Missouri Harmony

Missouri Harmony

The Missouri Harmony, first published in 1820, was the most popular of all frontier shape-note tune books during its reign. The 185 songs compiled in the collection were favorites used in Protestant churches and singing schools, and many were deeply rooted in American culture by the time of its first publication. The story of the book is the story of a burgeoning nation, with its origins in a St. Louis school (where it was introduced by singing master Allen Carden) and its spread along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It’s said that even Abraham Lincoln and his sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, sang from The Missouri Harmony at her father’s tavern in Illinois.


The Original Editions: 1820 through 1850s

For a while in the early 19th century, St. Louis and the Mississippi Valley frontier set the standard for popular sacred music in America. It began in 1820 with the publication of The Missouri Harmony, and it lasted for some thirty years, until the folk harmonies of its old spirituals were replaced in popular taste by the parlor songs and stolid Sunday School hymns of the Victorian era. Compiled by Allen D. Carden (1792–1859), The Missouri Harmony went through ten editions and at least twenty-three printings between 1820 and 1857, a phenomenal number for the day. Carden biographer David Crouse has called the book “the most popular tune book of the South and West until the Civil War.”

Included in these tune books were ancient psalms like “Old Hundred,” congregational hymns like “All hail the power of Jesus’ name,” vernacular New England choral works by eighteenth-century tunesmiths like William Billings, and a welter of folk hymns out of the Anglo-Celtic oral tradition, including two early settings of “Come thou fount of ev'ry blessing.”

The Missouri Harmony reached out throughout the old West, from St. Louis as far upriver as Wisconsin and southeast into Tennessee and what is now called the Deep South. Its popularity began in St. Louis with an ad in The Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser on May 30, 1820, saying that Carden would hold “a School for teaching the theory and practice of Vocal Music” that day in the city’s Baptist church “at 3 o’clock P.M. and by candlelight the same evening.” [1] He had his new tune books with him. The full title of the volume read THE MISSOURI HARMONY, OR A CHOICE COLLECTION OF PSALM TUNES, HYMNS, AND ANTHEMS, SELECTED FROM THE MOST EMINENT AUTHORS, AND WELL ADAPTED TO ALL CHRISTIAN CHURCHES, SINGING SCHOOLS, AND PRIVATE SOCIETIES (original capitals).

Carden, the compiler of the first edition of 1820, was also listed as the publisher. In 1831 Cincinnati booksellers and publishers Morgan and Sanxay received a copyright on May 21, 1831 as proprietors of Missouri Harmony. Except for one correction from the first edition to the second, there is no evidence that the book was revised until 1835, when the publishers hired an anonymous “amateur” to add a thirty-eight-page supplement. The supplement began its pagination at number 1 and had its own index.

In 1850 a new edition appeared, with harmonies revised by “scientific musician” Charles Warren of Cincinnati, who purported to correct “several errors in the harmony.” While Warren tried to preserve the “old melodies . . . which [we]re identified with our most hallowed emotions, and which [we]re undoubtedly more suited to solemn worship than perhaps any other selection,” some of the perceived errors he corrected were simply the harmonies that had given the old songs much of their character. The melodic nature of each vocal line was far more interesting to the individual singer, which the Warren edition changed to dullness. The revised Missouri Harmony went through three or four more printings in the 1850s, then lapsed out of print entirely. By attempting to modernize the book, and thus extend its life, the Warren-ization sounded its death knell.

Carden, a Tennessean, didn’t stay in St. Louis for long. By 1822 he was back at home, peddling tune books and conducting singing schools in Nashville. The Missouri Harmony was actually printed in Cincinnati (because of access to the specialized shape-note type fonts), so in a way its title is a misnomer. But it put Missouri squarely on the map of American musical history. The Missouri Harmony was the most popular collection of sacred music among the settlers who pushed the frontier up the Mississippi and its tributaries. Many of the songs were already old by 1820, and the music was deeply American. In time, composer Virgil Thompson would find in the old shape-note hymns “the musical basis of almost everything we make, of Negro spirituals, of cowboy songs, of popular ballads, of blues, of hymns, of doggerel ditties, of all our operas and symphonies.” Certainly their vernacular idiom was absorbed into the sinews and marrow of midwestern culture.

