The Wootten Family
Thomas (1837-1904) and Rhoda Haynes (1847-1923)
Thomas and Rhoda Haynes were introduced to Sacred Harp in nineteenth century Georgia, and then moved to Alabama before the turn-of-the-century. They had fourteen children, all of whom Thomas taught to sing Sacred Harp. The Hayneses settled in Jackson County in northeast Alabama, an area where many in the family still remain. It is their photograph that Freeman brings to the reunion.
Jesse (1888-1971) & Beulah Haynes Wootten (1884-1967)
One of the Haynes daughters, Beulah, married Jesse Wootten and taught him to sing Sacred Harp. Their seven children embraced Sacred Harp avidly, establishing the legacy that so many in this film describe. As Buell Cobb has put it, " it is these five brothers and two sisters and their numerous descendants whose names have been so prominently linked with Sacred Harp singing the past few decades."
The Children of Jesse and Beulah Wootten
Gertha Wootten Parker
In the film, Gertha discusses Sacred Harp values with other women in the family, describing how Beulah prayed each night that her boys would be singers. Later she is shown preparing food for the dinner-on-the-grounds. She estimates that she's "baked a thousand apple pies." Gertha is married to Guy Parker.
Chester "Check" Wootten
Chester appears in the 1980 "Corinth" scene and identifies himself as one of the Wootten brothers. Delta, his wife, and their daughter Syble Adams, discuss the strength and determination of the older generation. Syble appears throughout the film, discussing music in the family, Sacred Harp values, farming, Beulah's death, and other subjects. Her daughters, Rhonda Arnold and Pam Wilkerson look to their grandfather's legacy as an inspiration for their own embrace of Sacred Harp.
Postell died before 1980 and is shown only in a photograph. His prominence in the film is his role as preacher at the association meeting where Beulah died. His son Philip, also a preacher, discusses the importance of Christian fellowship in Sacred Harp and leads a prayer for those grieving the illness of Jeffrey's daughter.
Mack is one of the brothers identified in the opening scene but is not shown elsewhere. His children Marlon Wootten and Brenda Carroll tell part of the story of Beulah's death.
In addition to his appearance in the opening scene, Carnice was interviewed by Alan Lomax in 1980 and is shown in that footage discussing the family farm. His wife Myrtle recites the lengthy list of dishes she's prepared for the Antioch dinner-on-the-grounds. Their son Terry and his wife Sheila are prominent throughout the film-Terry as singing school teacher and organizer of the cousins singing and Sheila commenting on Sacred Harp values and on her experiences becoming a singer. Dewayne and Levon have taken over and vastly expanded the family farm. Dewayne's son Jeffrey comments on his love for the area; Marty, Levon's son, discusses singing schools and the role of children in Sacred Harp.
Freeman appears throughout the film discussing the family and the importance of Sacred Harp to his generation of singers. He misses the Cousins' singing because of illness, so Terry places a call to him to sing to him over the phone. Freeman died in 2002, not long after the film was released. His wife Jewel, is an avid Sacred Harp singer.
Olivia Wootten Allen
Olivia, married to Henry Allen, comments on the relationship of singing and the pace of small-farm life. She is also shown at the kitchen table, discussing Sacred Harp values with her daughters Jeanette Mosteller, Wilma Corbin, and Robin Smith.
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The Woottens are what has come to be called a "singing family," a notion of long-standing importance in Sacred Harp tradition. When J. S. James recounted the "History of the Sacred Harp" as it stood in 1904, he devoted fourteen pages to "B. F. White's Children and Grandchildren." Earl Thurman, writing in 1952 on the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, asserted that "around these individuals and family groups revolves the history of this organization." George Pullen Jackson, in his writings during the 1930s and 1940s, called the Denson family of west Alabama a "singing dynasty." At today's singings, one might well encounter impressive numbers of Ballingers or Keetons from west Alabama, Iveys from north Alabama, Creels from the north central counties, DeLongs or McGraws from west Georgia, or Lees from southeast Georgia.
The importance of singing families in Sacred Harp tradition is not mere coincidence. In this "Sacred Harp family portrait" of the Woottens, we hear compelling testimony that there is some essential quality in the way singing families experience Sacred Harp tradition. It is here one finds the long-enduring love for one's fellows and the hope for joyous reunion in the hereafter that resonates in all aspects of Sacred Harp singing. Sacred Harp singing is never merely music, it is always a great deal more. And the enduring embrace of the imagined family is a fundamental experience that singers encounter in Sacred Harp singing.
This is not to suggest, however, that there is some natural or effortless inclination toward singing in some families. Being a member of a "singing family" or being a part of a "tradition" are experiences that follow many routes. Ultimately, they involve periods of obligation, accommodation, and much deliberate effort.
