A Sacred Harp Curriculum: A Review

CRME Bulletin 103 (Winter 1990), pp. 39-43.

Mai Hogan Kelton. “Analysis of the Music Curriculum of Sacred Harp (American Tune-Book, 1971 Edition) and Its Continuing Traditions.” Ed.D. dissertation, University of Alabama, 1985. Pp. xii, 343.

The Sacred Harp—the tunebook, its music, and its performance tradition in the Deep South—has been the subject of bibliographical, historical and cultural studies since its “discovery” by George Pullen Jackson in the 1930s. Its pedagogical aspect, and the broader issues in music education that it raises, have been largely neglected until now. Like nearly all 19th-century tunebooks, The Sacred Harp contains a section of instructional rudiments, intended for use in singing schools. In her recent Alabama dissertation, Mai Kelton offers an analysis of the educational method employed in contemporary Sacred Harp singing schools, along with suggestions for implementation in secondary schools today. The main outlines of Kelton’s method are clear. The instructional rudiments and repertory of the 1971 Denson Revision are analyzed for their educational content (ch. 2). This material is supplemented by the responses to her questionnaire of twenty-two active singing-school teachers (profiled in ch. 3), and her observations of two singing-schools (ch. 4) and thirty-two annual singings and conventions (ch. 5). All this material is then analyzed for “learning outcomes,” expressed in a taxonomic form, and a brief unit is proposed for secondary schools that will realize these outcomes in a learning environment that partly simulates that of the traditional singing school.

Kelton organizes her findings into musical and non-musical results, each divided into psychomotor, cognitive and affective. For example, the “curriculum” teaches the musical psychmotor skills of voice management, sight-reading and leading (beating time with the hand); cognitive skills include recognizing printed signs and symbols and the concepts they signify; in affective terms, the act of singing and leading produces a sense of participation in a group effort and stimulates the aesthetic enjoyment of the music. Non-musical learnings include the ability to locate songs and to hold the book while beating time (psychomotor), knowledge of historical and biographical facts about the songs and their authors (cognitive), and the social and religious values inculcated in the ritual of the all-day singing (affective). A learner who has mastered and synthesized all these skills and values may go on to become a composer or to teach a singing school. The taxonomic outline is given in its entirety twice (pp. 8-12, and 143-148), the second time with a letter code indicating whether each learning is explicitly taught by the book and singing-teacher (A), implicitly taught but seldom mentioned (B), or inherent in the tradition but sought out only by those with special interests (C). As might be expected, the musical elements fall mostly into the A and B categories, the non-musical ones mostly into B and C.

The most valuable feature of Kelton’s approach is the participation of traditional singing-school teachers whose background and training are summarized in Chapter 3, their teaching methods in Chapter 4. Though not all the teachers answered the questionnaire fully, their responses reveal a depth of practical experience with roots going back to the 18th century. Skilfilly summarized, this information, some of it drawn from informants now deceased, is not available anywhere else; by making it available, Kelton has done music educators, as well as historians, a real service. Her taxonomic outline may prove valuable to teachers of sight-reading in a variety of traditions, and her proposals for a unit on the Sacred Harp, though incomplete, may be useful to teachers and music supervisors who wish to expose their students to this interesting and challenging form of music.

The greatest weakness of the dissertation is evident in Chapter 2, her analysis of the 1971 edition of Original Sacred Harp (Denson Revision), the tunebook used by all the teachers in the study. Kelton’s greatest problem here is an uncritical approach to the sources. Following George Pullen Jackson, Kelton calls J. Jackson’s Colored Sacred Harp a “variant” of The Sacred Harp, though it is an independent tunebook using the same notation. While Kelton recognizes that many composer attributions in the 1971 edition are faulty (pp. 46-48), she nevertheless attempts (in Appendix C) to draw quantitative conclusions from this faulty material, which often fails even to identify correctly the century when a given piece was composed. In order to show that “folk music” is an important element in the repertory, Kelton draws on studies by G. P. Jackson and Dorothy Horn that attempt to identify specific tunes as folk-derived or folk-influenced. She concludes that 230 pieces in the book are so identified (p. 52) and designates each of these in Appendix B. The problem is that Jackson and Horn used different criteria in designating “folk-hymns”; hence, to quantify these analyses is misleading and unnecessary. The discussion of modality shows confusion: “gapped” melodies, using only five or six different pitch classes, are identified by Kelton using terms appropriate for heptatonic modes—Aeolian, Dorian, Mixolydian, even Phrygian—though the harmonizations are all in the major or natural minor mode (the latter usually sung as Dorian); no explanation is given for this ambiguous terminology. A certain number of pieces are characterized as “misbarred” or exhibiting “mixed meters,” (p. 59); though these terms are nowhere defined, the pieces are tabulated in Appendix C.

