Pine Grove Church
Lookout Mountain, Ala.
Aug. 23, 2008
Singers woke up early this morning to cook rich Southern food—fried
chicken, fried okra, squash casserole, potato salad and cream pie—for a
midday potluck called “Dinner on the Grounds.” Local women spread
dishes on a 47-foot-long table, and two giant buckets hold Bud Oliver’s
famous lemonade, made from hundreds of fresh-squeezed lemons, stream
water and an obscene amount of sugar.
The session breaks at noon, someone prays, and the plate piling
commences. This colorful lunch will serve as fuel for the rest of the
Old friends line up to visit with front-row tenor singer Rodney
Ivey, who owns a bulldozer-and-backhoe business an hour away in the
town of Henagar. “We talk about what we’ve done that week, and the ball
game, and maybe a little politics here and there,” says Ivey, 52. “If I
go two weeks without singing, I get to wanting to see my friends so
The singing peaks after lunch. Scot Oliver picks a song called
“Blooming Youth,” which is as lively as its title suggests, and singers
wink or nudge each other during especially thrilling moments.
Organizers pass around greeting cards for friends who couldn’t attend
due to illness. But this doesn’t dampen the light spirit. A local
invites everyone who’s traveled to the event into the hollow square to
lead a song together, and for one singer’s birthday, everyone in the
church explodes into a Sacred Harp-style rendition of the birthday song.
Singing schools began as early as 1700, as a way for settlers to
practice congregational singing, and traveling teachers held classes
for weeks at a time during slow agricultural seasons. These were the
social events of the year. Little House on the Prairie fans might
remember that Almanzo Wilder proposed to Laura Ingalls at singing
school. “Singing schools were regarded as a real attraction for young
people because they could meet people of the opposite sex,” says Warren
Steel, 60, a singer and Ole Miss music professor.
As American communities became less dependent on agriculture, and
as regular schooling became annual, the demand for singing schools
lessened—sometimes class would last only a week, as opposed to a month
or two. Today, no singing schools exist in true form. Hugh McGraw, a
Sacred Harp songwriter and leading figure within the tradition, held a
classic school in Holly Springs, Ga., on the first Saturday of every
month for more than 50 years. But, having turned 77 this May, he’s
stopped teaching regularly.
The sentiment hasn’t been completely lost, though. Camp Fasola is
essentially an annual, weeklong Sacred Harp school held near Anniston,
Ala. People travel there from all over the country to meet other
singers and learn about the music’s rudiments and history from
practicing singers and songwriters.
At first glance, Sacred Harp singers look like a bunch of Golden
Girls extras. For every child in attendance there are at least a dozen
seniors, leading to natural concerns about the tradition’s
sustainability. “Most people who listen will say, ‘That’s nice. Enjoyed
that,’ and then never come back,” says 61-year-old bass singer Henry
Johnson. “The people who are really taken with the music are one in 10,
one in 20. I don’t fear that it’s going away, I just think it’s
shifting around a bit.”
Yes, my native land, I love thee /
All thy scenes I love them well /
—"Can I Leave You?" (by by J.P. Reese, 1859, And Samuel F. Smith, 1832)