Spartanburg Also Can Claim Birth of Shape-Note Music
boasts a rich musical heritage. The rocking Marshall Tucker Band,
country music legend Charlie Daniels and Don Reno, considered the
greatest banjo player ever, trace their roots to Spartanburg.
of them, however, surpass the achievements of Spartanburg's "Singin'
Billy" Walker. The preacher, songwriter and music teacher was one of the
most widely read and celebrated musicians of the 19th century. Today,
however, only a few recognize Walker's name, but his contributions have
In 1835, Walker published "Southern Harmony," a 336-page
hymnal that included "Amazing Grace," "Rock of Ages" and "I Am Bound
for the Promised Land." The oblong-shaped book revolutionized church
singing, particularly in the rural South, and sold 600,000 copies. In
many parts of the United States, "Southern Harmony" was second only to
the Bible in popularity.
"The 'Southern Harmony' and his name,
the name of the distinguished author, are as familiar as household
duties in the habitations of the South," wrote a music critic. The book
generated such publicity that Walker, in an effort to distinguish
himself from others with the same name, began to sign his name "W.
Walker, A.S.H.," indicating that he was the author of "Southern
Walker achieved his greatest fame as a music teacher by
developing a system of simple shaped notes that made it easy for rural
folks with little formal education to sing songs from a hymnbook. In
shape-note music the note heads are shaped in triangles, squares,
circles and diamonds. The simple shapes indicate the relative position
of a note on the scale.
During the years before the Civil War,
Walker crisscrossed the country conducting "singing schools" at
churches. His influence was pervasive. Hymn singing became much more a
vital part of Sunday worship services. People often sang hymns in their
homes, in the fields, at front porch gatherings and on the village
Until the publication of "Southern Harmony," most church
hymns were simply passed down from generation to generation and
performed from memory. Few churches had music directors or choir
programs. Walker's arrival in small rural communities was often a major
event. His "singing schools" would sometimes last more than a week and
involve hundreds of church parishioners. In his wake remained trained
choirs and music directors to carry on the tradition of shape-note
A singing-school teacher in French Camp, Mississippi,
wrote: "Thousands and thousands have blessed the name of William Walker.
He has sent the 'Southern Harmony' into almost every home in our
Southern land, breaking the fallow ground and creating at least, if
nothing more, an incentive, a desire, a thirsting for sacred music in
Walker, who was born in Union County and later moved to
the Cedar Springs community in Spartanburg County with his family, wrote
his first hymn, "Solemn Call," when he was 18. Although he penned some
of the hymns in "Southern Harmony," many, including "Amazing Grace,"
were traditional songs that he collected and set to music.
Harmony" and Walker's subsequent hymnals brought him a fortune, yet he
donated much of his income to charity. He lived a simple life with his
wife and 10 children in Spartanburg, where he operated a bookstore. He
died in 1875 at the age of 67.
Like worship, shape-note singing
is an activity, not a performance. Singers gather in a "hollowed
square." There is no director. A member simply stands up to set the tone
and start the next hymn. No musical instruments are used. The solid
rhymes of shape-note singing are unrefined, raw and passionate. The
first rule of shape-note singing is to sing as loud as possible.
Participants hurl their songs with roof-raising force. The vibrant music
is intended to attract a crowd.
An 1866 gathering at Pleasant
Hill Church in Paulding County, Georgia, drew 8,000 singers, who drank
three wells dry. During the early 1900s the primitive sound of
shape-note singing, with its haunting open intervals, gave way to
conventional musical notation and modern harmony. Most churches hired
organists, and unaccompanied singing died away. Shape-note singing
survived only in the rural South, usually in churches too poor to afford
organs or pianos.
In recent years, shape-note music has enjoyed a
resurgence. Modern day gatherings include fellowship, food and
foot-stomping music. For the past several years, shape-note singers have
gathered each April at Wofford College to pay tribute to Walker by
singing around his grave located at nearby Magnolia Cemetery.
Saturday, May 10, Furman will host a gathering of shape-note singers
from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Herring Music Pavilion, adjacent to
McAlister Auditorium. Bring lunch and experience this soul-stirring
music. It is a wellspring of our past that will get your blood flowing
and make you new friends. In the shape-note community, there are no