White, Benjamin Franklin

September 10, 1800–December 6, 1879

Composer, author. White was born on September 10, 1800, in the Padgett’s Creek section of Union District, the youngest of fourteen children born to Robert White and Mildred Whitehead. He attended school for only a short time but inherited a musical inclination from his father. On December 30, 1825, he married Thurza Golightly, the sister of Amy Golightly, the wife of the shaped-note composer William Walker. The Whites were the parents of fourteen children, nine of whom reached adulthood. The family moved to Harris County, Georgia, about 1842.

White was probably a contributor to Walker’s Southern Harmony, though he received no credit. While earning his livelihood as a farmer in Georgia, in 1844 he published The Sacred Harp, a shaped-note singing book, in conjunction with E. J. King. Shaped-note singing in the South evolved from the eighteenth-century New England singing-school movement. Itinerant music teachers taught the shaped-note system to church congregations. The easy-to-learn system made it possible for congregations to sing in harmony without musical accompaniment and also without the singers having to be trained to read formal sheet music. 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. The 1850 census lists White’s occupation as “music teacher,” but by 1860 he identified himself to census takers simply as “Author of Sacred Harp.” White used the four-shape (or fa-so-la) system and became one of the most prominent figures in the movement of that method. While some others changed to a seven-shape (or do-re-mi) system, White admonished his followers to “Ask for the old paths and walk therein.” He composed the tunes and harmony to many hymns in his book. The Sacred Harp went through many printings and remains in use, with its most recent republication occurring in 1991. Singers across the South have kept the Sacred Harp tradition of shaped-note singing alive into the twenty-first century.

In 1852 White began the first newspaper in Harris County, the Organ, and served as the county’s clerk of the inferior court in 1858. He formed the Southern Musical Convention in Upson County, Georgia, in 1857 and served as its president until 1862. In 1865 he served as mayor of Hamilton, Georgia. He died on December 6, 1879, in Atlanta, Georgia, and was buried in that city’s Oakland Cemetery. The Sacred Harp tradition remains prominent in upstate South Carolina, western North Carolina, eastern Texas, and parts of Kentucky.

Chase, Gilbert. America’s Music. 3d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Cobb, Buell. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Coleman, Kenneth, and Charles Stephen Gurr, eds. Dictionary of Georgia Biography. 2 vols. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title White, Benjamin Franklin
  • Coverage September 10, 1800–December 6, 1879
  • Author
  • Keywords Composer, author, contributor to Walker’s Southern Harmony, published The Sacred Harp, a shaped-note singing book,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date March 3, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 26, 2022
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