The Colored Sacred Harp: A Review

American Music 14 (Spring 1996), pp. 127-28.

The Colored Sacred Harp. Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers. Notes by Barbara L. Hampton. 1993. Recorded Anthology of American Music, New World Records NW 80433-2.

The Sacred Harp, by B.F. White and E.J. King, is the chief printed repository for the living tradition and repertory of early American psalmody. Available in several editions and revisions since its first printing in 1844, the book unites most southern singers, black and white, who cultivate the tunebook tradition, as well as enthusiasts throughout North America who are drawn to its distinctive sound, repertory, and performance practice. Writers on the Sacred Harp have noted the participation of African Americans in that tradition, chiefly in southeast Alabama and northern Florida. While they sing mainly from the Cooper Revision of The Sacred Harp, these black songsters employ seven-shape songbooks on occasion, and also a four-shape tunebook of local origin, The Colored Sacred Harp (1934) by Judge Jackson (1883-1958), which has been available in reprint since 1973.

Previous studies of this book and its author have treated them as a special case within a predominantly Anglo-American genre (“Black Giant of White Spirituals”) or as evidence of a unique homespun musical creativity (“Plantation Meistersinger”). In her musical and sociological study of shape-note singers in the area, Doris Dyen (1977) paid scant attention to The Colored Sacred Harp, because its use is indeed marginal. While a handful of songs have become standards within the community, most of the book lies unused, except at the annual Jackson Memorial Singing in April. Singers regard Jackson’s book more as a source of community pride than as a source of active repertory.

The goal of the present recording is not to reflect the singers’ tastes and repertory—it includes pieces solely from Jackson’s book. The accompanying essay, by Barbara L. Hampton, subtitled “A Songbook by Nineteenth-Century African-Americans,” serves as a valuable supplement and corrective to earlier treatments. The historical section attempts to provide an Afrocentric context for Sacred Harp singing, showing “the process by which African Christians adopted the Sacred Harp and made it a significant artistic expression in their communities.” In exploring this process, Hampton examines differential settlement and land ownership patterns in the Gulf Coast and Tennessee Valley regions. While she acknowledges “research conducted by Cheryl Johnson in Alabama” (p. 6), this research is nowhere fully cited, nor is it clear how the 1856 sale of illegally-imported Africans to Selma planters affected the assimilation of Sacred Harp singing in southeastern Alabama. Drawing on oral history, Hampton documents the role of black and white singing-masters in passing on a tradition of musical style and literacy that nourished the creativity not only of Judge Jackson but of several other composers represented in The Colored Sacred Harp. Biographical sketches of these composers represent a significant addition to the story of this singing community.

The group of singers on the recording is small, and better represents the “Wiregrass Singers” that perform at concerts, festivals, and on television, rather than a typical “class” at an all-day singing. The sound, while rather thin, is dominated by altos, who number seven of the seventeen voices. It is instructive to compare the strong and confident rhythms on this recording with their rather inaccurate representation on the pages of Jackson’s tunebook—this suggests that the performance by Jackson’s own descendants and community represents the compiler’s musical conception better than the often inconsistent and inept notation in the book. The small size of the ensemble also enables the listener to hear clearly the embellishments and variations that are a feature of this regional style.

Those who are looking for a representative recording of African American Sacred Harp singing would do well to hear Wiregrass Notes: Black Sacred Harp Singing from Southeast Alabama (Alabama Traditions 102), produced by Hank Willett and Doris Dyen. This collection, recorded in 1982 at a two-day convention in Dale County, features four selections from The Colored Sacred Harp, nine from The Sacred Harp, and one seven-shape selection by Albert M. Brumley, sung from memory as a closing piece. For those who own one of the reprint editions of The Colored Sacred Harp, or are interested in its author or his music, the present recording represents a fitting and almost necessary complement, providing both the sonic dimension and the historical background to the music and the community that gave it life.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1996 by The Board of Regents of the University of Illinois

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