Spring Presentations

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 The Sacred 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.

Leading from Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition at the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and Emory Singing with Allen Tullos, co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and Danielle Pitrone, who assisted with the production of the new Centennial Edition.
Leading from Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition at the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and Emory Singing with Allen Tullos, co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and Danielle Pitrone, who assisted with the production of the new Centennial Edition.

The next weekend I presented a lecture–participatory singing at Emory during a joint session of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music and the Emory Sacred Harp singing focusing on the musical conservatism and material modernity of Joseph Stephen James’s Original Sacred Harp. My talk, which also served as the official launch of the new Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition, was a hands on tour of the book’s design and contents, articulating how its various features illuminated its revisers’ aims and social context. After a short break over 100 singers and conference attendees joined in singing a range of songs from the new edition illustrating its editors’ musical choices. Amy Kiley, a reporter from Atlanta’s NPR station, WABE, covered the event and the publication of my new edition.

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.

Pasted corrections on a page for the 1992 “Cooper book.” Collection of Stanley Smith. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

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.

Viewing the title page of Original Sacred Harp in Readux BETA.
Viewing the title page of Original Sacred Harp in Readux BETA.

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.

“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), http://originalsacredharp.com/2013/07/29/the-making-of-the-shenandoah-harmony/.))

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.

“Clinton,” “Hamrick,” and “Newton” in the Northern Harmony

Northern Harmony, Fifth Edition
Northern Harmony, Fifth Edition (Plainfield, VT: Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 2012).

Three of my shape-note tunes—“Clinton,” “Hamrick,” and “Newton”—are included in the new Northern Harmony (Plainfield, VT: Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 2012). First published in 1980, this fifth edition of the Northern Harmony includes 150 tunes—half written by members of the “first New England School” (1770–1810), and half by contemporary composers working in the dispersed harmony shape-note idiom. Singers across New England use the Northern Harmony as a supplement to The Sacred Harp at weekly and monthly singings. The songbook has also been used by Sacred Harp singers in the United Kingdom since the mid-1990s. A variety of adult and teen performing ensembles brought together by Vermont world music and shape-note music organization Village Harmony also make regular use of the songs in the Northern Harmony tunebook on concert tours and at singing camps.

I attended all-day singings from the Northern Harmony in Vermont and Massachusetts in 2001 and 2002 shortly after I was first exposed to Sacred Harp music. For several years I sang favorite tunes out of the fourth edition of the songbook at “otherbook” shape-note singings at Aldo Ceresa’s apartment in New York City and at various homes in Cambridge, New York. It’s an honor to be included in this new edition, and to have my songs appear alongside those of teachers of mine such as Neely Bruce, and co-conspirators such as Aldo Ceresa and Lauren Bock.

Copies of the Northern Harmony are available online from Village Harmony.

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: