Sacred Harp Singing a Tie to Tradition

Musical heritage binds singers from across Southeast at Oxford's annual gathering

Lucy Schultze, senior staff writer

This article recounts the 27th annual singing at Oxford City Hall on March 8, 2007, the last to be held at that location. This reprint lacks the photographs by Bruce Newman and the captions.

The sound is strong, steady and impressively loud. Why hold back when the music flows as naturally as the blood in your veins?

Rooted deeply in Southern tradition, the music fills Oxford's City Hall Courtroom each spring for the the annual Sacred Harp singing has an almost tangible weight - heavy in its deep-chested sound, anchored by the bond of generations.

"It goes all the way back in our family as far as we know," says Brenda Merritt of Oxford, for whom the sound conjures up memories of summer evenings at her grandparents' house.

"It's truly a spiritual worship service for me, but it's also about the heritage and tradition of it," she says. "I don't remember not singing."

Communal music

That's the case, too, for many of the 80 folks who filled the courtroom Sunday. The group sits in the traditional "hollow square" shape inside the courtroom's front rail, spilling out into the rows of seats beyond.

But don't mistake the rail as dividing the "performers" from the "audience." In this kind of recital, nearly everyone takes part.

One by one, volunteers both eager and shy take a turn in the center of the square. They call out the numbers of their favorite songs in "The Sacred Harp" - the gathering's namesake 160-year-old tunebook - and raise a hand to mark the starting beat.

Although "The Sacred Harp" contains many familiar hymns, over the years it's been used primarily at conventions and singing schools rather than traditional church services. The "harp" reference is simply symbolic; there are no instruments involved.

To start off, the group sings through each tune, not in words but in syllables - the mi-fa-sol-la sounds spelled out in shape-note form on each printed page. The system dates back for centuries as a way to make sight-reading easier to learn.

As the singing goes on, the leader's up-and-down motion keeps the group on rhythm. Other singers mimic his or her movements instinctively.

"That's part of the thing that's peculiar about it - there's really nobody that's musically in charge," says Warren Steel, UM professor of music and a lead organizer for the local singings.

"Everybody gets a chance to get up and lead - and that leading is not the same as conducting. Sometimes they're bringing the different parts in and making good eye contact, but basically they're just keeping time."

Carrying on tradition

Sacred Harp singing dates back to the 1870s in Lafayette County, Steel said, most recently in the Pine Flat community and at Antioch Primitive Baptist Church on Van Buren Avenue.

Steel had been involved in Sacred Harp singing in the Boston area prior to coming to Oxford in 1980. With interest from Bill Ferris, founding director for the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Steel worked with English professor George Boswell and others to reestablish an all-day singing in Oxford.

Their selection of City Hall as the site also had historical reasons, Steel said.

"There's a long tradition of having Sacred Harp singings in courtrooms," he said.

"People have that in their lore, because it was one of the few places that was large enough to hold a meeting of that size. These singings use to attract hundreds of people and it would be standing-room-only."

Although today Oxford's annual singing is one of the best-attended in the region, gathering a crowd isn't as easy as it once would have been.

"Years ago, a community had enough singers to carry a singing, but nowadays we don't have as many," said Reba Windon, who drove over from her winter home in Ider, Ala., to attend the Oxford singing.

"Without as many young people coming in, we have to travel," she said. "We've been to England, California, Seattle, Florida - but this is my first singing in the state of Mississippi."

She hopes to do her part in reversing the dying-out trend by taking her granddaughters this summer to a four-day camp in Anniston, Ala., hosted by the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association.

Family ties

With pockets of remaining singers scattered across the Southeast, the relationship among them is like family, says Sarah Beasley Smith of Bessemer, Ala.

"We're kindred in musical culture," she said at Sunday's singing. "What we do is just visit from group to group and sing with them, and then they come sing with us.

"It's a way of preserving and carrying on our traditions."

It's also a living connection with those who have gone on to glory. They're present, still, as they're honored in the "memorial lesson" segment of each singing event.

Following the traditional dinner on the grounds, held this year at Off Square Books, the memorial lesson invites the group to sing in memory of friends and family who have died in the past year, and in honor of the sick and shut-in.

At every singing, it marks an emotional peak in a ritual closely mindful of the thin barrier between life and afterlife - and of the way the same tunes connect generations across the ages.

"The music touches your soul," said Steel, quoting a singer who e-mailed thanks after Sunday's singing.

Oxford Eagle, March 16, 2007

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