Sacred Harp Community & Traditions

Sacred Harp Community & Traditions

For veteran singers, Sacred Harp singing brings profound pleasure and spiritual fulfillment-"a sovereign balm for every wound," as the song "Primrose" describes. Indeed, many Sacred Harp texts are taken from the great religious poets who gave personal testimony to the Protestant Reformation and to the expansion of Christianity in North America. Very few of its texts, in fact, are present-day compositions.

Freeman Wootten hangs a picture of Jesse and Beulah Haynes Wootten In this poetry, the harshness of earthly life was represented in Christ's suffering and consoled by the promise of the hereafter. Sacred Harp singers routinely confront this startling imagery, and are thereby moved to fearless compassion for their fellow singers. Singers come to singings with their deepest joys and sorrows at hand, and erupt with emotion as a phrase of text brings scriptural truth to bear on their own lives.

At a good singing, there is a growing atmosphere of trust and comfort with one's fellow singers, providing for the encounter of scriptural truth with personal joy and sorrow. As Syble Adams puts it, there must be a willingness and desire for it to happen-you "can't be ashamed to shed tears," as she puts it. This moment when "the spirit changes" can be provoked by a deftly sung fugue, but it can come equally well from a rousing revival chorus or a slow, meditative strophic hymn tune. When this happens, when a stirring performance of a song penetrates a singing's decorum, participants experience a transcendent breakthrough into a deeper engagement with the music and with one another. Singers erupt with tears of joy. Syble calls this the moment that "the spirit came."

Over time, these shared emotions coalesce to form a spiritual community of deep affection. This extends to the singing community at large, to the beloved singers whom one sees, on occasions, passing from youthful vigor to their last breath. For families like the Woottens, this spiritual bond is amplified by the enduring relations of the extended singing family.

Consequently, the way singers feel about the music can be valued more highly than the way they sing it. Rhonda Arnold and Pam Wilkerson, granddaughters of Chester Wootten, were exposed to the music all their lives, but were not drawn to participate until their grandfather's death, when they felt the urgent pull of his legacy. This legacy was in part the satisfaction they knew he would have felt knowing that singing was carried on in the family. But it is also the memory of the boundless joy Chester took in singing: "There's a whole lot of people that can beat me at singing," he said in 1980, "but there's not a lot of people that can beat me at loving it." At the singing, Chester's children and grandchildren feel his presence in the pleasure he would have had in hearing it and in the assurance that they carried it on after he passed away.

New singers, hearing Sacred Harp as mere music, can sometimes find all of this hard to understand. Veteran singers like Robin Smith thus hope their children will sing for the right reasons. "When we become so interested in it," she says, "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."

The role of values has also been important in the spread of the "Sacred Harp revival" into new areas. Sacred Harp is "not just a type of folk music," Sheila Wootten declares earlier in the film, "it's a deep spiritual feeling." For singers in new areas, this has not always been an easy concept to grasp. But the development of frequent travel to and from traditional areas and also the rise of new conventions and singings both have brought traditional and new singers together. In these settings, the occasion of fellowship has drawn singers old and new into bonds of affection. As a consequence, many new singers, initially drawn to Sacred Harp as a repository of antiquity, now find an occasion for religious sentiment and for friendship based on a shared love for singing.

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 itinerant 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. Itinerant singing masters have long 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 such as Terry Wootten, they are a means of introducing the craft of singing to new converts and passing on the tradition to successive generations of Woottens.

Generations ago, singing schools ran eight hours a day for two weeks during slack months of the agricultural calendar. Now they are at most a weekend, and present only the most basic rudiments needed to sing. Beginning singers, depending on how often they sing, may spend years working from a small repertoire of simple songs. To truly excel requires almost a lifetime of learning, often experienced as occasional periods of intense effort. Terry describes a pivotal moment when he sought to expand his repertoire of songs. He would take his Sacred Harp book to the fields and sing while driving the tractor.