Abe Lincoln and The Missouri Harmony

The Missouri Harmony was on hand in the 1830s in New Salem, Illinois. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln and his sweetheart Ann Rutledge sang from it. Carl Sandburg, a musician, poet, and biographer of Abraham Lincoln’s prairie years, noted:

[The Rutledges] sang from a book, ‘The Missouri Harmony,’ printed and published by Morgan and Sanxay in Cincinnati. It was “a collection of psalm and hymn tunes, and anthems, from eminent authors: with an introduction to the grounds and rudiments of music, and a supplement of admired tunes and choice pieces of sacred music. According to another story, young Lincoln parodied a song in the old tune book. He’d “tip his chair and roar it out at the top of his voice, over and over again, just for fun.”

Lincoln, let it be recorded, had a terrible singing voice. Sandburg wrote about the sixteenth United States president: “His voice was tenor in pitch, and managed tunes in a reciting, singsong tone. A song titled ‘Legacy’ was a favorite with groups who heard him substitute his own words ‘old gray’ for the regular words ‘red grape’ in the hymn.” The song was arranged by Irish poet Thomas Moore, who titled it “The Legacy” (it is named “Legacy” in The Missouri Harmony), and it entered the oral tradition in the countryside around New Salem.

On a visit home in 1914, poet Edgar Lee Masters heard the same tune played by a local fiddler whose father had been a close friend of Lincoln’s in his New Salem days. It belongs to a family of fiddle tunes that includes “How Shall We Abstain from Whiskey,” and “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning,” but Masters’ fiddle-playing friend used Moore’s lyrics and called the song “Missouri Harmony.”

Compilation of the Songs

“Legacy” is one of only a few secular songs in the book. Most of the music comes from early New England religious composers such as Billings and southern folk hymn compilers who followed their lead. They wrote in a folk, or vernacular, tradition of arranging for three or four parts, giving each its own distinctive line. This music was, quite literally, written to be enjoyed by amateur singers, and it is in this tradition that Allen Carden compiled The Missouri Harmony in 1820.

In The Missouri Harmony, the parts freely cross one another—a bass, for example, might find himself singing a higher note than the tenors. In fact, the dispersed harmony determined the oblong shape of the tune books, with a staff for each part so that singers would always know exactly which notes they ought to be singing.

Carden not only copied the old New England compositions but also took folk melodies that were circulating in the oral tradition and wrote a high harmony part (treble) above and a low harmony part (bass) below the tenor’s melody, much as a bluegrass gospel band does today. The harmonies in their folk hymns and camp meeting songs stand alone as distinct and often very catchy melodies. As in New England, a good proportion of the songs were in a minor key that reflected the modal harmonies of the Anglo-Celtic oral tradition.

Carden’s borrowing from other sources was typical of all collections in the shape-note vernacular. The Sacred Harp, currently the most widely used four-shape book, included some sixty-five tunes from The Missouri Harmony in its debut edition of 1844. In 1944, shape-note authority George Pullen Jackson speculated on the influence of previous books on The Sacred Harp, “It is … quite likely that many copies of the old, frequently reprinted Missouri Harmony were still in use in the Sacred Harp territory during the 1840s and 1850s.” As Ernst C. Krohn noted in his 1949 article in the Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, “The 1936 edition of the Original Sacred Harp abounds in references to The Missouri Harmony that justify its position as one of the outstanding sacred collections of its period. Not only that, it is also one of the earliest documents in the musical life of the English-speaking elements in Missouri Territory.”

As he noted on the 1820 title page, Carden took special care to select tunes appropriate for “all Christian churches, singing schools, and private societies.” The Missouri Harmony was most commonly used in singing schools where the singing master used the different shaped note heads as a solfège system to help those unschooled in sight singing. Shape notes were known by other names as well. They were also called patent notes because they were registered with the U.S. Patent Office in the absence of effective copyright protection and buckwheat notes, for their perceived resemblance to the angular grain.

