.” Nonetheless, by collating various pieces of information in this manner, Steel, who is an associate professor of music and southern culture at the University of Mississippi, has brought together a vast amount of information for the first time in one place.

Following the biographical sketches of the composers, Steel includes four pages (chapter 12) which simply list all Sacred Harp composers with their names arranged by birth date. Chapter 13 consists of sixty-seven pages containing an entry on every song in the 1991 edition of the hymnal. Each entry includes information on the source of the song, attributions for both the words and music, and whether the songs are in long meter, common meter, or short meter. The fourteenth and final chapter of the book is entitled “Sources for the Songs.” As the title suggests, Steel uses this chapter to simply list the psalm and hymn books from which various compositions were appropriated for The Sacred Harp. The final sixty-four pages of the book consist of end matter including notes, bibliography, and an index.

That leaves just under seventy pages of actual text. Nearly sixty of those are comprised of eight chapters written by Steel which collectively discuss the origins, history, and styles of music included in the various editions of The Sacred Harp. As Steel notes in the introduction, he does not discuss the social or musical aspects of shape note performance, arguing that this has been done extensively elsewhere. To his credit, Steel’s discussion of the social, musical, economic, geographic, and religious contexts in which The Sacred Harp originated and flourished are detailed and impressively nuanced. I especially appreciated his account of the tensions that arose between those who favored the reform tunes of composers such as Lowell Mason and those who preferred the revival spiritual tunes with refrains that came out of the revival camp meetings at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Steel argues that the inclusion of many of the latter in The Sacred Harp is what particularly distinguished the hymnal when it was first published in 1844. Also worthy of mention is Steel’s detailed discussion of the various styles of compositions included in the hymnal, which makes it clear that there is no single distinctive style that one could refer to as being in any way emblematic of The Sacred Harp.

That leaves the thirteen pages of chapter 9 in which independent scholar Richard Hulan discusses various aspects of the lyrics to the songs included in The Sacred Harp as well as the publications in which many of these hymns first appeared. With regard to the latter, Hulan makes special note of the importance of pocket-sized hymnals in introducing most Americans to folk hymnody. Hulan starts off this chapter by making the point that most scholarly work on early American religious folksong focuses on the music, not the words. The chapter is thus intended as the first step in addressing this lacuna in scholarship. Hulan’s focus is on the lyrics in The Sacred Harp that were written by what he terms “American frontier preachers” as opposed to the better known “evangelical poets” from the United Kingdom who were also included in the hymnal. His discussion rightly points out the likelihood of substantial African American influence on the American-composed verses.

As should be clear from the above, The Makers of the Sacred Harp is ultimately a detailed reference volume with, what is for all intents and purposes, a seventy-page introductory essay discussing a variety of salient aspects and issues involved in what is one of the most important hymnals in American music history.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.