Thursday, April 07, 2005

Sweet rivers of redeeming love


Today I just want to listen to recordings from the '20s and '30s of Sacred Harp singing -- they're great in and of themselves but are pretty weird since, due to recording constraints of the time (small studios), you'd often have far fewer people getting recorded than would normally sing in church together. Of course, the same thing is true of the blues, where dozens of people would typically play percussion on the sides of a jook joint while the blues singer played, but that's a subject for another day.

Eight years ago I interviewed my ex-cousin-in-law, K.W., about what it was like to grow up in a family who regularly sang songs from the Sacred Harp songbooks, participating regularly in “singings.” Going back over this made me fabulously hungry for Southern food! Shit, take me to Chester’s in Chattanooga, now! Hah. Anyway, here’re some excerpts from the email interview with her:

"While I did not realize it then, Sacred Harp singing is a form of worshipping God in His language, music. I love Sacred Harp singing; it is a sound you won't hear anywhere else,” K. wrote. “When I hear those strains, it is like going home to a time when the world wasn't so complicated — to a time when simple things satisfied. It reminds me of a time when you could sit in friends’ homes and know you were welcome and loved. I learned a lot of pure Scripture from those old songs that I can bring to mind from time to time. Now, of course, it reminds me of my Dad and brings a lump to my throat for a moment.”

Her father's maternal grandfather, W.P., was a singer. "But he learned the fundamentals from one of the old teachers that would go from county to county holding the singing conventions," K. explains. "He used the B.F. White Sacred Harp book, revised by W.M. Cooper and others. He led in all the Texas conventions and was president of the East Texas Singing Convention for several years. He sung devotedly (almost every Sunday and sometimes the Saturday before) from 1949 to 1990. Of course, he sang even when he was a kid."

Her first exposure to the music was in the fifth grade, in 1949. "We would get up very early on Sunday morning and head out to wherever the singing was to be. It was usually in a little country frame church hidden in the woods. Although, occasionally it would be at a courthouse or community center and yes, the OLD singers never liked it as much in those buildings as the old country churches," where the scene was more intimate and the acoustics perfectly suited to the four-part melodies. The singers traditionally form a square (called a "hollow square") as they sing, each side to the square singing the four parts to vocal music, defined in Benjamin Franklin White's text as "Base, Soprano (Tenor), Alto and Treble."

"The first singers to arrive would immediately start tuning and warming up. If you were just a little late, when you drove up, you would hear the most heavenly sound drifting out of that old country church. The singings would start about 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning. A secretary would call out a leader, followed by another leader. Each leader would lead their favorite song or if it had 'been used,' the singers might say, 'Lead so and so' and of course they would. They could sing almost any song from the book. Daddy 'keyed' the songs and sang lead. I sang alto. I believe he was prouder of me for singing Sacred Harp than any thing else I accomplished in his lifetime! After all the adults had lead, they would call each child who would get up and lead and there were a bunch of them."

This is a democratic, social music. "Every singer usually led two songs in the morning and two in the afternoon," Wiedener explains, "except when there were too many singers to get around to all the leaders." What all does leading involve? "Really, just waiting for the key from the keyer and usually you sung the lead when leading instead of your part should you be an alto, treble or bass. You kept the time with an up and down motion with your arm. I always looked to my Dad to set the pace and give the key. Sometimes the leader will choose too high a pitch for most of the congregation. Many times the tune would be pitched too high, and they would tap the floor with a foot and re-key the song in the right pitch. If it was too high or too low, we usually started over."

"We would have a short mid-morning break for the ladies to 'powder their noses' in an outdoor toilet. At lunch time, we did have dinner on the grounds with some of the best food you've ever tasted. Mostly country folks with big gardens so lots of fresh out of the garden good taste: peas, beans, potatoes, greens, fried chicken, cornbread, and a host of rich simple desserts (cakes and pies). If some of us kids were out playing or running, we would soon be called back by the sounds of the music as the singers resumed for the afternoon. We would usually sing until about 3:00 p.m. and everyone would go their separate ways. Oh, if it were a two-day singing, you would never worry about a motel. You were welcome at any singer's house who lived in the area." Dinner on the grounds is a very important part of the Harp singing thing; people rarely get together in large numbers for social occasions in the South unless there's gonna be a lot of food.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am doing a project on shape note music currentely (specifically William Billings).
These are so helpful!

Also, the parts were: Base, Tenor (who carried the melody), Counter (Alto), and Tribble. However, these were the names for the parts much earlier than the 20's and 30's (this was during the beginning of shape note music and singing schools during the 18th century).

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