William Walker (May 6, 1809 – September 24, 1875) was an American Baptist song leader, shape note “singing master,” and compiler of four shape note tune-books, most notable of which was The Southern Harmony. Walker was born in Martin’s Mills near Cross Keys, SC, on May 6, 1809, the son of a Welsh immigrant, and grew up near Spartanburg. Receiving only an elementary education, at the age of eighteen he went with his family to live in Spartanburg, where he became associated with the Welsh-Baptist Church and soon thereafter began teaching music. For the rest of his life, “Singin’ Billy,” so called to distinguish him from other William Walkers in Spartanburg, taught singing schools in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Tennessee, devoting his life to the collection of southern Appalachian folk hymns, many of which were of Welsh, Scotch, Irish, and English origins.
At the age of 24, Walker married Amy Golightly, and they became the parents of ten children. Together with Benjamin Franklin White, who had married Amy’s sister Thurza, he prepared a collection of hymns, Southern Harmony, which was printed at New Haven, SC, in 1835, using the four-shape shape note system of notation. This collection was revised in 1840, 1847 and 1854. Going through these four editions, it sold 600,000 copies during the first 25 years. Evidently it was in Walker’s book that the tune “New Britain” was first used with John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” and its inclusion gave it widespread usage. White later parted with Walker and published his own collection, the well-known Sacred Harp, in 1844. Walker’s Southern Harmony was immensely popular among the southern rural people, and before the Civil War it could be purchased in general stores.
In 1846 Walker issued The Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist. Intended as an appendix to the Southern Harmony, the Pocket Harmonist contains a large number of camp-meeting songs with refrains. In 1867 (preface signed October 1866), Walker published a tunebook entitled Christian Harmony, in which he adopted a seven shape notation. He incorporated over half of the contents of The Southern Harmony in the Christian Harmony, and he added alto parts to those pieces which had lacked them before. For the additional three shapes, Walker devised his own system – an inverted key-stone for “do,” a quarter-moon for “re,” and an isosceles triangle for “si” (or “ti”). Walker issued an expanded edition of Christian Harmony in 1873. In the same year, he brought out a collection of Sunday school songs entitled Fruits and Flowers.
Walker is listed as the composer of many of the tunes in The Southern Harmony. However, he acknowledged that in many cases, he borrowed his tunes, probably from the living tradition of folk music that surrounded him. In working from original tune to finished hymn, Walker borrowed lyrics from established poets such as Charles Wesley (a common practice in his tradition) and added to the tune just a treble (upper) part and a bass, creating three-part harmony. Walker died in Spartanburg on Sept. 24, 1875, and is buried there in Magnolia Cemetery. Walker is the main character of the 1952 folk opera Singin’ Billy, composed by Charles F. Bryan from a libretto by Donald Davidson. The opera incorporates five hymns from Southern Harmony. Several of the tunes included in Walker’s Southern Harmony are utilized in composer Donald Grantham’s 1998 work for wind band of the same name. Two of Walker’s tunebooks remain in print, and Walker’s compositions and arrangements are widely sung today by Sacred Harp singers as well as others.
My collection includes the following work by William Walker:
Southern Harmony (1835): Captain Kidd/Nashville.