Sacred Harp Singing

Mississippi: a Guide to the Magnolia State

Federal Writers' Project, 1938

The state guides produced by the Federal Writers' Project take the form of a tour guide, following several routes through the state. The following sketch of a rural Mississippi singing occurs in an introductory section on "white folkways" (i.e. not associated with a particular location), and may represent a conflation of several events, including non-Sacred Harp gospel singings; specific page numbers and song titles do not all match those found in editions of the Sacred Harp. A calendar of annual events in the book's front matter mentions a two-day Sacred Harp singing in Eggville, Lee County, and a South Mississippi Singing Convention in Hattiesburg. These events may be the primary sources of the vivid descriptions in the Guide.

The most characteristic musical expression of Mississippi white folk is in their group singing of hymns, many of which are from the "Sacred Harp," a hymnal published in 1844. From shortly after spring planting until cotton-picking time, regular "singings" are held, reaching a height in midsummer (see WHITE FOLKWAYS). (p. 158)

Through the long Central Hills, in the black northeast Prairie, in the Piney Woods, the Tennessee Hills, and, lately, in the newly developed 'white spots' of the Delta, we sing -- not as individuals but as communities, counties, and districts. And we do not sing a mere song or two; we bring our lunch and pallets for our babies and sing all day.

The feat is not a simple one. The Sacred Harp's 500 pages contain no newfangled song with a harmony that can be faked. It holds to the ancient "shape-notes," the "fa, sol, la" songs brought down from Elizabethan England and written in four parts, on separate staffs, with each part carrying to a degree a melodic patttern of its own. This is complex; it calls for technique and a training for tone. As any "leader" worth his salt will declare, a tone-ignorant person can ruin a singing any day.

To avoid such a calamity, each county has its "school." The school is a "leader," or singing master, who goes from community to community, like an old-time Methodist circuit-rider, teaching the youngsters to "pitch," to know "tone lengths" and "tone shapes" -- the circle, triangle, square, etc.

During the process, he also teaches the songs adapted to each "occasion": "Invitation" ("Ye Who are Weary"); "Glorification," ("Glory for Me!" or "We Praise Thee O God!"); and "Funerals," ("Just Beyond the River").

When a novice has learned such fundamentals, he is eligible for membership in the County Singing Convention and permitted to join in the "singings" with all the vibrant volume his lungs can muster. Perhaps he later will prove worthy of becoming a "leader" himself or, less important, a duly elected officer of the District (sectional) Singing Associtaion of which his county conventiion is a member. One never can be certain about a singer -- not beyond the fact that he will be at the singing, singing lustily and religiously, like the rest of us.

The singing is at the "church-house," a small, white "shotgun" structure placed just off the road in the sun-speckled shade of a grove. It is scheduled to begin at nine sharp in the morning, but time is a negligible quantity to people who put seeds in the ground and wait for them to grow; at ten o'clock we are still arriving, in cars, in school busses, in wagons, and a few in "Hoover carts" -- an ingeniously contrived two-wheel, automobile-tired lolly brought into prominence by the depression. We have on our Sunday clothes, with here and there an unobtrusive patch, but only the district's politician will wear a coat.

Inside the church, the leader faces us from the pulpit. He is a lean, Cassius-like fellow with the voice of an angel. With ancient ritual he directs us through the eighteenth-century singing-school procedure; he speaks of "lesson" and "class," not of song and choir.

"The lesson," he announces, "will commence on Number sixty-three."

We watch him peer closely at his book, and listen breathlessly as he softly sets the pitch. Then his hand sweeps to right, to center, to left, and we proclaim the tune he has pitched. We go through the tune together -- soprano, alto, tenor, and bass singing the syllables, "fa, sol, la..." calling to life notes that told the stern but virginal Elizabeth how the tune should go. With the tune pitched at last, the leader adjusts his glasses and looks about. "The words," he demands; and we sing the words:

"Brethren, we have met to worship and to adore the Lord, our God..."

As the singing continues, leader after leader is called upon. Each is a good leader and will tolerate no dragging, yet a point of courtesy and common-sense democracy demands that when his turn is finished he must give way to another. All who can lead must have a chance to lead. A casual coming and going among the class (congregation) is evident. But it, too, is informal and does not affect the charged feeling in the little churchhouse. The songs are burning and familiar. They are the life we live. As the hands of our leaders wave us through the deep rhythm of the spirituals, we feel our emotions in songs. We sing to please ourselves, and the deep organic surge keeps our voices together.

At noon, however, the Sacred Harp is laid momentarily aside, and we go outside for dinner on the grounds. Mules, tied nearby and sensing neglect, bray long and deep. Dust, kicked up by thudding heels, rises to make breathing difficult and to intensify the heat. Yet no one notices, for baskets of food have been brought forth and their contents spread in long, shady rows beneath the trees.

A stout, middle-age lady with a hand for such things faces the milling, conversing crowd, gathers up the folds of her apron and carefully wipes her hands.

"You folks can come on now," she says. "you men folks take some of everything and eat all you want."

After a time, a leader gathers a group about him within the church. He pitches a tune and asks for the words; and "Come Ye Faithful..." rolls beckoning out into the grove, fetching us in. A new song is selected.

"I don't like it drug out," the leader cautions. "I like it pert, like you did before you ate."

His arm sweeps down, sweeps us back into the archaic splendor of choral music. The songs move from lesson to lesson; the leadership swings from the seasoned old fellows to the young and obviously frightened tyro. But the tune never wavers, the rhythm does not drag. All that remains is movement and sound, with the latter still unabatedly prominent. We have found a grace of heart and, for the moment, a joyous way of living. (pp. 18-20)

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