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Harmony Revered: Old Stoughton vs. Sacred Harp Singing

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Harmony Revered:
Old Stoughton vs. Sacred Harp Singing

Two of the oldest amateur singing traditions of religious harmony music in the U.S.A. are worth remebering.

One of them is located in Stoughton, Massachusetts. The other tradition is Sacred Harp singing in the South, especially in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

Of these, Stoughton is the oldest, performing choral music for over 200 years. Above is the first page of its organizational journal which is dated November 7, 1786. This choral society performed plain tunes, fuging tunes, set pieces and anthems. Also, performances of larger choral works, such as cantatas and oratorios -- both types composed by an unjustly forgotten 19th century Stoughton composer, much respected in his day,
Edwin Arthur Jones (1853-1911).

There were two music collections published by the Stoughton Musical Society, the first in 1829 and the second one in 1878, which had tunes by Stoughton-born composers, such as Supply Belcher, Jacob French, and his brother, Edward French.


In 1980, The Stoughton Musical Society's Centennial Collection of Sacred Music (Ditson & Co., 1878), was reprinted with an Introduction and New Index by Roger Hall (New York: Da Capo Press, 304 pages). There are about 160 tunes in the collection, most of them by New England composers and some edited music by European composers (Haydn, Mozart, Naumann, Stephenson, Tans'ur). There are more New England tunes in this Stoughton collection than in other tune books of the 19th century, including The Sacred Harp.

Here are the number of tunes by William Billings in the two main tunebooks:

The Sacred Harp (1844/ numerous revisions) = 14 tunes

The Stoughton Centennial Collection (1878/
Da Capo reprint, 1980) = 28 tunes

There are approximately 48 early New England tunes in The Sacred Harp and 33 of these tunes are also found in The Stoughton Centennial Collection -- which is not a shape-note tunebook. Almost all the tunes in the Stoughton Centennial Collection are from early New England composers.

Thus, contrary to common belief, 18th century tunes did not disappear during the 19th century and early 20th centuries in the North, at least in Stoughton and surrounding towns.

Unfortunately, this fact is forgotten or not known by many music scholars and those who sing the New England tunes from The Sacred Harp, and other contemporary tune books, like The Northern Harmony (1998) and The Norumbega Harmony (2003).

They all fail to mention the important singing tradition in Stoughton that has been continuous since the 1760s.

The only event ever mentioned about Stoughton is the famous singing school taught there by William Billings in 1774. It is incorrect to say that Billings actually organized the Stoughton Musical Society, though he was greatly admired and five of the pupils in his singing school later joined the musical society when it was organized in 1786. Much more has happened in Stoughton since that time.

Also, these singing traditions in the North and South are not the same.

The Sacred Harp (or Shape-note) Tradition features a different singing style, with more emphasis placed on lung power and less on subtle singing. It is a much better known tradition than the one from Stoughton, and much appreciated, as it should be.

The Stoughton Tradition has been a more cultivated one. Like the Sacred Harp Tradition, the singers are not usually professional musicians. In the past, most of the chorus was made up of singers from many nearby towns in the Stoughton area. Their concerts have often included many of the same people who meet to enjoy the singing experience. It has remained the longest such tradition but unfortunately seems to have lost its way in the present day, with far fewer good singers and a change of repertoire away from the singing of early New England tunes.

For two centuries, 18th century choral music was continued by the Stoughton Musical Society, and deserves to be remembered for that achievement.

Learn more about America's oldest surviving choral society,
founded in 1786 --

Click here



New England Music Series




New England Song Series

No. 1: "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "John Brown"



No. 2: "GOIN' HOME" - From Bohemia to Boston


No. 3: "One Horse Open Sleigh" -
The Story of "Jingle Bells"













No. 4: "Simple Gifts":
Elder Joseph Brackett's Shaker Song


No. 5: "Father and I Went Down to Camp" -
The Boston Yankee Doodle Ballad


No. 6: "Song of the Old Folks"
Father Kemp and Auld Lang Syne


New England Music on CDs


"Yankee Doodle" - A New England Song Teasury


"Celestial Praises"
A Celebration of Shaker music



"Creator God"
Sacred Music by Roger Lee Hall




"Gentle Words"
A Shaker Music Sampler








Related AMP links


American Music Recordings Archive

"Millennial Praises" - Singing New Englanders: From The Pilgrims to The Shakers

New England Choral Sampler

Shaker Music Preservation Series

Stoughton Music Heritage Series




To contact the NEMA Director, Roger Lee Hall -- click here

















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