Huntsville Sacred Harp Newsletter

Number 28, April 1998

David Ivey, Editor

Annual Huntsville Singing Day: May 2

The fourteenth annual session of the Huntsville All Day Singing will be held at Burrutt Museum on Saturday May 2 from 9:30 am until 2:30 pm. We need your help and invite you to attend.

United Convention to be Held in Huntsville

The United Sacred Harp Musical Association will hold its annual two day convention in Huntsville in 1998 on Saturday and Sunday, September 12 and 13. This convention last met in Huntsville in 1989 at the Burritt Museum.

Schedule of Singings

The next Huntsville Friday Night Singing will be on February 6th from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Burritt Museum. Please come and join the singing. Sacred Harp songbooks and the new 1997-1998 Directory and Minutes will be available.

Sunrise Sampler Article

The following article by Joe Jones of Huntsville appeared in the Autumn 1997 edition of The Sunrise Sampler (106 Howle Street, Heflin AL 36264, annual subscription rate $16.64) and is reprinted here with permission.

Fading Shape-Note Singing Assumes New Vigor

by Joseph M. Jones

Shape-note "fasola" singing, held dear in the hearts and memories of a diminishing number of Southerners, is far from dead, having shifted gears and making moves toward becoming something of a national rather than a regional cultural interest. And Alabamians are at the very core of this movemenet.

A hundred fifty years ago, community singings of the four shape-note tradition were as common as blakeyed peas in the rural south. They were held all over the region, using several different tunebooks, and, according to music historians, some of them attracting many hundreds -- and on some occasions thousands -- of participants.

The songs were vurtually all of a religious nature, and probably most of the singers took part as acts of worship, bit it should be acknowledged that then, as no, forces quite different from the simple worship of God were at work. Singings were major social occasions in that past day, a bright relief from otherwise dreary lives. Television, little league, and a thousand other diversions have largely robbed today's singers of that motivation, but many still find strong social rewards in associating in this manner.

If pressed to explain their loyalty to the old music, most modern singers would falter, but their responses would almost universally have something to say about the pure joy brought to them by the music, the deep soul-satisfaction it brings, the honoring of the old ways of their forebears, and so forth.

That doesn't, however, fully explain the growing fasola attraction to musicians in far corners of the country, who were not born to it, of which more will be said later.

Whereas several generations ago many songbooks were used, today there's only one vigorous survivor, The Sacred Harp, although there are several others in limited use. The Sacred Harp, authored originally by two Georgians in 1844, continues now these seven generations later in two different form, both of which have had editions published in the 1990s. The Denson revision is considered the mainline book; it is mainly used in the heart of Sacred harp country (central and north Alabama, Georgia, and all of the "expansion clubs" in New England, the Midwest and the Far West). The Cooper revision originated in Alabama's Wiregrass area and is used mostly in south Alabama, north Florida and a few pockets of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The books are similar, but they each have their own tradition and contain new music added by independent revisionists over a century's time. (There's also a little-used Colored Sacred Harp, published early this century at Dothan, Alabama by a band of black singers unique to that area, mostly around Ozark.)

The type of folk music represented by the Sacred Harp had its beginnings in this country in New England in the early 1700s, although its roots go back to Elizabethan England. (Shakespeare refers to it in King Lear). The shapes of the notes and the practice of voicing the notes were American frontier innovations whose purpose was to aid in the musical instruction of people who were poorly educated but had a strong desire to sing. This kind of oral music, with its unique tonal quality, rendered without the assistance of instruments, prospered in the rural areas of the country -- once essentially all rural.

As population centers developed, music tastes grew more sophisticated and the old fasola singing waned. Even in colonial times, historians say, it never endured long in Eastern Seaboard settlements where the citizens were able eventually to have organs. The people in the back country couldn't easily afford organs and transport them through the mountains and hollows. Thus, the music of the Sacred Harp type throve in the highlands, not in coastal areas. This fact led the noted music scholar George Pullen Jackson of Vanderbilt University to title one of his major works on the fasola phenomenon White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. Music of the kind appearing in The Sacred Harp was important to early American worship, but was not so limited, according to Jackson. In frontier day, there were secular singings -- often in community taverns. The songs, however, were mostly spiritual and thus wer directly transferable to the meeting house.

