General Summary: This documentary video tells the story of the Woottens, one of the key singing families who have helped Sacred Harp music survive and flourish for more than 150 years. Producer/Folklorist Erin Kellen and Director Jim Carnes intertwine scenes of family gatherings, singing conventions, and farm life in the Sand Mountain region of northeast Alabama with family recollections and more than a dozen songs from the revered shape-note tradition. The video explores how Sacred Harp singing is about more than just music - it is a life-shaping force, reflected by tradition, deep spiritual belief, and the community that embraces it.
The video is divided into separate chapters. (See the Sweet Is the Day transcript for the time when each chapter begins.)Following are chapter titles and themes covered in each:
Chapter 1: The Sacred Harp (shape notes; singing families)
Chapter 2: "You will go, you will smile, and you will enjoy it" (singing schools; teaching children to sing; beating time; fasola)
Chapter 3: "Dinner on the ground and the devil all around" (dinner on the ground; spiritual value of singing; the singing community; all-day singings; arranging committee; the hollow square; Antioch; minute book)
Chapter 4: "We call it 'the spirit came'" (song leading; fuguing tunes; "the spirit came"; fellowship; Sacred Harp revival; announcements)
Chapter 5: "Before long, you'd have a porch full" (agrarian life; Sand Mountain region)
Chapter 6: "He's throwed his life to it." (Lloyd's Primitive Hymns; Stamps-Baxter Publishing Co.; "cousins' singing"; Thomas & Rhoda Haynes )
Chapter 7: "I want to die a shoutin'" (Haynes family reunion; Baptist associations)
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Two centuries ago, a New England singing-master introduced a system of shaped notes to teach singers without formal musical training to "read" music. This method was known as "shape-note" singing because it used a system of four shapes - a triangle, circle, square, and diamond - to represent the musical notes fa, sol, la, and mi. ("Fa-so-la" singing is another term for shape-note singing using four shapes.) A similar system, which developed later and is associated with a more progressive sound, uses seven shapes to render the scale-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.
Within a few decades of its introduction, shape-note hymnals were in wide use across the growing nation. One of the most prominent of these hymnals is The Sacred Harp, which has achieved by far the lengthiest tenure of active use and the widest geographical spread.
Although shape-note singing eventually passed out of fashion in most regions, the practice found a stronghold in the Deep South. One reason for its endurance is the tradition of "singing families," families that have passed the traditions and songs of shape-note singing from generation to generation. The Woottens featured in this film have been singing from The Sacred Harp hymnal for more than 120 years.
Two other important traditions of the Sacred Harp are singing schools and all-day singings:
Singing schools: When shape note tunebooks were first devised, they were built around the institution of the singing school. The earliest schools were organized by traveling singing masters and held in some public gathering place. Their purpose was to teach music sight-reading and thereby to improve singing in the churches. These early singing schools ran eight hours a day for two weeks during slack months of the agricultural calendar. The gatherings were also important social outlets, especially for young people.
These traveling singing masters have long since disappeared, but singing schools remain, fueled by the hope of fostering musical skill and religious sentiment in a world given over to meaner pursuits. Taught by skilled singers, they are a means of introducing the craft of singing to new converts and of passing on the tradition to successive generations. Now they last at most a weekend, and present only the most basic rudiments needed to sing. In today's singing schools, children attend with their families, perhaps more out of obligation than recreation. Sacred Harp parents, of course, can be deeply concerned that their children absorb the skills and emotional attachment to Sacred Harp tradition.
Part of what is taught in singing schools is the practice of "beating time," in which singers move their hands up and down to mark the rhythm. Its purpose is ostensibly to establish the tempo while leading, but in practice many singers beat time from their seats as an aid in following the music, as a part of traditional practice, and as a part of the physical experience of the music.
All-day singings: Singers from around the country join these annual events. Throughout the day, leaders are called one by one to lead a song of their choice. The leader stands in the center of the "hollow square," flanked by the four singing parts-tenor or lead, treble, alto, and bass. Although some come to listen and sit in the back of the tenor section, there is no discernible audience nor is Sacred Harp singing discernibly a performance. An important break in these singings is the noon-time feast, dinner-on-the-grounds (sometimes dinner-on-the-ground) prepared by local singers, church members, or other supporters of the singing. In years past, this has been primarily the role of women, who take deep satisfaction in the dishes they prepare for the singing.