Following in the footsteps of The Easy Instructor, Carden’s tune book used note heads of four different shapes to denote the scale. As singing-school students recognized the shapes, they found it easier to sound the intervals. The importance of singing-school masters in the history of vocal music is summed up Edward Birge in History of Public School Music in the United States: “Collectively they did a useful and indispensable work; for they not only helped to bring order out of chaos in church singing, but they laid the first foundations of technical knowledge of music, they kindled the musical imagination of the people, and afforded glimpses of some of the artistic possibilities latent within themselves.”

Typical of 19th-century singing schools was one recalled by a local historian in White County, Illinois, in the southeastern corner of the state. “The old-time method of conducting singing school was . . . plodding and heavy, the attention being kept upon the simplest rudiments, as the names of the notes on the staff, and their pitch, and beating time, while comparatively little attention was given to expression and light, gleeful music.” But the youngsters loved it.

Along the Sangamon River in central Illinois, old settlers remembered a singing master who “taught vocal music by the ‘patent’ or ‘buckwheat’ notes, the old ‘Missouri Harmony’ being the work generally used.” Most of the tunes were “in the minor strain, and as the young folk flocked in for miles around, crowding the houses where they were held,” the singing was loud enough to “waken the echoes.”

Loud participatory singing was the order of the day in singing schools, worship services, and—perhaps most of all—outdoor camp meetings. The shape-note tune books were used primarily in singing schools (at least in what is now the Midwest), while a practice known as “lining out” prevailed almost exclusively in church and “call and response” at camp meetings.

New Fangled Replaces Old Fashioned

Over time, musical taste changed. By the mid-19th century, the minor-key melodies and dark, untamed folk harmonies of the old shape-note repertory seemed quaint and unschooled alongside the Victorian hymns coming into vogue. Some, like Michael See, tried to stem the tide, said Russell Nye, a Methodist minister whose grandparents shared stories of pioneer days near the Sauk-Fox Indian agency and Wapello County, Iowa. A century later, folks still liked to tell the story of the time See, a circuit riding preacher, found a new reed organ in one of his churches near Iowa City: “He rolled the organ out to the woodshed and broke it up with an ax,” said Nye. “When the people came to the service that evening, no mention was made of the organ.” In time, trained choirs, organs, and the newer, more genteel music won out.

Ironically, books like The Missouri Harmony helped get the changes started by teaching people to sing three- and four-part harmony by note instead of merely following a lined-out hymn in unison. But further changes were coming. By the 1830s, educators such as Lowell Mason, who designed the first music curriculum for the public schools in Boston and wrote Victorian chestnuts like “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” were calling for a scientific approach to harmony grounded in English, German and Italian theories of the day.

One of Mason’s innovations was an insistence that open harmonies be completed by adding the third, thus making what he perceived as a fuller, sweeter-sounding chord. Another effectively did away with dispersed harmony by adding a soprano part to carry the melody and simplifying the harmony parts so that they supported the soprano. As a perhaps unintended consequence, church music lost the melodic variety that had such great appeal to singers in the old tradition.

Not everyone agreed that the new style of music was an improvement. The local historian who spoke of singing schools in White County, Illinois, also recalled that Mason’s Carmina Sacra replaced The Missouri Harmony in the 1850s: “The Carmina Sacra was the pioneer round-note book in which the tunes partook more of the German or Puritan character, and were generally regarded by the old folks as being far more spiritless than the old ‘Pisgah,’ ‘Fiducia,’ ‘Tender Thought,’ ‘New Durham,’ ‘Windsor,’ ‘Mount Sion,’ ‘Devotion,’ etc., of the old Missouri Harmony and tradition.” The tunes he missed, like most in The Missouri Harmony, were native grown. “Pisgah,” for example, is related to the English ballad “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard,” and “Fiducia” is a variant of the Appalachian carol “Star in the East.”

