A particularly strong and lively pair of songs from the after-dinner session on Sunday are “Montgomery” (p. 189 in The Sacred Harp, led by Ted Mercer from Chicago) and “Panting for Heaven” (p. 384, led by Coy Ivey from Henagar, AL, father of David Ivey, recipient this year of the NEA’s National Heritage Award). Or, for something slower, you could listen to Lauren and me bringing the class back to order for the last hour of the day on Sunday singing “Devotion” (p. 48t).
Thanks to all who worked to make the convention a success. Next year’s convention will be held at Union Missionary Baptist Church, west of Warrior, Alabama.
The Atlanta Sacred Harp singing community warmly invites you to join us this weekend, September 7–8, 2013, at Church of Our Saviour in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia for the 110th annual convention of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association (USHMA).
Sacred Harp singing is a “shape note” a cappella hymn-singing tradition based on a book called The Sacred Harp (published in 1844) using a system designed around 1800 to make reading music as accessible as possible to the general public. The USHMA was founded in Atlanta in 1904 by Joseph Stephen James, a state senator and magistrate, and James Landrum White, a prominent singing school teacher and son of the compiler of The Sacred Harp. The USHMA attracted thousands of attendees in the early twentieth century when the convention was held at the old Baptist Tabernacle (now re-purposed as a popular music venue in downtown Atlanta) and later the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium and was attended by officials such as former Atlanta Mayor I. N. Ragsdale. In the aftermath of World War II, Sacred Harp singing became less popular in the urban South and the United convention moved from the city to rural venues in Georgia and Alabama, where it has persisted out of the spotlight for over a half century. Now, in the twenty-first century, a resurgence of interest in Sacred Harp singing in Atlanta and far beyond has brought the convention back to its home for the first time since 1956. This weekend metro-Atlanta area singers will be joined by visitors from across the United States, and several European countries for what we hope will be one of the biggest and best opportunities to experience Sacred Harp singing in Atlanta in recent years.
Schedule: The convention will meet at 9:30 am on Saturday September 7 and 10:00 am on Sunday September 8. We will sing until about 2:30 and break for dinner on the grounds at noon on both days. Jesse P. Karlsberg and Lauren Bock will host a dessert social at their home at 318 Arizona Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia, from 7:00–10:00 pm on Saturday.
The new third issue of The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter documents an important chapter in the continuing spread of Sacred Harp singing beyond North America, with singing reports on three Sacred Harp singing events held in Europe last September and on the first Australian All-Day Singing, held last October. Features in this issue of the Newsletter examine how aspects of Sacred Harp music promote the goals of harmony and unity through singing together, tell the story of the Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing, and relate new findings about Sacred Harp’s early history.
On Saturday April 6, 2013 I will be teaching a singing school at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina. Co-presented by the Cameron Art Museum and WHQR Public Radio, the day will begin with an hour-long introduction to Sacred Harp singing at 10 am. Following a break we’ll spend the rest of the day singing from The Sacred Harp, stopping for lunch at noon. Thanks to Cleve Callison for organizing the event. If you’re in the Wilmington area, please join us on the sixth!
BBC Radio 4 will air a half-hour–long documentary on Sacred Harp singing on Monday, December 3 at 4 pm GMT (11 am EST). You can listen live online at the link above—or access a recording through the BBC’s iPlayer for a week after the broadcast. The documentary is the result of a visit by host Cerys Matthews and producer Joby Waldman to the Lacy Memorial Singing in northeastern Alabama this past July. In addition to attending and recording the singing, Cerys and Joby interviewed a number of singers, and attended a short singing school I taught at the home of Henry Johnson.
In the wake of her encounter with Sacred Harp this past summer, Cerys has helped promote Sacred Harp singing in the United Kingdom, playing Sacred Harp recordings on her weekly BBC Radio 6 show “Cerys on 6.” A recent segment during which about a dozen singers led by Michael Walker sang live on her show helped bring about sixty singers to the singing in Bloomsbury the next day.
Cerys and Joby interviewed me for about an hour and a half after our singing school and I am a featured contributor to the documentary. We spoke about the history of Sacred Harp singing and related genres and I tried to express what draws me to this music and why I think it is experiencing an influx of new singers in Europe and across the United States. I sought to counter the narrative—often expressed in media portrayals of Sacred Harp—that it is an “archaic” “survival” from the distant past now being taken up by exotic newcomers, yet that narrative is present to a degree in the blurb for the piece:
Cerys Matthews visits Alabama to uncover a sacred choral tradition. Widely practiced before the American Civil War, Sacred Harp singing is currently experiencing a global resurgence.
Once called ‘white spiritual’, this haunting unaccompanied choral tradition survived in the small rural Baptist churches of the American Deep South. Very different to bluegrass and to African American Gospel music, Sacred Harp preserved Anglo-Celtic practices that were subsequently lost in the UK.
Today, this music is spreading from the Deep South around the US and is even developing a following in the UK. Cerys travels to an all-day singing convention in Alabama to find out why the music is not just surviving but flourishing. In an age when church attendance is dropping fast, what is attracting people all over the US and the UK to sing archaic hymns?
Also called ‘shape note singing’, the music is based around the Sacred Harp hymn book compiled in Georgia in 1844. The pages show different shapes above the words to indicate the notes, enabling songs to be sung on sight. Gatherings are arranged in a hollow square with the self-selected leader entering the middle to call out the number of their chosen song. No applause or audience is allowed. Far removed from ‘happy clappy’, they are often austere hymns with themes of death and the pain of everyday existence.
Contributors include Hugh McGraw, Jesse Karlsberg, Warren Steele [sic], Reba Del Windom, Henry Johnson, Michael Walker, Emma Rose Brown and Sam Carter.
Produced by Joby Waldman
A Somethin’ Else production for BBC Radio 4.
I think this “archaic” label simultaneously makes Sacred Harp singing appealing to newcomers looking for something “authentic” and renders it unappealingly old-fashioned to those in areas where the music has a long history. Despite its ambivalent effect, the narrative is an almost omnipresent part of promoting Sacred Harp singing. While it’s perhaps unavoidable that this narrative has found its way into “Songs of the Sacred Harp,” it’s encouraging that this treatment will be a half-hour in length—enough time to complicate any narrative—and exciting to see Cerys utilize her media access to bring the Sacred Harp singing to a wider audience in the U.K. I look forward to hearing the documentary on the 3rd.
I’ve written two recent posts for the Southern Spaces Blog’s Bulletin compiling news “from in and around the U.S. South.” For the October 18 issue of The Bulletin, I reported on activism surrounding the fortieth anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act and decisions by southern states to opt out of Medicaid expansion under the new health care law. In the November 15 issue of The Bulletin, Alan Pike and I surveyed post-election “visualiz[ations of] the geography of political power,” focusing on the historical roots of urban/suburban political divides in metropolitan areas in the interior and rhetoric about the persistance of a “solid South” in presidential politics.
Lauren Bock and I will be teaching a singing school in Portland, Oregon on October 20 at the Fall session of the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Convention. Our singing school will focus on the importance of listening while singing and will touch on accent, leading, and aspects of singing style. The Pacific Northwest Convention is free and open to the public. Come see us later this month in Oregon.