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Using the Video in the Classroom
- Ask students to talk about the role of music and singing in their lives. Why do they sing? What are some different places they sing or listen to music? When do they sing alone? When do they sing in groups? What are some different reasons that people sing or listen to music? Talk about how different types of music make them feel.
- Play a clip of the singing from "Sweet Is the Day" for your students. What type of music is this? What do they notice about this music? Do they enjoy it? Explain that this is called Sacred Harp, a type of religious singing that has been passed down through the centuries. Tell students that they are going to watch a film about a Southern family that is carrying on the tradition of Sacred Harp.
- If this is students' first experience with folklife, you may want to introduce this concept to the class. What is folklore or folklife? Why is it important to study folklore? (gives us respect and appreciation for other cultures; helps us understand ourselves and the places we live) What are elements that set different cultures apart? (traditions, food, clothing, music, arts, dialect, livelihood/jobs, pastimes) As they watch the film, have students look for similarities and difference between the Sand Mountain community and their own culture.
- Before you begin the film, ask students to look for:
- different ways the tradition of Sacred Harp singing is carried on throughout generations. (singing school, singing with families, family obligation, marriage, church)
- various reasons for Sacred Harp singing. (spiritual fulfillment, relieves homesickness, prepares for worship, helps you "get through the day better")
- the traditions attached to Sacred Harp singing (singing schools, "dinner on the grounds")
The following questions can be used to spark conversation and assess student comprehension between scenes.
Chapter 1: The Sacred Harp
- How would you describe the Wootten's style of singing?
- What evidence do you see in this scene of the importance of family for the Woottens?
- How has Freeman Wootten's role in the family changed?
Chapter 2: "You will go, you will smile, and you will enjoy it"
- Describe the singing school. Who goes there? What is its purpose?
- How is shape note music different from traditional music?
- How did Terry Wootten learn fasola singing?
- What is Terry's Wootten's role as singing master?
- Where do you think the term "fasola" singing comes from?
- What do you think the benefits are of "beating time"?
Chapter 3: "Dinner on the ground and the devil all around"
- What does Robin Smith mean when she says: "When we become so interested in it that we're only singing it because of the art in it, then we have missed the application that the music and the words are saying to us"?
- Describe the seating arrangement of the annual singing, known as a "hollow square." Describe what happens at the Antioch annual singings. Why do you think these are important events?
- What is "dinner-on-the-grounds"? Who is responsible for carrying out this tradition?
- How does Syble Adams describe the difference between her generation and her mother's?
Chapter 4: "We call it 'the spirit came'"
- How are some people remembered after death through singing?
- What is meant by "the spirit came"? What happens to the singers when this occurs?
- Describe Chester Wootten's legacy.
- Why is fellowship important to Sacred Harp singing?
- Where are some other states that hold Sacred Harp singings?
Chapter 5: "Before long, you'd have a porch full"
- What are some of the ways people in Sand Mountain make a living?
- How has life (and the Wotten's livelihood) changed over the twentieth century in Sand Mountain, Alabama?
- How was Sacred Harp singing a daily part of agrarian life?
Chapter 6: "He's throwed his life to it."
- How have family singings changed over the years?
- How did they include Freeman Wootten in the family singing, even though he couldn't attend?
- How does this gathering reflect the strength and importance of family?
Chapter 7: "I want to die a shoutin'"
- Why do you think Freeman brought the picture of his grandparents to the family reunion?
- What was Beula Wootten's wish? Why do you think she would have wanted this? Describe the way her family tells this story in the film.
- Describe the few closing scenes. Why do you think the filmmaker ends the film with these images? What does it confirm about Sacred Harp singing?
- What are some of the different ways the tradition of Sacred Harp singing is carried on throughout generations? What are some songs or types of music that you have learned from older generations?
- What are some of the reasons for Sacred Harp singing? Is there a type of singing or music in your life that fills this same purpose?
- What were the traditions attached to Sacred Harp singing? What are similar musical or cultural traditions in your community?
- What role does the church play in the lives of the Wootten family? Describe any organizations or groups that play a similar role in your life.
- How is the Wootten family different from most families you know? How are they similar?
- What evidence did you see in the video that emphasizes the importance of family? Community? Church?
- Is folklife only about the past? Is it always the same? Why might it be important for folklorists to film another documentary about shape note singing in fifty years?
- Describe life in Sand Mountain, Alabama. In what ways is it similar to your life? How is it different?
- Who in the film would you have most liked to talk to? What would you ask that person?
