“Imagining ‘The Last Words of Copernicus'” in the CDSS News

A short article of mine on the history of Sarah Lancaster’s song “The Last Words of Copernicus” appears in the Winter 2013 issue of the CDSS News. The essay provides context for the song, touching on the composition of its hymn text by Philip Doddridge, Lancaster’s life as a composer, the addition of an alto part in the early twentieth century, and the song’s subsequent life in the popular imagination thanks to the dissemination of a recording by Alan Lomax later sampled in a hit song by Bruce Springsteen.

Fall Presentations

I’ve had some great opportunities this fall to start thinking through the research I’ve been conducting in connection with my dissertation project and to get feedback on my work from colleagues.

  • In October I traveled to the American Folklore Society annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, where I presented a paper on the sometimes fraught relationships between Sacred Harp singers and the folklorists who have studied and promoted their music. My paper, titled “Folklorization and Sustainability in the Twentieth-Century Spread of Sacred Harp Singing,” recounted the style’s folklorization during the twentieth century and then assessed how two twenty-first-century efforts to spread Sacred Harp singing ((Specifically, Cold Mountain and Camp Fasola.)) cultivated particular audiences and examined how sustainable these efforts have been.
  • In November I participated in the Atlanta Graduate Student Conference on U.S. History held at Emory University. My paper, “Modernity and Historicization in Joseph Stephen James’s Original Sacred Harp (1911),” examined the circumstances leading to James’s 1911 revision of the nineteenth-century Sacred Harp tunebook. I argued that James sought to both modernize the book so that it better aligned with his vision of a “New South” and to historicize it so that it stood for noble, Christian values James associated with his past and worried might be lost in the shift from rural to urban and antebellum to postbellum. I was grateful for to my session’s respondent Scott L. Matthews, a lecturer in history at Georgia State University who studies documentary expression in the U.S. South.
  • Later in November I presented a paper as part of a session I organized for the American Studies Association annual meeting titled “Folklorization on the National Mall: Representations of Culture through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” My co-panelists Virginia Myhaver, Olivia Cadaval, and Diana Baird N’Diaye presented papers that differently interrogated the interactions between curators, presenters, interpreters, and audience members at Smithsonian Festivals from the 1970s to the 2010s. William S. Walker, author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), who has presented and written extensively on the Smithsonian Institution, offered insightful feedback on the papers. My paper, “Participation on Folklore’s Terms: Sacred Harp Singing at the 1970 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife,” focused on an evening performance by two groups of Sacred Harp singers—one black, the other white—at the 1970 folklife festival. I analyzed how folklorization conditioned the singers’ presentation and reception, and assessed how the two groups approached their appearance and were later affected by it.

NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert

This past Friday I participated in a concert at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium honoring the recipients of the 2013 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. David Ivey, Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association secretary and Camp Fasola co-founder, was among the awardees. I joined a group of twenty-five twenty-seven Sacred Harp singers, mostly from Alabama and Georgia, who opened the concert singing four songs: “Idumea” (p. 47b in The Sacred Harp), “Florida” (p. 203), “Christian’s Farewell” (p. 347), and “Wayfaring Stranger” (p. 457). A videorecording of the 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert is available on the NEA website. Continue reading “NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert”

Recording of the 110th United Convention

Nathan Rees has posted a recording of the 110th annual convention of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association that we held in Atlanta last weekend. The convention drew an audience of more than two hundred singers and listeners from the Atlanta area, fourteen states across the country, as well as singers from Ireland and Germany.

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.

Upcoming Singing Schools

On Thursday, September 12, I’ll be teaching a Sacred Harp singing school during a session of an American popular music class taught by Tracey Laird at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. The class meets from 2–3:15 pm in Presser Hall’s Maclean Auditorium.

I’ll also be teaching a singing school in Dahlonega, Georgia, from 5:30–8 pm on Wednesday, September 18, at the Georgia Mountain Unitarian Universalist Church. The singing school will be held in conjunction with a class on the history of Appalachian music at the University of North Georgia taught by Barry Whittemore.

Both singing schools are open to the public. Come join us!

United Sacred Harp Musical Convention Returns to Atlanta

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).

United Sacred Harp Musical Association Poster.
United Sacred Harp Musical Association Poster.

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.

Facebook Event Page

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.

Location and DirectionsChurch of Our Saviour, 1068 North Highland Avenue Atlanta, GA 30306.

