Huntsville Sacred Harp Newsletter

Number 19, April 1994

David Ivey, Editor (
16021 Deaton Drive, Huntsville AL 35803
(205) 881-5291


10th Anniversary All-Day Singing

Saturday, May 7th - Burritt Museum - 9:30 am - 2:30 pm

The tenth annual Huntsville Sacred Harp Singing will be held on Saturday, May 7th, at the Burritt Museum from 9:30am-2:30pm. Please plan to support this tenth anniversary singing with your attendance and, if you are a local singer, by bringing a covered dish lunch. Mr. Jimmy Ballinger is Chairman of this singing. Dr. Alan Jones is Vice Chairman.

150 Years and Still Going

By Joseph M. Jones

At the Sacred Harp singing April 1st, 1994 in the little church on Monte Sano, Huntsville, an impressive, well-dressed lady in middle life came in and sat by me just after the music began. She accepted a book that was offered, looked it over, and began to sing a bit in a tentative way. Half an hour later, she seemed to be in the rhythm of things and was singing at times with gusto. As she made ready to depart mid-course, I commented about how quickly she had got the hang of it -- how well she was doing -- at which she said she had a masters degree in music, taught at a local university, and had to leave early for a university related commitment.

Although she didn't say so, it was apparent that her professional interest in music brought her to the gathering, prompted probably by the major article on Sacred Harp that had appeared the day before in The Huntsville Times. So it occurred to me that it might be appropriate to offer to the readers of the Huntsville Sacred Harp Newsletter (many of whom are quite new to the Sacred Harp tradition) a word or two of background, and reference for further enlightenment.

In this sesquicentennial of the Sacred Harp -- the book was first published 150 years ago, in 1844 -- the best little resource work I know of is The Story of the Sacred Harp, 1844-1944, written by Dr. George Pullen Jackson and published by the Vanderbilt University Press in 1944. Dr. Jackson was for many years a music professor and scholar of folk music at Vanderbilt. He was a good friend of my father, and often attended the singings in North Alabama that my family frequented. I remember Dr. Jackson well, a distinguished looking gentleman who stood out from the mostly plain people with whom he sang. Sort of an introvert, I think as I look back. A chain smoker of Pall Mall cigarettes.

He had a scholarly interest in our music, but he had a heart interest as well. He wrote at least five books of interest to shaped note singers, including Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America and White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands.

Some of those books are probably available in local libraries. The one of greatest general utility, however, is the little centennial book first mentioned. Hard-backed, it is a mere 46 pages in length and, of course, can be read quickly. I inherited my father's copy, and value it highly.

Another book of much greater depth and currency is The Sacred Harp, A Tradition and Its Music,

by a gentleman scholar who sings today as much and as frequently as he can. I speak of Buell E. Cobb Jr. of Birmingham who attends our Burritt Museum singings on occasion. His 245-page book was published by the University of Georgia Press in 1978, based on research he did while a professor of English at West Georgia College.

In its 150th anniversary year, it is worth noting that the Sacred Harp book should be seen as representative of a type of music that was widespread in the days of early America. It certainly was not unique, but it is the only surviving book in common use today. Dr. Jackson points out in one of his books that "thirty-eight different books of song appeared in the four-shape notation between the years 1798 and 1855." All of them were oblong in shape, as the Sacred Harp book has been through the years and remains. Virtually all of these tunebooks had numerous songs in common. The authors of many of the melodies were unknown . . . the tunes were handed down by oral tradition through families and congregations to be eventually written on music staffs with those rich harmonies. Scripture-based words were added to folk tunes that had existed for generations. Many of the pieces are in common congregational use today.

So, from the works of Jackson and Cobb and others, the beginning singer with minimal effort can unearth a wealth of data about this great Sacred Harp book, music, and tradition. May Sacred Harp still be cherished and prospering at its 200th year.

[Ed. Note: Joe Jones, tenor, is a frequent contributor to this newsletter. He also serves as editor of The Baptist Light.]