- Do you think the filmmakers fairly represented the Wooten family? What techniques did they use to make the film feel "authentic"? Since the filmmakers were not part of the Sand Mountain community, what challenges do you think they faced making this film? How do you think a filmmaker can ensure a film presents an accurate picture of the community? Why do you think folklorists use the term "cultural outsider" to describe their role?
- The community in Sand Mountain could be considered a folk group, or a group that shares characteristics (such as gender, family ties, neighborhood, age, religious affiliation, workplace) and often shared experiences, values, and communication patterns. Folk groups are small groups of people with at least one characteristic in common who gather on some regular basis. (From Sidener, Diane E.: "Finding Folk Arts in Teachers' and Students' Lives") What are some other examples of folk groups (religious, cultures/backgrounds, races, school clubs, neighborhood, community, occupational)? What language, beliefs, and customs do they have in common? What groups do you belong to that could be considered "folk groups"? What one characteristic do people in that group share? What are some of the traditions within that group?
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Another Singing Family
Have students watch the film "A Singing Stream" on folkstreams.net. Compare the family featured in this film with the Woottens in "Sweet Is the Day." What role did religion play in their lives and their singing? How was shape-note singing a part of the two families' history? How were their daily lives different? Did the Landis family face different challenges because of their race? What values did they have in common? How did having large families help them?
From the Eyes of an Outsider
Discuss some of the traditions that are unique to the Wootten family or Sand Mountain community. Ask students to look at traditions within their own class, school, or community that are unique to that group. Would a visitor to your town or school understand that tradition? How might a visitor misinterpret that tradition? Do you think he or she might make an unfair stereotype? How would you explain the importance or meaning behind that tradition?
Folklore is About YOU!
Ask students, "What is folklore? Who is it about? Is it always about the past?" Explain that folklore, or folklife, is defined as traditions currently practiced within a community that have been passed down informally over time and space. In addition to performing traditions (music, dance, storytelling) and traditional arts and crafts (domestic, decorative, ritual, and occupational crafts), folklife expressions may concern religious traditions (dinner on the grounds, saints day processions, St. Joseph Day altars), festive traditions (building a Mardi Gras float), occupational traditions (boatbuilding, making hunting horns), and foodways traditions (Czech pastries, file making). Emphasize that folklore may be about the past, but it's also about the present - which means it's always changing. Imagine a folklore study about a local festival in a small town. Even though some things remain constant over time, the significance, participants, even the purpose of that festival may change as the community changes. Ask students to put themselves in the role of a folklorist studying their school or community. Have them choose one subject or group within your town to study. First, have them write a subjective description of their topic, including as many details as possible. Then have them write a personal entry about why they think this group or topic is important within the community.
Comparing Songs of Worship
Ask students to explore music and songs at places of worship in their own community. As part of their fieldwork, have them interview leaders and members of a church or synagogue. Students could ask about the role or importance of the music, how music has changed over the years, what instruments are used, and how music or songs mark special occasions. Encourage them to make a an audio recording of the music and photograph or sketch images. Students should give class presentations and discuss the similarities and differences among local places of worship.
Have students read "Amazing Grace," a short story by Robert Drake from the collection Stories from Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press). In this story, a young boy reluctantly goes to a family's "dinner on the ground" and comes to appreciate the importance of shape-note singing. The book is available on amazon.com as a used book.
Listen to the Voices of History
Have students create their own oral histories by interviewing older people in their community, such as grandparents or neighbors. Students can work in pairs to create a tape recording, videotape, or "scrapbook" with quotes from their interview. To begin, ask students to select a specific historical or cultural topic, such as: religious music, women's suffrage, World War II, or desegregation of schools. Remind them that their topic doesn't have to be a major national or world event. For example, they could interview people about the region's local food. As a class, discuss the basic rules and strategies for interviewing. Then have students work with partners to develop a list of ten questions for their interviews. Encourage students to ask to see photographs or personal documents (such as letters or newspaper clippings) during the interview. Unless they are videotaping their interview, have students sketch, photocopy, or take notes about at least one personal item that helps tell the person's story. The following web sites provide information on conducting oral histories: http://www.edheritage.org/tools/oralhis2.htm
Folklore in Your Region
As a class, brainstorm some of the different subjects that folklorists might study. For example: arts and crafts, dance, celebrations, local architecture, music, food, community, tales and legends. Ask students to imagine they are folklorists studying your region. What topics or places would they study? Next, have students find out what folklorists are studying in their own state or region. They can find links to local groups at: http://www.carts.org/carts_resources.html. Have students work in pairs to explore one group's web site and research at least one subject studied by that group. Ask students to present their findings to the class, giving specific examples whenever possible. Afterwards, hold a class discussion. What were the different topics studied by local folklorists? Were students surprised? What did they learn about their region they didn't know before?
