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Sacred Harp

Charles Wakefield Cadman was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1881. He is the great-grandson of the inventor of "buckwheat notes," a form of music writing by which one can tell from the shape of a note whether it is do or re or mi, and so on. The first shape notes to appear in print happened in Pennsylvania. The first book printed with shaped noteheads, using "patent notes" was the Easy Instructor, by Wm. Smith and Wm. Little in 1801. The shapes used then are still in use to this day. Shape-note hymnals indexes are by first line and by tune name. For those who don't know, "tune name" is the official name of the melody separate from the lyrics.

This essay explores "Hoboken-style" Sacred Harp singing of the Okefenokee region of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. It considers the history of this tradition, distinctive characteristics of this variant of Sacred Harp, and how "Hoboken-style" leaders have negotiated rapid change while maintaining core values of memory, legacy, and spiritual meaning.

The New York Oneida Nation form of hymn singing has many similarities to Sacred Harp Singing. Missionary contact brings the Hymnal.

Almeda Riddle was born in 1898, near Greer's Ferry, Arkansas and lived her entire life in that area. Her father was a fiddler, a singer, and a teacher of shaped-note singing. The church she attended throughout her life used unaccompanied singing and this practice reinforced her use of traditional unaccompanied style as a ballad singer.
This video tells how and where Almeda Riddle began her 10 year stint of singing old ballads all over the country. In an informal manner, folk musician Starr Mitchell chats with Riddle about her singing tours and her commitment to preserving the past for the future. The video was filmed two years before Almeda's death in 1986.

The Colored Sacred Harp New World Records 80433
The Colored Sacred Harp
A Songbook by Nineteenth Century African-Americans

Performed by the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers, Ozark, Alabama
Essay by Barbara L. Hampton
The Colored Sacred Harp is a collection of shape-note songs composed and arranged by African-American musicians in southeastern Alabama and published in 1934. The songs refer to the history of their communities in Alabama, their socio-religious experiences, and their aesthetic values. Folklorist John Work's 1941 study, published in Musical Quarterly, points out that the African- American Sacred Harp, like African music that might be termed religious, is locatable within the practice of an integrated, rather than a compartmentalized, belief system.

Sacred Heart Movie The documentary offers a glimpse into the lives of modern shape-note singers, who still sing from The Sacred Harp, a 160-year-old hymnal first published in Georgia in 1844. Their PR material claims Sacred Harp is "the earliest music in America" is totally incorrect. Enslaved Africans on plantations and even American whites had their own evolving traditional music that early. People living in The American Virgin Islands had singing traditions well established before mainland "America" was discovered. Catholic monks performed Gregorian chants as far back as the early 16th Century in America, and there's a thousand-year history prior to that time. And there are First Nation Lakota singing in America before Gregorian Chants.
America's earliest music wasn't preserved strictly in the rural South either, and of course not by universities or institutions. Among European Americans, there was an 18th century tradition of the singing school -- actually the Sacred Harp was a branch of that. Started in New England, and spread to the mid Atlantic, and the Germans adopted it.
The Pennsylvania Germans -- the Mennonites and the Schwenkfelders especially -- continued the hymnody tradition but in German; the surviving Notenbuchlein from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are examples of teaching tunes that would accompany the hymn words in the Gesang-buch. They also often have glorious fraktur bookplates. Later, in the Notenbuchlein, some shape note tunes begin to appear. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center

Stephen Shearon, Ph.D. writes:
Professor of Musicology McLean School of Music, Box 47
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

