The Sacred Harp was first published by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King in 1844 and went permanently out of print following the death of B. F. White in 1879. By 1902 the supply of Sacred Harp songbooks was critically low and W. M. Cooper met the need with his revision of the 4th edition, bringing it out in that year. The most common nationwide nickname for this book is “Cooper Book.” This book has remained in print ever since; and each time the Cooper Book has gone through a revision, the revision was done by a committee in the same manner that B. F. White had done his revisions. The pride of this direct connection with the 1844 book is evident in the title. A number of singings use this book in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.
The songs in the Cooper Book are a cappella, 4-part polyphonic pieces written using shape note notation. The term Shape Note music is often used to refer to this style.
Many of the songs within its pages were written by the great colonial American tunesmiths, including William Billings and Daniel Read.
Others songs date from the mid-1800's—a period in which four-part shape note music was predominant at camp-meetings and revivals in the South and Southeast. Composers such as E. J. King, J. P. Rees, William Walker, and B. F. White typify the style of this time period.
In 1902 W. M. Cooper first published his revision. He labeled the books as “Revised and Improved.” Songs were added that were written by composers including T. J. Allen, D. J. Givens, and John W. Miller.
The music committee, led by Stanley Smith of Alabama, extensively revised and updated the book in 1992. The new book includes 36 new songs, including a few by modern composers such as Stanley Smith, Robert L. Vaughn, and Morris Nowlin.
The book went through a much more extensive revision in 2006. This time, 14 new tunes were added from composers including David Lee, and Clarke Lee. Also, 168 tunes were retypeset with a cleaner print and in some cases with additional verses. Many other modern composers continue to write in the Sacred Harp style.
Even though the revisions in 1992 and 2006 were extensive, the book was never completely reworked. Every page was finally reworked in 2012. No tunes were removed for this revision. Every page was retypset for easier readability forcing the relocation of 11 tunes. Fourteen new tunes were added. Two tunes were composed in the late 1700’s. Twelve tunes were composed between 1999 and 2011 by 11 composers including David Wright, Charlie Obert, and Mary Whitehurst.
The Cooper Book may be ordered from the Sacred Harp Book Company, Bill Aplin, Secretary/Treasurer, 200 S. Johnson St., Samson, AL 36477. For current pricing information, please visit Warren Steel's Sacred Harp Resources page.