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The definitions related to the study of folklore are adapted from the glossary of the Louisiana Voices Educator's Guide. For additional terms, see: http://www.crt.state.la.us/arts/folklife/edu_glossary.html
Context: The overall setting, history, and situation that a cultural expression is based in.
Culture: The customs, values, worldview, attitudes, expressive behaviors, organizations of a folk group, their way of life, which is learned through observation and imitation, not inherited genetically.
Fasola: Another term for shape-note singing, derived from the earlier form of shape-note singing that used four shapes to represent the musical syllables fa, sol, la, and mi.
Fieldwork: Methods and ways folklorists and other social scientists use to identify and record traditional culture through directly observing tradition bearers and cultural processes.
Folk or Traditional Culture: Culture and knowledge passed on by word of mouth, imitation, and observation. Also know as traditional culture and used as another term for "folklife".
Folklife: Used like the word "folklore", folklife refers to the traditions and the ways traditions are passed down informally among small groups of people; explores cultures and communities through their traditional music, dance, theater, crafts, occupations, religious, domestic and festive expressions, and studies their role and meaning in communities.
Folklore: Traditions, which are not necessarily old, that are passed on over time and through space by word of mouth, observation, and imitation. Folklore is usually anonymous, has motifs or patterns that stay the same, yet also varies as it is passed on.
Folklorist: Scholar of folklore who conducts fieldwork and studies the culture of folk groups.
Folk Group: A group of people who share some identity and cultural expressions.
Folk or Traditional Music: Music that folk groups create and pass on
Oral History: Collecting interviews of ordinary people to get their stories about their participation in events, which fills gaps in written records and tells of those who are often absent from official histories.
Sacred Harp: A style of religious music still prevalent today in the south using shape notes; The Sacred Harp, by Benjamin White and B.J. King, is the most widely used shape-note hymnal.
Shape notes: A system of music using four or seven shapes in lieu of the round notes found in standard musical notation. The earlier system used four shapes ? a triangle, circle, square, and diamond - to represent the musical syllables fa, sol, la, and mi. (Fasola is another term for shape-note singing.)
Tradition: A cultural expression that a folk group continues to pass on or practice. Traditions may be old or newly emerging, and be verbal (jokes, songs, stories), material (crafts, architecture, food), customary (ritual, celebratory), music, or dance.
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This activity helps students meet the following standards from McREL's Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education. (See http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/)
United States History Standard and Benchmarks
Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present) (Grade 7-8)
Standard: Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States
- Understands changes in the workplace and the economy in contemporary America (e.g., the effects of a sharp increase in labor force participation of women and new immigrants; the shift of the labor force from manufacturing to service industries)
- Understands the growth of religious issues in contemporary society (e.g., the growth of the Christian evangelical movement and its use of modern telecommunications, issues regarding the guarantee of no establishment of religion and the free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, the significance of religious groups in local communities and their approaches to social issues)
- Understands various influences on American culture (e.g., the desegregation of education and its role in the creation of private white academies; the influence of the media on contemporary American culture; how ethnic art, food, music, and clothing are incorporated into mainstream culture and society)
Human Systems (Grade 6-8)
Standard 10: Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics
- Knows ways in which communities reflect the cultural background of their inhabitants (e.g., distinctive building styles, billboards in Spanish, foreign-language advertisements in newspapers)
Standard: Understands the relationship between music and history and culture
- Understands distinguishing characteristics (e.g., relating to instrumentation, texture, rhythmic qualities, melodic lines, form) of representative music genres and styles from a variety of cultures
- Understands the functions music serves, roles of musicians (e.g., lead guitarist in a rock band, composer of jingles for commercials, singer in Peking opera), and conditions under which music is typically performed in various cultures of the world
Listening and Speaking (Grade 6-8)
Standard: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
- Uses strategies to enhance listening comprehension (e.g., takes notes; organizes, summarizes, and paraphrases spoken ideas and details)
- Listens in order to understand topic, purpose, and perspective in spoken texts (e.g., of a guest speaker, of an informational video, of a televised interview, of radio news programs)
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