Sing Proudly

By Irving Wolfe

The following article appeared in the January 29, 1965 issue of the Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News. It was written at the request of the editor, Priestly Miller.

In my years of Sacred Harp singing I have learned a great deal which makes me proud of Sacred Harp and Sacred Harp singers. In every contact, whether in a courthouse or a small rural church, I feel I have gained more than I have been able to contribute. While I can never repay adequately, I want to state some of the reasons why we should sing proudly when ever we sing from the Sacred Harp.

The Fine Old Songs

Most obvious, of course, is that Sacred Harp is a veritable treasury of relogious songs. As tunes they are sturdy and rhythmic, often modal in character, based on gapped scales. They have a sound of their own, partly because of the assignment of the melody to the tenor section which results in dispersed harmony with treble and counter parts above the melody and bass below. The tunes have real substance; and the musical effect of tune against tune in the so-called fuguing-tunes is a rewarding sound almost never heard in songs for corporate worship from other sources. To recall this as a value, listen to the closing of "Alabama" (no. 196) where each of the four parts in turn sing "that Jesus died for me." How else could you reflect on this precious thought with such humble wonder and awe?

Coming from the 18th and 19th centuries the expressions of the text often seem old-timey in wording; but the thoughts frequently are based on the eternal truths of scriptures and the old-timey wording helps us to know how our forebears felt about these matters. The wealth of subjects covered includes almost all appropriate topics and the whole gamut of man's feeling, mood and spirit. It would be good for today's young people, who may have no contact with the nurture of growing things, to reflect on the beautiful language and meaning of "Nashville" (no. 64).

One evidence of the abiding strength of the fine old songs of Sacred Harp is the frequency with which composers and choral arrangers have borrowed the songs—Buchanan, Bryan, Malin, Hooper, Dalton, Jackson. Each has proudly indicated Sacred Harp as the source of the tune. Recently, hymn book committees have found the Sacred Harp a good source for early hymns that are truly American.

Dedicated Singers

A second reason for singing proudly is the kind of company you keep when you attend Sacred Harp singings. You can't name a warmer hearted, more genuinely dedicated group of singers anywhere. They will drive three or four or five hours each way in order to attend an all-day singing, and next week will drive to another singing. When you think of this happening at a time when it is hard to get people to put on their shoes again and come our for a concert in their own home town, you begin to realize the devotion and loyalty of these fine folk toward Sacred Harp. Especially do I respect the older singers who have helped to keep this fine southern tradition going for three or four or even five decades. We are so indebted to them.

The friendliest of welcomes is always there, not in terms of whether you have a wonderful voice but solely whether you love to join in singing the song and thinking its message. This brotherly spirit is shown also by the generous acceptance of the many leaders one after another, all day long, each choosing the songs for his lesson and leading in his own manner, hearty or gentle, calm or enthusiastic, precise or noncommittal. If a leader has trouble or lacks confidence for any reason everyone around the square is ready to healp.

Musical Link with the Past: Four Note Scale

For something like five generations devoted Christians of the South have sung the songs of the Sacred Harp. That in itself is a noteworthy history, a reason for singing proudly. However, history shows that the basis of our pride goes back much further. When we sing from the Sacred Harp with its four note scale, we are keeping alive a manner of singing and a mode of reading from notation that was in use over three hundred years ago.

The shaped notes are very American, but the fa sol la singing (no do re mi, an upward scale for complete octave being fa sol la fa sol la mi fa) was in widespread use in England in the early 1600s. An article in the Oxford Companion to Music under the title of "Lancashire Sol-Fa: gives serveral references which are evidence of the early use of this idea. Quoting from the article, "It might more properly be called 'Old English Sol-Fa', since it was in the earliest edition of the famous Bay Psalm Book containing music, published in Boston in 1700. (Several earlier printings had words only.) So when Sacred Harpers "sing the notes" before singing the words, they join in a custom established by generations reaching back to the very founding of our nation and the early colonies from which it sprang.

Melody by Tenors

When Washington served as our first President an ambitious early American composer and singing teacher, William Billings (1746-1800) was writing lively fuguing tunes.

In his part songs the melody was assigned to the tenor section, just as is the case with the arrangements of all Sacred Harp songs. When our friends speak of this as a strange idea in contrast to the usual melody in the soprano voice, we should remember that ours may be the only present-day body of singers that provides a living example of this early American vocal style. Billings was not alone in this custom of melody by the tenor section. It was typical of many American composers and arrangers from the period of the Revolution well past the middle of the nineteenth century.

As a music educator, I make an effort to help young musicians and prospective teachers to realize these unique values in the well established tradition of Sacred Harp singings. I see no signs of any weakening of the tradition, now in its one-hundred twenty-first year. By all means, sing proudly!

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