To cater to popular tastes, the old songs were replaced largely by Victorian ditties that shape-note singers now find to be artistically inferior. In the mid-20th century, when musicologist Dorothy Horn visited rural Indiana, she was disappointed to learn that a “more elegant” songbook had replaced The Missouri Harmony during the 1880s. “What [she] heard [instead] was the most unmitigated musical tripe: songs celebrating the beautiful spring, true love, or whatever, and tearjerkers relating the death of a loved one, all set to the tritest of tunes.”

Shape note singing always remained a living tradition in the rural South. In the 20th century it moved north again, this time as an urban phenomenon kept alive by trained musicians who recognized its place in musical history and found in it something more challenging than Mason’s labored chord progressions or sentimental ditties about death in the spring.

In 1926 Sandburg included tunes from The Missouri Harmony in The American Songbag, as did Alan Lomax in a similar collection several years later. Classical 20th-century composers like Charles Ives and Virgil Thompson, as well as choral arrangers like Alice Parker, also helped spark a renaissance from the 1930s onward. By the 1980s, folk music buffs in midwestern cities such as Chicago and St. Louis discovered the old music and with it The Missouri Harmony.

The 2005 Revised Edition

In 1990 the St. Louis Shape-note Singers decided to reprint The Missouri Harmony for historical as well as musical reasons. Before the Internet and online auctions, only a few of the fragile books were known to exist outside of library collections. The group fervently desired to mine the tune book for musical gems, those special tunes that endear this style of singing to its participants.

Initially, the group sang from photocopies of The Missouri Harmony, thanks to singer Jeanette Lowry, who tediously fed coins into a copy machine at the Library of Congress to obtain a complete set of its 240 pages. Upon hearing of her success, the St. Louis singing group was as excited as archaeologists discovering a promising site for excavation. About forty selections were brought back to life in 1991 by singers from six states, most likely the first time in the 20th century that a shape-note convention sang from The Missouri Harmony. Simultaneously, as the group was engrossed in discovering new treasures, they were also seeking a way for the book to be made generally available to fellow singers.

Serendipity led to a 1991 partnership with Dr. Shirley Bean, now retired, of the music faculty of the University of Missouri–Kansas City. She was especially knowledgeable about the book, having made it the topic of her doctoral dissertation. Three years and two publishers’ rejections later, the book was accepted by the University of Nebraska Press and printed in 1994 by its Bison Books division. This softbound facsimile of the ninth edition is still available as of this publication date, and Dr. Bean’s introduction provides a condensed and updated synopsis of her dissertation. An acknowledgment page thanks Raymond C. Hamrick of Georgia for the loan of his tune book and “the St. Louis Shape-note Singers for their interest and support.”

The facsimile tune book’s much anticipated musical debut took place at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. To increase interest in the music, and as an aid to learning some of the songs in The Missouri Harmony, the St. Louis Shape-note Singers produced an a cappella recording in 1994.

Soon enough, however, practical issues quashed the initial excitement generated by the facsimile. The original printing on porous paper resulted in blurry notes and words that were difficult to read. Errors in the placement of notes on the staff and word misspellings were numerous. Singers also noted a frustrating, albeit sometimes amusing, tendency of repeated words to sometimes conclude with “&c.” As a final frustration, it was difficult to hold the softbound book open when standing up to lead a song.

Some favorites were reset using music notation software and the group gathered these into a booklet for use at the 1997 Missouri Singing Convention. Even though it was not intended as such, it quickly became a “best-seller” among shape-note singers, who paid three dollars to defray copying costs. The clear musical notes and easy-to-read texts spoiled them, and they were no longer content to struggle with the reprint. Singers repeatedly requested that the St. Louis group reset all the tunes, and print a hardbound edition of The Missouri Harmony.

The publication committee put out its call for new music, and received fifty-three submissions from composers in eight states and one each from England and Canada. The committee was delighted to receive new compositions from some of today’s “most eminent authors” including P. Dan Brittain, Judy Hauff and Ted Johnson.