Huntsville Sacred Harp Over the Last Thirteen Years

By David Ivey

On May 7th we will celebrate our tenth annual Huntsville all-day singing. In addition to these ten annual singings, all of which have been held in the church building of Burritt Museum and Park, the Huntsville Sacred Harp singers hosted the two-day United Sacred Harp Convention in September 1989. A review of the minutes of these singings shows that at least 238 different people have led songs at these Huntsville singings. Many, many more have participated by listening, some for the first time in their lives, and still others for the first time since they were children.

The first singing held in Huntsville in recent years was on a Sunday afternoon in October 1981 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. People attending that singing (according to the sign-in list) were: Royce Boyer, Terry Wootten, Lomax Ballinger, Lavaughn Ballinger, Coy Ivey, Joyce Walton, Jap Walton, Ron Martin, Rhoda Norris, O.B. Norris, Robin Smith, Estelle Napier, Sam Jones, Karen Ivey, David Ivey, Herschel King, David Reasoner, Eunice Cranford, Jackie Reasoner, Susan Avery, Terry Burcham, Sara Ann Burcham, Emily Burwell, Ellen Thompson, Darryl Cranfield, Joyce Walker, Ginny Smith, Estelle Glynn, Elbert Peters, and Paul Frederick.

Sacred Harp really "got off the ground" in Huntsville two years later when Joyce and Jap Walton of Pisgah, Alabama taught a singing school at the University of Alabama in Huntsville under the sponsorship of the Music Department. More than fifty people attended the sessions over the course of that week, and a monthly singing was established beginning in November 1983. In the next year, Friday night singings were held at Southside Christian, Hillwood Baptist, Weatherly Heights Baptist, Latham Methodist, Holmes Avenue Methodist, Highlands Methodist, Trinity Methodist, Locust Grove Baptist, Southside Baptist, First Baptist of Madison, First Baptist of Huntsville, and Burritt Museum.

A second singing school was led in the Fall of 1984 at First Baptist of Huntsville by the Waltons. In the following months, the monthly Friday night singings were regularly held at Highlands Methodist on Broadmoor Road in Northwest Huntsville under the sponsorship of Mr. Tom Morris. A third Huntsville singing school was taught by David Ivey in November 1985 at Highlands Methodist. Beginning in 1986, singings were held quarterly on the first Friday nights of February, April, August, and November. These singings were held at Highlands Methodist from 1986 through 1992. The Friday night singings have been held at Burritt Museum since February 1993.

In the fall of 1984, the Huntsville - Madison County singers voted to hold an all-day singing on the Saturday before the second Sunday in May starting in 1985. This spring day was selected to avoid conflicts with other singings and to provide the best comfort for the participants. At that time the Burritt church building had not yet been outfitted with heating and air conditioning as it now is.

Other than these regular singings, singers from Huntsville and the surrounding areas have shared our music in countless other events over the last twelve years including: Huntsville Museum of Art, Huntsville High Folk Festival, Burritt Museum Candlelight Christmas, Trinity Methodist Homecoming, Madison County Baptist Associational Meeting, Burritt Museum Folklife Festival, Mooresville Folk Festival, Panoply of the Arts, Burritt Museum Singing for Russian Exchange Students, and others. We hosted the Vermont Village Harmony students, led by Mr. Larry Gordon, for a special concert in November 1992. We are especially indebted to our many friends from all across the United States who have come to Huntsville, sung with us, and encouraged us. We hope that you will come back and sing with us whenever you can!

Singing Announcements

This is a partial list of singings within driving distance of Huntsville. Please consult the Directory and Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings 1993 and 1994 for a complete listing.