Marriage and child rearing, for example, are both occasions where a family member's embrace of singing must be deliberately enlisted. Thomas Haynes taught his fourteen children to sing; one of them, Beulah, taught her husband Jesse Wootten, setting in motion the family tradition of this important branch of the Wootten singing family.
This could not have been without considerable effort. In one segment of the film, we hear Gertha Parker, Olivia Allen, Jeanette Mosteller, and Robin Smith discuss the concern and hope of their parents that the children will become singers. Likewise, Sheila Wootten surely speaks for many in recalling the gradual process, during her courtship and marriage, by which she became a singer. She had not grown up with Sacred Harp, and had other interests when she met Terry. Her initial motivation was to grow closer to Terry, but over time she found her own place in the singing community and her own sense of fulfillment.
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The Wootten singing is held each year, on the second Sunday in April, at Antioch Baptist Church near Ider, Alabama. In recent years it has become one of the most popular singings on the annual calendar. It attracts singers from across the nation, drawn by the certainty of good singing, sincerity of spirit, and top-notch hospitality that the Woottens provide. Besides Antioch, there are two other popular singings with which the Wootten family is associated: "Shady Grove," held the first Sunday in May at Old Shady Grove Baptist Church near Dutton (Jackson County), Alabama, and "Chestnut Grove," held the second Sunday in October at Chestnut Grove Church near Ider.
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The Sand Mountain area of northeast Alabama where the Woottens live has sustained much traditional culture. In the past, the region's isolation helped preserve many of the folk traditions of its early Scots-Irish settlers, although the mountain is changing rapidly due to new and improved roads and highways. There are still mountain residents, however, who know the intricacies of gathering ginseng, know the medicinal powers of yellowroot, sassafras, and bloodroot, can make baskets and fish nets as their ancestors taught them. The region around Henegar and Flat Rock is home to a concentration of traditional saddle-making. Sand Mountain pottery made during the nineteenth century is now valuable to collectors. The region remains an active base for traditional music, and residents who have risen to stardom in country or pop fields trace their musical roots to traditional forms such as Sacred Harp singing. These traditions have been maintained in part because of the closeness and interaction of families on Sand Mountain and through their participation in small Baptist, Methodist, or Holiness churches.
Sand Mountain itself once depended heavily on farming notably cotton, corn, soybeans, and potatoes. Now agriculture has become less prominent and Sand Mountain residents are more likely to work in the larger towns in the area-Albertville, Guntersville, Boaz, Fort Payne, Scottsboro, Rainsville, Gadsden, or Chattanooga, Tennessee.
New highways now connect the mountain to the state and nation. Interstate 59, for example, parallels the mountain through Dekalb and Etowah counties, and State Highway 35, which traverses the mountain, is being upgraded and expanded and serves as a main route between Huntsville and Atlanta, Georgia. Two community colleges, Northeast Alabama and Snead State, serve the mountain area and provide educational and job training opportunities for residents that did not exist in the past. The mountain population is becoming more culturally diverse-a large Hispanic population now resides on the mountain, and recently a Japanese auto supplier announced plans to build a plant at Rainsville. Like everywhere else, satellite dishes and the internet bring the world to the mountain. Still, mountain residents have become more aware of the uniqueness of their heritage and their traditions. Many are making a concerted efforts to maintain these through festivals which celebrate various aspects of mountain life or by teaching folk arts and traditions to a younger generation. Despite the changes, Sand Mountain remains one of the most culturally and historically distinct regions of the state.
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Singing & the Rural Life
The film explores the role singing has played in the agrarian life that many in the Wootten family have shared in recent decades. Indeed, in this film, we hear singers describe more vividly than ever the unique connection of Sacred Harp to farming, even through the many dramatic upheavals American agriculture endured during the twentieth century. Wootten family members have carved their lives and their livelihood from this historical mold. As they describe singing and family life in years past, the Woottens articulate an almost archetypal depiction of rural singers. At day's end, the brothers would gather on the porch to socialize. An argument might break out-though half in fun, Syble recalls-and to end it one of the brothers would suddenly sing the tonic chord that leads singers almost irresistibly into song. Singing would begin, and the children were then expected to come and join in. Before long, says Syble, "you'd have a porch full."
As demographic, economic, and cultural changes confronted life around them, family members looked to ways to maintain the life they loved. Their commentary in this segment of the film reveals an acute sense of tradition and purpose, an enduring regard for the life that has sustained them, economically and spiritually, for many generations. As Dewayne puts it, "I don't know of anywhere I'd like to go any better than here. We make all our livings here. We've got a lot of friends, good neighbors-a good community to live in."