New tune names are largely unrelated to the text, and reflect names of geographical landmarks or people held in esteem by the composer. “Meek” is named for singer Bob Meek of Kentucky, “Regina’s Song”, for the daughter of Lorraine and John Bayer of Ohio, and “Hauff” for sisters Judy and Melanie of Chicago. Among the place names are “Maquoketa” (pronounced Muh-KO-kuh-tuh), the name of a river and town in Iowa, and “Pinckney”, the wide spot on Missouri Highway 94 that is home to St. John’s Church and the Missouri State Convention. The publication committee is also pleased to include “Wings of Song,” named in honor of the compilers of The Missouri Harmony, 2005 edition.

-– Pete Ellertsen and Karen Isbell

This article originally appeared as introductory material to The Missouri Harmony 2005 edition, revised by Wings of Song. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2005. Used with permission.


  1. ^ Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 30, 1820, Missouri Historical Society Archives

In researching historical background the authors relied on the works cited below, as well as such standard references as the New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Birge, Edward Bailey. History of Public School Music in the United States. Philadelphia: Oliver Ditson Co., 1937.

Carden, Allen D. The Missouri Harmony, or, A Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, and Anthems. 1846. Reprint edited by Shirley Bean. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

__________. The Missouri Harmony, or, A Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, and Anthems. Commentary to the 9th ed. by Charles Warren. Cincinnati: Wm. Phillips & Co., 1850.

Chase, Gilbert. America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. Rev. 3rd ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Cobb, Buell. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Crouse, David L. “The Work of Allen D. Carden and Associates in the Shape-Note Tune Books, The Missouri Harmony, Western Harmony and United States Harmony.” Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1972.

Ellertsen, Peter. “Shape-note Singing in the Sangamon Country.” 2001. Springfield College in Illinois, http://www.sci.edu/classes/ellertsen/newsalem.html.

__________. “‘The untaught melody of grateful hearts’: Southern Appalachian Folk Hymnody in Illinois, 1800-1850.” Journal of Illinois History 5 (Winter 2002): 258-282.

Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Sangamon County. Chicago: Munsell, 1881.

Horn, Dorothy. Sing To Me Of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1970.

Inter-State Publishing Co., ed. History of White County, 1883. Reprint, Carmi: White County Historical Society, 1966.

Jackson, George Pullen. Down-East Spirituals and Others. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1939.

__________. “The Story of The Sacred Harp” Introduction to The Sacred Harp by B. F. White and E. J. King, T. K. & P. G. Collins, Hamilton, GA: 1844. Reprint, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1968.

__________. Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1937. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1975.

__________. White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings and "Buckwheat Notes." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

Krohn, Ernst C. "A Check List of Editions of 'The Missouri Harmony.' " Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 6, no. 3 (April 1950). Reprinted in Krohn, Missouri Music.

__________. "The Missouri Harmony: A Study in Early American Psalmody." Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 6, no. 1 (October 1949). Reprinted in Krohn, Missouri Music.

__________. Missouri Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Kuntz, Andrew, ed. The Fiddler’s Companion. 1995-2004. http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/index.html.

Little, William, and William Smith. The Easy Instructor, or, A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony. Albany, NY: Websters & Skinners and D. Steele, [1798].

Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

Masters, Edgar Lee. The Sangamon. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Miller, Sarah Bryan. “Amazing Grace.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 27, 2001.

Moore, Thomas. “The Legacy”. In Irish Melodies. Philadelphia: Butler, 1855.

Nye, Russell G. Pioneering on Iowa Prairies. Agency, IA: Methodist Church, 1960. Richardson, Paul A. “The Missouri Harmony: A Book of Many Chapters.” The Hymn, April 2004: 15-23.

Sandburg, Carl. The Prairie Years. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1926.

__________. The American Songbag. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1927. Reprint, New York: Harvest/HJB, 1990.

Steel, David Warren. "Shape-Note Singing Schools.” In Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Thompson, Virgil. “Fa Sol La Fa Sol La Mi Fa.” New York Herald Tribune, May 26, 1941. Reprinted in A Virgil Thompson Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1855. Reprint, New York: New American Library-Signet, 1959.

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