New Article on the Ethics of Singing Across the Color Line

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 Newss “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.