They Sing of a Heaven Transcript

They Sing of a Heaven Transcript

- Well, it's a gospel. It's a joy you make in your heart. It's a melody in your heart and the fellowship of one another.

- [Narrator] Sacred Harp singing is a part of the life of these people. The music has been flavored by the folk tunes of the Scotch Irish who settled in the southern hills. The singing is named for a songbook, "Sacred Harp", published in 1844. How it got its name is not known.

- Everybody come on inside. We're gonna start singing right now.

- Two on three.

- [Choir Member] Two on three.

- [Narrator] Sacred Harp singing is one of the oldest American sacred music movements that is still alive today. Songs in its style began to be published about 1800 in the northeast. So the tradition as such is now close to 200 years old. But the elements that have contributed to its characteristics reach much farther back. Urban disapproval caused these religious folk songs to give up their hold in the northeast and move to the upland and inland south. The contents of southern country-made song manuals were sung by thousands in singing schools and community singings by the primitive Baptists who had stuck by their old song ways. Sacred Harp singing differs from church hymns in that in all of them the tenor has the melody. The singers sit facing the leader to form a hollow square with each part of the four-part harmony, treble, alto, tenor, and bass, having its own section. The harmonizing is folkish and crude, but there is something stately and austere and old-fashioned sounding about it that appeals to the singers. They are a part of the tradition that has been very dear to them. The songs remind them of their childhood and bring back precious memories of their parents and grandparents. In general, the texts warn of the shortness of life, the anxiety for salvation and the hope of heaven.

- [Interviewee] Now the older people who tell me, now that's still older than I am, I get it from the Denson family and old Uncle Mo's creel as it came through Georgia and Alabama and on into Mississippi, you see, and it came down through the hills of Tennessee. They tell me that back in the beginning when the old settlers came over here, that when the preacher got in the pulpit, they had no song book and he made this song up himself, coming direct from himself, and he'd quote the words and then the congregation, then he'd fall back and they would sing that. And later then they had people who came along and put music to that and put it in book form. But at first, when it first started, there was no book form for it. A lot of those songs, he'd just make up the words and the tune itself. Therefore, that's the reason they say these songs are Holy Spirit directed, you see?

- [Interviewee] I think we going to begin to learn to come back to the things like this that stabilize us and give us new spiritual foundation, reclaim our lives and become the Christian people that we've always been.

- [Interviewee] And I think that's why it's wrong with Sacred Harp today. We don't pick up our kids and sing to 'em like my mother did.

- [Interviewee] Well, we don't have time, I guess. We're too busy doing other things.

- [Interviewee] The singers is dying out, the old singers are, and there ain't too many young folks that's taken in with it. But I've heard it said all of my life, ever since I've been going to sing, that the old harp's going to play out. Going to play out. But it's still, I've been going to sing about 65 years and I've heard that all these years, nearly every singing I'd go to. But it's still, they ain't as many go to sing as it used to be, but they still go and they try to carry it out as much as possible.

- [Narrator] Since the hardest part of learning to sing was getting acquainted with the notation, four shaped notes were invented by an ingenious Yankee singing master around 1800. These four shapes were named after the old English fa, so, la, mi note names. In Mississippi, however, the early singing school teachers devised the more modern version. Do, ray, mi, fa, so, la, see, do, applying seven notes to four shapes. The shape notes indicate their pitch by their shapes, independently of the lines and spaces of the staff. The singers get their pitch with one deliberate chord, and the songs begin, singing once through by the note, a custom started nearly 200 years ago in the first American singing schools. Now the schools have all but gone and the tradition is carried down by the family.

- And that song, well, I can't just tell you just what all it does to a person, not only that one, but many others. And I could just name so many of 'em in here. There's care, there's- A deep meaning thought, an awakening thought, full of spiritual value. And all that is put in the pan together. It's stirred up. It just does more to you than words will let you explain or let me explain.

- I had heard full harp singing all my life, went to 'em when I was a kid, but I went go to spring and get water and do the courting and everything. Didn't care anything about it. But after S.T and I married, why, he got to singing and I got to go in and listening. The first thing you knew, I kind of liked it. So now I try.

- My uncle William, Uncle Billy Hawkins, when he died, I was a strip of a kid, bound to have been three or four years old, and went to funeral and my daddy and them went to the funeral and I don't remember going to the house. I remember driving up the house because the horses was there, but I don't remember the body. And I remember going on to the church house. I still don't remember the body, but I remember the song, the song they sung. The song we sung was... ♪ And now I am born to die ♪ ♪ To lay this body down ♪ That's all I remember. Don't even remember taking him to the grave and covering him up or nothing. I remember that song. That song been with me from that day to this one. I still love the song.

- [Narrator] Harp songs with one voice following and imitating another were the lifeblood of the widespread singing school activity throughout most of the 18th century. These fugal or fuguing songs were brought into American sacred music largely through the influence of the rural New England singing school teacher and composer William Billings. Their only place of survival today is among the Sacred Harpers.

- Well, it's sort of passed down, you know, like your parents will teach you to respect these traditions and things like that and just sort of bred into you. There's just something about it. I don't know. Even if they hadn't taught me to love things like this, I don't know whether I might not still like it. I think the music, I like the music because I like the words to the music even more than I like the tunes. You would think that little places as far out in the country as this, you know, be sort of crude or something, but they aren't. The words are... Just listen to 'em sometime. Yeah.