Throughout this period, those who have remained on farms have had to overcome the very challenges that called many others to the cities. In recent decades, small farms have become economically unfeasible, forcing many farmers to sell their farms or resort to other sources of income. The Woottens have not eluded these pressures and have followed the trends through cotton, potatoes, and chickens. Terry now operates a feed store and repair shop. Dewayne, whose father Carnice was one of the first chicken farmers in the area, now has expanded to a large-scale operation. Jeffrey has taken over the potato business. The Woottens are less likely now to convene spontaneously on the porch. But their love for Sacred Harp has not abated, and they have adapted traditional practice to better accommodate contemporary life.
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As Terry Wootten explains in the film, the cousins' singing is a recently revived event-he remembers only a few organized gatherings of this type during his childhood. In effect, the revival of the cousins' singing has arisen as the effortless spontaneity of the front porch gatherings has given way to the need for more deliberate effort. Among the younger generation of Woottens, it has been Terry who has most responded to the need for organization. As Freeman has stated it, referring to the avid embrace of Sacred Harp that came over Terry some time ago, "He's throwed his life to it."
Terry describes how he organized the cousins' singing, sending invitations to Wootten family members. Around ninety family members attended, and only three were not able to come! The singing was held in the living room-a large room Terry and Sheila designed for singing. One of those not present was Freeman, just out of the hospital-but the group called him at home from the singing and sang "Morning" for him by phone.
The cousins' singing is informal and is not strictly a Sacred Harp singing. Indeed, we hear songs from several sources popular among singers of traditional Southern religious music. Wootten family members have compiled their favorite non-Sacred Harp songs into a photocopied booklet to use at family gatherings. Consequently, the music at the cousins' singing and other family singings is an eclectic mix of the family's favorite religious songs from many sources.
As a family event, the cousins' singing naturally is an opportunity for taking stock of the well-being of the family. On this occasion the family is confronted with a heavy burden-the serious illness of and impending surgery for Jeffrey's infant daughter. With prayer and song, the class lends the weight of its support to Jeffrey and his family. "When one of us hurts," says Philip, "they all hurt."
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The closing segment of the film concerns the annual Haynes family reunion, held since 1896. According to family members, Thomas and Rhoda Haynes attended that first reunion and are still prominent in the hearts and minds of those who attend today. As one might expect, singing has long played an important role at the reunions. Freeman recalls that in his youth, his generation of singers could carry the class by itself.
As at the cousins' singing, the family sings from a variety of sources at the reunion. We hear "Love At Home," a Mormon hymn, and "Sweet By-and-By," a gospel song-both from the Cooper Revision of The Sacred Harp. Then the group sings "Wells" from the Sacred Harp. This song is customarily sung very slowly, with much emphasis on contemplating the text. That is the manner of performance here-all the more so since it is sung in memory of Beulah's family.
At last, there is Freeman closing the empty building, carrying the picture of Thomas and Rhoda Haynes. He sings "Sweet is the day of sacred rest," this time to the tune "Kedron." Drawing the film to a close, the song provides an apt synopsis of the sentiments of many singers and also of the film: "O may my heart in tune be found, like David's harp of solemn sound."
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With the singing of "Wells" as a backdrop, the filmmakers turn to the central element of the closing segment of the film-the compelling story of the death of Beulah Wootten. It is told in sequence by various members of the family, thus we see vividly how its significance is spread throughout the family.
The story begins as Olivia is to pick up Jesse and Beulah to drive them to the association meeting. As Olivia explains, these were important events for the Woottens. This Sunday morning of 1969 was more important than most in that Postell was to preach at 11:00 A.M., followed by the dinner hour. Olivia and her husband John drove Beulah to the church, which by then was already very crowded. When Postell finished preaching, as was the custom, the congregation stood to sing as they waited to shake hands with him.
As the congregation began to sing, Beulah made her way through the crowd and was able to get to Postell and hug him. At that moment, she was overcome with ecstasy and began to shout. Filled with the holy spirit, her heart stopped and she fell dead.
As the story unfolds, fragment by fragment, we see how deeply family members share the sense of awe at Beulah's fulfillment of her wish to "die a-shoutin'." She routinely prayed that this would be the way she left this world, without suffering. As Philip puts it, "You've got to be proud of it. Not many get what they wanted-to die a-shoutin' would be the best way in the world to go."
Beulah's story resonates with Sacred Harp values and gives us a definitive glimpse at the personal connection singers feel with the song texts. The phrase "die a shouting" is familiar to singers from the opening line of "New Harmony" (page 406):
I want to live a Christian here,
I want to die a shouting,
I want to feel my Saviour near,
While soul and body's parting.
It is also the source for the inscribed commemoration on Beulah's gravestone-"I want to live a Christian here and die a shouting." But this is a commemoration already inscribed in the music, one which anticipates death and gives life meaning and structure.
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