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Old Sacred Harp Singing Goes Back To Early 1800’s

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, I hope you are having a good week.  Kathryn Morgan, who now lives in Dayton, Ohio sent me a handwritten letter this week and as all of you know handwritten letters are very special to me.  She also enclosed a newspaper clipping about an old Sacred Harp singing at the Oakwood Lutheran Church. She thought this was the type of singing I attend, but I’m sorry to say I don’t.  

Old Sacred Harp goes back to the early 1800s and is sometimes referred to as primitive harmony.  It was written in four part “shaped notes,” and is sung acapella.  Many of the original songs were written in a minor key. I must correct the newspaper writer, Meredith Moss, when she said that a group from Columbus was the last remaining singings of the seven note tradition.  

She could come to Arkansas and realize that that tradition is still alive and well.  About 1885 a young man from Dalton, Ga. named Anthony J. Showalter published the rudiments of music, which contained seven-shaped notes. Each note was given the names used in Italian operas: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti do. I know that’s eight, but do is used twice.  

Mr. Showalter wrote many hymns, one which is still in most of the hymnals, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It was originally referred to as the “New Work” and when I was a kid singer many of the older people still called it that. I found an old Showalter rudiments in Mother’s collection dated in 1892 and it is still basically unchanged from the ones used today.  

Marty Phillips of Phillips Jeffries Publishing Company doesn’t use a book of rudiments, but Jamie attended two of his schools and he seemed to learn as much as we did.  

Buck Edwards, an old-time singer and teacher, often told me how Mother and Dad attended one of his schools at Palestine. They brought me and I would sit on his lap. He never said so, but I think he was proud that I carried on the tradition.          

Showalter only published books and taught singing schools, but in 1910 James D. Vaughn started the Vaughn Music Company in Lawrence-burg, Tenn. When commercial radio got started in the 20s, he had a Vaughn Radio Quartet that sang on the radio and traveled on concerts.  

One of Vaughn’s students was V. V. O. Stamps who, went on with his brother, Frank, to establish the Stamps-Baxter Music Company. They later took on a partner, J.R. Baxter, Jr. and became one of the largest publishers of gospel music in the nation. At one time they had 17 quartets that used the Stamps-Baxter name. Among them were: The Blackwood Brothers. Chelsey Bray Quartet, Gene Lowry’s Dixie Four, Joe Roper and the Melody Boys.  

Although V. V. O. Stamps died at an early age in 1940, later quartets traveled until World War II when they all disbanded.  After the war only three retained the Stamps name, Joe Roper and the Melody Boys, The Stamps-Baxter quartet, and The Stamp’s Quartet.

Kathryn, I wish you could attend our Arkansas State Convention and hear for yourself just how well this style of singing, which they now refer to as Southern Gospel, is doing.  Again, I do so appreciate you taking the time to write a personal note and enclose the newspaper clipping. I hope to hear from you again and any information you care to send me will be gladly appreciated.  

My email address is still or write me at P.OBox 613189 Memphis, Tenn. 38101 and have a great week.

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