Seaborn McDaniel Denson (1854-1936) and Thomas Jackson Denson (1863-1935) were born in Arbacoochee in Cleburne County: Seaborn on April 9, 1854, and Thomas on January 20, 1863. The patriarchs of north Alabama Sacred Harp music, they produced the seminal Sacred Harp songbook and for more than 50 years wrote and sang this traditional music and conducted singing schools from Georgia to Texas.
Their father, Levi Philip Denson, was a Scots-Irish farmer, Methodist minister, and Sacred Harp singer; their great-uncle James Denson composed a Christmas anthem for the first Sacred Harp songbook, compiled and published in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White of Hamilton, Georgia. Their mother, Julia Ann Jones, was also musical and from a musical family.
Seaborn and Thomas Denson and their siblings grew up on a farm that included a working gold mine, a relic of thousands in the area that were active between 1836 and 1849. As children, the boys worked on the farm, panned gold, and attended their father's Methodist church, local schools, and singing schools. They married Sidney and Amanda Burdette, respectively, who were sisters from a Sacred Harp family in nearby Georgia. Together, they all sang at home and played secular music on the harmonium, cornet, banjo, and mandolin.
By 1890, and perhaps much earlier, Seaborn and Thomas were teaching Sacred Harp locally. They developed quick, efficient methods of teaching others to sing this distinctive music. In 1896, after Levi's death, Seaborn and Thomas moved in wagons to Winston County, settling near Helicon, where they continued to teach Sacred Harp and to farm, raising a mixture of crops and animals. When Thomas acquired an automobile, he taught singing schools as far away as Texas.
In 1920, at a Winston County sing, the Densons met Vanderbilt University professor George Pullen Jackson, who was beginning to research southern traditional music and later published two seminal works on Sacred Harp and other southern traditional music. In the 1930s, he introduced the Densons to John and Alan Lomax, academically trained researchers of traditional folk music.
In 1933 Thomas Denson established the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, which bought the rights to the 1911 Original Sacred Harp songbook, the standard collection upon which most modern revisions are based, and the brothers began the new edition. Unfortunately this task went uncompleted before their deaths: Thomas's on September 14, 1935, and Seaborn's in on March 18,1936.
Thomas Denson's son Paine and a committee of singers saw The Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision through to publication in 1936. (Despite many changes, the 1991 edition is often called the Denson book.) This edition includes an essay on the rudiments of music and 460 pages of hymns, anthems, canons (rounds), rhymed psalms, and folk tunes with new, religious words. Some new songs were composed for the revision, as well.
In August 1942, John Lomax and his wife spent two days in Birmingham, recording 168 songs (more than seven hours of recordings) and a 45-minute interview, conducted by Lomax and George Pullen
Jackson with Paine Denson. The singers were an ad hoc group from Georgia and Alabama who could get to Birmingham despite gas
rationing and wartime travel difficulties. Fees for leading songs helped pay for a monument to Seaborn McDaniel and Thomas
Jackson Denson, unveiled in 1944 (a century after the first Sacred Harp songbook was published) on the courthouse grounds
in Double Springs, Winston County.
Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Cobb, Buell E., Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. 1978. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Denson, Thomas J. Original Sacred Harp (Denson Revision): The Best Collection of Sacred Songs, Hymns, Odes and Anthems Ever Offered the Singing Public for General Use. Haleyville, Ala.: Sacred Harp Publishing, 1936.
———. Sacred Harp Singing from the Archive of American Folk Song. Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder, 1998. 1 compact disc: digital.
Jackson, George Pullen. The Story of the Sacred Harp 1844–1944: A Book of American Folk Song as an American Institution. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1944.
Lomax, John Avery. Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Frances Osborn Robb
Published February 23, 2007
Last updated June 3, 2013