Not Just Whistling Dixie

There are few Southern hearts that still fail to skip a beat or two when a military band strikes up “Dixie,” the de facto national anthem of the Confederacy and the song that has undoubtedly become the one most closely associated with the antebellum South.  This, however, was not the case with the creator of that iconic tune, Daniel Emmett, who was born, raised and died in Ohio, never lived in the South and composed “Dixie” in New York City in 1859 where it was introduced that year merely as a walkaround for Bryant’s Minstrel troupe.  History has it that Emmett, who remained a staunch Unionist throughout the War Between the States and even wrote the fife and drum manual for the Union Army in 1862, was most irritated that the Confederates had appropriated his melody and was reported to have said to a friend that he wished he had never written the song.  Much the same could be said in regard to a great many of the more than two hundred songs written by “the father of American music,” Stephen Collins Foster, songs that are also considered emblematic of the old South.  Here again, we have songs of the South that were composed by a Northerner who was born in Pennsylvania, lived most of his life in Ohio, also never lived in the South and died in New York City.  If one wanted to find a true Southern composer, however, they would have to look no further than William Walker of South Carolina.  Walker, a prominent Baptist song leader during the Nineteenth Century, was born in 1809 in Martin’s Mills not far from Spartanburg, a city where he later lived until his death in 1875.   The city of Spartanburg is located in the southwest corner of South Carolina and while it had become a major rail center by the mid-1800s, it had been mainly bypassed by most of the War Between the States . . . no major battles were ever fought there and the depredations of General Sherman’s “bummers” had never reached that far into the State.  Nevertheless, the city gave much to the War’s effort, contributing up to four thousand of its young men to the Confederacy’s ranks, six hundred of whom were never to return.  While Walker was too old for military service, the war did manage to touch him on the shoulder as one of his distant relatives was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and a closer relation, Reverend Newton Pinckney Walker of Spartanburg, had a son, Newton Farmer Walker, who served in the Fifth South Carolina Regiment and later took up the educational work his father had started in 1849.  That year, Reverend Walker had purchased an abandoned hotel in nearby Cedar Springs and opened the State’s first school for the deaf and dumb.  When Reverend Walker died in 1861, his wife Martha successfully petitioned the Confederate Army to release her son and allow him to continue his father’s work.  In the years that followed, under the son’s guidance, the school also accepted blind students and became one of the South’s leading institutions for such children.  

William Walker’s birth in the early part of the Nineteenth Century came during the time of the religious revivals that were sweeping the South in what was known as America’s Second Great Awakening.  In the North, mainly in New York State, the Awakening there had brought forth both the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints that was founded in Palmyra by Joseph Smith in 1830 and the movement that was begun three years later to the east of the State in Washington County by William Miller which was initially called Millerism and its followers Millerites but was later known as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.  What became the Awakening’s Restoration Movements in the South were mainly those started by Barton W. Stone in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, with its members merely referring to themselves as  “Christians,” and the one begun by Thomas Campbell in the western area of Virginia whose followers were called the “Disciples of Christ.”  While the two groups finally merged in 1832, they ultimately formed a number of separate Evangelical denominations that included the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church.  Many of the congregants in the Churches of Christ rejected the use of musical instruments in their services as not being authorized by Scripture and became known as the A Cappella Churches of Christ, and entirely new types of hymnals were adopted for use at services in both their churches and at campground revival meetings.  One of the leading composers of such music was William Walker who created four widely-used song books that contained a great number of melodies Walker had himself either composed or arranged, such as “Amazing Grace” and “Wondrous Love,” both of which are still widely sung today.  The most popular of these books was  “The Southern Harmony” that was published in 1835 and sold over six hundred thousand copies in the South, a phenomenal figure at that time.  His three other books, as well as the several reprints of “The Southern Harmony,” also became best sellers in both the South and the North, and Walker was known throughout the South as “Singing Billy.

William Walker became associated with church music at an early age, having learned a number of hymns by the time he was five, and composed his first piece, “Solemn Call,” when he was eighteen.  Eight years later, Walker had written and compiled enough material to publish his popular work “Southern Harmony.” Walker also operated a book and stationery store in Spartanburg and even though he had a very limited formal education, was active in the city’s educational affairs all through his life.  In 1835, the year of both the publication of his first book and his marriage to Amy Golightly, Walker became a trustee in the newly founded Spartanburg Male Academy, as well as one of the eleven subscribers to establish the Female Academy which opened two years later.   Walker was also associated with Wofford College in Spartanburg, and on July 4, 1851, took part in the ceremonies for the laying of the institution’s cornerstone.  Also in 1851, the Female Academy became the Spartanburg Female College, with Converse College being erected on the site of the Male Academy in 1890.  During the long Reconstruction period in South Carolina, Walker compiled his last two song books, “Christian Harmony” in 1867 and a collection of Sunday school songs in 1873, two years before his death, entitled “Fruits and Flowers.”  Walker’s song books all used what is known as “shape notes,” a system that uses a number of shapes, such as diamonds, ovals, squares and triangles, rather than actual notes.  The theory was originated by Guido d’Arezzo, a Tenth Century Benedictine monk who developed it to simplify the reading of music in choral work at the monasteries.  A similar method known as Sacred Harp was also developed in Europe and eventually made its way to America, where it became very popular in New England in the late Eighteenth Century.  This type of sight reading helped people without musical training to form both church choirs and secular singing groups that were called singing schools.  It was at one of these schools where Walker learned the shape note system that he was to employ in all of his song books.

