The Sacred Harp, Revised ed.

The Sacred Harp, Revised ed. – book reviews

Ron Pen

In 1944 George Pullen Jackson wrote “The Sacred Harp may persist another century. But it will be a wonder if it does” (“The Folk Celebrates a Centennial,” Bulletin of the Tennessee Folklore Society 10 [1944]: 7). Forty-five years later, Buell Cobb notes, “For as long as they can remember, the Sacred Harp adherents have been hearing that their singing is a dying art” (p. 158). Yet today, one hundred and forty-nine years after the original publication, Sacred Harp singing has not only survived, but has even flourished in some respects, as evidenced by the more than four hundred annual singings listed in the Directory and Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings 1991 and 1992.

The motto “Covering the Country like Kudzu,” prominently emblazoned across the National Sacred Harp Newsletter, may be somewhat misleading. While the kudzu vine enjoys luxuriant growth in the deep south and withers away in colder climes, Sacred Harp has extended its tendrils toward the north while its roots have been withering away in the deep south.

Small enclaves of traditional singing have been maintained tenaciously in rural areas of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, but the real increase in singing activity is a manifestation of folk revivalism. Nora Parker, secretary of the Directory and Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings, laments: “This past year has not been a good year, as we lost thirteen singings. This is the largest number of singings we have discontinued in a year’s time. In the last eight years we have had 66 singings terminated. We see the Northern States gaining more singers and singings. But Georgia and Alabama are losing ground fast” (spelling corrected, Directory and Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings 1991 and 1992, p. 1).

As the embers grow less bright in the traditional southern hearthfires, the revivalist sparks are igniting singings across the United States. Participants who have not been raised within the Sacred Harp tradition have consciously chosen to become part of its movement. According to Cobb’s new preface to the Brown Thrasher edition of The Sacred Harp: “[A] transplanted tradition continues to grow. While the number of shape note singers in the south diminishes each year, the Sacred Harp movement is burgeoning elsewhere. Indeed the establishment and growth of this movement outside the traditional areas – though New England can claim many of the origins of the singing tradition and much of its repertory – is the most striking development in the story of the Sacred Harp over the past quarter century” (p. vii).

Ironically, the mass media, technology, and modern transportation which threatened the existence of traditional singings have proven to be the motivational forces behind the revivalist movement north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Non-archival recordings such as the popular Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns from the Sacred Harp Tradition, released by Larry Gordon’s Vermont-based Word of Mouth Chorus in 1979 (Nonesuch H71360), introduced the repertory and revivalist spirit of shape-note performance. In addition, media coverage (e.g., Bill Moyers’s “Amazing Grace” television feature, WNET, 1990) has presented this movement to a broad segment of the public. The media that severed Americans from oral tradition and developed a national culture at the expense of indigenous local practice has induced a rootless and nostalgia-seeking generation to return “home” to warm themselves in the glow of traditional community singing.

Media and transportation have also enhanced the ability of Sacred Harp singers to establish contact with one another. Emanating from the charismatic personality of Hugh McGraw, the organizational structure of the National Sacred Harp Publishing Company (Temple, Ga.) and the Sacred Harp Foundation and Museum (Carrollton, Ga.) have established an effective web of communication that successfully unites singers across the country. Local and regional newsletters and the National Sacred Harp Newsletter inform participants of monthly singing activities and provide historical and anecdotal features. The annual Directory and Minutes records all the singing activities occurring during the year and presents a membership list composed of approximately 1,500 names and addresses. Most important, the Sacred Harp Publishing Company has insured a steady supply of affordable copies of The Sacred Harp – the very lifeblood of the tradition (the 1991 edition is currently in its third printing of three thousand copies).

Modern transportation makes it convenient for singers to travel beyond local singings to larger regional and national events. This has facilitated the dissemination and nationalization of the Sacred Harp movement, but it may also have contributed to the decline in local singings. Cobb cites the Directory and Minutes on this point:” [T]he ease with which the singers can now attend the large conventions may spell an end for many of the small community singings. W. A. Parker, the general secretary for the Directory and Minutes, noted … the tendency of many to leave or pass up community singings in order to attend a “big” singing miles away.’ There can be no objections to attending the best singings, he granted, |and yet I believe the life of the Sacred Harp cause lies in the development of more community singings”‘ (p. 160).

