The Sacred Harp is a shape-note tunebook first published in 1844 in Hamilton, Georgia, and used for congregational singing. Its roots lie in the singing school movement begun in New England during the 1720s, in which singing masters compiled books of music instruction designed to teach note reading for singing in churches. The Sacred Harp uses the shape note system introduced in Little and Smith's The Easy Instructor around 1800.
The Sacred Harp includes many songs from a common repertory shared by other tunebooks of its era, supplemented by songs composed or arranged by singers from the book's own tradition. Its prevailing musical style, which accounts for its signature fugues and anthems, was crafted by America's first composers during the so-called "golden age" of the New England singing schools. To these were added campmeeting songs, with their familiar refrains, as well as strophic hymns and secular songs.
The book is representative of a time when tunes and texts were not inextricably linked as they are today. Hymn texts at that time were commonly sung to any of a number of tunes. Thus "tunebooks"-so named because they included printed tunes-used the names of the tune as the title and might include several tunes for a single text. The text "Amazing Grace," for example, appears under more than one tune, one of which is the familiar "New Britain." Most of the texts are taken from the celebrated canon of eighteenth century English-language religious poetry; others are from nineteenth century campmeeting songsters or are traditional folk hymns.
Of hundreds of books of its kind, The Sacred Harp itself has achieved by far the lengthiest tenure of active use and the widest geographical spread. The book's endurance is usually attributed to the democratic convention system and to its numerous reprintings and revisions. Revisions can involve dramatic changes where many songs are removed or added. The most important revisions occurred in 1911, 1936, and 1991.
Lloyd's Primitive Hymns
Lloyd's Primitive Hymns is a hymn book compiled by Benjamin Lloyd of Coosa County, Alabama, and first published in 1841 for the Primitive Baptist church. Hymn books, which are collections of religious poetry presented without music, derive from an era before tunebooks, which, like The Sacred Harp, contain printed music.
With hymn books, the congregation sings tunes from memory, sometimes prompted by a song leader "lining out" each line before it is sung. We now think of texts and tunes as inextricably linked; in hymn book singing a text may be sung to any tune that accommodates its poetic meter. Hymn books were once widely used in churches, and it was their supposedly undisciplined sound that eighteenth century tunebook promotors sought to improve.
Like many traditional fasola singers, earlier generations of Woottens learned hymn singing from Lloyd's hymn book before they were exposed to Sacred Harp. In the film we hear the text "Sweet is the day of sacred rest" to the tune "Primrose" sung from The Sacred Harp and then in the closing scene sung by Freeman to the tune "Kedron." We also hear #109 from Primitive Hymns, "O Jesus, my Saviour, I know thou art mine" sung to a tune Terry learned from his grandfather. It is sung first by Terry and Sheila as a duet and then led by Terry at the cousins' singing. In listening to the performance by the group, remember that the singers are not using printed music. The rich harmony that you hear is improvised-a consequence of the musical facility accumulated by countless years' experience singing harmonic arrangements.
In the nineteenth century, hymn books began to gradually be replaced by church hymnals as the prevailing source for American Protestant worship music. But they were retained in those churches which shunned the introduction of printed music or musical instruments. Primitive Hymns was compiled for the Primitive Baptist Church as a means to retain traditional worship practices during a time when there was much turmoil among Baptists over the modernization of worship. Over the intervening generations of Primitive Baptists, this book has accumulated the invested sentiments of those who love the old sound. Lloyd's hymn book is still available, kept in print over the years by the Lloyd family and more recently by a Primitive Baptist publishing company. In recent years it has been adopted by those in the national shape note revival who are drawn to the slow, contemplative pace of the singing style, to the attentiveness of the singers to its exquisitely wrought poetic texts, and to the reverential demeanor of its traditional singers.
After a lengthy period with a single edition, The Sacred Harp underwent two separate revisions in the early decades of the twentieth century. The consequence of this was to split the singing tradition such that each book found favor in different areas.
The 1911 James Revision achieved its base of popularity in northern Alabama and Georgia. This edition was subsequently revised as the Denson Revision in 1936 and then by the maroon covered 1991 Edition that is seen in the film. Sometimes the 1991 book is called the Denson book in identifying its lineage.
The other early-twentieth-century revision was the 1902 Cooper Revision, by W. M. Cooper of Dothan, Alabama. This edition took a progressive slant, both in style and content. Cooper included some gospel music, closer harmony, and added alto parts to many three-part songs. While this appealed to the tastes of the day, it inspired a reactionary movement among some Sacred Harp singers that led to the more conservative James Revision of 1911.