The Sacred Harp is dealt with here as representative of "a type of music" for good reason. It is the only surviving book in general use today, but it was far from unique when it first appeared 153 years ago. Jackson notes that "thirty-eight different books of song appear in the four-shape notation between the years 1798 and 1855." All of them were oblong in shape, as is The Sacred Harp today, and virtually all of them had many songs in common. The authors of many of the pieces are unknown; they were written by common people and handed down. Often scripture-based lyrics were added to folk tunes that had existed for generations or centuries. (One modern scholar has traced one song, "The Great Day," back to the tenth century.) The ordinary man became a song writer and his work was recorded for posterity. Many of these same songs are in congregational use today: "Come thou fount of every blessing," "Come ye sinners, poor and needy," "What wondrous love," etc.

From a numbers viewpoint, there is no way of accurately comparing today's shape-note singers to those of the distant past. George Pullen Jackson wrote in the 1930s that Sacred Harp practitioners numbered "in the hundreds of thousands." Hugh McGraw of Georgia, present secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Co., estimated in an interview several years ago that the current number is about ten thousand.

That number has possible increased somewhat in the recent national surge of interest; nine thousand copies of the 1991 revision of the Denson book were printed and most have been sold. The 1992 version of the Cooper book, which has its headquarters in Samson, Alabama, had a press run of three thousan, about half of which have been sold.

While The Sacred Harp is the only generally-used book surviving from the last century, small knots of singers continue to use kindred books on a very limited scale. A group of "old harp" singers, as they call themselves, exists in the Knowville, Tennessee, area. They use The New Harp of Clumbia, which was published in 1867 and reprinted by the University of Tennessee Press two decades ago.

Also, once a year -- at the University of Georgia -- Alabama and Georgia singers gather for a single singing using The Social Harp, which was published in Georgia in 1859, and has been out of print for many years. The Social Harp singers, however, actually alternate "lessons" between that old book (now scarce) and The Sacred Harp. There is one singing a year held in Benton, Kentucky, using The Southern Harmony, published in 1854 and reporinted some years ago by the University of Kentucky. A few other singings in that region combine The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp and one includes songs from The Kentucky Harmony and The Missouri Harmony (other shape-note books popular a century ago). In Alabama's Bibb and Jefferson counties and environs, there are several singings annually which use The Christian Harmony, a book that was first printed in 1866 and revised and reissued in Centerville, Alabama, in 1958 and again in 1994. (Both The Southern Harmony and The Christian Harmony were published by William Walker who also produced other tunebooks. He also authored many pieces that appear in The Sacred Harp and is easily considered the nineteenth century's "first Gentleman" of shape-note music.

That the Sacred Harp movement exists at all beyond its native terrain -- and is preading in select circles nationally and internationally -- is due in large part to the lifelong scholarship of George Pullen Jackson. He wrote six books and many journal articles calling the world's attention to this little-known folk practice, "almost single-handedly reconstructing an entire chapter of American musical and cultural history," according to one historical source.

Most singings of the nineteenth century were local. As travel became easier and more affordable, first with the coming of the railroad and then with cars and buses and airplanes, no singing anywhere is inaccessible to the true believer. Deep South singers have thought little of traveling a hundred to three hundred miles for a day or a weekend of singing. And noe, on nearly any given weekend, singers from California, Chicago or New England may appear at a Georgia or Alabama event. Last July 4, at a traditional singing in Muscadine, Cleburne County, there were visitors from Iowa, Kansas and Michigan. Some fly, others just drive fast. And often. It isn't unusual for individual singers from the Midwest to come tto Alabama singings on successive weekends -- literally keeping the interstates hot.

