In a new article, “Singing Across the Color Line: Reflections on The Colored Sacred Harp,” in CDSS News, I delve into the history of The Colored Sacred Harp, a 1934 shape-note tunebook featuring the music of black Alabamians, to shed light on the racial history of Sacred Harp singing. In the essay I argue that “cultural, social and racial histories effect the choices we make about what and how to sing” and bear reexamining. I describe the circumstances behind book’s publication in Jim Crow–era southeastern Alabama, the popularity of the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers (a performing ensemble that sang from the collection during the folk music movement), and the tunebook’s use today, limited to two largely white shape-note singings in Montgomery. I suggest that these contemporary “singing[s] demonstrates both an ethical approach to the crossing of musical color lines and the challenges these crossings pose.” I conclude that
The choices we make when we sing songs initially performed in a context different from our own can help bridge vast differences of time, space, and culture. Our repertoire choices can facilitate respectful tributes to dear friends while highlighting often marginalized histories. Yet these same choices, if they allow for mimicry of affect, can easily turn well-intentioned efforts into caricatures that reaffirm marginalization. As we embrace more inclusive musical repertoires, let’s pay careful attention to the choices we make, drawing on our shared embodied knowledge to sensitively remember and perpetuate songs and styles with which we are intimately familiar.
The article appears in CDSS News’s “CDSS Sings!” column, which features a song and its backstory with each quarterly issue. My contribution includes “Remember Me,” a lovely song from The Colored Sacred Harp by southeastern Alabama singer and singing school teacher T. Y. Lawrence.
This spring I’m presenting on a range of topics on the cultural politics and book history of Sacred Harp singing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The topics range from the Philadelphia print culture that produced the meticulously composed Sacred Harp editions of the 1840s–1860s to 1960s black South Alabama singers’ disagreements over the politics of protest.
In February I presented a paper co-written with Christopher Sawula at the Auburn University Montgomery Southern Studies conference on the life and music of Philadelphia bookkeeper Elphrey Heritage. Our paper argues that many of the songs Heritage contributed to tunebooks like The Christian Minstrel, The Hesperian Harp, The Social Harp, and TheSacred Harp, show musical markers of close and dispersed harmony styles. Combined with evidence of social interaction between Heritage, his employer the printer Tillinghast King Collins, and tunebook compilers William Hauser and John G. McCurry, Heritage’s music offers a glimpse into a Philadelphia social scene in the 1840s and 1850s that affected the form of southern shape-note tunebooks to a greater extent than commonly acknowledged.
I presented at another conference in Atlanta the following weekend, the Southern American Studies Association, on the politics of race and protest that emerged in a 1968 field recording in which SUNY Buffalo music professor William H. Tallmadge interviews south Alabama reverend Shem Jackson, a son of Colored Sacred Harp compiler Judge Jackson. During an interview largely about services and singings at Jackson’s church the conversation unexpectedly turns to Jackson’s resistance to his daughter Mary’s participation in student protest at Tuskegee Institute—protests which Tallmadge seems to regard positively. I presented this paper as part of a panel on race and Sacred Harp singing, where I was joined by Nathan Rees, who spoke about the Wiregrass singers’ album cover art, and Jonathon Smith, who discussed celtic imagery in representations of East Tennessee New Harp of Columbia singers. Douglas Harrison, an insightful scholar of southern gospel, chaired our session.
Earlier this month I presented a paper on how Texas singers associate the layout of pre–digitally retypeset Sacred Harp editions with the sound of small rural singings and find both an impediment to efforts promoting the style to urban(e) southern audiences. My paper, delivered at the annual meeting of the Society of American Music in Sacramento, drew on Buell Cobb‘s metaphor of “the South’s ring of repugnance” to describe how such singers invest the digital with the potential to erase the vernacular rusticity that some newer singers romanticize, echoing a folkloric paradigm.
Later this month I will travel to Boston for the Nineteenth Century Studies Association, where I will speak about the nineteenth century editions of The Sacred Harp. Far from a vernacular folk production, The Sacred Harp was a meticulously produced publication of T. K. and P. G. Collins, a high status firm at the center of the emerging national book trade.
I’ll travel from Boston to Portland, Oregon, to present one final paper, discussing the Readux platform under development at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship at the Library Publishing Forum. Readux is a new tool for reading, annotating, and publishing digital critical editions of digitized texts. The open source platform is designed to foreground scanned page images, paired with fully searchable text and robust multimedia annotations mapped to page regions. A digital critical edition of Original Sacred Harp will serve as a proof of concept demonstration of the tool’s capacity and will be the first in a series of editions featuring nineteenth- and twentieth-century sacred tunebooks and manuscripts, but the platform will also be available for use, for free of charge, by others interested in editing and publishing digital critical editions.