Early singing schools were also important social outlets, especially for young people. In recent years, 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. Indeed, older traditional singers recall their obligation to attend singing schools and singings as stern and inflexible. Robin Smith recalls the admonishment she gave to her children, with half-feigned severity yet true concern: "You will go, you will smile, and you will enjoy it." Adolescents are sometimes eager to escape this obligation, but later return to singing with unquenchable passion, drawn by memories of loving family and by the deep spiritual fulfillment that singing can bring.

All-Day Singings

Along with the Sacred Harp book itself, the annual singing is the most visible manifestation of Sacred Harp tradition. These "all-day singings" (or "conventions" if they run two days) are public events, to which singers far and wide are exhorted to come and "help us to sing." Officers are elected, though often more as a ritual gesture than as a manifestation of authority. Sometimes a treasurer manages a small bank account that pays for supplies needed each year. A secretary keeps "minutes" consisting almost wholly of a list of songs and the name of each leader. These are submitted to be included in a comprehensive "minute book" of singings nationwide. All of this is fairly invisible at traditional singings, where habits are deeply ingrained in traditional practice.

The technical logistics of hosting an annual singing are not complicated. In the film we see Terry Wootten and filmmaker Jim Carnes calmly setting up benches the evening before the 1995 Antioch singing. Singers prefer a good singing space that "holds in the sound," but in truth a good class will endure any reasonably adequate conditions. In practice, much of the preparation that leads to a good singing takes place throughout the year, as singers from a community attend other singings and garner support, and over the years, as the singing becomes affixed as an endearing image in the collective memory. "Antioch," as it is called, has achieved that status.

The singing itself is likewise uncomplicated. Throughout the day-which runs from midmorning to midafternoon-leaders are called one by one to lead a song of their choice. An elected chairman calls for each session of an hour or so to begin and end. In the background, an "arranging committee" decides on the order of leaders and thereby manages the overall pace of the singing. An astute arranging committee will assure that each session has a balance of good leaders and will give subtle deference to important visitors, presuming indulgence from host singers.

At noon, singers adjourn to a meeting room or outdoors where a lavish feast, sometimes of unimaginable abundance, will have mysteriously appeared. This is the traditional 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. Gertha Parker, shown deftly crimping the edges of a pie crust, estimates that she's baked a thousand apple pies. Myrtle Wootten runs through the impressive list of items she's prepared for the Antioch singing: freezer slaw, deviled eggs, Swiss chocolate cake, dumplings, dressing, sweet potato pie, and turnip greens. Hearing these accounts, one wonders no longer how so magnificent a feast appears-it is by hard work, deep pride, and unwavering care.

Song Leaders

In Sacred Harp tradition, the role of the song leader is perplexingly simple. Long ago, song leaders were the community's musical experts and led a "lesson" of several songs-meant in part as a period of musical instruction. In recent years everyone is implored to lead, even rank beginners, and are aided by veteran singers on the front bench who take control at the slightest hint of uncertainty.

Robin Smith leadsThe best leaders are recognized not so much for their musical skills, but for their ability to impart a comprehensive sense of trust, spiritual engagement, and pleasure to the class. A good leader gauges what sort of song the class will enjoy, and establishes an atmosphere by which the class can transcend its inhibitions.

As Terry relates, good leaders become associated with particular songs, sometimes to the extent that other leaders will defer and avoid leading a particular song. Moreover, songs become affixed in memory as associated with particular leaders, and this relationship of musical sound to the community's most beloved singers contributes to the emotional attachment that Sacred Harp music attains. Hearing a particular song may unleash memories of a deceased singer who once loved that song, and, likewise, as Terry describes, memories of a singer may well inspire one to choose that song to lead.

Barrett Ashley, shown in the film leading "Sherburne," was one of these charismatic leaders whose infectious love for Sacred Harp music was well known throughout the singing community. Until he died in 1997, he was a fixture at northeast Alabama singings, with an animated leading style and a preference for fuguing tunes taken at a fast clip. Fuguing tunes are distinguished by the sequential, cascading entrance of the parts, and call for more musical facility than other songs. Barrett attracted a following among singers nationwide, some of whom looked to him as a role model for leading Sacred Harp music. When he rose to lead a song, singers expected an exceptional performance-not merely from him but from themselves.