"The south is their Mecca," said one seasoned southern Sacred Harp blueblood. "They want to see how we sing it and be instructed thereby." Mainly, they are attracted to a dozen counties in the central portions of Alabama and Georgia.

In 1997, Sacred Harp singings are being held in most of the United States and Canada -- and, for only the second time in modern history, England, the mother country where such singing flourished four centuries ago, is holding a national singing much akin to Sacred Harp. (A handful of southern Sacred Harpers went to that first British singing last year, and in June 1997, a dozen Britishers attended the three-day National Sacred Harp convention in Birmingham, taking conducting roles, in turn, with their hosts and then giving demonstrations in their own distinctive style.)

The singings are mostly all-day affairs; a few local singings are evening-only. The major regional singings are known as conventions and cover from one to three days. The biggest singing of recent years is not held in the southern heartland at all, but in Chicago, where the Midwest Convention draws 400 to 500 participants, including a busload or two from Alabama and Georgia. THere is a new interest in Sacred Harp in virtually every section of the country.

All of the Deep South and border states host singings; five of the six New England states have singings listed annually; there are seven scheduled for 1997 in California. And then there's Washington, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico in the west, and New York and most of the eastern seaboard and midwestern states. All told, about 33 states have singings listed among the 250 accounted for in the 1997 Sacred Harp Singings Annual Directory and Minutes. Several occur in eastern Canada.

And there is available on the Internet a voluminous and wonderfully diverse document, Sacred Harp and Related Shape-note Music Resources, a 58-page bibliography of many hundreds of books, articles, recordings, commentaries, etc. It was prepared and is updated continually by a Washington, D.C. medical doctor Steven L. Sabol (

What is responsible for this birth or rebirth of interest in modern America where our people take virtually no part in group singing other than as a perfunctory part of formal church worship? This is a question difficult for the present writer to answer, he not being a musician, not a folkorist, and with only a "heart" interest in Sacred Harp, having no technical knowledge of this or other music, and scarce ability to perform.

Acknowledging such handicaps, the writer nevertheless asserts that it is a simple desire to know and follow the old ways, to recreate a practice that is importnt to our past culture. Today's singing as compared to that of 150 years ago is almost certainly less a spiritual expression than it is a hungry pursuit of the past.

David Ivey of Huntsville, a computer/technology information specialist, born and raised on Sand Mountain in a Sacred Harp hotbed, makes an important distinction between Southern singers of yesteryear and the present new converts. Ivey has taught singing schools over the country, and is thus importantly connected to the spreading of this gospel. He says that much of the interest outside the southern heartland is on the part of knowledgeable, trained musicians; that is, people who know music and read it well.

"They are fine musicians, including band and choir leaders," he said. That is in contrast to most southern singers, who have and ear for music to match their desire, with little or no formal training. Thus for many in other regions of the country whe weren't born to it, the love of the music is more cultural and academic than spiritual/traditional.

Another Alabamian who has had a serious impact on the propagation of the movement is Jeff Sheppard (Glencoe) who teachers singing schools frequently, and who -- like Ivey -- officiates at numerous singings throughout the state and region. Both Sheppard and Ivey were members of the seven-man committee that published the handsome and more scholarly acceptable 1991 version of the Sacred Harp book. Four Alabamians were on this committee, the others being Terry Wootten of Ider and Toney Smith of Tuscaloosa.

The other three members of the group were Georgians: general chairman Hugh BcGraw of Bremen, Richard L. DeLong of Carrollton and Raymond C. Hamrick of Macon. All committeemen are stalwarts in the movemenet; they teach, they promote, they publish, they record -- they never miss a chance to push Sacred Harp, and it is safe to say that they don't miss many weeks on the year without attending a shape-note singing. They all, incidentally, are authors of new songs that appear in the 1991 edition of the book. DeLong and others are bringing out a series of compact discs of Sacred harp music. They are presently reissuing music from long-play records produced under McGraw's leadership in the 1960s and '70s. Ivey and Wootten have been instrumental in producing taped and long-play records.

