Interview with Warren Steel

LA-MISS-ALA Shape Note Newsletter, March-April 1999

Warren Steel is associate professor of music and southern culture at the University of Mississippi, where he teaches music history, ethnomusicology, organ and harpsichord. The annual Oxford singing is on the second Sunday in March at Oxford City Hall, on the Square.

How did you become aware of Sacred Harp singing?

I grew up in upstate New York, near Schenectady. I first heard songs such as WONDROUS LOVE and PROMISED LAND in the 1960s on a folk music recording by the Limeliters. Looking in the library for sources for this music, I encountered the Southern Harmony (a four-shape tunebook) and George Pullen Jackson's books. From then on, I was always trying to get my friends to sing these songs. After college in the Boston area, I found a group of singers who gathered regularly to sing from the Sacred Harp; I also heard southern field recordings, including one made at Stewart's Chapel in Houston, Mississippi. In 1972 I traveled south in an old truck with three other singers. We found a small singing in rural Alabama, unaware that the state convention was going on that same weekend.

Moving to Michigan later that year, I found a few singers in Ann Arbor and we began singing every week at a local coffee house. In 1975 we had an all-day singing and I met Pauline Childers, an Alabama singer living in Michigan. The following year Hugh McGraw conducted a workshop at the University of Michigan.

When did you first come to Mississippi?

In June 1980 I attended the first four-day National Convention in Birmingham, unaware that within a few weeks I would be offered a job at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. Among the first people I met in Oxford were George and Emily Boswell, who had been singing Sacred Harp for years, and who introduced me to the McGuires, Hawkinses and other local singers. Mark Davis was then an undergraduate music major at Ole Miss. Since then, I have attended singings in Mississippi whenever possible, and also travel to other states, mainly Alabama.

How have you been involved in singing schools and in the 1991 edition of the Sacred Harp?

In about 1983, Hugh Bill McGuire and I were given a grant to teach a week-long singing school in Pittsboro. Bernice Embry and Aubrey Enochs also participated as teachers, and we had a sizable crowd every night. A few singers who attended that school are still with us.

Around 1989 singers all over the country submitted songs for inclusion in the new edition of the Sacred Harp. A large group was invited to Samford University to sing through all the new submissions. I was then given the job of verifying the source attributions and proofreading all the music, both old and new, in the 1991 edition.

What have you done to bring new technologies to Sacred Harp singing?

In 1993 I began publishing Sacred Harp schedules and other materials on the Internet; I also collected e-mail addresses of Sacred Harp singers, and began an Internet mailing list. This grew rapidly. Keith Willard volunteered to take it over, since he administered a computer system in his job. The Sacred Harp singing web site, begun in 1994, contains schedules of singings all over the country, Frequently Asked Questions about Sacred Harp, shape note resources by Steven Sabol, the Huntsville Newsletter by David Ivey, samples of notation, articles, reviews, recipes, photos and artwork. The URL for the Sacred Harp website is

How did the Oxford singing begin?

When I came to Mississippi in 1980, I found that the singing at Stewart's Chapel had been discontinued a few years earlier. Mr. R.A. Stewart had made great efforts to bring Mississippi and Alabama singers together, despite distance and differences in singing style. Wishing to continue this fruitful exchange, George Boswell and I organized the singing at Oxford City Hall on the second Sunday in March, the same day as the old Stewart's Chapel singing. We have always had very good attendance by singers from Alabama, and also visitors from Tennessee, Georgia and other states. One year a large group arrived on the train from Chicago. The acoustics are very good in the courtroom, and the community supports the singing and helps feed the visitors. We also have a singing in the nearby village of Taylor on the second Sunday in October -- this one attracts a local crowd and more students.

What publications and projects have you written, or are you working on?

My chief interest in Sacred Harp singing has been my enjoyment of singing. I have not made many recordings, nor do I have many "sound bites" on the Sacred Harp web site. I have come to believe that Sacred Harp singing is a form of social and spiritual interaction -- which just happens to make a musical sound. Even when well done, the recording cannot capture the experience, but merely reproduce the sound of that experience. I have written several reviews and historical articles. Many of these are on the Web site. I have also made editions (in round notes) of the complete works of New England composers Stephen Jenks and Daniel Belknap. I am currently working on a historical companion volume to the Sacred Harp, and on a history of shape-note publications before 1861.

How do you see the future of Sacred Harp singing?

It saddens me that so few young people from the traditional singing areas have any interest in learning to sing. On the other hand, the interest in singing by many new singers in new areas has offered the potential to recover many traditional singers as well. Formerly, if a young man or woman moved from, say, Jasper, Alabama to New Orleans, or Chicago or Washington, they abandoned the tradition altogether. New they can join with singers in almost every part of the U.S. and help preserve the tradition, and teach it to those who did not grow up with it.