B. F. White: The Sacred Harp Man

by William J. Reynolds

Music: Away Here in Texas
This article is reprinted from the March-April 1997 issue of Away Here in Texas.

Benjamin Franklin White was born near Cross Keys in Union County, South Carolina, September 20, 1800. The twelfth child of Robert and Mildred White, he was named for Benjamin Franklin, the great American statesman who had died a decade earlier. When Ben was seven years old, his mother died during the very severe winter of 1807. Robert White was left a widower with five children under the age of sixteen. Robert White, Jr. and his wife, Polly, took Ben and cared for him as though he were their own child. Robert, Jr. and Polly belonged to the Lower Fairforest Baptist Church in Union County, where Robert, Jr. was appointed the musical clerk of the church on October 22, 1814.

Sometime before 1818, Robert White married a second wife, Elizabeth, and got the family back together. In 1829 the family moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and joined the Cedar Springs Baptist Church.

Spartanburg was in the rough Up Country frontier. The area was also referred to as the Back Country, where small farms were worked by settlers who had walked south down the valleys from Virginia and North Carolina. The Up Country is the land with its back to the Blue Ridge, where the Piedmont meets the foothills and the foothills rise into the mountains. Two days after Christmas in 1840, Elizabeth White died, and three years later Robert White died, just a few weeks before his 101st birthday. Both were buried at Padgett's Creek Baptist Church Cemetery in Union County, South Carolina.

Ben White's early education was very limited, for he attended only three sessions of school in late summer after the crops had been laid by and during the weeks before the harvest began. It was a time when there was little to do but let the sun work. The summer became a month of Saturdays, an appropriate time for a term of school, family reunions, church revivals, primary elections, and above all for many, a time for singing. Sometimes they would load up the wagon and ride into the country, or go to the village, or join neighbors for music and singing. Ordinary folk in the area with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass would bring down the sun with the music of the hills. They warmed up with such tunes as "Salt Creek," "Millie and the Low Ground," "Kicking Mule," "Shucking the Corn," and "Cripple Creek."

Ben was an eager student and the three terms of school had taught him much and made him an eager seeker for more knowledge. Music fascinated him and his own curiosity would not be denied. Without a teacher, he mastered the music books that were available to him.

On the last day of December 1825, Ben White married Thurza Melvina Golightly, the charming daughter of David and Nancy Golightly of Spartanburg. We know little about Thurza except that she was a faithful wife for fifty-three years, and bore her husband nine children. Toward the end of the first year of marriage their home was blest by the arrival of twin boys, William and David. When the twins were five years old, Ben and Thurza had another set of twins, this time a boy and a girl, Robert and Mary Caroline.

At this time there was a Walker family living in Union County, South Carolina.1 The father had come from Wales, and the mother was the daughter of Ralph Jackson, a well-known political leader in Union County, and clerk of the Padgett's Creek Baptist Church (1794-1804).

To this couple a son was born near Cross Keys in Union County in 1809. They named him William, and when he was about eighteen, the Walker family moved to Spartanburg County. No doubt at church meetings or singings, William and Ben met and discovered their mutual interest in music and they became friends.

But they had more in common than their music, for William Walker was also smitten by the charms of a Golightly daughter. Thurza's sister, Amy, six years younger than she, became his wife in 1833. By this time Ben and William were busy at work making a collection of tunes that had been published in earlier tunebooks. They also wrote down tunes that they heard others sing and tried composing tunes of their own. Walker took the manuscript to New Haven, Connecticut, and The Southern Harmony,2 published in 1835, became very popular in the South.

