Alexander Johnson and the Tennessee Harmony

Music, David W.

One of the most interesting social and educational institutions of nineteenth-century rural America was the singing school. Singing schools were usually held in churches, and the great bulk of the music used was sacred in text. Many of the nineteenth-century tunebooks used a system of "shape-note" notation which was invented late in the eighteenth century and first used in William Little and William Smith's The Easy Instructor (1801). The nineteenth-century rural singing masters were a humble lot, the kind of men who seldom made headlines. Among these early singing masters was a Tennessean named Alexander Johnson, compiler of the tunebook Tennessee Harmony. Johnson was the first southern shape-note tunebook compiler outside the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Johnson's Tennessee Harmony seems to have found an immediate and widespread acceptance in the rural sections of Middle and West Tennessee. Alexander Johnson's tunebook may not have been as widely influential in the development and dissemination of shape-note hymnody as were those by Davisson, Carden, and later compilers, but it did provide the people of MiddIe and West Tennessee with the music they wanted to sing. In addition, Johnson introduced a number of tunes into the shape-note repertoire, some of which quickly became part of the standard stock of melodies used in later books.


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Columbia University
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March 26, 2015