Officers: David Ivey, Chair; Matt Hinton, Vice-Chair; Nora Parker, Secretary; Roberta Strauss, Chaplain.

Please consider joining us this weekend for the United Sacred Harp Musical Association. Contact us with any questions. We look forward to singing with you.

Fourth Issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter

The recently-published fourth issue of The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter leads off with Sacred Harp Publishing Company President Mike Hinton’s story about the items tucked into the Bible of his aunt, beloved Sacred Harp singer Ruth Denson Edwards (1893–1978). Buell Cobb shares memories of singings at the Cullman County Courthouse, and an article reprinted from the January 1986 issue of the National Sacred Harp Newsletter features Lonnie Rogers’s and Joyce Walton’s account of a bus trip to the 1985 New England Convention. Another article reprinted from the same issue of the National Newsletter shares Raymond Hamrick’s findings on how singers pitch Sacred Harp music. We have paired it with a new introduction by Ian Quinn, who has recently conducted an extensive study on the same subject. Reports on Sacred Harp singing today in this issue of the Newsletter include Justyna Orlikowska’s account of a month-long trip that took her to the Ireland, Western Massachusetts, and Georgia State Conventions; an essay by Rachel Hall on the making of The Shenandoah Harmony; and an account of the informative and death-defying trip Jason Stanford took to a singing school in South Georgia with Hugh McGraw and Charlene Wallace.

Vol. 2, No. 2 Contents:

“Douglasville” and “Wilscot” in The Shenandoah Harmony

Cover of The Shenandoah Harmony.

Two songs of mine, “Douglasville” and “Wilscot,” are included in The Shenandoah Harmony, a four-shape shape-note tunebook published in early 2013.

Edited by a group of eight singers from Boston and the Mid-Atlantic States, this new tunebook was originally imagined by its compilers as “a collection of songs compiled, printed, and published by Ananias Davisson from 1816 to 1826 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia,” The music committee ultimately “decided to make a book suitable for all-day singing” and so sought out a larger and broader array of compositions. My two songs are among sixty-eight newly-composed songs in the tunebook. The bulk of the 480-page book features music drawn from shape-note tunebooks published in the Mid-Atlantic states in the first half of the nineteenth century, supplemented by large numbers of earlier New England compositions, and later southern ones. ((Rachel Wells Hall, “The Making of The Shenandoah Harmony,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 2 (July 2013),

Though more weighted toward minor music than The Sacred Harp, my two songs in The Shenandoah Harmony are major fuging tunes. I wrote “Douglasville” in March 2008 while on a trip to Georgia with Aldo Ceresa for the Hoboken annual singing and the Georgia State Convention. Inspired by the early-twentieth-century fuging tunes of T. J. and S. M. Denson, and their children Paine, and S. Whitt, the song features an F major key, Common Meter Double text, and limited chordal palette. Though its three separate fuge entrances create some textural interest, the song is among the most conventional I’ve composed. The song was first sung at in April 2008 at the Potomoc River Convention’s “new traditions singing,” where the alto class—a group that included future Shenandoah Harmony music committee member Nora Miller—was particularly enthusiastic about their part.

I wrote “Wilscot” a month later, during the last day of a two-week residency at the Sustainable Arts Society in Blue Ridge, Georgia in April of 2008 and named it for Wilscot, Georgia, a nearby town. I’d continued to experiment writing Denson-style fuging tunes during the stay and this song mixed the idiom with somewhat less conventional chords and ranges. I introduced a larger than usual number of sol-(mi)-sol (V) chords and transplanted the style from its F/Eb major home to A major. I first heard the song at the home of George and Jean Seiler at a social following the June 2008 New York Regional Singing in Albany.

Congratulations to David Ivey, NEA National Heritage Fellow

Congratulations to David Ivey on his receipt of an NEA National Heritage Fellowship. David Ivey, co-founder with Jeff Sheppard of Camp Fasola, and member of the committee that revised the 1991 Edition of The Sacred Harp, is also secretary of the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association. David Ivey is the third Sacred Harp singer to be honored as a National Heritage Fellow and is the first since 1983, when Dewey Williams received the award in its second year. Hugh McGraw, Executive Secretary Emeritus of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, and head of the 1991 Edition’s music committee, received the award in 1982.

New Issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter: Volume 2, Number 1

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.

Vol. 2, No. 1 Contents: