Shout and Sing the Good Old Way: A Sacred Harp Story

Music Features Sacred Harp
Share Tweet Submit Pin

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 day.

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 bad.”

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)