An Ancient Music Sounds Anew in Mississippi

By Laurence McMillin

Press-Scimitar Staff Writer

The Sacred Harp title dates from 1844. Don't call it an ordinary hymn book: "It's a song book—you might say it's the best there is," says H.G. Roane from near Water Valley. Every kind of denomination you can think of affiliates with this convention."

As organs and fancy music entered church when America was young, this type of singing retreated to the country and the hills.

But in recent times it has regained its folk dignity. Classical musicians respect its lean, vigorous notes. One modern composer, Virgil Thomson, used one of its tunes in a concerto for cello. Choruses have sung Sacred Harp music in New York's Carnegie Hall.

It doesn't miss an emotion. There is the grave, plaintive:

What wondrous love is this, o my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul...

There is the joyous, rousing Easter anthem by William Billings, a "father of American sacred music":

Thine's all the glory
Man's the boundless bliss!

Tho a pianist often beat out the chords yesterday, these natural artists usually sing without accompaniment. They sight-read, too, using the American invention of shape notes for different points on the scale.

DREW, Miss. – There was no preaching and next to no talking.

But across flat fields of soybean and cotton in an island of tall oaks, a little white-framed church was overflowing.

Overflowing with men and women and music from the Sacred Harp. For the love of it, simply singing ancient harmonies many may never have heard before.

From 500 to 1000 came out of Mississippi's red hills, the rich Delta—even from Memphis—to keep alive an American custom that dates from pre-Revolutionary times—a musical tradition that dates from Shakespeare's time.

It was the annual three-day Mississippi State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, attracting people of 13 counties or more to Wallace Memorial Methodist Church.

Capable, raw-boned hands thumbed thru the dog-eared pages of a thick, oblong book known as the Sacred Harp, second in importance only to the Bible among convention members.

The singers sat in a rough circle as they sang. Democratically, they took turns leading—arms swinging. Choristers on their favorite tunes also marked the rhythms with their hands or knees.

"We're wasting time," someone would say if a minute went by between songs.

The "fa-sol-la" system some oldtimers still use dates from Shakespeare's time—before the "do-re-mi" system entered school music.

Why do they keep returning to sing?

"Because I love it," says Mrs. Flora Kilgo of Tunica, 78, who traveled by crowded transit bus to Drew.

"Because of the love we have for these songs—and each other," says E.S. Easley of Bruce.

But S.T. Hawkins, farmer of near Bruce, says, "There isn't anybody here that can tell you. If we could, everybody would be here."

"It's on the inside," he said softly, touching his breast.

Memphis Press-Scimitar, August, 1954.

The foregoing article is accompanied by a photograph by a Press-Scimitar staff photographer, with the following caption: "FOR LOVE—Rev. T.M. Plunkett of Columbus, Miss., Sacred Harp chaplain, went by oxcart with his grandparents to his first singing convention in Blount County, Ala., when he was 4. Sixty-three years later he joins others at a recess under a giant tree (left to right): O.B. McGahey, Calhoun City, state convention secretary; L.J. Aston, Calhoun City; Jimmie Hawkins, 15, and June Jordan, 16, of Bruce; Rev. Plunkett, and J.W. Trull, 17 [sic], of Ruleville. Mr. Trull has been attending sings close to 70 years."

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