Southern Harmony

From Academic Kids

The Southern Harmony is a shape note hymn and tune book compiled by William Walker. The book was released in 1835 under the full title of The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion. It is part of the larger tradition of shape note singing.


The music and its notation

The roots of Southern Harmony singing, like the Sacred Harp, are found in the American colonial era. Singing schools were created to provide instruction in choral singing, especially for the use of churches. In 1801, a book called The Easy Instructor1 by William Smith and William Little was published for the use of this movement; its distinguishing feature was the use of four separate shapes that indicated the notes according to the rules of solfege. A triangle indicated fa, a circle sol, a square la and a diamond, mi. To avoid proliferating shapes excessively, each shape (and its associated syllable) except for mi was assigned to two notes of the musical scale. A major scale in the system would be noted Fa - Sol - La - Fa - Sol - La - Mi - Fa, and a minor scale would be La - Mi - Fa - Sol - La - Fa - Sol - La.


Although singing from the Southern Harmony is finding renewed interest at present, for many years it survived in one annual singing held each fourth Sunday in May at the Marshall County courthouse in Benton, Kentucky. It is called The Big Singing. The Big Singing has been held since 1884, when it was organized by James Roberts Lemon, a newspaper owner and publisher in western Kentucky.

The songs at The Big Singing are sung a cappella, mostly in three-part harmony. Men or women may sing any part, but only men lead the class. The singing is an all day event, with about an hour and a half break for lunch. The morning singing consists of a type of practice session. There is a call to order, after which the session is opened by singing "Holy Manna" and having an invocation. Many leaders in the morning session will lead the song that they have been selected to sing in the afternoon session. After lunch that session is also opened by singing "Holy Manna". This is followed by an official welcome address. A selected group of leaders direct the singing according to a printed program, and time is also left for other visiting singers. According to the traditional performance, each leader is responsible for giving the pitch of his song. Most songs are sung slightly lower than the key in which they are written. Songs are first sung "by the note" - in which the solmization is sung through - then followed "by the line", in which the words are sung.

The Southern Harmony has remained unchanged since 1854, unlike its counterpart The Sacred Harp, which went through several revisions in the 20th century. About 75% of the songs are presented in three-part harmony, which tends to emphasize their modal quality and dispersed harmony.

History of The Southern Harmony

The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion was compiled by William "Singin' Billy" Walker and printed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1835. It contained 335 songs, went through several editions, and became possibly the most popular southern tunebook in the 19th century. In 1867 Walker claimed over 600,000 copies had been sold. In 1847, he enlarged the book by about forty pages. The present edition is a facsimile reprint of the 1854 printing.

William Walker was born in 1809 in South Carolina, and grew up near Spartanburg. He became a Baptist song leader and shape note "singing master". Walker and Benjamin Franklin White, publisher of the Sacred Harp, married sisters. In 1866, Walker published a tunebook entitled Christian Harmony, in which he changed from four shape to seven shape notation. He incorporated over half of the contents of The Southern Harmony in the Christian Harmony. William Walker died on September 24, 1875.



  • Big Singing Day in Benton, Kentucky: A Study of the History, Ethnic Identity and Musical Style of Southern Harmony Singers, by Deborah Carlton Loftis, Ph.D. disseration, University of Kentucky, 1987
  • Spiritual Folk-songs of Early America, by George Pullen Jackson
  • The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion, by William Walker ISBN 0-8131-1859-X
  • White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, by George Pullen Jackson

See also the bibliographic entries under Shape note.

External links


  • Note 1: The Easy Instructor, Part II (1803) attributes the invention of shape notes to 'J. Conly of Philadelphia'.

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