The Sacred Harp tunebook springs from a singing tradition that began in the 18th-century American colonies and grew to immense popularity in the 19th-century South. Observers in the day said that the only book more commonly found in Southern homes than The Sacred Harp was the Holy Bible.
From that pinnacle, the tradition waned, retreating to small, rural pockets of the South almost to extinction. When early 20th-century musicologists discovered Sacred Harp music, they found its character so utterly foreign to established musical forms that it might have arrived from Mars.
Buell Cobb’s fine book portrays the tradition from its height through its near demise, to its resurrection and growing popularity. Along the way, Cobb draws readers into the mysterious wonder of communal singing and provides a glimpse into powerful truths embodied in this unique musical culture. Begun as a vehicle to train singers for Protestant worship, Sacred Harp music has broadened into a communal singing form for people of many faiths and races.
Cobb relates his life experience in the Sacred Harp tradition, including poignant biographies of important leaders and telling portrayals of salient events. A recognized and revered practitioner of Sacred Harp singing, Cobb speaks with an authority second to none in the field. His 1978 book, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, has joined the Sacred Harp canon. The work requires no foreknowledge of shape-note singing or music theory. In a clear, winning style, Cobb gives outsiders a rare look—and insiders an amplified perspective—into this distinctly American and increasingly world-reaching artistic/cultural phenomenon.
The Sacred Harp is the best-known of a genre of tunebooks published and used by singing masters beginning in the early 1700s. Tunebooks included instruction on music theory and singing technique, along with printed music of congregational hymns and choir anthems. Hymnals from that period had a different function, and generally provided only the texts of hymns, not instruction or printed music.
The need for these instructional tunebooks arose when the educated clergy in New England railed against the poor condition to which congregational singing had fallen. Harvard-trained cleric Thomas Walter, in The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained (Boston, 1721), described congregational singing of the time as “miserably tortured, and twisted, and quavered [embellished], in some Churches, into an horrid Medley of confused and disorderly Noises … and sounding like five hundred different Tunes roared out at the same Time …”
Walter’s book, among the first singing manuals published in America, addressed the clergy’s concerns. Soon, church communities contracted singing masters to teach music theory, singing, and tunes. The American singing school movement began.
Singing school masters followed the American populace as it moved from New England to the west and south. After farmers laid crops by, these masters would lead two-week (or longer) singing schools. The masters brought instruction manuals—tunebooks. Many places, the singing schools became annual community events, staples of the musical and the social/cultural life of the South.
Many singing schoolmasters compiled and published their own tunebooks, which meant hundreds came off the presses in the 19th-century. A few achieved regional popularity, chief among them The Sacred Harp, compiled in Harris County, Georgia, by B.F. White and E.J. King and published in 1844. The Sacred Harp achieved such popularity as to become virtually synonymous with the singing school movement.
The Sacred Harp, like many other Southern tunebooks, employed shape-notes, a notational short-hand (similar to Do-Re-Mi) that enables singers to read music without having to learn traditional music theory. Shape-notes greatly increased access to singing and allowed the tradition to spread rapidly and broadly. For this reason the tradition is often called shape-note or fa-so-la singing.
Singing schools followed a highly formal structure. Singers sat in a square facing each other, the master in the center. Sacred Harp singings still follow this practice. Everyone present sings – there is no audience.
Cobb does not delve into the relatively complex theoretical and performance-practice issues involved with Sacred Harp music—these lie beyond this book’s purpose—but he gives examples of singing school structure, procedure, and song-leading technique. A reader gains important insight into how the tradition has been practiced through the generations.
This singing tradition encompasses a powerful, uniquely American musical heritage. In the crucible of the American wilderness, singing masters compiled books, adding to the repertory new tunes they found people singing … tunes folk made up working in the fields or sitting on porches of an evening, or tunes some composed by whatever amateur musical techniques they picked up from itinerant singing masters. Such ‘folk hymns’ made shape-note tunebooks like The Sacred Harp a profound textual-musical incarnation of Southern people, the land, and the God they served. This incarnation inspired the eminent modern-day preacher Fred Craddock to say of this music, “… folk will recognize it who have never heard it before.”
What exactly is it about The Sacred Harp, its literature and singing tradition, that caused it to grow so rapidly and to be used so ubiquitously across the South? Why has it lived on, not only as a tunebook for contemporary singers but also as a source of texts and tunes for modern hymnals? Why have modern choral composers chosen Sacred Harp tunes for arrangements that have become staples of American and (increasingly) world choral literature? (Hear examples in settings by Mack Wilberg, and the classic arrangements of Robert Shaw and Alice Parker famously recorded by the Robert Shaw Chorale.) Why do we hear this music today in so much folk music and in major motion pictures, deeply reaching into mainstream popular culture?
That The Sacred Harp became so powerful a cultural-musical phenomenon suggests a peculiar genius and discipline in B.F. White’s selection of songs. It also required White’s extraordinary charisma and character as singing master and purveyor of the tradition.
