Genre Spanning in the Close and Dispersed Harmony Shape-Note Songs of Sidney Whitfield Denson and Orin Adolphus Parris
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Genre Spanning in the Close and Dispersed Harmony Shape-Note Songs of Sidney Whitfield Denson and Orin Adolphus Parris

When the seven members of the music committee appointed in 1986 to revise the then 142-year-old Sacred Harp tunebook first met they settled on a few ground rules. According to committee member Raymond C. Hamrick, the “first thing we all did was erect a sign: ‘No Gospel Music.’”1 To members of the committee, which ultimately produced the widely used Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition, “gospel music” was a polluting and modernizing influence on what they regarded as the purer, older style of shape-note hymnody in The Sacred Harp.2 George Pullen Jackson first described this older style of “dispersed harmony” as “white spirituals” in 1933, valorizing what he imagined to be the wellspring of an American national culture with a white Anglo-Celtic source.3 To Jackson and the folklorists, folk music enthusiasts, and Sacred Harp singers who adopted and adapted the rhetoric he introduced, gospel music threatened to sweeten Sacred Harp’s astringent sound with its “close harmonies,” water down Sacred Harp’s lyrical and theological [End Page 94] heft with its premillennial dispensationalist lyrics, and diminish Sacred Harp’s imagined democratic equality with its commercial ethos.

In spite of the “no gospel music” prohibition, Charles Towler, then the music editor for Kingsport Press, a gospel publisher aligned with the Church of God of Cleveland, Tennessee, typeset The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition. In fact, this gospel publishing company’s predecessor, the Tennessee Music and Printing Company, had typeset and printed editions of The Sacred Harp since 1936. The company’s founder, Otis Leon McCoy, was the grandson of Thomas Jackson Denson, who with his brother Seaborn McDaniel Denson founded the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, the organization that appointed The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition music committee. From a publishing standpoint, the worlds of dispersed and close harmony were deeply intertwined.

In this essay, I argue that the walls scholars erected between shape-note genres had cracks from the perspective of some of the composers active in these singing styles in northern Alabama in the mid-twentieth century. In this area—stretching roughly from Birmingham north to Cullman and west to Jasper—a shape-note music publication network emerged in the early twentieth century that encompassed Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony, as well as gospel music, and drew on the composing and editing talents of a group of people tied together through social and kinship bonds. Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony publishing activity emanated from Winston, Cullman, and Walker Counties, Alabama, and gospel publishing—though active across wide swaths of the South and lower Midwest—was concentrated in this part of northern Alabama as well.4 Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony refer to overlapping repertoires featuring varied genres of shape-note music, named for eponymous oblong tunebooks at the center of vibrant music cultures. Early editions of The Christian Harmony retain songs in the dispersed harmony styles common to The Sacred Harp and include numerous reform-style tunes, early gospel songs, and songs in hybrid forms.5 In this essay, I focus on the music and publishing of two northern Alabama singers, composers, and songbook editors at the center of this publication network, Sidney Whitfield “Whit” Denson (1890–1964) and Orin Adolphus “O. A.” Parris (1897–1966). I argue that Denson and Parris tailored their contributions to fit the genre conventions of the oblong tunebooks and gospel convention songbooks in which their music appeared while also infusing much of their work with hybrid harmonic and lyrical language and extending elements from one shape-note genre to another. Their composition and songbook editing practices reveal a musical culture in which a variety of shape-note genres coexisted, influenced one another, and attracted overlapping followings.

Recognizing genre crossing in the composing practices of these two singer-composer-compilers challenges long-held assumptions about [End Page 95] white gospel music and Sacred Harp singing and contributes to the discussion of genre classification, development, boundary work, and disruption. The evolution of musical genres, like biological evolution, is sometimes reduced to a teleological account of progression. Histories of shape-note...