Wootten is a member of the large Sand Mountain family of Woottens which, along with the Ballingers of Fayette County, are perhaps the most notable and largest of many Alabama families devoted to singing -- Alabama being the state which hosts more annual singings than any other.

An Alabamian who has contributed significantly to the study of the music and its position in the culture of the region is Buell E. Cobb, Jr. of Birmingham, former college professor and a lifelong devotee of Sacred Harp. He wrote a book, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, which was published by the University of Georgia Press in 1978. This 245-page work is a treasure for the modern reader who wants to understand the movement and its role in southern society. It has been reprinted a number of times, and is now available only in paperback, either from the publishers or the author at 2216 Shady Dell Lane, Birmingham Alabama 35216.

As noted earlier, many songs now appearing in standard hymn books originated in The Sacred Harp and other shape-note books. Many churches throughout the country in recent years have contributed to the revival of interest through special choir programs. The Emory University music department (Atlanta) has done significant work, as has Samford University (Birmingham). The Robert Shaw Chorale has popularized a number of songs. The Boston Camerata, an internationally known choral group, has issued recent CDs featuring Sacred Harp pieces.

A testimonial to the value many place on the music was given by Jackson in his book, White Spirituals, quoting a Georgian, Charles Martin:

Every time I go to one of these singings I feel I am attending a memorial to my mother. Twenty years ago she floated out into the harbor of eternal rest. Today she is taking part in the Royal Band [a reference to the lyrics of a favorite song]. This singing takes me back to the dearest spot known to humanity, that of a mother's knee. It never fails, on such occasions, that some song or some voice amongst the singers reminds me of my dear old mother. And then it just seems as if the purest joys nearest heaven itself hovered over the place. You'll have to put up a mighty high fence [the old singer declared convincingly] to keep me out of a Sacred Harp singing.

To be convinced of the validity of that statement, one has only to witness singers in the heat of a well-formed "class," where balance of the four parts, volume of sound, congeniality of singers, and other factors all come together in an optimum combination.

Rarely in public or private life does one see displayed such perfect euphoria. These "purest joys," of course, derive only to the participant. In truth, Sacred Harp music is mainly for the singer, not the listener. And finally, as Buell Cobb writes in his classic book,

Today the Sacred Harp does not hold the important social position it did in [former] days. . . . The scope of this tradition has dwindled from a whole region to these scattered bands of followers, altogether perhaps no more than a few thousand. But the singing is no less vigorous for that. If no longer a prominent part of southern culture, the Sacred Harp has persisted as a subculture of its own, drawing on the strength of family ties and on the appearl of a music and a system unreformed by time. "I belong to this band," one of the favorite refrains in the book, could serve as the theme for these shape-note practitioners.

Their conventions often occur only short distances from [and in] some of the largest southern cities. But in their singing practices and ritualistic music, the Sacred Harp folks are separated from the life around them by centuries; and in other ways -- in their attitudes and valies, their joy of group singing -- by more than years.

Editor's Note: Joseph M. (Joe) Jones, son of the late Leo R. Jones and Mattie McWhorter Jones, is a Heflin, Alabama, native who now lives in Huntsville. In writing the foregoing article, he speaks from knowledge and experience acquired over the years through family and friends devoted to Sacred Harp singing. Both he and his wife, Frances Etheridge Jones, a native of Ozark, Alabama, have a deep and abiding family heritage of Sacred Harp and they have instilled in their sons, Lee, Donald and Alan, the desire to continue this family tradition. Joe recently retired from a writing career that began with the Montgomery Advertiser and ended with NASA in Huntsville as Director of Public Affairs.

Sacred Harp Information on the Internet

World Wide Web Sites:

  1. Fasola home page
  2. Sacred Harp Singing

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