This method of singing was taught in widely-practiced singing schools in the south, beginning in the 19th century. The song leader would announce a tune, known to most people, and then "line out" the words to go with that tune. The preacher or the song leader would often be the only one in the congregation to have a book. By repetition, the members would soon learn the words of the song. When "New Britain C. M." was announced as the hymn tune, the singers would know that "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound," the inimitable words by John Newton (1725-1807), would be sung to the announced tune. "C. M." stood for common meter, a metrical count of syllables in the phrases of the song being 126.96.36.199. The version of this beloved hymn we so often sing now was published in Virginia Harmony in 1831 and repeated in subsequent hymn books even to the present day. It was also in Jesse Mercer's Cluster.
Much of this singing tradition has been attributed to the "Old Baptists," although other denominations like Presbyterians, Mennonites and Methodists also sang the old tunes to sacred words. Why, then, were so many of them attributed to Baptists? George Pullen Jackson formerly a professor of music at Vanderbilt University in his Story of the Sacred Harp, states that "freedom" has always been a watchword of the Baptists. Prior to and during the Revolutionary War, Baptists worshiped freely, without centralized religious authority. They wanted no part of the established religious orders and state churches practiced in some of the colonies. They did not want even their singing linked to what they considered governmentally controlled denominations.
Most of the Old Baptist tunes found in the early years were secular songs with religious texts. They were remembered tunes that our ancestors sang in the hills of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales and brought to America with them. These tunes had been "spiritualized" with words written to show Christian experiences. For example, the minor-key hymn, Wondrous Love was set to the tune of a song about Captain Kidd, pirate.
Fortunately for the hymn, the tune name was given Wondrous Love, not Captain Kidd. The meter in the old folk song in a minor key carries well the words of "Wondrous Love": "What wondrous love is this! Oh! my soul, Oh! my soul! What wondrous love is this, oh! my soul! That caused the Lord of bliss, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!" We don't know who penned the words for the four-stanza hymn in its irregular (12, 9, 6, 6, 12, 9) rhythm. Even modern hymm books list the words as being An American Folk Hymn. It was published in William Walker's Southern Harmony in 1835. Benjamin Franklin White collaborated with Walker in compiling Southern Harmony, but when Walker took the manuscript to New Haven, Connecticut to be published, he did not include White's name as co-author/compiler.
Evidently, this breached the friendship of the two musicians. Ben White packed up his family and moved from Spartanburg, S.C., to Hamilton in Harris County, Ga. There he became editor of the local newspaper, The Organ. He also began working on The Sacred Harp songbook. Many of the songs he published in the newspaper. In 1844 the whole collection of songs was compiled by B. F. White and Joel King and published by Collins Press, Philadelphia. Subsequent editions came out in 1859 and 1860. The hymnbook was reprinted in 1968 by Broadman Press, Nashville, Tenn. White and King's Sacred Harp became the official music book of the Southern Musical Convention in Upson, County, Ga., (1845), the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, Coweta County (1852), and the Tallapoosea Singing Convention in Haralson County (1867) and countless other Singing Conventions as they organized in counties after the Civil War. The book was popular not only for its songs but for the Rudiments of Music, a 21-page manual of music instruction which was often used by singing school teachers.
The Union County Singing Convention held at the court house in Blairsville was an all-day event and well attended by singing groups from the mountain areas of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Some of the singing school teachers of the 1930s and 1940s were the Rev. James Hood and Mr. Frank Dyer of Union County, and Mr. Everett Prince Bailey of Fannin County, GA and Polk County, Tenn. Groups of Sacred Harp musicians still meet and sing the old songs. Noted names among them are descendants of B. F. White and the Denson Brothers, Howard and Paine; families of McGraws, Kitchens, Cagles, Lovvorns, Parrises, Manns, Drakes and others, some in the fifth generation of those who contributed to the Sacred Harp back in 1844.
In Watson B. Dyer's Souther Family History, (1986), page 154, he printed in our great grandmother's handwriting (Nancy Collins Souther [1829-1888], wife of John Combs Hayes Souther ), a copy of a song they were learning at church. She had written the words April 13, 1868. I was thrilled to see the words of the song that had been "lined out" as my great grandmother wrote them. She wrote:
"Come all ye righteous here below,
O hal-le, hal-le-lu-jah.
Let nothing prove your overthrow,
O hal-le, hal-le-lu-jah.
But call on Me both day and night,
O hal-le, hal-le-lu-jah.
And I'll visit you with delight,
Sing glory, hal-le-lu-jah!"
She penned words to other stanzas as well. I looked in the reprint of White & King's Sacred Harp for the song my great grandmother wrote out to help her memorize the words. I found the tune, "The Good Old Way" (L.M.-long meter) with the refrain, but the words given for the stanzas in the song book were not a match for what my ancestor wrote. There were many versions of the stanzas, as various people were inspired to write verses to fit tunes. I felt a deep kinship with her. The words she wrote fitted a commonly used tune she sang as she worshiped in the little New Liberty Baptist Church in sight of her cabin. She had a desire to participate more readily in the services by knowing the words to a song they enjoyed singing there. She was the mother of ten children. Maybe she gathered them all around and they had a little Souther choir at home as she taught them the words to The Good Old Way tune.
c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 22, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.