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The ‘Sacred Harp’ tradition of singing: Still alive and well

By Ethelene Dyer Jones



With gasoline prices sky-rocketing this summer and far-away vacations a near impossibility for some families in this time of current economic crunch, perhaps an event or a site nearer home could be arranged for a mini-vacation.  
May I suggest an Appalachian traditional entertainment, both enjoyable and with fellowship and opportunities to participate. That is a Sacred Harp singing near you. I accessed some delightful Web sites recently that gave information on this uniquely American tradition. You can also find information about places not so far from where you live to attend an “all-day” singing with “dinner-on-the ground.” Or perhaps churches in your area have a singing in the ‘good ole summertime’ to which you could go.
An examination of the history of this American folk tradition allows us to see why its popularity carries into the 21st century.
Sometimes it is called “fa-sol-la” singing. Passed at first by oral tradition long before they were published in tune books, the metrical hymns and psalms of Isaac Watts and others were an important part of frontier worship as groups met first in homes and then in a church house built where some citizen set aside an acre or so of land for a meeting place.
This method of singing was taught in widely-practiced singing schools in the south, beginning in the nineteenth century. The song leader would announce a tune, known to most people, and then “line out” the words to go with that tune. 
The preacher or the song leader would often be the only one in the congregation to have a song book. By repetition, the members would soon learn the words of the song.  When “New Britain C.M.” was announced as the hymn tune, the singers would know that “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,” the inimitable words by John Newton (1725-1807) would be sung to the announced tune.  “C.M.” stood for common meter, a metrical count of syllables in the phrases of the song being The version of this beloved hymn we so often sing now was published in “Virginia Harmony” in 1831 and repeated in subsequent hymn books even to the present day.  It was also in Jesse Mercer’s “Cluster.” 
Much of this singing tradition has been attributed to the “Old Baptists,” although other denominations like Presbyterians, Mennonites and Methodists also sang the old tunes to sacred words. Why, then, were so many of them attributed to Baptists?  George Pullen Jackson formerly a professor of music at Vanderbilt University in his “Story of the Sacred Harp,” states that “freedom” has always been a watchword of the Baptists.  Prior to and during the Revolutionary War, Baptists worshiped freely, without centralized religious authority. They wanted no part of the established religious orders and state churches as practiced in some of the colonies. They did not want even their singing linked to what they considered governmentally controlled denominations.
Most of the Old Baptist tunes found in the early years were secular songs with religious texts. They were remembered tunes that our ancestors sang in the hills of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales and brought to America with them. These tunes had been “spiritualized” with words written to show Christian experiences. For example, the minor-key hymn, “Wondrous Love” was set to the tune of a song about Captain Kidd, pirate. Fortunately for the hymn, the tune name was given “Wondrous Love,” not “Captain Kidd.” The meter in the old folk song in a minor key carries well the words of “Wondrous Love”:  “What wondrous love is this! Oh! my soul, Oh! my soul! What wondrous love is this, oh! my soul! That caused the Lord of bliss, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!”  
We don’t know who penned the words for the four-stanza hymn, “Wondrous Love,”  in its irregular (12, 9, 6, 6, 12, 9) rhythm. Even modern hymnbooks list the words as being “An American Folk Hymn.” It was  published in William Walker’s Southern Harmony in 1835. Benjamin Franklin White collaborated with Walker in compiling Southern Harmony, but when Walker took the manuscript to New Haven, Connecticut to be published, he did not include White’s name as co-author/compiler.
Evidently, this breached the friendship of the two musicians.  Ben White packed up his family and moved from Spartanburg, S.C. to Hamilton in Harris County, Ga. There he became editor of the local newspaper, The Organ. He also began working on “The Sacred Harp” songbook. Many of the songs he published in the newspaper. In 1844 the whole collection of songs was compiled by B.F. White and Joel King and published by Collins Press, Philadelphia. Subsequent editions came out in 1859 and 1860. The hymnbook was reprinted in 1968 by Broadman Press, Nashville, Tn. White and King’s “Sacred Harp” became the official music book of the Southern Musical Convention in Upson County, Ga. (1845), the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, Coweta County (1852), and the Tallapoosea Singing Convention in Haralson County (1867) and countless other Singing Conventions as they organized in counties after the Civil War.  The book was popular not only for its songs but for the “Rudiments of Music,” a 21-page manual of music instruction which was often used by singing school teachers.