Still, White cannot be considered solely responsible; he had help from succeeding generations. In the pages of Like Cords Around My Heart (Cobb’s title comes from a Sacred Harp song), a reader grows to understand that the survival … and today the expansion … of Sacred Harp music arose from leaders in singing communities. Cobb’s tender portraits of these leaders and his commentary on singing meetings make the sense, the character, and the spirit of the tradition shine through like rays from heaven.
Cobb singles out Ruth Denson Edwards (1893-1978) of Alabama, daughter of the great singing master T. J. Denson. Her words, printed in the current edition of The Sacred Harp: “Music is a God-given faculty that by sounding its melody and harmony opens the doors to human hearts and souls and brings man back to his first relationship with God. It is the sweet union which keeps man in close relation with the hearts of men while they live in the world and which will strike the sweet chords in that spirit land where mortality does not enter and where spiritual songs are sung throughout Eternal Ages.”
Cobb also quotes her saying, “I serve the Lord singing more than I do at church. I expect to be buried from a Sacred Harp singing.”
Cobb treats the African American Sacred Harp tradition substantively, and relates that while segregation made mutual sings difficult and rare, when changing times brought common opportunities, “… it was as if two singing nations had been brought together side by side.”
Among the black leaders Cobb profiles, is Alabamian Dewey Williams (1898-1995). The grandson of slaves, his lifetime singing and leading Sacred Harp music brought him a number of honors, including designation as a NEA National Heritage Fellow.
Mr. Williams: “You eat a good bait of peas and collard greens and drink you some good buttermilk, and you got a meal in you—you ain’t apt to get hungry for the next five or six hours. But you go in there and drink you a bait of soup and you just as well drink you a glass of water, near about it, because that’s what it is—with a little salt and grease to make it good. There ain’t no strength in soup, but there is food value in peas. Sacred Harp singing is like that: You go to an all-day singing and, by the middle of the next week, those songs will still be ringing in you. There’s something to that. Music is one of the greatest things I know of; it’s sung with a joyful noise—so much so that it raises the hair on your head once in a while and makes you feel like you got a hat on. It sorta stirs you up. But now, lots of folks is just squalling and hollering—singing just to make a fuss. That’s like eating soup instead of a good meal.”
Mr. Williams shares that as a young man he sang secular songs. Then, as he told Cobb, “I realized what I was singing and who I was singing to.” He returned permanently to singing and leading only sacred songs.
Mr. Williams’s telling remarks resonate with many aspects of Cobb’s book, which portray a commitment to tried-and-true musical-spiritual traditions instead of commercialized music and the temptations of the world. As Isaac Watts wrote, set to the tune “WINDHAM” in The Sacred Harp:
Broad is the Road that leads to death
And thousands walk together there
But wisdom shews a narrow path
With here and there a traveler.
Cobb talked with George M. Mattox (1891-1987), a renowned Tennessee song leader, about how he was introduced to Sacred Harp music. Mattox said, “My mother, ‘fore she was financially able to buy her children a book, way before I was born even-and I’m 82—she drew those notes on the hearth rock of the fireplace [with a piece of coal], and she taught the two older boys the notes.”
We get from Mattox (and others) an intimation of what inspired generations of singers to give so much time, industry, and devotion to an activity that provides neither fame nor worldly gain.
The benefits of Sacred Harp singing include things money can’t buy … for example, the social and spiritual comity available only through communal singing. Such singing and literature, hewn in the American frontier and rooted in ancient musical-spiritual traditions, comes free of commercial cant and usury. Cobb’s book relates the extraordinary blessings of singing and, in the author’s intimate view, its centrality and sustaining character to those who commit to its discipline.
How do we find the power of this music manifest in human life?
Ineffable, music lies beyond the reach of words, but here is an eloquent testimony from Cobb himself: “At a point, in the peaking rush of all that harmony, with so many bold, rushing voices around me, it seemed that not just we, but the song itself began to sing! It seemed to just catch fire and burn across us.”
Another Cobb quote: “The Sacred Harp had the appeal of decades-long tradition, a cappella voices, time-tested melodies and harmony, the lofty texts of Isaac Watts and an emotional wellspring that defied explanation.”
Finally let me add a word about Buell Cobb himself, a man that I have heard of for many years, but I regret never to have met.
His writing reveals a man of humility, kindness, and respect, with a generous, disciplined devotion to this singing tradition. He shows the ability to see into the character of people and, even when difficult, to find and celebrate the good. He has well honored his task as scribe of the people and practices of The Sacred Harp tradition.
My great aunt Ada Cunningham of Union County, North Carolina, once spoke of my great-great-grandfather John Foard, who had led singing there. I had asked her a simple question: “Was he a good man”?
“Uncle John?” she said. “Oh. All singing folks is good folks.”
May we all so live and sing.
Steven Darsey is an Atlanta-based composer, conductor, and author of The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: Music and Worship.