Alabama Folkways Articles

October, 1994

A Christian Harmony Songbook Revised and Reprinted

by Anne Kimzey

On a recent October weekend a group of singers gathered at the Little Hope Primitive Baptist Church in Eoline (Bibb Co.), Alabama to convene the 75th annual State Christian Harmony Convention. The two-day event was typical of the tradition in many respects: shape-note hymn singing in the morning and afternoon with a mid-day break for "dinner on the grounds," a home-cooked feast served on tall, concrete tables under a long shed beside the church. The significance of this occasion was the dedication of a revised and reprinted version of the songbook Christian Harmony . The book was published originally by South Carolina author William Walker in 1835 under the title Southern Harmony. In 1866 he revised the book, added new tunes and gave it the name it still carries today.

The use of the book spread throughout the South through the efforts of itinerant singing school masters who spent about two weeks at a time in various rural communities, teaching the rudiments of the music, before moving on. The tunes employ four-part, dispersed harmonies that are easily learned through a system of seven distinct shapes designating the notes on a scale: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, and do. (Walker's brother-in-law, B.F. White subscribed to a four-shape notation system in his bookThe Sacred Harp, another important songbook with a strong following in the South.)

The proprietorship of the book shifted to Alabama in 1958 due to the strength of the tradition here. According to Christian Harmony singing master Art Deason of Centreville, the supply of books was so exhausted that there were "not even enough (copies) to have an all-day singing or to teach a singing school." His cousin John Deason and another singer, O.A. Parris revised the book, leaving out tunes not often used, and replacing them with tunes by song writers from the community.

Not until last year when the Christian Harmony singers faced another book shortage, did they decide it was time for another of their infrequent revisions (although there have been reprintings). They worked with the Folk Arts Programs at the State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, both of which provided funding to assist in preserving this important Southern music tradition. The revision committee replaced only a few tunes and corrected the notation on another few to make them "more singable," said Deason.

The Christian Harmony singing community doesn't believe in tampering with the old tunes that have stood the test of time. They believe the power in the message contained in these songs and the joy of performance are two reasons Christian Harmony singing still carries on today. Deason explained that the singing is "a form of worship" and that the songs "give a spiritual lift" to the singers.

"These tunes are different," he said. "These tunes came to us from England, possibly 200 years ago. And some people say they have a doleful sound, a mourning sound. But I think, back in the beginning in our country, it was the feeling that our people accepted and loved enough to instill it into our children and the other folks' children."

Art Deason, who is 85, and younger Christian Harmony leaders, such as Donald Smith and Benny Rigdon, are interested in keeping their music tradition alive and well. The men have conducted singing schools in Bibb, Hale, Perry, Jefferson, St. Clair, Montgomery, Cullman and Etowah counties, to name a few. The financial burden of organizing schools and travelling around the state has been offset by Folk Arts Apprenticeship grants from the State Arts Council in recognition of the importance of Christian Harmony singing to Alabama's musical heritage. Deason believes that this singing has a practical purpose for young people as well. "This type of singing gives them something to do rather than to get into things that they shouldn't be doing. And I think it's steering them in the right direction," he explained. "There's a real message in some of the old songs that will guide them right."