A recent New York Times article on a Sacred Harp course taught in the Yale music department features my dissertation, “Folklore’s Filter: Race, Place, and Sacred Harp Singing.” The article places the course, taught by Ian Quinn, in the context of recent student protests over racial inequality on campus. For Quinn, “Once the racial tensions broke out on campus, it seemed to me particularly urgent that we spend time talking about” race and Sacred Harp. As Times reporter Phillip Lutz notes, my dissertation “has become a reference for Quinn as he readjusts the course materials as a result of the racial protests.” The article continues:
The dissertation examines how in the civil rights era, a growing number of folklorists began to document black shape-note groups, and festivals started to feature them next to their white counterparts. Speaking to students before the community members arrived to sing, Mr. Quinn invoked Mr. Karlsberg’s analysis of multiracial programming at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in 1970. He showed a video of the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers, a black shape-note group, performing at the 1983 Smithsonian festival.
But he said that such efforts at recognizing the tradition’s diversity had a limited effect on entrenched attitudes in schools, churches and other places where most of the singing is done. “By nature, Sacred Harp singing is a kind of conservative, tradition-bound practice,” he said. “That’s going to be the issue those of us who would like to see a more diverse community of singers will have to face.”
Mr. Quinn said Mr. Karlsberg’s dissertation represents one of the most sustained counterweights to Jackson’s work to date. Mr. Karlsberg, for his part, said sessions like Mr. Quinn’s might, when coupled with targeted outreach, constitute a forum for diversifying the Sacred Harp experience.
“The welcome mat is there, and the structure, the setup, the practices make it really great for that,” he said.
You can read Lutz’s article, “A Different Note on Race at Yale,” on the New York Times website. Thanks to Ian Quinn for reading my dissertation with his students, and to Phillip Lutz for thoughtfully engaging with the issues my work raises.
This fall I’m presenting internationally on Sacred Harp singings geography, history, racial politics, and contemporary relationship to the past. I’m also speaking on Southern Spaces’s newly redesigned Drupal-based website and on Readux, Emory’s new platform for reading and annotating digitized books and publishing digital critical editions.
In late August I traveled to Utrecht, in the Netherlands, to give a pair of presentations on Sacred Harp’s history and the relationship of contemporary singers to that past. My talk “Resonance and Reinvention: Sounding Historical Practice in Sacred Harp’s Global Twenty-First Century” at the Stichting voor Muziekhistorische Uitvoeringspraktijk [Foundation for Historical Musical Performance Practice] described frames of folk and early music applied to Sacred Harp singing have affected contemporary singers’ and performing ensembles’ conceptions of the style’s aesthetics. This symposium is held each year in conjunction with the Festival Oudemuziek Utrecht, a large international early music festival. The festival this year featured a Sacred Harp singing school taught by Cath Tyler of Newcastle, United Kingdom, and an all-day singing, the first in the Netherlands. In addition to participating in the singing, I gave a short talk on Sacred Harp’s history and geography to complement Cath’s singing school.
In October and November I’ll give two additional talks on Sacred Harp’s history, here centered on interactions between folklorists and Sacred Harp singers in the field and at folk festivals. In “Separate but Equal?: Civil Rights on Stage at Sacred Harp Folk Festival Performances, 1964–1970” at the American Studies Association in Toronto, Canada, part of a session I organized on “Race and Resistance in the Folklorization and Reappropriation of Musical Cultures of Struggle,” I’ll describe how folk festival organizers drew on ideas about the civil rights and folk music movements when deciding how to program Sacred Harp singers at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and the 1970 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and will speak about how these concerns differed from singers’ own priorities. Later, at the Alabama Folklife Association’s Fall into Folklife symposium, I’ll speak about Alan Lomax’s relationship to Sacred Harp singing, focusing on the recordings that emerged from his visit to 1959 United Sacred Harp Musical Association in Fyffe, Alabama, and the encounter’s influence on Sacred Harp singing ever since.
One final talk on Sacred Harp singing, at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, illuminates a little-told chapter of Sacred Harp’s racial history. In “The Black in ‘White Spirituals,'” I detail the racial politics and musical landscape of the nineteenth-century West Georgia setting in which the Sacred Harp’s compilers lived and worked. I argue that revival choruses, the song form most characteristic of the editions of The Sacred Harp edited in this region, emerged from the mixed-race religious context of early nineteenth century camp meetings, and may have reached the ears of Sacred Harp contributors sung by enslaved African Americans.
I’ll also give three presentations this fall on new digital platforms I’ve helped develop for open access journal and scholarly edition publishing. In presentations at the Digital Library Federation in Vancouver, Canada (with Sarah Melton), and at Drupalcamp Atlanta (with Daniel Hansen), I’ll detail the Drupal 7–based platform for scholarly journal publishing developed for Southern Spaces in conjunction with Sevaa Group, Inc., a project I oversaw as the journal’s managing editor. I’ll also speak at Emory University’s Currents in Research lecture series on the Readux platform’s value for editing and publishing annotated facsimile digital scholarly editions.
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 singing1 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.