Walker’s compilations, like other singing school tunebooks, made substantial contributions in their day to the publication of hymns in the South. Especially during the Antebellum period, a hymnal was a words-only volume, often published in miniature editions that could be carried to church in one’s pocket. Congregational singing in the South among such mainline denominations as Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians was commonly unaccompanied. It was often lined-out, as is still practiced by some Primitive Baptist and some African-American congregations. In cases where church-goers could read music, they probably learned it using shape notes in singing schools.
Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) and his later Christian Harmony (1867) were two tunebooks, among hundreds of singing-school collections published in America since the days of William Billings in the latter 1700s. From about 1800, singing-school tunebooks bagan to be published in a four-shape system of shaped noteheads corresponding to the then current Elizabethan solfa solmization. The ascending major scale would have shapes to represent the syllables fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa. Although largely rejected in the Northeast, shape notes became very popular in parts of Pennsylvania on through the Shenandoah Valley to the South and Midwest as far as Missouri. In these areas it became practically impossible to get a tunebook published unless it was in shape notes.
Walker’s tunebooks, like others of its time, served several purposes. It functioned as a textbook for singing schools, which taught multitudes how to read music. Southern Harmony, like other singing-school tunebooks of its day, begins with an introduction to music reading, including the use of shape notes. Indeed, the book’s subtitle reads, “an easy introduction to the grounds of music, the rudiments of music, and plain rules for beginners.”
In addition to its use as a textbook for singing schools, Walker’s tunebook furnished music for congregational singing of hymn texts already published in words-only hymnals. Hymnals listed on the title page of Southern Harmony are Watts Hymns and Psalms, Mercer’s Cluster, Dossey’s Choice, Dover Selection, Methodist Hymn Book, and Baptist Harmony. Most of these hymnals were compiled by southern pastors. One pastor known to Walker was his fellow South Carolinian, Staunton S. Burdett, then pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church near Lancaster. Burdette’s Baptist Harmony was published only a year prior to Walker’s Southern Harmony. Burdett’s name is listed on the title page of Southern Harmony, for he stocked and sold copies of Walker’s tunebook. Most of the tunes for congregational use are found in Part I of Southern Harmony.
The singing schools and churches were not the only intended users of Walker’s tunebooks. They provided a repertory of challenging pieces for more advanced singers. Part II of Southern Harmony is described on the title page as “containing some of the more lengthly and elegant pieces commonly used at concerts, or singing societies.” This section includes most of the fuging tunes and anthems, such as William Billings’ well-known “Easter Anthem.”
Perhaps the most interesting repertory of Walker’s Southern Harmony is the folk hymn, and it is in the genre that Walker made his greatest contribution to American music. Walker and other rural-oriented singing-school teacher/compilers drew from the rich oral tradition of Anglo-American folksong to provide melodies for many hymn texts. Sometimes the folk melody and hymn text had already been coupled. In other instances, Walker and others fitted secular folk melodies to already well-known hymn texts. It is likely that Walker and some of his contemporaries had so fully absorbed the Anglo-American folksong idiom that they themselves composed tunes in this style.
The best known of all American folk hymns is “Amazing Grace,” set to the tune New Britain, published together for the first time in the 1835 first edition of Southern Harmony (page 8). The text, written by the converted slave-trader who became an Anglican minister, John Newton, contained the same six stanzas found in Olney Hymns (1779) and was already well known. The tune New Britain had also been previously published, but with other texts. No earlier wedding of the tune and text has been documented. The melody, as was normal in this era, is in the tenor part, the middle of three voices. Also typical of these folk hymns is the angular line of the melody and the use of gapped scales—in this case pentatonic, omitting the fourth and seventh degrees. In harmonizing these folk melodies, Walker and his contemporaries thought linearly as well as vertically, conceiving each voice part as a melody in itself. This practice sometimes produced chords without thirds, along with parallel perfect fifths, and parallel octaves.
Another type of folk hymnody, a type that came from the camp meeting revivals, was what George Pullen Jackson called the “revival spiritual.” This type, which arose from the need to simplify texts for the unlettered country folk to sing, has been defined by Ellen Jane Lorenz as “informal hymns often with refrain and chorus, taking form in camp and revival meetings.” One of the best known of the revival spirituals, The Promised Land (page51), was first published in 1835 in the first edition of Southern Harmony. To the hymn text, “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand” by the English Baptist pastor, Samuel Stennett, an unknown American added the refrain beginning, “I am bound for the promised land.” Walker credits the tune to “Miss M. Durham,” who has recently been identified as Matilda Durham of the Spartanburg area, who married Andrew Hoy and later lived in Cobb County, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. The tune was recast in major and reharmonized to accommodate the newer gospel hymn tradition, the form in which it appears in several current hymnals.
