Sacred Harp Singing: A Review

La-Miss-Ala Shape-Note Newsletter (July-August, 1998).

Sacred Harp Singing. The Library of Congress: Archive of Folk Culture. Introduction by Wayne D. Shirley. Preface and Notes by George Pullen Jackson. Rounder 1503. Originally released in the series Folk Music of the United States, AFS L11, 1943.

This collaboration between folklorist Alan Lomax and Sacred Harp enthusiast and scholar George Pullen Jackson represents “one of the classic documents of Sacred Harp singing.” The earliest recordings of Sacred Harp singers were produced on commercial labels as early as the 1920s. They did not attempt to show the full sound of a large class of singers, but instead featured small groups of four to ten singers, often accompanied by piano or other instruments. The powerful sound of a typical Sacred Harp singing or convention, the “harmonic complex of singular charm” so vividly described by Jackson in a 1926 article, was not recorded until August 1942, when Alan Lomax, then head of the Archive of American Folk Song, joined Jackson at the 37th session of the Alabama State Convention at Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham. Issued as an album of 78s in 1943, the recordings were reissued on LP by the Library of Congress in 1978, making the present CD the third release of this important material; it includes Jackson’s original preface and notes, and the 1978 introduction by Wayne D. Shirley.

The twenty selections include six plain tunes (two with refrains), eleven fuging tunes, and two anthems—one song, Lover of the Lord, appears twice, both times sung by a small group, while two tunes, Mission and Vain World Adieu, are misidentified as fuging tunes. Jackson wrote that

in stressing the folk-hymn and the “fuguing” song types of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Sacred Harp folk have shown good sense. The other types of sings in their book (camp-meeting spirituals and religious ballads) do not lend themselves so easily to their large-group part-singing undertaking. (p. 15)

The recording quality shows an amazingly good balance: all parts are audible, and the voice and personality of the leader shows through, as though the listener were sitting near the center of the hollow square. Jackson, following James, attributes Milford to John Stephenson (1772-1833), musical editor of Moore’s Irish Melodies, rather than to mid 18th-century English psalmodist Joseph Stephenson. The names of Justin Morgan, Elisha West, Nehemiah Shumway, Bartholomew Brown, Ezra Goff, Jacob French, and Stephen Jenks, all composers represented on the recording, are entirely absent from the notes by Jackson, making it unfortunate that this information was not updated from the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp.

Four photographs by Life photographer Ed Davis adorn the CD booklet. While not taken at the convention that Lomax recorded, they provide a vivid depiction of a Sacred Harp singing roughly contemporaneous with the recording, a wintertime singing in a rural church.

The spirited singing on this recording documents not only the convention sound of the 1940s but also the leading of composers and teachers such as Paine and Howard Denson, Marcus Cagle, Lee Wells, and John Marion Dye. The CD is truly a “classic document” of Sacred Harp singing, and will be enjoyed by singers and consulted by researchers for years to come.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1998 by David Warren Steel

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