A critical factor in maintaining a balance between local and national events has been the establishment of an annual National Sacred Harp Convention. Inaugurated in 1980 at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, this three-day singing convention combines the vigor of the southern tradition with the regenerative enthusiasm of northern revivalist participants. New singers are instilled with a feel for the movement and its performance practice, and traditional singers, in turn, are buoyed by the demonstrated attention and reverence paid to their tradition. Further opportunities for north/south interchanges may be enhanced by future plans for a central Sacred Harp home – a performance and meeting space designed specifically for Sacred Harp singing. A rationale for this building was recently advanced in the National Sacred Harp Newsletter: “Sacred Harp singing has experienced great growth recently outside its traditional areas. Hundreds of people unfamiliar with the Sacred Harp book only a few years ago now sing from it regularly. It seems to us appropriate that we look now toward the establishment of a home base for the national community of singers that we are becoming. We believe the creation of such a center could help give focus to many of the new singing groups, as well as bring new fife to the tradition in the home territory” (National Sacred Harp Newsletter 7 [1992]: 5). With a home, press, newsletter, national convention, museum, and national network of singers, the Sacred Harp appears poised not only to conserve its tradition through this century, but also to “spread like kudzu” into the future.

Buell Cobb’s account of the Sacred Harp has directed in part that spread in popularity. Originally published in 1978 and reprinted in 1989, Cobb’s book has played a critical role in the growth of the shaped-note revivalist movement. Building on George Pullen Jackson’s pioneering work with repertory and historical development, Cobb presents a thoroughly researched “inside” view of the performance practice and cultural context of Sacred Harp folk. While Jackson turned his attention to questions of who and what, Cobb focuses his research on questions of how and why. Cobb tells the story of a people and their enduring, yet evolving relationship with their music.

Although Cobb’s Sacred Harp is the definitive documentation of the movement’s past, the book also has served as a force for the future development of the tradition. Because he has so accurately described and codified traditional practice, a generation of revivalist singers has employed the book as an instructional manual of “correct” performance practice. In the absence of bred-in-the-bone understanding, the new breed of Sacred Harp singer has turned to Cobb’s book as a resource for simulating all the values, attitudes, and techniques of traditional cultural context.

While there are several nineteenth-century shape-note collections still in use, only the Sacred Harp has remained a living tradition. Its various editions and revisions have consistently mediated between conservative stasis and contemporary cultural and stylistic development. “Each revision and each appendix was done to put new life in the books, each time adding new or present-day authors. This is the main reason it has lasted so long and will continue to survive” (Sacred Harp, p. 7). The 1991 edition of the work is at once a reflection of the changing tradition and a propulsive force for creating that change. That change was not lightly considered, however, for the Sacred Harp is reverently perceived as an altar to a vanishing way of life. Cobb highlights this veneration in an excerpt from W. W. Cooper’s preface to the 1902 revision: “For more than fifty years;” Cooper wrote, “the Sacred Harp has been justly regarded as a veritable treasury of song, and its grand old melodies have been sung over and over so many times by the generations that loved them, that the book itself has come to seem almost like a sacred thing” (p. 90).

Each of the previous revisions of the Original Sacred Harp (White, 1869; James, 1911; and Denson, 1936) maintained the core of the repertory, linear texture, and characteristic “open” dispersed harmony. However, the traditionalists did compromise in one significant matter: the addition of an alto or “counter” part to what had been a predominantly three-part texture. Cobb notes: “[I]f purists regret the introduction of the alto, it must be admitted that the modernizing step was an inevitable and vital compromise, a move for survival. Already losing ground to the new music and new shape notes of the Christian Harmony and gospel-music folk, the Sacred Harp could not let these upstarts have the monopoly on the increasingly popular fourth part as well” (p. 92).

The 1991 edition, similarly, has maintained the tradition by retaining the characteristic elements while responding to the changing forces of revivalism. The new edition has pruned some deadwood from the old volume, omitting forty-five seldom performed songs, and has expanded the total number of tunes to 554 (twenty-three more than the previous Denson edition). The additional works include twenty-three eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tunes reintroduced from earlier editions or newly added, and thirty-seven songs that are of recent vintage.

The list of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century composers includes many familiar names such as Timothy Swan, William Billings, and Daniel Read, but the list of recent composers is noteworthy for the inclusion of musicians who live outside the deep south. Of the thirty-nine newly written or arranged tunes, twenty-six are by composers from Alabama and Georgia, and thirteen are by composers from Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia. The latter group represents a significant inclusion of revivalist-based singers, corresponding to the dramatic rise of singing activity outside the south. In the matter of text selection, however, traditional sources are still overwhelmingly represented – particularly the ever popular texts of Isaac Watts. There are no instances of poetic inclusion along the lines of Larry Gordon’s shaped-note setting of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle” published in the Northern Harmony (1990).

Another modification represents the changing face of technology. The typeset plates of the Denson revision were discarded in favor of an entirely new computer-generated typeface, resulting in a highly legible appearance marked by crisp, dark print. Although many singers cherish the slightly antique, spidery notation of the Denson edition, there is no doubt that the 1991 edition renders the book much more singable. The Music Committee also has improved many instances of problematic text underlay. For example, the concluding line of “Showers of Blessing” (“He makes the grass the mountains crown, and corn in valleys grow”) neatly matches the note placement and avoids the disconcerting text overlap of the previous edition.