There is yet a third widely-sung folk hymn text and tune that Walker, as far as documents show, brought together for the first time. In the second edition of Southern Harmony, published by Walker and the yet unidentified “E. King, Esq., Flat Rock, N. C.” listed on the title page, there is an appendix which includes Wondrous Love (page252), credited to Christopher. The text “What wondrous love is this, O my soul” had been published anonymously in two hymnals in 1811. It was another thirty-nine years before this anonymous text appeared in print together with this beautiful tune. Walker also published Wondrous Love in his 1867 tunebook, The Christian Harmony. There he described Wondrous Love as a “very popular old Southern tune” and indicated that it was “arranged by James Christopher of Spartanburg.” The melody had existed for a number of years in oral tradition, and James Christopher wrote it down and harmonized it. In Southern Harmony Walker included only the first stanza, an omission he later rectified in his Christian Harmony by providing six stanzas. The melody is in the Dorian mode, but is generally sung today with the sixth raised. The text of Wondrous Love is in the same meter as the ballad of Captain Kidd and many other folksongs.
It is clear that Walker was both a folksong collector, arranger, and a composer in the idiom of folksong. In the preface to the first edition of Southern Harmony Walker wrote:
I have composed the parts to a great many good airs (which I could not find in any publication, nor in manuscript,) and assigned my name as the author. I have also composed several tunes wholly, and inserted them in this work, which also bear my name.
Walker also published melodies from oral tradition harmonized by others, including Spartanburg area musicians of the singing-school shape-note tradition, such as Matilda Durham Hoy (The Promised Land) and James Christopher (Wondrous Love). It is this indigenous sacred folksong arising out of the hill-country of Upper South Carolina that gave Walker’s tunebooks, especially his Southern Harmony, much of its distinctive appeal to the South of his day.
The music of William Walker’s Southern Harmony and Christian Harmony may be found today primarily in three contexts. The first context is the traditional shape-note singing. Two of Walker’s four tunebooks are still used today in singings year after year. The only singing which currently makes exclusive use of Southern Harmony is the Big Singing Day each fourth Sunday in May at Benton, Kentucky. Walker’s Christian Harmony, his post Civil War tunebook in seven-shape notation, is far more widely used in singings than his Southern Harmony. A 1994 reprint of the 1872 edition of Christian Harmony is used at a number of annual singings in western North Carolina. In Alabama, Mississippi, and north Georgia is in use an edition of Christian Harmony extensively revised by Alabamians John Deason and O. A. Parris, which was published in 1958 and revised and reissued again in 1994.
Tunebook singings had completely disappeared from Walker’s home state of South Carolina until 1994, when a singing was established on the campus of Wofford College in Spartanburg. This singing, now known as the South Carolina State Singing in Memory of William Walker, meets on the Saturday before the third Sunday in March and uses Christian Harmony and The Sacred Harp (1991 edition). This singing concludes with a short walk to Spartanburg’s historic Magnolia Cemetery for a closing song and prayer of thanks with singers gathered around Walker’s grave. Growing out of the Wofford singing in recent years is an annual singing at Furman University, on the Saturday before the fourth Sunday in May.
Walker’s legacy in traditional shape-note singing is not limited to the present-day use of Southern Harmony and Christian Harmony. Glenn E. Latimer analyzed the frequency of songs using the minutes of Sacred Harp singing in 2005. Of the 25 top Sacred Harp songs in 2005, number one was Walker’s Hallelujah and two other songs from Southern Harmony were New Britain (number 7) and Wondrous Love (number 20). These same three tunes placed among the top three among songs used for Memorial Lessons at Sacred Harp singings. Among the top songs for closing Sacred Harp singings in 2005, number one was Parting Hand (page 113) from Southern Harmony, and two others were Hallelujah and New Britain. Thus the popularity of Walker’s tunes and those from Southern Harmony at present-day Sacred Harp singings are also a significant part of his legacy.
The second context in which the music of Walker’s tunebooks is found today is in choral arrangements. Countless arrangements of “Amazing Grace” have been sung by choirs in churches and schools across the English-speaking world. “Wondrous Love” has also appeared in a numerous choral arrangements. Walker’s life itself has served as the impetus for an opera. In 1952 Donald Davidson of the English Department of Vanderbilt University and composer Charles F. Bryan of Peabody College collaborated in the production of a light opera, Singin’ Billy, based on the life of William Walker.
The third context, one which Walker shares with other shape-note composers of his era, constitutes his greatest legacy. This context is that of congregational song, the inclusion of early American folk hymnody in current hymnals of practically every major American denomination. It is notable that some of these folk hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” and “Wondrous Love,” have gained ecumenical acceptance, appearing in practically every major new hymnal. While Lowell Mason and his colleagues in the Northwest were composing and arranging hymn tunes based on classical European models, southerners such as William Walker, Benjamin Franklin White, Elisha J. King and others were composing and arranging hymn tunes based on Anglo-American folksong. These folk hymns of the shape-note tradition from this Carolina contributor are a wonderful treasure of early American song that constitutes a continuing gift to singing congregations and the American heritage of sacred music even now in the twenty-first century.