The Chattahoochee Musical Convention: A Review

Music Library Association Notes 60 (September 2003), pp. 134-36.

The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook. Edited by Kiri Miller. Carrollton, Ga.: The Sacred Harp Museum, 2002. [xiv, 1-359p. Illustrations, index of names. ISBN 1-887617-13-2.]

The Sacred Harp tradition is known to librarians and scholars as the chief surviving repository of a repertory and performance practice that originated in eighteenth-century American singing schools, and later incorporated folk melodies and camp-meeting hymns in diverse musical styles. That it is known at all in academic circles is largely due to the writings of George Pullen Jackson and others, who characterize the Sacred Harp as a “lost tonal tribe,” possessing a “harmonic complex of singular charm” (both quotations from “The Fa-Sol-La Folk,” Musical Courier 93 (1926): 6-7, 10), embodying the values of an earlier, simpler time. In his recent study, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 84-131), John Bealle exposes this outsider’s view as that of a “cultural object” exploited by local color writers (Carl Carmer) and Agrarian ideologues (Donald Davidson), as well as by some folklorists and music historians. Bealle contrasts this writing tradition with an insider’s view rarely heard or seen by those not involved in the tradition. In their official reports or “minutes,” traditional singers generally record only the names of songleaders at each session, with the page numbers of the songs they lead. Only rarely does the insider’s writing expand into affective description or ideological exhortation. Among the noteworthy exceptions discussed by Bealle is Earl V. Thurman’s centennial history of the Chattahoochee Convention, written in 1952 and now published for the first time as the centerpiece for a sesquicentennial publication. The editor, Kiri Miller, is a doctoral student in ethnomusicology at Harvard; her masters thesis, completed at the University of Chicago in 2002, was entitled “‘To Die No More’: Sacred Harp Memorial Lessons and the Transmission of Tradition.”

This book is not an introduction to the Sacred Harp singing tradition nor a historical narrative of that tradition’s oldest institution, founded in West Georgia in 1852 and convening annually in August since that year. Miller’s preface makes it clear that the impetus and basic shape of the book came from the Georgia singers who participate in the convention and who have long been aware of Thurman’s manuscript and of the unusually copious surviving records of its history, still proudly displayed at annual sessions. This gives the project a somewhat archival emphasis, with ethnomusicological insights and discussions confined to the editor’s twenty-four-page introduction. Miller states that the book “is not meant to serve as an introduction to [Sacred Harp] music for absolute beginners” (p. 6). Yet, as the editor asserts, “There is music in this book,” which (even if not in the sonic or notated form) reflects the “social circumstances” that create and support the sounds, and illustrates Miller’s contention that “the ways in which singers write and talk about Sacred Harp do not passively reflect their attitudes about the music but actively contribute to the ways they sing, think, and feel” (p. 7).

Though many of the documents seem humdrum to the outsider, to the lover of sacred song they resonate with multiple themes. These include the 1866 schism in the Southern Musical Convention over the issue of notational systems (which in turn strengthened the Chattahoochee’s position among the conservatives who retained The Sacred Harp and its four-shape notation); the changing role of women, who were recognized as members and occasionally songleaders from the start, but who gradually increased their role since the 1880s; the perennial prominence of the singing convention as a setting for courtship leading to marriage between members of singing families; the occasional hostility of religious leaders toward non-denominational musical activities that often occupied church buildings; and the periodical growth and ebb of interest and participation, rather than the inexorable decline predicted by folklorists. While allowing for local and regional variants using several editorial recensions of the Sacred Harp tunebook, and variant arrangements of seating, beating time, and so forth, Thurman’s history finds in the Chattahoochee Convention a “central tradition” whose primacy and authority stem not from age alone but from the decades of guidance by compiler B.F. White and his associates (Absalom Ogletree, J.R. Turner, J.P. Reese) and their pupils (the Densons, McGraws, and Wilsons). Their musical and moral leadership are documented in this history.

Billed as a “historical sourcebook,” the volume functions as a kind of institutional scrapbook, embracing several kinds of material, written for varied audiences over a century and a half, all contributing to a rich portrait of a consciously retentive, yet changing, tradition. Thurman’s six-chapter history is supplemented by a list of sessions, locations and officers (the earlier sessions annotated by Thurman), and selected excerpts from record books, minutes, and news clippings covering the Convention from 1865 to 2002. The final section, “Remembering the Chattahoochee Convention,” comprises interviews with and letters from singers who have attended the convention over the past seventy years. Two of the interviews were conducted by project coordinator John Plunkett.

In her role as editor, Miller allows Thurman and other writers to speak for themselves without excessive intrusion. On occasion, however, she fails to provide the reader with information that would clarify the meaning of the original. When Thurman names a group of early American composers that includes several biographical “ghosts” (relying on inaccurate attributions in early editions of The Sacred Harp), Miller’s footnote corrects some of these, but leaves at least three others uncorrected, though their songs are correctly attributed in current editions. The editor lets stand without comment an obituary of Sacred Harp compiler B.F. White from the 1880 convention minutes stating that “he was born in South Carolina about 1793” and died in 1879 at the age of about 86 years (p. 163); other sources are unanimous that he was born on 20 September 1800. The interviews with living singers are full of allusions to “Aunt Annie,” “Uncle Bob,” and “Cousin Maxine.” Some refer to the speaker’s family members, while others are honorific nicknames current among past or present singers. Were these ever to be positively identified, this would have been the time. While the editor has provided an index of names found in all sections of the book, two or three genealogical tables might have helped to clarify the relationships among those most frequently cited and quoted. This and other issues reflect difficulties in defining the intended audience for the work.

Many singers do not care if a song was written by “Coan Guilford” or “Simeon Coan, of Guilford, Connecticut,” or that the late singers Robert E. Denson and Ruth Denson Edwards, cited a total of 33 times in the index, were “double first cousins.” On the other hand, the timely appearance of the present volume at the sesquicentennial session in August 2002 was itself an important event for the singers and their families, and may have precluded time for additional research.

Finally, it is left to lifelong singer and teacher Richard DeLong to conclude with a strong exhortation directed mainly at the hundreds of singers, many from outside the tradition, outside the South, and even outside the United States, whose interest and enthusiasm have breathed new life into the movement so lovingly documented by Earl Thurman. To DeLong, “Seek the old paths and walk therein” is not just a proverb, but a challenge to ensure that young singers, while sharing a pluralistic respect for local traditions, will recognize in the tradition of the Chattahoochee a “right way” to sing, beat time, and conduct an all-day singing. This is a far cry from the descriptive approach of the ethnomusicologist, but is firmly in the tradition of the convention’s founders and of its first historian Earl V. Thurman. This is a book written by and for Sacred Harp singers, but one that advances the knowledge of musical attitudes and institutions in nineteenth-century America.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 2003 by The Music Library Association.

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