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

Music Features Sacred Harp
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Shoal Creek Church
Talladega National Forest, Ala.
Sept. 1, 2008

It’s the day after the Young People’s Sacred Harp Singing Convention near Bremen, Ga., an event that helps balance the age ratio. There’s hardly enough room for all the singers in this rustic wooden church that lacks plumbing and electricity. The windows are glassless holes in the walls.

Rodney Ivey helps singer and songwriter Lonnie Rogers into the hollow square and pulls up a chair—once you pass 90, it’s hard to stand up. Rogers calls out page 225 and says he’s getting old, so this might be his last singing at the creek.

A wet-eyed crowd sings “Reynolds,” and the break before the next song feels longer than usual.

At the end of the day, chairman Jeff Sheppard opens the floor for announcements. An old tenor urges everyone to attend an evening singing to take place later in the year. “I know some of you don’t like to get out at night ’cause your eyes are going and it’s hard to drive,” the gentleman says, “so my advice to you is: Get a young friend.” Sheppard laughs and says, “I’ve tried to get a young friend, but my wife won’t let me!”

The Young People’s convention also helps balance the proportion of Northerners and Southerners in the congregation. Although the American singing-school movement originated in the Northeast, Southerners nurtured Sacred Harp music while the tradition disappeared up North, where pianos and organs were becoming the norm in churches. Outside of the South, people began to consider Sacred Harp crude, and it was eventually forgotten.

“It wasn’t preserved among institutions—it was these rednecks down South that held onto it,” says Atlanta-based filmmaker and Sacred Harp historian Matt Hinton, a relative baby at age 34. “Either they didn’t care about European standards in music, or they were unaware of them.” Sacred Harp music has always disregarded the concept of popularity, but in a way, Southern singers couldn’t help but be subversive—churches in the rural South didn’t necessarily have access to fancy instruments or European education. They practiced what they knew, perhaps inadvertently preserving America’s first musical heritage.

Today, Northerners are rediscovering what’s become a distinctly Southern tradition. While most Southern Sacred Harp singers are pleased that their community is growing, modifications to the system are unwelcome. “The tendency in New England has been to sing a bit faster than we do down here,” says Raymond Hamrick, a 93-year-old singer, composer and Macon, Ga., native. “As a composer, that bothers me a bit because they lose so much when they sing it fast—they lose a lot of the chord structures and words.”

Even though the tradition’s purity seems in jeopardy, ?Sacred Harp music has received more attention in the last few years than it did over the last half-century. It had a moment in the spotlight in 2003, when the music appeared in Civil War movie Cold Mountain. And now Hinton is releasing ?an album of modern pop artists interpreting Sacred Harp material. (See sidebar).

It all raises the question of whether Sacred Harp music will morph into something totally unrecognizable to people who practice the tradition today. “Groups of young people [in the North] sing, and people from the South notice the way they’re dressed, and they have piercings and tattoos that seem so out of place to us,” Steel says. “And there’s maybe an attitude of performance.”

While the picture Steel paints certainly isn’t true for many Northern singers, the tradition can’t abide any attitude of performance—a lack thereof is what’s kept this music alive. There are no risers, you never hear singers complimenting each other’s voices, and clapping is out of place, unless it’s an encouraging gesture after a child or first-timer leads a song. Other forms of sacred American music—gospel, praise and worship—can involve tryouts and stages and people being paid to sing. But Sacred Harp is different, and its difference creates a paradox: The day the hollow square becomes a stage, Sacred Harp as we know it will die. But the music’s life may depend on that new chorus of voices, many of which hail from the North.

On one hand, it’s easy for Southerners perceive these young Yankees as interlopers, traipsing into Dixie with their blue jeans and bluer political leanings. Hinton doesn’t see it that way. “It’s probably the blue-state people who are cognizant of that kind of thing,” he says. “They think, ‘Boy, we’re going down among people we hate—conservative, fundamentalist, redneck, Wal-Mart people who drive American-made cars and don’t watch PBS.’” But they do it anyway, because they’re seeking a musical tradition that has hardly changed in 300 years, and these conservative people are protectors of the old ways.

Steven Levine, a 51-year-old Jewish Bostonian who’s traveled south to singings for over 10 years, says he’s never experienced sociopolitical tension. “I came from a position of trying to be a good guest, and I was made to feel welcome,” he says. “I’m probably very different—politically and otherwise—from my friends in the South, but you check that at the door.”

Hugh McGraw traveled with a small group to Connecticut for the New England Sacred Harp Convention in 1976 to get a local singing group on its feet and ensure it adhered to the style’s heritage. “The love for the music is just as great as it is down here,” he says. “But they’re not singing in the same tradition.” Americana artist Tim Eriksen, who—in addition to making his own music—also sings with a Massachusetts Sacred Harp group comprised largely of young folks, thinks that the Southern singing dynamic will eventually make its way north. “It’s a different relationship to the music,” he says. “But give us another 150 years and we might be there.”

Come, saints and sinners, hear me tell /
The wonders of Emmanuel /
Who saved me from a burning hell /
And brought my soul with Christ to dwell
—"Heavenly Union" (by Neely Bruce, 1989)