May 1		Shady Grove           Dutton, AL
May 14	Harmony Church    Lawrenceburg, TN
May 15	Cane Creek              Heflin, AL
May 22	Gum Pond                 Cullman Co., AL
May 29	Tuscaloosa Comm Ctr  Tuscaloosa
Jun 5		Liberty Church          Henagar, AL
Jun 11-12	Hopewell Church       Oneonta, AL
Jun 16-18	National Convention   Birmingham
Jun 19		Macedonia Prim Bapt  Macedonia, AL
Jun 26		Mount Lebanon            Fayette, AL
Jul 2-3		Liberty Convention       Henagar, AL
Jul 9-10	Cullman Co. Convntn    Cullman, AL
Jul 17		New Prospect                 Bremen, AL
Jul 17		Mount Zion Church       Fyffe, AL
Jul 23		Cotaco Convntn           Gum Pond, AL
Jul 31		Lacy's Chapel                 Henagar, AL

Panoply: Saturday, May 14th, 3:55-4:20pm
South Central Bell Stage

Please come and sing with us at Panoply this year. Note that Panoply is not the same weekend as our All-Day Singing (as it usually is). We need your help to make a good presentation of Sacred Harp to the Huntsville community. This year the Bell Stage has been moved to the north end of Big Spring Park at the corner of Clinton and Monroe. Please arrive at the Bell Stage by 3:40pm.

Millard McWhorter:
Portrait of a Sacred Harp Saint

By Sam Jones

A half-used bottle of Watkins vanilla flavoring in our kitchen cupboard triggers a flood of Sacred Harp memories for me. This tall bottle came to our house from a box of Watkins home products that always traveled in the car trunk of one of the most enthusiastic singers I ever knew -- my Uncle Millard McWhorter. Millard, known to family members from his youth as "Buster", devoted most of his life to Sacred Harp music. Nearly every Sunday (and often the Saturday before) found Uncle Millard and Aunt Pearl on the road to some little church in North Alabama -- or almost any place in the country -- to attend a singing. Part of their livelihood was the sale of Watkins products. Also in the trunk of that old Buick rode boxes of Sacred Harp songbooks and records, because Millard was a tireless, unpaid promoter of the old music he loved so much.

I really believe Millard lived to sing. It simply "turned him on" and kept him going. And Pearl was his willing accomplice. She always went along and never failed to take a bounteous box of home-cooked food for the noontime spread that was a part of every all-day singing. My wife and I used to marvel at the regularity and high quality of these food offerings, provided at considerable sacrifice and requiring hours of preparation the night before. Millard and Pearl, having frequently driven long distances from their home in Birmingham, would be among the first to arrive at singings and the last to leave. It was Pearl's custom, many times, to have mailed a card or note ahead of time to remind relatives and friends to be there. Millard would often provide rides to friends who had no transportation, and both Millard and Pearl made a point of keeping up with sick folks and those in need -- always ready to spread the news and start an offering. They seemed to know and love everybody.

Millard greeted all with a big grin, a handshake, and a hug -- a man full of grace and sensitivity, to whom tears came as easily as laughter, and who loved to tell or hear a good story. Actually, he was seriously ill most of his life, but hardly anybody knew it. After losing most of his stomach to a cancer operation in the 1940s, he was forever after troubled with recurring illnesses. But "I'm doing just fine" was always his response when one greeted him, and he certainly acted like it.

In front of a Sacred Harp class, Millard was a sight to behold. His face aglow, he seemed to vibrate when he led a song, and his enthusiastic joy was contagious. He always had some little tale or joke to tell. He also loved to pull pranks, and was seldom without a big smile. Although Pearl attended all the singings with Millard, oddly enough she did not take part in the singing until a few years before Millard's death in 1981. After she started leading and singing, she quickly became just about as eager a singer as he was. Following his death, she continued to attend every singing she could get to, and sang at every one. Pearl Groover McWhorter died in 1990, and was buried beside Millard and their 3-year-old son Tommy at Antioch Methodist Cemetery east of Heflin, Alabama.

Millard and Pearl were born and raised in rural Cleburne County, which has been a hotbed of Sacred Harp music since late in the 19th century. He was the youngest of 11 children of Millard F. McWhorter, Sr., a native of Ireland who came to this country in 1864 at the age of six. Millard Sr. was a student of T.J. and S.M. Denson, giants of Sacred Harp who spent much of their life in Cleburne County. Millard Sr. was a lifelong teacher, composer, and singer of the Sacred Harp in a wide area of East Alabama and West Georgia.

