Place, Pluralism, and Shape-Note Singing

Harmony Primitive Baptist Church, Calhoun, Georgia. Photograph by Judy Mincey, June 4, 2012.
Harmony Primitive Baptist Church, Calhoun, Georgia. Photograph by Judy Mincey, June 4, 2012.

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 addition to my post, new content on the Southern Spaces blog also includes:

Post on FSA/OWI Color Photos on the Southern Spaces Blog

My first post for the new Southern Spaces blog, on our use of color photos from the Library of Congress’ Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection as banner images, is online. These photographs from the 1930s and 1940s depict rural farming practices, social life in towns, factories and their environmental effects, and aspects of World War II mobilization.

Other recent content on the Southern Spaces blog includes:

Announcing the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter

Late last month the Sacred Harp Publishing Company launched Volume 1, Number 1 of the new Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter—a quarterly online publication featuring singing reports, biographical pieces about Sacred Harp singers, reprints of articles from the National Sacred Harp Newsletter (1985–93), and other news items. The first issue, which I edited, included reports on singing schools held last fall in Belfast, Northern Ireland and Würzberg and Frankfurt, Germany; a reflection on recently deceased singer Lonnie L. Rogers from his daughter, Karen Rollins; a reprint of a 1985 report on the dedication of a historical monument to Sacred Harp compiler B. F. White in Hamilton, Georgia; and more. I contributed a short piece, co-written by John Plunkett, on the use of a sample of a 1959 recording of a Sacred Harp song in a recent Bruce Springsteen song.

You can read the Newsletter, and my introduction, on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company web site. We plan to publish the second issue in the summer.

Reflecting on the Cork Convention

My essay “Ireland’s First Sacred Harp Convention: ‘To Meet To Part No More'” was published in the journal Southern Spaces a few months ago. The subject of the piece is the first Ireland Convention, which was held in Cork, Ireland, last March. Now that the second Ireland Convention is just a few days away (it will be held March 3–4), I thought I would post some further reflections on last year’s event and my experience writing about it.

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.

Facebook posts reflecting on the first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention. Accessed March 1, 2012.
Facebook posts reflecting on the first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention. Accessed March 1, 2012.

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, ((See John Bealle, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997) and Kiri Miller, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) for extended treatments of the roles the Newsletter and the Fasola listserv played in the recent expansion of Sacred Harp singing across the United States.)) 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. ((See also Alice Maggio, “Wesleyan Sacred Harpers around the world,” WesLive (blog), March 31, 2011, and Alice Maggio, “First Irish Sacred Harp Convention,” The Trumpet 1 (2): vi, June 2011.)) I write of my critical faculties being lost, and of feeling genuinely overwhelmed with love for my new singing friends.

Caught documenting the Ireland Convention. Photograph by Aldo Ceresa, March 8, 2011.
Caught documenting the Ireland Convention. Photograph by Aldo Ceresa, March 8, 2011.

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. ((Miller, Traveling Home.)) 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. ((See J. S. James, A Brief History of the Sacred Harp and Its Author, B. F. White, Sr., and Contributors (Douglasville, GA: New South Book and Job Print, 1904) and, on the first century of the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, Earl Thurman, “The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852–1952,” in The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852–2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook, edited by Kiri Miller, 29–120 (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Museum, 2002).)) 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.

Article on Sacred Harp Composer Raymond C. Hamrick in Georgia Music News

Update (December 7, 2014): Thanks to Mary Leglar for granting me permission to post a copy of this article here in memory of Raymond C. Hamrick, who died last month at age ninety-nine.

Update (January 26, 2015): The Guardian and Georgia Music have recently posted lovely remembrances of Raymond C. Hamrick. Read,

Update (January 5, 2017): A substantially revised and expanded version of my essay on Hamrick appears in the new special issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter on Hamrick as “Raymond C. Hamrick’s Contributions to Sacred Harp Singing and Scholarship.”

“Raymond Cooper Hamrick: Sacred Harp Craftsman,” in Georgia Music News.

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 the Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition, one hundred of Hamrick’s shape-note compositions are collected in the Georgian 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.

Essay on Sacred Harp Singing in Ireland in Southern Spaces

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.

“Subliminal History of New York” Featured in the Ninth Letter

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.

Brief Article in the Friends of Pitts Library Newsletter

The most recent issue of Emory’s Pitts Theology Library’s Friends of Pitts Library Newsletter (PDF, 259kb) contains a brief article I wrote situating Emory’s annual Sacred Harp singing in the context of the history of shape note singing and singing conventions.