[... the discussion concerning Matt and Erica Hinton's excellent new documentary on the Sacred Harp tradition and culture. (And let's not overlook the assistance provided by John Plunkett, a prominent Georgia singer and good, kind man. John did a significant amount of research for the Hintons, I believe.)
I saw the documentary last summer and definitely recommend it. But there were at least three statements (and one image) that troubled me. The first was the one you've been discussing, which hits you in the face early on. But the other two are more personal (to me) and, to my knowledge, haven't been mentioned. Both cases cast a light on cultural difference, not only among the Sacred Harpers and their "Others," but perhaps on the subscribers to this list.
Toward the end of the documentary, one sees a black and white photograph, a portrait, of a man one could describe kindly as well-dressed and dignified . . . or, less kindly, as a stuffed shirt. He is never identified, but, if memory serves, the narrator describes him as one of the "Better Music" men. He is cast as one of those enemies of the kind of music contained in The Sacred Harp who demeaned it and sought to raise the quality (so perceived) of the music sung by American Protestants. This statement and image plays to the Sacred Harp self-narrative, which states [my words] that the SH tradition went into decline because people who considered themselves social or musical betters, and who looked to the superior cultures of Europe for better music, demeaned and damaged this crude but true American music and promoted instead European music or music similar to it. Usually Lowell Mason is proclaimed Enemy No. 1, but this is not a photograph of Mason.
The man whose image is held up to mild ridicule is B. C. [Benjamin Carl] Unseld (1843-1923), a native of western (now West) Virginia. Unseld, as I've been learning, is an interesting figure and someone we ought to know. From the west, he made his way to Providence, RI, to study music; became the first secretary of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston; taught at Fisk University during the early 1870s, helping develop the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the process; and worked with Theodore F. Seward on the New York Musical Gazette, an important 19th-century music periodical. In 1873 or 4, on Seward's recommendation, Ephraim Ruebush and Aldine Kieffer, of the Ruebush-Kieffer Co. in the Shenandoah Valley, hired him to become the first principal of the first normal music school (i.e., a school for music teachers) in the South. That school, which taught seven-shape notation, was the precursor of today's Shenandoah Conservatory of Music (Shenandoah University, Winchester, VA), which still has a strong Music Education program. Kieffer and Ruebush (of the extended Joseph Funk clan) were avowed musical populists and promoters of southern music. After the Civil War, they promoted the use of the seven-syllable solfege system and the seven-shape notation system to go with it. And they stand near the source of the entire southern gospel stream, long before James D. Vaughan thought about promoting his publications with professional quartets. (Unseld's best-known song, "Twilight Is Stealing," is a setting of a poem by Kieffer. This song, so I'm told, was recorded by The Carter Family and later the Ritchie Family, among others.) After helping establish the Ruebush-Kieffer school, Unseld went on to head other normal music schools in the South, but none more famously than the one in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. James D. Vaughan apparently admired anything associated with Ruebush-Kieffer-he named his son Kieffer-and when he decided to establish a normal school in Lawrenceburg, hired Unseld to be its first dean. Unseld remained in Lawrenceburg until his death, running the school and editing The Vaughan Family Visitor, which was modeled on Ruebush-Kieffer's The Musical Million. (In 1890 The Million had a circulation of 10,000 throughout the U.S. and Canada.) Through his work with these two companies and Fisk University, Unseld had a tremendous impact on rural musicians in the South, not least because of his association with the emerging southern gospel style, which among rural southerners far surpassed the music of The Sacred Harp in popularity and still does today.
So the Hintons (and Plunkett) probably should not have referred to the unidentified Unseld as one of the "Better Music" men-Mason would have been a much better choice. But of greater significance is our ignorance of a man like Unseld and the impact of continuing to promote, or tolerate, the SH self-narrative (as satisfying as it may be). The music of SH went into decline not because of people like Mason and Unseld, but because of a rapidly changing American society and its changing values. If Mason got it wrong, why was he one of the most successful American musicians of the 19th century? If southern gospel, with its seven-shape notation, was wrong, why did the great majority of rural southerners embrace it and love it? By continuing to blame "them," the Sacred Harp community and those who study and promote it inhibit our understanding of our own-and their-cultural history. That's why I found this brief section of the documentary disheartening.
The other disheartening moment is more personal. The documentarians interview one of the founders of the Chicago singings-a phenomenon very important to the recent growth and spread of SH. To the best of my knowledge, the founders of the Chicago group were associated culturally and sometimes personally with the Urban Folk Revival and had ties to the Old Town School of Folk Music on the Near North Side of Chicago. They were (or are) perhaps very similar to many of you culturally. In that interview, the gentleman is talking about a music professor they encountered as they tried to get their enterprise off the ground. The professor apparently objected to their rough manner of singing, wondering if they wouldn't prefer to sing with a little more refinement. That, of course, was not what the singers wanted at all! And the gentleman's statement about the professor shows the cultural divide between the world of classical musicians (music professors, or bourgeois polite society) and those seeking the greater authenticity of their rougher performance styles. (It also hints at a divide between the culturally urban SH singers and the more-rural southerners who grew up in the tradition.)
