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March 9, 2009


Music is part of my heritage. William Neely was from the Fishing Creek community in Chester County, South Carolina.  He distinguished himself during the American Revolution as a sergeant in the patriot militia. Following the war he was given a Land Grant of 640 acres in western North Carolina.  In those days, North Carolina extended all the way to the Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1779, a party of seven men, led by Captain James Robertson, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and traveled the Cumberland River to the area where Nashville, Tennessee, now stands. William Neely claimed his parcel of land at a salt lick by the river, a place known to this day as Neely Bend.

William Neely built a cabin and returned over the mountains for his wife and children. They floated by raft on the Cumberland to the new home site. Soon after, in August of 1780, William Neely was killed and scalped by Chickamauga Indians led by Chief Dragging Canoe. Neely’s widow was left with fourteen children.

I found the inventory of William Neely’s meager estate in the Tennessee State Archives. He owned a brass pot, one pig, one cow, and four books:  the Bible, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, and Hymns and Psalms  by Isaac Watts.

I enjoy singing. My problem is other people don’t. My vocal renditions are limited to the shower, to songs accompanied by my guitar and shared with family, or to congregational hymns in worship. I cut my eyeteeth on The Broadman Hymnal.  I hold a firm conviction that more theology is taught through hymns than in Sunday School.

Spartanburg, too, has a rich musical heritage. Hub City Music Makers, by Peter Cooper, published in 1997 by Hub City Writers Project, details our singing legacy. Pink Anderson, Hank Garland, Joe Bennett and The Sparkletones, The Marshall Tucker Band, Walter Hyatt, David Ball, Ron Wells, and Trottin’ Sally are all part of the musical tapestry of our area.

Singing Billy Walker was born in 1809, near Cross Keys, South Carolina.  He grew up in Spartanburg and died in 1875. This year is his 200th anniversary.

Walker, a shape-note singing master, compiled three shape-note hymnbooks. He married Amy Golightly, whose sister Thurza was married to Benjamin Franklin White, publisher of The Sacred Harp.

In 1835, Walker published The Southern Harmony,  best known of his hymnals. Using a system of four shape-notes, he arranged many of the songs we sing in worship. He was the first to combine the words with the familiar tune of “Amazing Grace.”

In 1866, in Christian Harmony, he changed from four to seven shape-notes.

Walker is listed as the composer of many of the tunes in his hymnals, though he acknowledged that, in many cases, he borrowed from the living tradition of folk music that surrounded him. In the introduction to The Southern Harmony, he wrote that he used a “great many good airs, which I could not find in any publication, nor in manuscript.” Working from original tune to finished hymn, Walker followed a common practice in his tradition, borrowing lyrics from established poets such as Charles Wesley and adding to the tune treble and bass parts, creating three-part harmony.

Walker’s hymnals remain in print. His The Southern Harmony continues to be used for many annual singing events. His songs are widely sung today by Sacred Harp singers.

Numerous festivals of shape-note singing occcur each year. This year the legacy of Singing Billy Walker will be celebrated throughout the South. The Big Singing Day each fourth Sunday in May at Benton, Kentucky, is perhaps the best known. Here in Walker’s home state, Converse College hosted a Singing Billy Walker weekend earlier this year.

On March 14, at Wofford College, shape-note singers from throughout the Southeast will gather for the annual tribute to William Walker. On Sunday, March 15, Morningside Baptist Church on South Pine Street will remember the man who helped bring musical literacy to remote country churches around the South.

Dr. Harry Eskew, a renowned hymnologist and the leading Walker Scholar in the world, will be a guest in the 11:00 service at Morningside. You, your family, your friends and neighbors are invited to join us. No experience in shape-note singing is necessary.

Following the 11:00 service, we will enjoy some good old down-home cooking provided by Shealy’s Restaurant in Leesville, South Carolina. Fried Chicken, barbecue, and all the trimmings will be served as the singing continues in the Fellowship Hall. The singing is free of charge. Tickets for the meal are $10 for adults and $7.50 for children age 10 and under.  Tickets will be available in the Church Office until Friday, March 13.

Please plan now to join us for this special worship service featuring traditional Southern singing followed by a meal of traditional Southern cooking.

Next Saturday, as a part of the Wofford celebration, a group of shape-note singers will make their way to old Magnolia Cemetary. They will gather around the wrought iron fence that encloses the grave of William Walker. They will read the inscription on his marker which gives a brief summary of his life. The inscription concludes with the words, “Sing Praises unto the Lord.”

Those who assemble there on Saturday will do just that.

Surely nothing could please Singing Billy Walker more.


Kirk H. Neely

© March 2009




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