Sacred Singout

By Hubert Saal, with Joseph B. Cumming, Jr.

In the center of the hollow square, the leader calls out "32A" and 100 or more singers—men, women and children—shuffle through their songbooks. Like a sudden gale, they burst into song: "Ashamed of Jesus? Sooner far/Let evening blush to own a star." The volume is turned all the way up, as if God might be a little hard of hearing; the pace of the majestic hymn is breakneck, as if God's patience were exhaustible. In the white-clapboard Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, deep in the Georgia piney backwoods, these singers are ardently upholding one of the oldest, purest musical traditions in America—Sacred Harp singing.

Sacred Harp singers have nothing to do with harps beyond the archaic use of the word to denote the voice of man as an instrument to praise God. As such, they are the prime expression of an indigenous American music that has lived since the eighteenth century. Combining adaptations of Biblical texts with secular tunes and sung without accompaniment, this music developed in reaction to the Puritans' emphasis on spoken gospel. For accessibility, it employed the venerable "fasola" musical system in which the only notations used are fa, sol and la (with an occasional mi) and the notes are shaped as triangles, squares and circles for easy reading. Even today, each song is first sung through with the substitution of fa, sol and la for the words of the hymn.

The established churches, which liked instruments and sweet sounds, rejected this raw form of musical communion. Slowly, "fasola" singing retreated into the rural South, where books of the hymns kept it alive: "Southern Harmony," "Social Harp," "Kentucky Harmony."

Grown: Easily the most popular is the "Original Sacred Harp," which, to many singers, ranks in importance just after the Bible. Sacred Harp has not only survived but, since 1935, grown. Hugh McGraw heads the company that publishes the hymnal: "I sell books to 44 states and seven foreign countries," he says. "I sell five books to California for every one in Alabama and Georgia. They had 500 people in Lexington, Mass., in October." Still, it's a long way from the great 1867 convention in Paulding County in Georgia that drew 8,000. "They drawed the well dry four times that day," says McGraw.

The big Establishment parishes want no part of such affairs, but the fundamentalist Primitive Baptist sect, which meets once a month, allows its empty churches to be used for the sings. During the recent day-long sing in Holly Springs, different singers got up to lead, choosing their favorite hymns. What was heard was an unrefined, even strident singout; this is singing for the singers, not the audience. Said McGraw: "If the bass can get its lowest tone without grunting and the trebles can hit their high notes without screaming, it's OK."

There was no mistaking the outpouring of spiritual faith as the singing proceeded with the relentlessness of a crusade. But the day was also laced with humor: "You'll note a small odor," McGraw informed the group at one point. "Don't worry about it, it ain't your neighbor. It's a cotton poison they put out here about fifteen years ago, and they never got rid of the smell."

'Weeping Eyes': Even more important than the tunes were the words, which are called "the poetry" or the "lesson." No. 172, "Harmony," reads: "To him who shaped your finer mould,/Who tipped your glittering wings with gold." The popular No. 114, Isaac Watts's "Saint's Delight," goes: "When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies,/I'll bid farewell to every fear and wipe my weeping eyes." No. 105, "Jewett," is only one of many Sacred Harp songs whose popularity has spread beyond the "fasola" songbooks; its famous opening goes: "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!/That saved a wretch like me!"

At noon, the Holly Springers stopped to devour a country feast to which housewives seemed to have contributed their best fried chicken and a hymnology of pies. On the social scale they ranged from college professors to farmers. "I go to church," said Mae Seymour, of Bessemer, Ala., "but singing is my real church." "At these singings," said Carl Hughes, "there ain't no little I's and big you's. When we sing together, we're like a bunch of brothers." And so they are. "We get Southern Baptist, Methodist, even a lot of Catholics," said McGraw. "You might even find some hypocrites here."

Newsweek, November 20, 1978, pp. 108-9.

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