That professor almost certainly was Grigg Fountain (b. ca. 1917), at that time the organist and choirmaster of Alice Millar Chapel and Professor of Organ and Church Music at Northwestern University. (I've heard this story from other Chicago singers.) Ironically, it was he who led to what was probably the first SH singing in the Chicago area. In spring 1975 I became a member of Grigg's choir. One day I overheard a portion of the choir practicing a three-part tune (it may have been "New Britain") from The Southern Harmony. I was captivated, as many others have been. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in a small farming community near Raleigh, NC, but until that day I had never heard that music. Even so, it sounded like an archaic version of what I had grown up singing; I knew that it was somehow "my" music. (Homesickness also played a part in my reaction, I'm sure.) Grigg too had grown up in NC. His father was a Southern Baptist minister in the eastern NC town of Weldon, near Roanoke Rapids. (I only recently learned that Weldon is just a few miles from my family's ancestral homeplace.) He had made his way as a faculty member to Northwestern in 1961 or '62 via Wake Forest College, Furman University, Yale, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany, and then as music faculty at Oberlin Conservatory. While at Oberlin, Grigg was organist for many years at a church somewhere around Cleveland, OH, at which Robert Shaw was the choir director. Shaw and his assistant Alice Parker published arrangements of some of the Sacred Harp/Southern Harmony tunes, which may be where Grigg encountered them (or perhaps they encountered them from Grigg). So it was Grigg who made it possible for me to hear this music. From that moment, and with Grigg's support, I went on to start a Sacred Harp group at Northwestern, travel to Tennessee (Murfreesboro specifically) to attend singings in Nashville, arrange tunes for use in the Millar Chapel services, do an independent study on the tradition under Grigg's direction, sponsor a joint concert of our SH Group and the campus black gospel group in Millar Chapel, visit the Southern Harmony singings in Benton, Kentucky; and take my fellow students-and Grigg-with me to Nashville to attend a Sacred Harp singing in the spring of 1976. Warren Steele and a group from Ann Arbor attended that same singing, and Grigg and we, at Bill Reynolds invitation, visited Dr. Reynolds in his office at the Baptist Sunday School Board. In the spring of 1977, with the strong support of both Grigg and the chaplain, we held a formal SH singing in Millar Hall on the Northwestern campus and brought Hugh McGraw up from Georgia to lead it. I still remember the Saturday evening dinner at Grigg's home, with his wife Helen, McGraw, and another Georgian Grigg had invited. We held the singing the next afternoon, after a service filled with music from The Sacred Harp, both in its original versions and in arrangements. Again, as I recall it, Warren Steele and others from Ann Arbor joined us.
The minutes of this singing never made it into the official Minutes. I was busy that May graduating and trying to find my way in the world. By the time I called down south to ask about it, the deadline for submissions had passed. But you can still find materials from that visit in McGraw's papers at the SH Museum outside Carrollton, GA. Apparently the Chicago singers, seeking to organize a singing only a few years later, heard that there already had been a singing at NU (I think McGraw informed them of this), and they approached Grigg about holding the singing in the same location. Indeed, at least the first Chicago singing in the 1980s was held in the same building on the NU campus before the new organizers changed the location to the south side of Chicago, in part because they differed with Grigg about how SH should be sung.
When I hear people joke therefore about this encounter, as this gentleman does in the documentary (apologies to him; I just don't remember his name), it highlights for me the cultural differences that we allow to divide us. The founders of the present-day Chicago singing and Grigg Fountain were from different backgrounds and thus understood (or used) this music differently. Who was more authentic: the man raised in the Southern Baptist church (during the Great Depression) who sought a better life, or the younger products of the Urban Folk Revival (and an affluent society) seeking "realness"? Perhaps neither.
In his response to your list, Matt Hinton mentioned that the traditional SH singers of the South don't consider their music "folk music." That was a significant statement. In fact, the traditional singers are sometimes put off by the personal and leadership styles of the newcomers (often from the urban North) who clearly do think of it as "folk music." (These statements won't be news to any of those involved.) As I understand it (and I'm a bit of an outsider here), describing the traditional singers as carriers of a "folk tradition" places them in a social and cultural group in which they do not place themselves. The four-shape tradition is, to them, more serious and formal than that and is, after all, about musical literacy!
But then comes the time to promote the tradition or apply for grant monies. The venues at which the tradition is promoted (organized celebrations of American vernacular cultures) and the agencies which provide those monies are often managed by folklorists-dedicated professionals who understand themselves to be supporting folk, or vernacular, traditions. At least some of the funds the Sacred Harpers have received, and happily so as far as I can tell, come from state arts and folklife commissions. While the traditional SH singers seem very grateful for the support and official recognition, they also seem to bite their tongues when references are made to their music being "folk music." While they don't want to lose a cultural heritage that is dear to them, they also don't turn their backs on opportunities to gain more education, greater cultural knowledge, and higher social status and income, just like Unseld and Fountain and most of the rest of us.
The problem, of course, is the cultural biases we all have. Perhaps the best we can do is recognize the limited purviews and cultures of our disciplines and try to move beyond them. As long as we think only within the confines of the fields of Folklore, Musicology, Ethnomusicology, Sociology, etc., we'll be a long time developing a truly broad understanding of the history of American musical culture. Only by seeing outside our normal purviews can we celebrate concurrently the traditional SH singers, the southern gospel convention singers (with their pianos), southerners like B. C. Unseld and Grigg Fountain who left the South to study classical music and then contributed to it again, and the non-southerners (in this case) who have done so much to rescue, enjoy and promote an important American musical culture to which they were not born. Only then can we help others see, in a respectful way, how their bit of culture relates to all the others.
Meanwhile, hats off to Matt and Erica Hinton, John Plunkett, and everyone else involved in this new documentary for creating a beautiful, even lyrical, and 99% accurate chronicle of a wonderful tradition. The strength of their work far outshines the three problems I've mentioned here. Besides, those are for us to address. Finally, a disclaimer: I'm a musicologist, a university music professor, a
longtime Sacred Harp singer, and currently doing research on the southern gospel convention-singing tradition, all of which affect my perspective. FYI, the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University is sponsoring "We'll Understand It Better Bye and Bye: A Conference on the Southern Gospel Convention Singing Tradition," scheduled for April 4-5, 2008. More formal announcements to come. And FYI: the National Gospel Singing Convention, the most important annual event of the seven-shape gospel tradition, takes place tonight and tomorrow at First Baptist Church in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.