With its customary oblong shape (“designed to fit into the lap;” according to Hugh McGraw) and bold, dean look, the 1991 Sacred Harp is clearly a singer’s edition rather than an archival reprint. The binding complements the bold look with gold lettering superimposed on a rich burgundy cover. Although the image is new, care has been taken to represent tradition as well. For instance, in the process of insertion and deletion of tunes, original page numbers are retained wherever possible in order to preserve a sense of familiarity.

One striking omission in the 1991 edition is the absence of biographical/historical entries for composers and text authors, which have been uniformly removed because of the space limitations and constraints of the computer-generated format. In this case, the Music Committee was forced to compromise between legibility and personality. The new edition’s pages are decidedly cleaner and less cluttered, but they also seem somewhat less “homey” and engaging.

The historical notes, originally inserted by Joe S. James in the 1911 edition, more than compensated for their lack of scholarly accuracy through their charming and personable interest. This “folk musicology” served an important function in connecting past authors and composers in an intimate way with later generations of singers. For instance, the note on John Leland, author of “Religion is a Fortune,” concisely conveys a distinct and personal impression of him. “Some persons claim he was very eccentric. He travelled all the way to Washington from Cheshire, Mass. [sic] to carry President Jefferson a cheese weighing 1,450 pounds” (Original Sacred Harp [19711, p. 319).

Even when the notes are completely erroneous they provide entertaining commentary which will be missed. For instance, the tune Tribulation;’ falsely attributed to “F. E Chopin” (in confusion with Lucius or Amzi Chapin), is accompanied by this engaging narrative: “Chopin was born in 1810 and died in 1849. He was one of the great masters of music. His last words were said to his attending physician, Now my death struggle begins.’ He remained conscious to the last, and added God shows man rare favor when He reveals to him the moment of the approach of his death. This he shows to me. Do not disturb me'” (Original Sacred Harp, p. 29).

The Music Committee of the 1991 edition is seeking to rectify the elimination of these biographical notes and introductory history in a forthcoming companion volume. William J. Reynolds (text) and Warren Steel (tunes) are compiling revised biographical information, and an essay by the energetic singing school leader Richard L. DeLong will replace the “Introduction and History of the Sacred Harp” originally written by Ruth Denson Edwards for the Denson revision. Fact will replace fancy and utility will supercede eccentricity, but it will be difficult to replace the charm of the Denson edition’s “folk musicology.”

The opening section, “Rudiments of Music;” also has undergone considerable renovation designed to make it more useful. While most of the pedagogical content covered in the fourteen pages written by Paine Denson for the 1936 edition has been retained, John Garst has reorganized the information in a much clearer presentation. Items are introduced in a more logical sequence and musical examples are aptly excerpted from actual repertory. Important chapters concerning the “Organization and Conduct of Singings and Conventions” and “Musical Form” have been added, and an additional choral exercise, “The Young Convert” (from the Christian Harmony), augments the concluding Singing Exercises.”

Although the Sacred Harp is not itself the tradition, the book is essential to the survival of the tradition. In the past, revisions have always had an immediate and profound impact on the state of the tradition. Changes in the book have reflected contemporary cultural changes and, in this way, the living tradition has survived despite repeated premature obituaries. Cobb quotes revealing commentary concerning the 1911 edition: “Earl Thurman, historian of the Chattahoochie Convention, maintained that the introduction of the book produced ‘the greatest revival of singing in the history of Sacred Harp singing.’ |The effect was remarkable and not one easily described; he wrote.’ All through the Sacred Harp territory the word was being carried out that something grand was being done for the beloved book – something that would put new blood flowing in the life stream of Sacred Harp singing: With this revival, he added, ‘singers attended annual singings in greater numbers than ever in the history of the book.'” (p. 95).

The 1991 McGraw edition, as it has been informally named, is an important document that records the vocal tradition of America’s past. Represented in the various strata of repertory are the plain and psalm tunes of English and colonial origin, the fuging tunes and anthems of the First New England School, the white spirituals and camp meeting hymnody of the nineteenth-century south, and later southern additions modeled on earlier styles. But the McGraw edition is a reflection of current American practice as well. The new compositions by “traditional” southerners and “revivalist” northerners, equally represented in this new edition, reflect the tenacity and adaptability that have long preserved this living tradition. Appropriately, the McGraw edition is once again dedicated to: “All lovers of Sacred Harp Music, and to the memory of the illustrious and venerable patriarchs who established the Traditional Style of Sacred Harp singing and admonished their followers to ‘seek the old paths and walk therein”‘ (Sacred Harp, p. 5).

COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group