In May of 1842, Ben White moved his family in a covered wagon to Harris County, in west Georgia. During the early months in Harris County, Ben made friends in the surrounding areas, looked for a place to settle, and kept the fires of music burning in his heart. In February 1843, Ben took a mortgage on ninety-five acres of land near Whitesville in the northwest area of Harris County. Incorporated only six years earlier, Whitesville was the site of a stagecoach stop, and an inn and several stores were located there on a branch of the Oakfuskee Indian Trail.3

Ben and Thurza's first year in Harris County was marked by the arrival of a daughter, Thurza Melvina. Eight years had passed since their last child, Nancy, had been born in South Carolina. Apparently Ben and Thurza were pleased with their new surroundings and the prospects of their family life in Harris County and decided to increase their family circle. Benjamin Frank, Jr. was born in 1845; James Landrum, in 1847; and Martha America, in 1848. All nine of the children born to Ben and Thurza reached adulthood, married, and established homes that were blest with children. At least forty-five grandchildren for Ben and Thurza have been documented.

From the time he arrived in Harris County, Ben treasured the dream of compiling a tunebook. He gathered tunes, experimented with them in his singing schools, and watched the reaction of his pupils. In one of his singing schools he met Elisha J. King, a young man twenty-one years his junior. Elisha's family, well-to-do cotton planters, lived in Wilkinson County, Georgia.4 When Elisha was seven years old his family moved to Talbot County, which bordered Harris County on the east. The older man sensed the musical gifts of the younger man and he shared with him his dream of a new tunebook. King was alert and eager and became an excellent student for White's teaching.

In the spring of 1844, the manuscript of a tunebook was sent to a printer in Philadelphia. After months of anxious waiting by White and King, 1,500 copies of the tunebook arrived, The Sacred Harp, by B. F. White and E. J. King. However, the joy experienced by White was greatly diminished by the fact that E. J. King did not live to see the new book when it arrived in October. He had died August 31, 1844.

Following the publication of The Sacred Harp, Ben White's reputation and popularity increased considerably. He held singing schools, taught shape-note singing of the "fasola" syllables, and promoted his book. White had unusual insight into the need for musical organization in Georgia that would be giving stability to the singings and continuity for future singings. In the decades before White, numerous singing school teachers in the South had held singing schools and published oblong shape-note tunebooks: Ananias Davisson, Joseph Funk, Allen D. Carden, Alexander Johnson, William Moore, James P. Carrell, and William Walker. None of these established musical conventions to insure the continuation of annual singings.

In the summer of 1845, White, in consultation with many friends, organized the first permanent singing convention at Hunterville in Upson County, Georgia. The Southern Musical Convention was formally established. White was elected president and he presided over its annual meetings for more than twenty years. During these years the convention met in nine different counties in western and central Georgia, all within a hundred-mile radius of Hamilton, Georgia. The success of the Southern Musical Convention resulted in the organization of the Chattahoochee Musical Convention at the Macedonia Church, Coweta County, Georgia, in 1852.

A second edition of The Sacred Harp was published by White in January 1850. The basic body of the original work was undisturbed, and the new material appeared as an appendix, 97 new songs on 103 pages. The committee entrusted with this revision included Ben White and seven others, all appointed by the Southern Musical Convention in its 1849 session.

The B. F. White family is listed in the 1850 Georgia census.5 Ben, age 49, and his son David P., age 25, were listed as musical teachers. Robert, age 19, was listed as a farmer. The total population of Harris County in 1850 was 14,721, of whom more than half were slaves.

The first newspaper published in Harris County was The Organ; its editor was B. F. White. The weekly paper, which began in January, 1852, lasted almost a decade. The paper's policy, so stated, was to be neutral in religion and politics, and devoted to art, science, education, morality, and the advancement of sacred music. Much space was devoted to Sacred Harp singings, and one or more songs were printed in each issue. Four tunes in the 1869 edition, "Fillmore," "The Infant Request," "Adoration," and "Pickard's Hymn," are designated as being "For the Organ," meaning that these were first published in the weekly newspaper.

In addition to his activities of teaching music, holding singing schools, promoting his Sacred Harp tunebooks, and being editor of The Organ,6 White was elected clerk of the Inferior Court of Harris County in 1858.7

During the 1850's White was active in the Harris County militia, which met regularly. The problems of the Indians, the Creeks and the Cherokees, had been resolved by this time. The Creeks sold the last of their land in Georgia and moved to Arkansas in 1826. The Cherokees were moved out of Georgia by the Federal government in the winter of 1838-39, a move that came to be known as the Cherokee Trail of Tears. In the militia Ben rose to a place of recognized leadership with the rank of Major. From the 1850's on, he was always referred to as Major White.

