Shaper of Music

You may have never heard of Elisha James King or his brother,  Elisha Lafayette King.  The King brothers, along with their cohort, Benjamin Franklin White, were among the most prolific  composers of "shaped note hymns" which they  compiled into the legendary hymnal, "The Sacred Harp."   Many musicologists proclaim that Sacred Harp music is the oldest form of purely American music.

Click to hear modern day Sacred Harp singing. 

Shaped notes were designed to make it easier for church congregations and untrained singers to readily understand pitch, scales and key signatures.  Instead of the more common dark ovals, shaped notes are squares, triangles, ovals and diamonds,  filled or not filled with black ink.  The practice of using shapes began in the early years of the 19th Century in New England and spread to the South.

Elijah James King was born in 1821 in Wilkinson County, Georgia to John King and his bride, Elizabeth Dubose.  The Kings moved to Talbott County in western Georgia in 1828.

In 1840, one Benjamin White moved to the adjoining Harris County, where he would later serve as the Mayor of Hamilton, Georgia, the Clerk of the Inferior Court of Harris County, and a major of the local militia.

King joined with Benjamin Franklin White, left  of Union County, South Carolina, to compile the "Sacred Harp" in 1844 when King was more than half the age of White when the widely popular hymnal of shaped notes was first printed in book form.  It has been said that it was White who mentored King.

King, who farmed and taught singing and music for a living, collaborated with White on nearly two dozen songs as a composer or arranger.

Sadly at the zenith of his life and musical career Elijah King died on August 21, 1844 at the age of twenty-three.  His father and a niece died a few days later.  More deaths in the King family made the year 1844 one of triumph and despair.

Music historian David Steel describes King as having a distinctive musical style and three of his songs, "Bound for Canaan," "Sweet Canaan," and "Fulfilment" as "classics." Steel theorized that King was the "money man" of the duo.

Stepping right in after the death of Elijah King, was Elias Lafayette King, his  supposed younger brother and  eight years his junior.  The younger King  strived to replace his brother in the publishing of Sacred Harp music.  He contributed approximately a half dozen songs to the 1850 revised edition, including:  "The Bower of Care," "The Frozen Heart," "Dull Care," "Reverential Anthem," and "The Dying Christian."

The teaching of singing syllables in order to teach the young singer has generally been credited to Guido d'Arezzo, who used a six syllable system.  English teachers reduced the number to four, fa, sol la and mi.

Sacred Harp music is performed a cappella by singers sitting in a square with the treble, alto, tenor and bass singers on each side with the center of the group being a hollow square.  Often the group does not have a director. Instead numerous directors stand in the middle of the square.

There are three basic type songs, regular traditional hymns with traditional four bar phrases, fugues, and anthems.

"The Sacred Harp," with more than five hundred songs written in four parts, was used by the vast majority of old line church choirs and singing school teachers in Georgia and the Deep South.

There is little documentation of the practice of singing shape notes in Laurens County. Primarily used in the Primitive Baptist and Nazarene churches, the practice enjoyed a revival in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Sacred Harp music is more common along the Georgia-Alabama border and northward into the mountain states of the Southeast.

Most people, primarily children, learned shaped notes from teachers of singing schools. The most famous of the Laurens County singing school teachers was long time  and legendary Blackshear ferryman, Rawls Watson.

Singing schools were held in every little church and school throughout the county for the first six decades of the 20th Century.    One of the last occurred at the East Dublin Baptist Church in 1963.  The classes lasted sometimes for hours, sometimes for days and sometimes all week long.  In 1954 and 1955 , C.C. Gay conducted  10-night singing schools at the Telfair Street Church of God.

Once the singing school sessions were completed, "singing conventions" featured choirs from around the county and around the East Central Georgia area.  One of the largest was the convention at Idylwild, a former W&T Railroad resort of the Ohoopee River, south west of Wrightsville.  Managed by Grady Sumner, the event attracted thousands of people  and lasted until the 1960s.

Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church

The singing of shape notes in praising the Lord God is a Southern Christian tradition which has almost  faded into obscurity like many other old, grand traditions.   Today, Sacred Harp music is experiencing a comeback with younger people around the country, even those whose religious beliefs are not as deep as the original singers of shape note music.

The memory of shape note music still resonates in the mind of the Rev. Don Hicks, the minister of the First Church of the Nazarene Church in Dublin.  Hicks, also the musical leader of his church, fondly remembers his attraction to Sacred Harp singing, primarily in the days of his youth he spent at singing conventions at Sand Mountain, Alabama. "It was a good learning tool to teach me how to sing," Hicks added.

And now you know, that a musical tradition which has lasted for more than a century, has its roots in a little boy born in Wilkinson County, Georgia nearly 200 years ago.

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