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.
The Sacred Harp, 1848 edition
The Cooper revision
The Sacred Harp, fourth edition
The James revision, 1911
Mason’s Sacred Harp, 1846
J.L. White’s New Sacred Harp