William Walker (composer)

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William Walker

William Walker (May 6, 1809 – September 24, 1875) was an American Baptist song leader, shape note "singing master", and compiler of four shape note tunebooks, most notable of which was The Southern Harmony.


Walker was born in Martin's Mills (near Cross Keys), South Carolina, and grew up near Spartanburg. To distinguish him from other William Walkers in Spartanburg, he was nicknamed Singing Billy. He married Amy Golightly, whose sister Thurza married Benjamin Franklin White, publisher of The Sacred Harp, and died in Spartanburg in 1875.[1] Walker is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, South Carolina.[2]


Walker learned shape note music in singing schools and composed his first piece of music at the age of 18.[3] In 1835, Walker published a tunebook entitled The Southern Harmony, using the four-shape shape note system of notation. This collection was revised in 1840, 1847 and 1854. In 1846 he issued The Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist. Intended as an appendix to the Southern Harmony, the Pocket Harmonist contains a large number of camp-meeting songs with refrains. In 1867 (preface signed October 1866), Walker published a tunebook entitled Christian Harmony, in which he adopted a seven shape notation. He incorporated over half of the contents of The Southern Harmony in the Christian Harmony, and he added alto parts to those pieces which had lacked them before. For the additional three shapes, Walker devised his own system - an inverted key-stone for "do", a quarter-moon for "re", and an isosceles triangle for "si" (or "ti"). Walker issued an expanded edition of Christian Harmony in 1873. In the same year, he brought out a collection of Sunday school songs entitled Fruits and Flowers.

What Wondrous Love Is This

As composer[edit]

Walker is listed as the composer of many of the tunes in The Southern Harmony. However, he acknowledged that in many cases, he borrowed his tunes, probably from the living tradition of folk music that surrounded him. Glenn C. Wilcox (references below) describes the process as follows, quoting from Walker's own introduction:

to a "great many good airs (which I could not find in any publication, nor in manuscript)" he has written parts and assigned himself as composer. This ... shows his tacit acceptance of the commonality of many of the tunes... and the probability that many had achieved the status of folk song, although he of course did not use that term.

In working from original tune to finished hymn, Walker borrowed lyrics from established poets such as Charles Wesley (a common practice in his tradition) and added to the tune just a treble (upper) part and a bass, creating three-part harmony.


Walker's grave in Spartanburg

Two of Walker's tunebooks remain in print. Facsimiles of his Southern Harmony (1854 edition) continue in use at an annual singing in Benton, Kentucky. Until 2010, Walker's Christian Harmony existed in two editions: a facsimile reprint of the 1873 edition, and a revision by O.A. Parris and John Deason first published in 1958, employing the more familiar note-shapes of Jesse B. Aikin. In 2010, a combined version of the Christian Harmony, known as the "Georgia Christian Harmony" or the "Christian Harmony 2010", was published, using Aikin's shape note system. The Christian Harmony 2010 incorporated the entire contents of both the 1873 edition and the 1958 Deason-Parris edition and added a number of new songs, as well.

Walker's compositions and arrangements are widely sung today by Sacred Harp singers as well as others. His work is represented by 13 songs in the current 1991 "Denson" edition of The Sacred Harp, and by 12 in the "Cooper" edition. According to the collated minutes kept by the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association,[4] his song "Hallelujah" is sung at Sacred Harp conventions more than any other. The Walker songs are generally sung in four-part versions, with alto parts added by early 20th-century composers.

Several of the tunes included in Walker's Southern Harmony are utilized in composer Donald Grantham's 1998 work for wind band of the same name.[5]

On Sunday 27 October 2013 the first Christian Harmony All-Day Singing in Europe took place at St Mary's Church in Primrose Hill,[6] hosted by the Sacred Harp Singers of London, who now regularly sing from the 2010 edition of Walker's Christian Harmony.[7] In attendance were Sacred Harp singers from the UK & Ireland, Europe, and the US.

Walker is the main character of the 1952 folk opera Singin' Billy, composed by Charles F. Bryan from a libretto by Donald Davidson. The opera incorporates five hymns from Southern Harmony.[8]


  1. ^ "William Walker". www.hymntime.com. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  2. ^ William Walker at Find a Grave
  3. ^ Eskew, Harry (2009). "A Bicentennial Tribute to William Walker". Choral Journal. 50 (1): 55–58. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  4. ^ "fasola.org - Sacred Harp and Shape Note singing". fasola.org. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  5. ^ "Southern Harmony". windrep.org. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  6. ^ "Music - London Sacred Harp". London Sacred Harp. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  7. ^ "London Sacred Harp". London Sacred Harp. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  8. ^ Livingston, Carolyn (2003). Charles Faulkner Bryan: His Life and Music. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. pp. 160–162. ISBN 1-57233-220-4.


  • Harry Eskew, "William Walker's Southern Harmony: Its Basic Editions." Latin American Music Review 7 (1986):137-48.
  • White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, by George Pullen Jackson
  • A Checklist of Four-Shape Shape-Note Tunebooks, by Richard J. Stanislaw
  • Wilcox, Glen, eds. (1987) The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion by William Walker; facsimile edition with editor's introduction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Further reading[edit]

  • Eskew, Harry. "A Bicentennial Tribute to William Walker." Choral Journal. August 2009. Vol. 50 Issue 1. pages 55–58. Accessible on EBSCOHost

External links[edit]