Perhaps there are persons reading this column who can remember, as children and youth, accompanying your parents to the county seat town and attending an “all day singing” in the county courthouse. Whether members of your family sang or not, these all day events provided good opportunities in the summer time for fellowship and entertainment.
These well-attended singing conventions had special singers featured from the mountain areas of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Some of the singing school teachers of the 1930’s and 1940’s were the Rev. James Hood and Mr. Frank Dyer of Union County, and Mr. Everett Prince Bailey of Fannin County, Ga. and Polk County, Tn. Pickens County, Ga. had its special singers in this tradition. Groups of “Sacred Harp” musicians still meet and sing the old songs. In the last century, a group of singers from a church where one of the teachers had conducted a week or ten-day singing school might go to the courthouse to perform at the Singing Convention.
Noted names among those who still promote Sacred Harp Singing are descendants of B.F. White and the Denson Brothers, Howard and Paine. 
Among the noted  families of  singers are McGraws, Kitchens, Cagles, Lovvorns, Parrises, Manns, Drakes and others, some in the fifth generation of those who contributed to the “Sacred Harp” back in 1844.
Mr. Hugh McGraw of Bremen, Ga. has been so influential in teaching and continuing this tradition of sacred folk singing that he has been chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts for lifetime honors. Born Feb. 20, 1931 in Centralhatchee, Georgia, Hugh McGraw had parents who enjoyed participating in the singing schools and conventions in their area of the state. But Hugh McGraw himself was a “Johnny-come-lately” to the music scene. He was 25 years of age when he began to participate.  Since then, he has made up for the lost time of his youth. He has taught many singing schools and leads groups to revive the tradition of Sacred Harp. He also composes songs and sings in the “old style,” encouraging people to organize their own conventions and to participate in national festivals.  
Hugh McGraw says of reviving Sacred Harp singing: “A lot of people don’t sing this old music because it’s ‘old fogey.’  You don’t know that ‘old fogey’ means a caretaker.  A caretaker preserves something that’s worth preserving. And that’s what we’re trying to do in preserving this music, our national heritage.” (-from 1982, National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellows Honors).
I discovered in my own great grandmother’s handwriting (Nancy Collins Souther,  1829-1888, wife of John Combs Hayes Souther, 827-1891), a copy of a song they were learning at church. She had written the words April 13, 1868. I was thrilled to see the words of the song that had been “lined out” by the song leader as my great grandmother wrote them. She wrote:
“Come all ye righteous here below,
O hal-le, hal-le-lu-jah.
Let nothing prove your overthrow, 
O hal-le, hal-le-lu-jah.
But call on Me both day and night,
O hal-le, hal-le-lu-jah.
And I’ll visit you with delight,
Sing glory, hal-le-lu-jah!”
She penned words to other stanzas as well. I looked in the reprint of White & King’s “Sacred Harp” for the song my great grandmother wrote out to help her memorize the words.  I found the tune, “The Good Old Way” (L.M.—long meter) with the refrain, but the words given for the stanzas in the song book were not a match for what my ancestor wrote. There were many versions of the stanzas, as various people were inspired to write verses to fit tunes. I felt a deep kinship with her. The words she wrote fitted a commonly used tune she sang as she worshiped in the little New Liberty Baptist Church in sight of her cabin. She had a desire to participate more readily in the services by knowing the words to a song they enjoyed singing there. She was the mother of  ten children. Maybe she gathered them all around and they had a little Souther choir at home as she taught them the words to “The Good Old Way” tune.
On July 15, 2007, the nearly 200 kin gathered in my large Dyer-Souther Heritage Association reunion had the leadership of a descendant of Nancy Collins Souther, Dan Smith, musician of North Carolina.  He led us in singing “Great Grandmother’s Song” she had so diligently copied by hand. It was a wonderful way to connect to a rich tradition of the past and to celebrate our heritage.
Playing somewhere near you this summer is a Sacred Harp singing. Consider joining in.  You’ll be glad you did.