Teacher, composer, author. Walker was born on May 6, 1809, near Cross Keys, Union District, the son of Absalom Walker and Susan Jackson. The family moved to the Cedar Springs section of Spartanburg District when he was seventeen. In 1832 Walker joined the Cedar Springs Baptist Church. About 1835 he married Amy Golightly, a member of the same congregation. The couple moved to the town of Spartanburg in the same year. They were the parents of five sons and five daughters.
In September 1835 Walker published Southern Harmony, a shaped-note hymnal using a four-shape (fa-so-la) system. The shaped-note style is a simplified musical notation developed to make it easier for untrained congregations to sing in harmony without instrumental accompaniment. Shapes (triangle=fa, oval=so, rectangle=la, and diamond=mi) were added to the note heads to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales. Southern Harmony included some of Walker’s own compositions and the first publication of the tune “New Britain” with the words “Amazing Grace.” Some older hymns and psalms in standard usage at the time were included as well as new compositions by other southern composers. The work was immensely popular across the South, going through several editions and selling more than 600,000 copies by 1854. When he signed his name, Walker added the initials “A.S.H.” (“Author of Southern Harmony”), and he was affectionately known as “Singing Billy” Walker.
In 1846 Walker published Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist. Twenty years later he brought out a publication in the seven-shape (or do-re-mi) system entitled Christian Harmony. It contained many of the same hymns and psalms as his earlier publications, but with the addition of several modern tunes “more suitable to church use.” A second and enlarged edition was published in 1873 and underwent printings as late as 1979. Other editions of his Christian Harmony and reprints of Southern Harmony are still available and remain in use. His last publication was Fruits and Flowers for use in Sunday schools. Some groups remain dedicated to continuing the tradition of singing Walker’s Southern Harmony and the shaped-note style. The “Big Singing” is an annual event, held continually since 1884, on the fourth Sunday in May in Benton, Kentucky. The music group The Black Crowes named their 1992 album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion after Walker’s work. In May 2002 Wofford College in Spartanburg hosted a gathering of Southern Harmony enthusiasts.
In addition to his musical publications, Walker traveled over the South conducting singing schools. As early as 1849 he was an agent for the Spartan, the weekly newspaper in the town of Spartanburg. In June 1862 he was sent to Richmond to nurse Confederate soldiers. He maintained a bookstore for a time in Spartanburg. Walker died in Spartanburg on September 24, 1875, and was buried in that city’s Magnolia Cemetery.
Eskew, Harry L. “Southern Harmony and Its Era.” The Hymn 41 (1990): 28–34.
Landrum, John B. O. History of Spartanburg County, South Carolina. 1900. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1977.
Walker, William. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. Edited by Glenn L. Wilcox. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.