Singing schools and their counterpart, Sacred Harp singing groups, both originated in New England and remained popular in the North until the mid 1800s when such groups began to be looked down upon by the social elites.  In 1845, the New York publication, “Columbian Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine,” even called such singing, “the most mortifying feature and grand cause of the low state of scientific music among us.”  Even though the singing schools were rapidly closing their doors in the North, some singing masters had already been carrying the genre to the West and South, and it was in these areas that it would gain its greatest popularity as the music for both a cappella church services and at community meeting places where one could not only enjoy singing but socializing as well.  In the West, the author Laura Ingalls wrote in her book “Those Happy Golden Years,” one of her “Little House on the Prairie” series, that she had met her future husband, Almonzo Wilder, while attending one of the singing school meetings.  When the singing masters carried their schools across the Mason-Dixon Line, however, they were soon to become a Southern music tradition, along with such other similar choral groups as Southern Gospel and Sacred Harp.  One early singing master who traveled to the South was Lowell Mason from Medfield, Massachusetts, who became the music director of Medfield’s Unitarian Church at age seventeen.  During his lifetime, Lowell also composed over fifteen hundred hymns, including “Joy to the World,” and the text for “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”  In the early 1800s, Lowell traveled to Savannah, Georgia, to conduct singing schools, and while there served as the choir director and organist at the city’s Independent Presbyterian Church.  He also started a Sunday school at America’s oldest black house of worship there, the First African Baptist Church.  To supplement his income in Savannah, Lowell worked as a clerk at a dry-goods store and later as a teller in a local bank. 

Lowell later moved on to conduct singing schools in other parts of the South but by the 1820s, he, like a few other of the itinerant instructors, began to turn away from what was termed the singing school method to a more traditional way of teaching music, and he finally returned to Boston to work for the inclusion of formal music training in the city’s public school system.   Most of the itinerant singing masters, however, remained in the South, and the singing schools became firmly imbedded there where they developed into major social events, as well as, like in the West, much needed courtship centers for small towns and rural areas throughout the South until the early part of the Twentieth Century.  One of the traditions unique to the South was the singing school picture that began to be taken in the late 1800s.  On the last day of the school, the master and the students would gather for a group photograph, many of which are still in existence and serve as a valuable genealogical resource material.   As the South evolved in the Twentieth Century and became more urbanized, so did the singing schools . . . with the itinerant schools giving way to more formal classes at fixed locations, such as the music school of the Gospel Singers of America in Mississippi, the North Georgia School of Gospel Music, the Stamps-Baxter School of Music and the Cumberland Valley School of Gospel Music, both in Tennessee, and the Alabama School of Gospel Music, as well as the three Baptist singing schools in Texas.  Many other Christian denominations, including Methodist and Church of God, also still conduct singing schools at their own local churches in most of the Southern States.

Walker’s shape-note music is also still being widely used by Sacred Harp groups in the South and a recent “Directory and Minutes of Sacred Harp Singing” showed that among the more than five hundred hymns listed, Walker’s  “Hallelujah” and “Amazing Grace” from his “Southern Harmony” ranked first and second, with “Wondrous Love” at number thirteen.   Many personal tributes have also been given to the memory of William Walker over the years, including an opera based on his life entitled “Signin’ Billy,” with the libretto written by Donald Davidson of the English Department at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the music composed by Charles Bryan of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.  Then, in 1994, a Sacred Harp singing group was established at Wofford College in Spartanburg called “South Carolina State Singing in Memory of William Walker” which uses both the “Southern Harmony” and “Christian Harmony” books.  Years later, a similar group was formed at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, which holds a singing memorial to Walker each May.  In Spartanburg, following each session at Wofford College, the singers walk to William Walker’s gravesite in nearby Magnolia Cemetery where they hold a ceremony to pay tribute to the man who contributed so much to the music of the South.  It is also felt by many throughout the South that while the fame of Northern composers such as Lowell Mason was based largely on music associated with the more classical European compositions, the music that flowed from the pens of men such as William Walker, music that was actually rooted in the folk music of the region, should be looked upon as the true songs of the South.

You might also enjoy these articles...