Scott leads singing at the 2nd Annual Golden Gate Sacred Harp Singing, Saturday, April 22, 2006, Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, San Francisco, California.

Traditional Musics of Alabama: African American Seven Shapenote Singing

The Hand Carved Letter Movie

Alabama Center For Traditional Culture gives a basic history of 7-shapenote in the US and information on the singing groups featured on the CD. Download and listen to Music from Volume 2
Just a Little Talk With Jesus
He's My Best Friend Ceasless Praise P 33
Short History of the Central Union Singing Convention
Give Me Just A Little More Time

Ed Snell leads a Sacred Harp song at the Judge Jackson Memorial Singing, Union Grove Baptist Church in Ozark Alabama .

Norumbega Harmony Second Monday - Andover Newton Theological School - Noyes Hall - 8/11/2006

Fasola Home Page: This site is a great starting point for singers new to the Sacred Harp tradition. It provides ample information on events, as well as sound essays and a comprehensive bibliography of shape-note related materials.

Sacred Harp Singing: This page contains scholarly articles, bibliographies, and helpful Sacred Harp Frequently Asked Questions for newcomers.

About Shape Note Singing from Mississippi Univeristy

WIREGRASS SACRED HARP SINGERS ERA 1980 music of Alabamba. Typical of folk tunes they are often in the lonian and Aeolian modes, and occasionally the Mixolydian and Dorian. Many of the melodies are adopted from traditional tunes including Celtic jigs and dance tunes.

See: McGraw family of Georgia, the Denson family of Alabama, and The Wootten Family Sacred Harp in nineteenth century Georgia, who moved to Alabama before the turn-of-the-century. They had fourteen children, all of whom Thomas taught to sing Sacred Harp. 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."The Wootten singing is held each year, on the second Sunday in April, at Antioch Baptist Church near Ider, Alabama. 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, in small Baptist, Methodist, or Holiness churches. Video - 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'.

The Colored Sacred Harp contains 77 songs - THE JUDGE JACKSON FAMILY Judge Jackson was born in Montgomery County, eight miles west of Orion, March 12, 1883, near a little village named Bryhill, Alabama. He lived there with his family for about nine years later moving to Ansley, Alabama. >He went to school for a short time, but school for African Americans were not so much in those days especially in rural communities.

CyberHymnal - over 6,800 Christ­ian hymns & Gos­pel songs from ma­ny de­nom­in­a­tions. You'll find lyr­ics, scores, MI­DI files, pic­tures, his­to­ry, & more. To use the site ef­fect­ive­ly, you'll need speak­ers, a sound card & a brows­er that sup­ports Ja­va­Script & XHTML, & can play MI­DI files.

Book Review: Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism While Bealle's research focuses on "folksong" as the root concept for interpreting Sacred Harp, Miller focuses on "diaspora." One of the advantages of speaking of Sacred Harp singing as a diaspora is that Miller can transcend well-worn notions of "tradition" and "revival."