Ben White had been a deeply religious man throughout his life. He attended church regularly and frequently visited denominations other than his own. He and his family were recognized as being Missionary Baptists. The records of the Mountain Creek Baptist Church near Whitesville, Georgia, show that B. F. White of Hamilton, Georgia, joined this Missionary Church on March 22, 1856.8

In 1858, another committee was appointed by the Southern Music Convention to enlarge the Sacred Harp. Again eight people were named, but B. F. White and Absalom Ogletree from the committee of a decade earlier were appointed. This third edition (revision) presented a second appendix consisting of 74 songs on 63 pages. This was the 1859 edition.

The clouds of war had been gathering for several years, and finally the South seceded from the Union in 1861. Major White, now past sixty years of age, was too old to join the Confederate forces. However, his sympathies were strong and he worked to enlist several companies of soldiers from Harris County. During the early 1860's, Major White was elected mayor of Hamilton, and, among other efforts for the war, he led the community to collect scrap metal for cannons and cannonballs for the Confederate Army.

After the war, Ben and Thurza left the city of Hamilton and Harris County and moved to De Kalb County, Georgia, east of Atlanta and spent the remainder of their lives there. Ben had guided The Sacred Harp through four editions, had spent his energies in teaching people to sing the fasola syllables, and had organized several musical conventions. The 1870's found Ben and Thurza living quietly in the Atlanta area with several of their children and their families nearby.

On September 2, 1878, Thurza White died, and Ben died fifteen months later on December 5, 1879. Some days before his death he had suffered painful injuries in a fall on Spring Street in Atlanta. Joe S. James reported that White recounted all the mistakes as well as the good that had followed him through his life. He summed it all up in the words, "The end has come and I am ready."9

A short time before he died he sang plainly and distinctly "Sounding Joy," a tune he had written to an Isaac Watts text for the 1859 edition. The stanzas are:

Behold the morning sun
Begins his glorious way,
His beams through all the nations run,
And life and light convey.

But when the gospel comes
It spreads diviner light,
It calls dead sinners from their tombs,
And gives the blind their sight.

My gracious God, how plain
Are thy directions given,
Oh, may I never read in vain,
But find the path to heaven.

B. F. White was an extraordinary man in many respects. A study of his life and contributions to Christian song explains why his name remains well-known more than a century after his death.

1. The tunes which White composed, arranged, and adapted for The Sacred Harp have that rare quality of long life and many have remained favorites in today's singing. Twenty tunes in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp are credited to him.

2. He chose excellent tunes that had appeared in earlier tunebooks and encouraged others of his contemporaries to provide new tunes for The Sacred Harp.

3. His leadership in organizing numerous musical conventions to meet annually provided a strong continuity for annual Sacred Harp singings that remains to the present day.

4. He did not undertake the revisions of The Sacred Harp by himself, but let the revising committee be selected by the Southern Musical Convention for the 1850, 1859, and 1869 editions.

5. He was loved and respected in the community where he lived, where he was an honored citizen, where he reared his family, and where he shared in the religious, political, and musical culture of his day.

End Notes

1 J. B. O. Landrum. History of Spartanburg County, Atlanta, GA: Franklin Printing and Publishing Co., 1900, 491-5.

2 George Pullen Jackson. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933, 61-63.

3 Louise C. Barfield. History of Harris County, Georgia 1827-1961. Columbus, GA: Columbus Office Supply Company, 1961, 704.

4 Buell E. Cobb, Jr. has been responsible for identifying Elisha J. King in his The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1978, 1989, 68-70.

5 Barfield, 151.

6 Ibid., 230.

7 Ibid., 484.

8 Ibid., 709.

9 Joe S. James. A Brief History of the Sacred Harp and Its Author, B. F. White, Sr., and Contributors. Douglasville, GA: privately printed, 1904.
(c) 1997 William J. Reynolds. Used by permission.

Last Revised 4/3/2021