Millard Jr. spent most of his life in Birmingham, where he was employed at a steel mill until ill health in middle age forced him to make a living as an insurance salesman and at various other irregular jobs. Millard's faith and spirit, aided immensely by Sacred Harp music, sustained him until his death at the age of 78. He had attended a singing just a couple of weeks before he died. The last time I visited him, even though he was frail and weak, he greeted me in the same old way he always had: "Sam, I'm doing just fine." Millard and Pearl are survived by a daughter, Dixie Pearl Cavanaugh, who lives in Vero Beach, Florida, and by two granddaughters and two great- grandchildren.

[Ed. Note: Millard McWhorter first introduced me to my now good friend, Sam Jones, of Huntsville at the first National Sacred Harp Convention at Samford University in Birmingham in June 1980 just after I moved to Huntsville. I am able to testify firsthand to Millard's love for Sacred Harp and its people. He never missed a chance to greet and encourage me during my years as a teenager, college student, and young adult.]

The Influence of the Singing School

By David Ivey

[Reprinted from the Winter 1987 Huntsville Sacred Harp Newsletter]

Of all the influences which have shaped the Sacred Harp musical tradition, probably none has been more important than that of the singing school. It is from this humble and practical music education setting that we today have the four shaped notation used in The Sacred Harp.

The early Americans needed a musical revival. Their necessary preoccupation with settling a new land and gaining their independence had resulted in a type of musical drought, at least for the common folk. But by the mid to late 1700s self taught early American composers were developing a new kind of music that was different from that of their English forebears. Further, they ingeniously sought to devise a musical system that would allow everyone to learn and participate in singing. This was influenced, of course, by the overarching paradigm of democracy in the new American society.

The system may have been known to the early teachers from their English background since shaped notes were known to have been used as early as the days of Shakespeare. In any case, William Little and William Smith are generally credited for first using this four note teaching system in this country through their publication of The Easy Instructor in 1798.

Originally, the singing of the notes was most likely intended to be only a device for learning the music. But the habit of "singing the notes" stuck with this acapella music, and today we continue this tradition of first sounding the fa, sol, la, and mi before singing the verses. But there were other influences of the singing schools. The democratic practice of having all singers direct songs, instead of having a single song leader, probably arose from the teaching of people to lead music in the singing school. It should be noted, however, that women did not direct songs until this century. The women did attend the singing schools, though, because these events were popular courting opportunities for the younger set. The phrase "lead a lesson" certainly came from practice during singing school "lessons".

I believe, though, that the singing school had other non-musical influences that were just as important. The singing schools served as a vitally important social function by bringing people together, providing them an opportunity to fellowship, fostering bonds among them, and providing relaxed settings for common folk to blend theirvoices together in order to express praise and adoration unto their God. The bonds were able to grow deeper in regular singings started as a result of the singing schools. It remains so even today.

In this modern day we do not have to schedule our singing school "after the crops are laid by," and we for the most part do not depend on it as a primary opportunity for recreation and socializing. But for many of us, Sacred Harp is an important part of our lives. For some it serves as a link to a simpler time. For some, it is a connection to good friends. For some, it is an opportunity to preserve a folk tradition for their children and their children's children. For some, it is a unique opportunity for worship and religious experssion. For some, it is a chance to participate in a music that is unique, strong, wonderfully harmonious, and fun to sing.

[Ed. Note: Because of a large number of requests by new singers, a singing school is being planned for late summer or fall. Please watch for more information, or if you are not on the mailing list, please write to me of your interest.]

Burritt Museum: Thank You!

The Huntsville Sacred Harp Singers extend our deepest appreciation to Burritt Museum for hosting Sacred Harp singing events for the last ten years. We especially thank Mr. Pat Robertson for his help in providing the use of the facilities of the museum and park and for publicity of our singings there.

The Burritt church building is a comfortable and accoustically alive place to sing . . . a prototypical room for singing Sacred Harp. It is just the type of place in which Sacred Harp ought to be carried on. Again, thank you.

Friday Night Singings

Summer: August 5th, 7:00 - 8:30 pm
Fall: November 4th, 7:00 - 8:30 pm
Burritt Museum

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