This book exists today in various editions, discussed below. In shape-note music, notes are printed in special shapes that help the reader identify them on the musical scale. There are two prevalent systems, one using four shapes, and one using seven. In the four-shape system used in The Sacred Harp, each of the four shapes is connected to a particular syllable, fa, sol, la, or mi, and these syllables are employed in singing the notes,  just as in the more familiar system that uses do, re, mi, etc.
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The Denson Edition of The Sacred Harp —the "Denson Book" as it is generally called—is the most widely used of the hardback "old song" books used at shape-note congregational singings in churches throughout Alabama. Published first by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, founded by Alabamian Tom Denson in , the Denson Edition continues to have strong Alabama ties in its later revisions, with Alabamians making key contributions to the edition.
The "sacred harp" is the human voice, and shape-note singing is an unaccompanied a capella style of performance. It traces its roots back to the tradition of using shapes and syllables to learn musical notes in eleventh-century Italy. During the eighteenth-century in New England, singing teachers such as William Billings composer of "The Easter Anthem" and "Rose of Sharon" initiated a distinctly American tradition of shape-note singing. Shape notes are designed to make the music quickly accessible to all singers, whether they can read music or not.
Instead of using the traditional do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do system, some singing teachers taught only four syllables fa-so-la-fa-so-la-mi-fa with four shapes: right triangle, circle, rectangle, and diamond; indeed, shape-note singing is also called "fasola" singing.
This would become the system used in The Sacred Harp. As America expanded, the tradition moved south and west with the frontier.
Two collaborating singing teachers and brothers-in-law in Spartanburg, South Carolina, William "Singing Billy" Walker and Benjamin Franklin White, came to a disagreement when, in , Walker published his song book, Southern Harmony which introduced hymns such as "Amazing Grace" to mainline Protestants , without giving credit to White. White moved to Georgia, where in he produced the first edition of The Sacred Harp, in collaboration with E.
White Sacred Harp, edited by W. The new edition was to be clear, uncluttered, and easy for singers to use. Hugh McGraw, then executive secretary of the company, was authorized to chair a committee to select, arrange, and revise songs for the new edition. For the edition, the Music Committee deleted 46 rarely sung older songs while honoring any request that a particular hymn be retained and added 62 songs, for a total of The committee designed the new edition for singing convenience.
All the musical scores were newly typeset for clearer reading, and explanatory and historical notes from previous editions were omitted. Dates and names of lyricists and composers under the heading of each musical score, however, were retained.
The Denson Sacred Harp has more than pages of text plus indexes. The book is prefaced by a short essay, "Music," by Ruth Denson Edwards, and "Rudiments of Music," revised and updated by John Garst folk researcher and retired University of Georgia chemist. The heading for each song is the title of its tune, not the first line of the lyrics.
Each heading tune title is followed by a pertinent Bible verse. Two different indexes list songs by titles and first lines. The new songbook was presented to a gathering of Sacred Harp singers at Samford University near Birmingham , Jefferson County , in and quickly became the version most widely used in Alabama and adjoining states. The Denson Book is also in use nationally and internationally. The annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention is held the third week in June at a host church in Birmingham, and singers from all over United States and from several locations in Canada and the United Kingdom come to sing from the Denson Book for three days.
Additional Resources Cobb, Buell E. The Sacred Harp. Athens: University of Georgia Press, Hinton, Matt, et al. Awake, My Soul. Atlanta: Awake Productions, Kelton, Mai H. Analysis of the Music Curriculum of Sacred Harp. University of Alabama,
S. Whitt Denson
The Denson Book
Denson Brothers/Sacred Harp Music