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In the region of West Georgia, a wealth of traditional sacred and gospel music can be found – Sacred Harp singing thrives at churches like Holly Springs Baptist thanks to the efforts of Bremen resident Hugh McGraw; the United Shape Note Singers travel from church to church on most Sundays of the year with suitcases full of songbooks to sing and worship; Southern Gospel singers draw crowds in the hundreds to their singing schools and conventions. These groups all have their own distinct styles, but one character remains constant – they all use shape-notes to learn and sing their music.

Four Shape Songbooks and the Sacred Harp

Beginning in the mid 19th century, a wide variety of songbooks were published in and around the West Georgia region.  These books, from the Sacred Harp to the seven-shape, soft-cover convention songbooks, influenced the way singers in the area performed their music, and they became part of the traditions carried on by each group of singers.

As the 18th century drew to a close, the first shape-note songbook appeared in America as a way to notate pitch, rhythm and solmization in a simplified method that could easily teach students to read music by sight. This book, the Easy Instructor by William Little and William Smith, employed four shapes in place of round note heads to represent four musical syllables – triangle for fa, circle for sol, square for la and diamond for mi. The method caught on for use in singing schools and rapidly spread to the south and west from its original roots in New England. Early shape-note historian George Pullen Jackson estimates that nearly forty books appeared in this four-shape notation by 1855, most originating in the Southern states.

Of those books, the Sacred Harp, published in 1844 by Georgians B.F. White and E.J. King, was one of the most popular. In fact, the songbook became so popular that many Southerners would pose for family portraits holding two books – one, the Holy Bible, the other, the Sacred Harp. Even after the death of B.F. White, the book continued to see regular revisions, though at times disagreements arose around the content and style of those revisions. Users of the Sacred Harp eventually split between a revision of the book by Marion Cooper and one by Joseph James (other revisions by B.F. White’s son, J.L. were attempted but failed to gain any lasting popularity). The Cooper revision gained popularity in Southeast Alabama and Southwest Georgia while the James revision took hold in Western and Northwestern Georgia. Hugh McGraw, from Bremen, Georgia, led the most recent revision based on the James book in 1991, and it is used universally in singings throughout West Georgia.


B.F. White

B.F. White

The Sacred Harp, 1848 edition

The Sacred Harp, 1848 edition

The Cooper revision

The Cooper revision

The Sacred Harp, fourth edition

The Sacred Harp, fourth edition

The James revision, 1911

The James revision, 1911

Mason's Sacred Harp, 1846

Mason’s Sacred Harp, 1846

J.L. White's New Sacred Harp

J.L. White’s New Sacred Harp


Seven Shape Songbooks

With the introduction of the Jesse Aiken’s Christian Minstrel in 1846, a seven-shape, European-influenced system of notation gained popularity in the country.  This book assigned a distinct shape to each note of the scale – doe, ray, mee, faw, sol, law, and see.  Aiken claimed that his notation was superior to the old four-shape system because it gave each note of the scale a unique sound and form. William Walker, who had published the popular four-shape songbook Southern Harmony in 1835, switched to the seven-note system with his Christian Harmony in 1867, explained his choice of the seven notes by posing the question, “Would any parents having seven children ever think of calling them by only four names?”



Examples of various notation shapes used before standardization.


Shape-note singing’s spread to the South and West


In the introduction to the Temple Star, Aldine Kieffer advocated for a standard 7-shape notation system.


The Southern Harmony – William Walker’s 4-shape book


The New Harmonia Sacra


The Christian Harmony – William Walker’s 7-shape book


A.J. Showalter Comes to Dalton

A.J. Showalter, a native of Cherry Grove, Virginia, was from the same musical family as Joseph Funk and Aldine Kieffer and began his career as a singing school teacher. He published several songbooks through the Ruebush-Kieffer company before being sent to Dalton, Georgia for the purpose of starting a branch office of the company. However, upon arrival, he set up his own music publishing company, which would go on to produce hundreds of songbooks and promote them through a monthly music magazine called the “Music Teacher and Home Magazine.” This magazine connected the A.J. Showalter Company to the people of the region and beyond, offering them reports on singing schools, the latest hymn collections and general interest stories, but most importantly, it would sell songbooks for the company.