Even past midcentury, the feeling between the Cooper and Dension tradition was still one of competition. Nowadays, however, many singers own both books and attend both types of singings. Some singings and conventions even advertise the use of both books, and some communities schedule informal singings alternatively using each of the books. Earlier Wootten generations were fond of the Cooper Revision, as the choices at the Cousins' singing indicate-"Just As I Am," "Love At Home," and "Sweet By and By."
Gospel music came to prominence as a part of the evangelical fervor that jolted urban American Christianity beginning in the late nineteenth century. It was first performed informally and later became widely associated with the quartet singing movement still active today. Its musical style is characterized by modulation, the use of accidentals, and complex interaction of the singing parts. Older, more simple gospel favorites such as "Precious Memories" and "In the Sweet By-and-By" have endured not only in evangelical worship but also in country music, bluegrass gospel music, gospel singing conventions, and informal singings such as those held by the Wootten family.
The popularity of some gospel songs has been boosted by their promotion by gospel music publishing houses. "Precious Memories" was copyrighted by the Stamps-Baxter Publishing Company, founded in 1926 in Dallas, Texas, as a publishing outlet for composers of new gospel songs. Along with the books of the Vaughn Publishing Company, its primary competitor, Stamps-Baxter gospel songbooks are still printed in shape note notation. The long-standing practice has been to issue new books of songs every six months-in paperback format that is allowed to go out of print when the initial stock runs out-essentially introducing a new repertory with each edition. On Sand Mountain as elsewhere, many traditional Sacred Harp singers love gospel singing and attend conventions at nearby churches. Whereas large gospel conventions feature performances of new works by quartets, most on Sand Mountain operate much like Sacred Harp singings, with congregational participation and turn-taking by leaders, though also with piano accompaniment.
When The Sacred Harp was revised in 1911 by a committee led by J. S. James, its chief purpose was to provide an alternative to the modern gospel sound that at the time had the singing public in a frenzy of excitement. James, in contrast, exhorted his followers to "seek the old paths and walk therein," and provided them a book decidedly slanted toward antiquarian tastes. This has been the distinctive appeal of Sacred Harp singing ever since then, such that one finds some lingering disdain for the gospel sound even today. The Woottens' tastes are more eclectic than many Sacred Harp singers.
Sacred Harp Revival
During the nineteenth century, singing from shape note tunebooks was for a time an established component of American popular musical culture. Its fall from popularity was hastened in part by the rise of a popular music industry, by the development of Protestant denominational hymnals, and foremost by an aggressive campaign by "better music boosters" to promote European styles and to stigmatize shape notes. Thus shape note tradition moved outside of the cultural mainstream and was nurtured by a subculture of devotees primarily in the American south.
In the 1920s, Sacred Harp was "rediscovered" by folklorists, music historians, record producers, concert and festival organizers, and journalists-and thus began its long association with folk music and American musical history. Folklorist George Pullen Jackson, a professor of German at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, devoted his life to the study of shape note music. And folklorist Alan Lomax made some of the definitive recordings of Sacred Harp, such as the 1942 Alabama Convention and the 1959 United Convention. With others, they nurtured fasola music as folksong-in descriptive writing, in staged performance, and in sound recordings.
For the most part, this attention did not result in an expansion of the singing tradition until much later. During the 1970s, small groups of folksong enthusiasts would sometimes meet and sing from a small repertory of songs, in some cases unaware that a living singing tradition even existed. In 1978, Buell Cobb wrote his engaging book, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, which introduced traditional practice to readers everywhere. In 1979, Larry Gordon of Vermont produced the recording Rivers of Delight by young singers he had taught to sing. This recording, which was widely distributed, established an aural imprint of the singing revival and acknowledged southern tradition as the cultural fountainhead of Sacred Harp. Hugh McGraw, Executive Secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, spearheaded an effort to introduce southern tradition firsthand to new singers.
These were preludes to the widespread expansion of Sacred Harp outside the South during the 1980s and 1990s-the so-called "Sacred Harp revival." Initially, the attraction to Sacred Harp involved its communal and egalitarian qualities, its importance in American history, and its austere, antique sound. But travel between new and traditional areas-in both directions-brought new singers in contact with the traditional values that the Woottens articulate in the film.
Permalink (Permanent link to this page.)