More serious problems result from Kelton’s attempt to classify the pieces in the Original Sacred Harp by type, as hymns, fuging-tunes and anthems. Rejecting the reasonable, though vaguely stated, definitions in the rudiments section, Kelton calls all “simple songs” Hymns, then separates the Fuging-Tunes from the Anthems by defining fuging-tunes as having “a juxtaposition of vowel sounds in the text resulting in vocal polyphony” (p. 52), rather than the usual criterion of textual conflict in quasi-imitative entries. This leaves the rest of the “more elaborate” pieces (35 in all) as Anthems, a group that includes many songs not generally regarded as anthems: hymns like Petersburg, Silver Street, Loving Jesus, and Land of Rest, and fuging-tunes like Assurance, Norwich, and Peace and Joy. A useful category of composition, revival songs with refrains, is not mentioned, though they are especially numerous in the Sacred Harp. The retention of caption titles from the 1844 Sacred Harp (Part 2, “consisting of pieces used in singing schools and societies,” and Part 3, “consisting of odes and anthems”) has led Kelton into the assertion that Part 3 extends to the end of the book, and contains 304 pieces, more than the other two parts combined. Actually, part 3 extends only to page 262, the end of the 1844 edition. Additional title pages or caption titles marked additions in 1850, 1859, 1869 and 1911, but these were deleted in the Denson revision. Again, the meaningless and fallacious data are tabulated on page 49. The purpose of Chapter 2 seems to be to describe the full repertory of musical concepts and effects necessary to perform the songs in the book; this purpose is obscured by the uncritical acceptance of others’ work, by concepts incompletely examined, and by the introduction of irrelevant issues (such as an unsupported comparison with the vocal technique of a “Broadway belter,” p. 76).

In chapter 5, Kelton sympathetically describes the “ritual” of the Sacred Harp singing in terms that add substantially to similar descriptions by Jackson, Ellington, Cobb and others, but still fails to document “the oral performance practice,” or give a complete picture of divergence from the “Curriculum” established by rudiments, schools and printed repertory. In this discussion, “democratic values” are oversimplified. Frequently officers of local singings serve for many years without opposition; when dissension arises, it is often resolved by the withdrawal of the disaffected parties, with the consequent loss of musical talent and tradition. Race relations in the Sacred Harp world are also oversimplified and idealized in Kelton’s study. While white singers are routinely welcomed at black singings, it would still be highly unusual to encounter black singers at an annual singing or homecoming at a rural white church. Black singers and listeners are more often seen at white-run singings in courthouses, college campuses or other public locations; the National Convention, since its establishment in 1980, has made an conscious effort to include black singers and audience.

Chapter 7 presents Kelton’s conclusions and recommendations. After a brief reference to a theory of “values education” (pp. 158-160), the entire Sacred Harp curriculum is summarized, and a secondary school unit is proposed, complete with a rough course outline, a written examination, and forms for evaluation. Unfortunately, there is little effort to relate the course outline to the singing-teachers’ method, or to specify how the latter must be modified or abridged to adapt to conditions in secondary schools. An interesting feature is Table 23, a “rating scale for a Sacred Harp singing,” based on eight distinctive and essential practices. There is no indication about who is to use the rating scale, or even whether it pertains to an actual singing or to the secondary school unit. But it bears comparison with the four essential practices insisted upon by singing-teacher Hugh McGraw in his workshops and classes among singers of widely varied cultural backgrounds: the hollow square arrangement of voice-parts, the rotation of leaders, the use of “fasola” syllables, and opening and closing prayers. Kelton’s list is more detailed, and includes all of these four except the prayers, presumably because these would be inappropriate in a public classroom. A useful bibliography and nine appendices round out the work (occupying nearly half the pages of the total dissertation. The latter include a complete facsimile of the instructional rudiments from the Denson revision, several lists of varying accuracy and usefulness, and photographic facsimiles of all correspondence with singing-teachers. But what purpose is served by a tabulation (in Appendix C) of pieces in the Sacred Harp appropriate for the Liturgical Year and for “occasional use” in churches? And, while the often handwritten letters are quaint in their original form, a typewritten transcription of these would have been more legible and useful, as would a transcription of the telephone interviews in which much of the most useful material was elicited. This omission is partly remedied in Appendix I, in which many of the informants’ answers to specific questions are collated.

Mai Kelton’s dissertation should prove interesting reading for anyone involved in sight singing or vocal music education. Although detailed class notes are not included, enterprising teachers can use this study, along with the Sacred Harp tunebook, to create a teaching unit with practical implications for music, history and sociology. Still, the teacher’s first-hand acquaintance with the tradition would be most helpful, as well as the participation of traditional Sacred Harp singers, where these are available.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1990 by the Council on Research in Music Education

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