Editing songs in the ShH

May 1, 2012 by

Committee Meeting

The music committee at work

Now that our preview packet is out, we’ve received several questions and comments about our editorial policy.  As the “resident academic” on the music committee, I thought I’d try to explain our process for everyone.  This is the result of an ongoing conversation—so I’m sure I’ll be editing this post plenty in the coming months!  


General policy.  The Shenandoah Harmony  is a book for singers.  Successful singing books such as The Sacred Harp  have undergone substantial revisions in their history, with the general goal of making songs more satisfying to sing and lead in the context of a practice or all-day singing.  However, changes must be made with extreme caution.  Often harmonic or rhythmic irregularities—both features that make a song tricky to sing—are what gives a song its life.  Eliminating them all can yield a bland, predictable sound.  Therefore, we have tried to be conservative in our music editing, only changing the notes or rhythm of a song when we felt there was a problem.  We have been less conservative with texts; we have felt free to substitute different texts, especially in lesser-known songs, or to add or subtract verses from existing texts.

Adding altos.  Many of our favorite songs were originally written for three or even two parts.  Our first thought was to publish these songs as is, with the understanding that altos could switch to bass or tenor on three-part songs.  However, after we accumulated over 130 three-part songs, we realized that singing all day from our book would be extremely taxing for many altos.  We spent an entire weekend reviewing these songs.  In quite a few cases, we were able to find alto parts in other books and add them (for example, William Walker’s Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist  is in three parts, but he published altos for many of the same songs in his Christian Harmony).  If the bass part felt comfortable and natural for an alto, we typically left the song alone.  Many other songs were made more alto-friendly by adding chooser notes to the bass—doubling low notes an octave higher, for example.  If none of these strategies worked, we wrote an alto or commissioned one from one of our friends.  In all songs with added altos, you will see a note “alto by ____ ” or “alto added from ____.” Of course, you are always free to omit the added altos.

Policy on edits.  We have made edits to many songs.  Here is a summary of the situations in which we would consider making a change.  I’ve ordered them based on how likely we are to make a change, with the most likely first.  These changes are usually not indicated in our book.

  • Typographical errors in the original source.  In some situations, there is clearly a typo in the source—for example, when a note’s shape and placement on the staff do not agree, or when the number of syllables in the text doesn’t match the syllables in the music.  We have tried to resolve these conflicts in whichever way that makes the most musical sense.
  • Incomplete first measures, repeats, and rhythmic tightening.  As is common practice in The Sacred Harp, we have added rests to the beginning of songs to fill out partial measures and make it easier for leaders to start songs.  We have sometimes added or omitted repeats, rests, and fermatas.
  • Difficult vocal range.  We have occasionally added or removed octave chooser notes to make songs less rangy.  A few songs have been re-keyed.
  • Time signatures.  A few songs have been set in 4/4 rather than the original 2/2 or 6/4 rather than 6/8.
  • Awkward leaps, “off” notes, rhythmic dissonance.  This is a difficult call, and occasion for much discussion among the music committee.  For the most part, dissonance and angular phrasing is part of the fun of the song and should not be changed.  However, there are some songs where repeated harmonic dissonance makes it difficult for a class to tune together, or where the textual accents don’t line up with strong beats in the bar to the extent that it throws singers off repeatedly.  If a small change in pitch or rhythm will remedy this situation, we will consider it.
  • Questionable accidentals.   For the most part we have not changed accidentals, simply because it is part of our tradition that singers can ignore or add accidentals at their discretion.  For example, some singers sharp the sixth or seventh degree of the minor scale and others don’t, irrespective of whether a sharp is written in the music; still others slide up in pitch if the seventh is used as a leading tone.  Preferences depend on individual singers and geography.  Moreover, some composers, such as Ingalls, use accidentals more freely than others (Davisson goes so far as to make a key change rather than writing a sharp sixth).  It is our policy not to add accidentals, so if you see raised sixths or sevenths in our music, it’s there because it was in the source.  We have occasionally removed accidentals.
  • Possible misbarring.  Rebarring a song is a major decision, one that we have taken on only a few songs where the rhythm of the poetry and music deviate from each other severely.  In this case, we have indicated that the song is rebarred.

Arrangements.  Occasionally we find wonderful melodies with harmonies that really don’t seem to work for one reason or another.  Songs that are noted as “arranged” by one of the music committee members have been substantially revised, sometimes to the extent that only the tenor part is original to the song.

Modern compositions.  All the modern composers represented in The Shenandoah Harmony retain copyright to their own songs, and changes (if any) have been made in collaboration with the author.  Most of the modern songs have little or no alteration.

Texts.  We have added or subtracted verses from songs and occasionally substituted one text for another.  When choosing new texts, we have looked for authors similar to the ones already in the book (Isaac Watts and his contemporaries and certain 18th and 19th century American hymnists).

Titles.  Traditionally, songs retain their original titles even if the text is changed (this explains some mismatches between text and title, such as FEW HAPPY MATCHES in The Sacred Harp).  We have followed this practice except in a few cases:

  • The original title is unseemly.  For example, we are publishing Hauser’s temperance song THE DRUNKARD’S BURIAL with the text upon which Hauser’s parody was made: “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna.”  Clearly the original title would be inappropriate, so we are using the title “The Burial” for our song.
  • We have more than two songs with the same title.  Having four songs named FRIENDSHIP and four songs named JUDGMENT is confusing!  In this case we may select a new title for a song and use the original title as a subtitle.  In some cases, we have been able to find alternate titles in old songbooks.
  • Two songs share the same title AND text.  This occurs, for example, with the song BEGONE UNBELIEF.  Ingalls and Hauser published songs with this title and text that are quite different from each other.  In this case, Ingalls’ song retains the original title, and Hauser’s song has been given the start of the second verse, THO’ DARK BE MY WAY, as its title.  We added “Begone Unbelief” as a subtitle to Hauser’s song.

How to obtain the original sources for Shenandoah Harmony songs.  Each song in our book, with the exception of modern compositions, has a source code on the top corner of the page.  The source code tells you our primary source for typesetting the song and the page number on which you can find the song.  If you care about historical authenticity, I encourage you to check out our Source post.  Many of the sources are freely available online.

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  1. Bobbie Goodell

    Rachel et al., this sort of explanation about producing a new publication is exactly what makes shape note singing special. Not only is the tradition old, it is new. Not only are the tunes from olden times, but they are being written today. Not only are songs written by tanners and trained musicians, but also by chemists, band masters, watchmakers, academics. And now with your commentary we get to see at least some of the “sausage-making.”

    • Hi Bobbie! Yes, this has been a fascinating process that has given us all a much greater appreciation for the many composers, arrangers, and book editors who worked and continue to work in this tradition. As we’ve released previews of the book it’s been great to get comments from the singing community. Sometimes we hear words of encouragement and other times words of caution (“don’t change that!”). All of these responses have deepened our respect for the living tradition. There are so many singers who care passionately for these old songs.

      I hope we can sing with you soon!


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