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‘Singin’ Billy’ Walker Shape-Note Singing set for March 20

Billy Walker
2010-03-10

Event at Wofford College free, open to public

SPARTANBURG, S.C.
– Shape-note singers from around the Southeast will gather again at Wofford College on Saturday, March 20, for the annual tribute to Spartanburg native William “Singin’ Billy” Walker (1809-1875), the man who helped bring musical literacy to remote country churches around the South.

The traditional a cappella Appalachian folk hymn singing style dates back to colonial times and was featured in the film “Cold Mountain,” starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. The Spartanburg event, held each year in the Burwell Building on Wofford’s campus, is free and open to the public. Jonathon Smith, of Knoxville, Tenn., will begin the day with a singing school lesson from 9 to 9:45 a.m. The group singing begins at 10 a.m. and lasts until mid-afternoon, with a break for lunch.

Admission is free, and no experience is necessary to participate.

Attendees will sing from two early shape-note hymnals, “The Sacred Harp” (1844) by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King, and “Christian Harmony” (1867) by Spartanburg native William Walker (1809-1875). This singing honors the memory of Walker, who put the words and music of the familiar “Amazing Grace” together in print for the first time. He also introduced “Wondrous Love,” “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” and other tunes still familiar today.

Known as “Singin’ Billy,” Walker, was a Baptist singing school teacher. His “Southern Harmony,” published in the widely used four-shape or fa-so-la notation, reportedly sold more than 500,000 copies before the Civil War. After the Civil War, Walker published his “Christian Harmony” in seven-shape notation using the do-re-mi system. “Southern Harmony” continues in use in a famous Big Singing Day in Benton, Ky., which has been held for more than 100 years. “Christian Harmony” is used in singings in several states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and western North Carolina. It was regularly used in singings around Spartanburg up to the 1920s.

Walker was a prominent citizen in Spartanburg, leading singing at First Baptist Church, operating a book store on Morgan Square, and spearheading improvements in education. He was among those who attended the laying of the cornerstone of Wofford College on July 4, 1851.

For information on the event, contact Dr. Harry Eskew at 478-750-9968 or Dr.Doyle Boggs, associate vice president of communications at Wofford, at 597-4182 or at boggsdw@wofford.edu.