Some of Showalter’s early books took the traditional, oblong shape, but most took a ‘tall’ shape – roughly five inches wide by eight inches tall, which condensed the dispersed harmony of 4 staff notation possible with oblong books like the Sacred Harp into the closer harmony of 2 staffs. Showalter also offered his books in round- and shape-notes, but the shapes proved to be overwhelmingly more popular around the South, outselling the round versions by five copies to one, with a total number of sales estimated at five million.



A.J. Showalter


A.J. Showalter’s Class, Choir and Congregation in an upright format.


1897 catalog for the A.J. Showalter Company


A.J. Showalter’s Class, Choir and Congregation in an oblong format.


Sparkling Songs


Showalter’s Gospel Songs No. 1


Crimson Glory

Strains of Beauty

Strains of Beauty


Work and Worship


The Regal Singer


Stamps-Baxter, Vaughan and Gospel Quartets

Other companies like the Stamps-Baxter Publishing Company and the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company would follow the example of Showalter, putting out impressive numbers of soft-cover songbooks in the early years of the 20th century.  With the rise of radio, these companies even began to hire gospel quartets in different cities for the purpose of promoting their books.  Eventually, some of the most popular songs would make their way into hardback songbooks like the Church Hymnal, which is used by the United Shape Note Singers and Southern Gospel singers in West Georgia.



Trusting God


Statesman songbook

Statesmen Souvenir Album

Statesman souvenir songbook


Pure Gospel

Morning Light

Morning Light


Grateful Praise


Gospel Way


Gospel Ship


Glory Beams


Chapel Chords


Bells of Heaven

The Sacred Harp Tradition

As the name implies, Sacred Harp singers in West Georgia use only one songbook for their singings – the Sacred Harp.  Based on the James, and later Denson, editions of the book, the maroon-covered 1991 revision led by Hugh McGraw is the edition most seen at singings.  McGraw has been instrumental in the preservation and promotion of Sacred Harp traditions, traveling around the world to teach and sing.  The annual singings in his hometown of Bremen, Georgia, at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist church, have grown into events not to be missed for those involved in the Sacred Harp tradition.

Interview: Hugh McGraw

Paine Denson and the Sacred Harp

After purchasing the rights to the book from Joseph James, brothers Seaborn and T.J. Denson began revising his 1911 edition of the Sacred Harp.  Though both died before the work was done, T.J.’s son, Paine, shepherded the project to completion in 1936.  The Denson revision, published until 1987, remained popular in West Georgia and was the basis for the last revision of the Sacred Harp in 1991.



Paine Denson


Paine Denson (wearing a bow tie, to the right of the leader) sings in the bass section at a Sacred Harp singing.


Paine Denson worked out arrangements for the 1936 edition of the Sacred Harp in this notebook .


Paine Denson’s handwritten notations for “Wondrous Cross,” 1932.

The Chattahoochee Musical Convention

The lasting popularity of the Sacred Harp can partly be attributed to the strong support of singing conventions like the Chattahoochee Musical Convention.  The group was established by B.F. White, and in 1904, the members pledged to use no other book but the Sacred Harp for their singings.  This image shows the convention gathered at the State University of West Georgia in 1956, two years after its move to the location.



Chattahoochee Sacred Harp Convention at the State University of West Georgia, 1956.


The First National Sacred Harp Sing, 1980

In June 1980, Sacred Harpers traveled to Birmingham, Alabama for four days of fellowship and singing at the First National Sacred Harp Sing at Samford University.  As secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, Hugh McGraw was instrumental in organizing the event.  The convention is still in existence today and is attended by singers from across the globe.



Hugh McGraw at the 1980 National Sing

group_1980 copy

Onstage at Samford University


Cover of Directory for the 1980 National Sing