On Saturday, May 5, I attended a Sacred Harp singing at Harmony Primitive Baptist Church in Calhoun, Georgia. The singing was organized by Judy Mincey to coincide with the stop in Calhoun of “Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music,” a traveling exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Mainstreet program. One of a number of events associated with the exhibition, the singing attracted a dozen white Sacred Harp singers, perhaps thirty listeners, and three members of a black shape-note singing community who also had a special singing included in the event calendar.
I write about this encounter between white and black shape-note singers, the exchange it promoted, and the role that the exhibition’s focus on the connections between music and place played in making the connection possible in a new post on the Southern Spaces blog titled “Place and Pluralism: The ‘Georgia Harmonies’ Traveling Exhibition.” The post also contains three recordings of mine from a black shape-note singing held in Marietta the day after the singing in Calhoun that four other white Sacred Harp singers and I attended.
In my essay I situate the first Ireland Convention in the context of the establishment of Sacred Harp conventions outside the southeastern United States over the past four decades and describe how the Cork convention (like the New England Convention and other relatively new conventions) was founded thanks to influences from academic and traditional channels, was a revelatory emotional experiences for many who attended, and precipitated reciprocal travel among new groups of singers. As is the case with all of my research on Sacred Harp singing, writing and researching this essay was a moving experience.
My fieldwork for this article took me not just to Ireland, but to new digital spaces where Sacred Harp singers from across Europe and the United States are meeting and conversing about their singing experiences. In the wake of the Ireland Convention Irish, English, Polish, and American Sacred Harp singers took to Facebook to effuse about the Cork convention. I cited several of these comments in my essay, but in the wake of the convention my Facebook wall and the Cork Sacred Harp Facebook page overflowed with moving reflections.
Now, a year after the convention, Facebook groups continue to loom large in my research. Posts on the Sacred Harp Singers of Cork and Sacred Harp in Poland pages leave traces of the strengthening connections between singers from these places and newer groups in Germany and elsewhere in Ireland. These Facebook groups are sites of negotiation where singers try to fit their own understandings of religious faith, community activity, and music with the body of traditions associated with Sacred Harp singing for which they themselves feel compelled to advocate. Just as the National Sacred Harp Newsletter in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Fasola listservs in the 1990s and 2000s, facilitated the expansion of Sacred Harp singing across the United States,1 Facebook has become the tool of choice for facilitating the spread of Sacred Harp across Europe in the 2010s.
The fieldnotes I took in preparation for writing my Southern Spaces essay include my reflections on the singing school and singing sessions themselves and the time I spent with other singers in pubs around Cork. They quote conversations I had with singers in these spaces as well as on Facebook and Google chat in the wake of the convention. My tone is impassive at the start of the singing. I focus on describing the event with a clear eye toward any perceived divergences from traditional practice, or any emblems of a Cork singing style. As the singing continues, however, the tenor of my fieldnotes shifts as I become engrossed in the revalatory experience Alice Maggio described in her post-convention blog post.2 I write of my critical faculties being lost, and of feeling genuinely overwhelmed with love for my new singing friends.
In my fieldnotes I am revealed as an ethnographer but also as a participant. I express the same feelings of love and connection to new singing friends that singers expressed on Facebook and at the pubs at which we lingered until late in the night on Sunday, hoping to delay the conclusion of the weekend for another hour. In Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism Kiri Miller writes of how all Sacred Harp singers behave like ethnographers to a certain extent.3 Certainly since the first secretary of a Sacred Harp convention recorded minutes singers have attempted to preserve a record of their gatherings. In the first half of the twentieth century Sacred Harp singers such as J.S. James and Earl Thurman attempted to document the early history of The Sacred Harp.4 From the 1960s through the present numerous singers have brought portable recording devices to singings in an attempt to capture what they experienced. Singers have related to these documents both as overwhelmed lovers of Sacred Harp singing and as scholars, attempting to account for their experiences and understand their importance. As a researcher thoroughly committed to my participation in the Sacred Harp singing tradition I attempt to understand and situate, this dual desire can sometimes feel distorting and dangerous. Yet at other moments, as during the research and writing of “To Meet To Part No More,” the tension between these two modes can enrich my experience, enjoyment, and understanding.
An article of mine, “Raymond Cooper Hamrick: Sacred Harp Craftsman,” which contains a short biography of Hamrick and an account of his prolific output as a Sacred Harp composer, has been published as the “Historical Profile” in Georgia Music News, Volume 72, Number 2 (Winter 2011).
In addition to his six songs in theSacred Harp, 1991 Edition, one hundred of Hamrick’s shape-note compositions are collected in theGeorgian Harmony (2010). Sacred Harp singers are currently meeting to sing through an even larger selection of Hamrick’s music, in preparation for the publication of a second volume, expected in 2012.
Hamrick has been a gracious friend and mentor since I first met him six years ago. I am glad to have had the opportunity to write about him for this publication. In addition to Hamrick, I would like to thank John Plunkett, who improved my article by offering revisions, contributing research, soliciting materials and obtaining permissions for their use, and writing a first draft of the paragraphs in the article on The Georgian Harmony. He should properly be credited as a co-author. Thank you as well to Stephanie Tingler for soliciting the piece, and for commenting on a draft. My thanks to Mary Leglar and the staff of Georgia Music News for publishing the piece, and for their work in copyediting the manuscript and laying it out beautifully. Thanks to Pat Graham, Justin Levi, Sara Lynch-Thomason, and Jonathon Kelso for allowing me to include photographs and illustrations of theirs with the piece. And finally, thanks to Hugh McGraw and Charlene Wallace for identifying the date and location of a photograph of Raymond Hamrick from the 1970s.
My essay, “Ireland’s First Sacred Harp Convention: ‘To Meet To Part No More,'” was just published on the online, peer-reviewed journal Southern Spaces. In the essay I detail how the first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention served as a revelatory experience and a catalyst of reciprocal travel among Sacred Harp singers from across Europe and the United States. Alongside its written component, the essay includes eight videos of singers leading at the convention.
The third edition of my and Carrie Dashow’s Subliminal History of New York State: Route of Progress, a collection of shape note songs and accompanying stories telling the subliminal history of New York’s Erie Canal, has been published as the “Art Feature” in Ninth Letter, Volume 8, Number 1 (Spring/Summer 2011).
I collaboratively produced this book with New York City-based artist Carrie Dashow. Carrie wrote the poetry that I set to music, and wrote and illustrated the stories accompanying each piece. I designed and typeset the book.