I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers

I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers

by Laura Clawson

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The Sacred Harp choral singing tradition originated in the American South in the mid-nineteenth century, spread widely across the country, and continues to thrive today. Sacred Harp isn’t performed but participated in, ideally in large gatherings where, as the a cappella singers face each other around a hollow square, the massed voices take on a moving and almost physical power. I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah! is a vivid portrait of several Sacred Harp groups and an insightful exploration of how they manage to maintain a sense of community despite their members’ often profound differences.

Laura Clawson’s research took her to Alabama and Georgia, to Chicago and Minneapolis, and to Hollywood for a Sacred Harp performance at the Academy Awards, a potent symbol of the conflicting forces at play in the twenty-first-century incarnation of this old genre. Clawson finds that in order for Sacred Harp singers to maintain the bond forged by their love of music, they must grapple with a host of difficult issues, including how to maintain the authenticity of their tradition and how to carefully negotiate the tensions created by their disparate cultural, religious, and political beliefs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226109633
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 439 KB

About the Author

Laura Clawson is a senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Read an Excerpt

I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!

Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10959-6

Chapter One

Onto Sand Mountain, Into Sacred Harp Community

If there is an originating moment in which the thoughts woven together in this book began to come together, it is the second Sunday and Saturday before in September 1999. That year's United Sacred Harp Musical Convention was held at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, Alabama; forty years earlier, Alan Lomax had recorded the United Convention when it was held some seventeen miles away at Fyffe, Alabama. A handful of Sacred Harp singers were present at both the 1959 and 1999 United Conventions, and a commemorative recording was done of the 1999 singing. Although I had first been to a Sacred Harp singing six years before, and to a southern Sacred Harp singing two years before, this was my first exposure to Sand Mountain.

The hotels closest to Liberty are about twenty miles away in Fort Payne, and on the weekend of a big singing, most breakfast locations become impromptu gathering spots of singers. When we entered the Fort Payne Waffle House Saturday morning, there were already several singers from New York, New Jersey, and other northern states, heightening the sense that the area and the weekend were entirely pervaded by singing and singers. Henagar barely registered to me as a town at all when we passed through its single traffic light on the way to the singing, but there was no mistaking that something was happening at Liberty, which was surrounded by cars and trucks well in advance of the opening song at nine o'clock in the morning. The church was packed, not just with singers from thirteen states other than Alabama but with many listeners from the area drawn in by announcements in the local papers and by social ties with local singers promoting this singing in particular—early in the day the singers were welcomed by the head of the county commission, highlighting the importance placed on this convention by local singers.

The atmosphere was exceptionally relaxed and not merely hospitable but genuinely friendly. The southern singers at Liberty were more mixed in age than at most southern Sacred Harp singings I had attended, particularly in comparison to those in Georgia; unusually, I did not stand out as one of the youngest people there, and attendees' ages ranged from toddlers held on their parents' laps to people over ninety years old. Some singers led in groups of two and three, usually with relatives but sometimes with friends; this was partly out of concern for the size of the crowd but also because it is common in places with such strong kin- and friendship ties for singers to lead with their loved ones. On both Saturday and Sunday, songs were led for Virgil Phillips, a beloved Alabama singer who was in the hospital. Friends called him from cell phones so that he could hear the church full of singers singing for him.

The lunch provided by local singers on both days was exceptional, even by the high standards of southern Sacred Harp singing (more on this later). Coy and Marie Ivey, pillars of the local singing community, had made over a hundred pounds of barbecued pork, as well as fried chicken livers, dressing, and other dishes; Willard and Betty Wright brought homemade ice cream; Bud Oliver made lemonade; and dozens of others brought ham, chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, creamed corn, casseroles, pies, cobblers, and cakes. Pictures taken that day show the long concrete table entirely covered in food and dozens of arms outstretched, piling the food onto plates.

Saturday after the singing a general invitation was issued to the home of longtime singers Jap and Joyce Walton to visit with Jap, who had had a stroke and was unable to attend singings. His wife Joyce brought him to the singing briefly to visit and then put out the invitation for afternoon and evening visitors so that he would not be deprived of the company of other Sacred Harp singers. Afterward, my traveling companions from the Northeast—Kelly and Karen House, who had introduced me to Sacred Heart, and Lynne deBenedette, a newer friend—and I were invited to Coy and Marie Ivey's house where we spent time with them and with their two singing sons, David, clean shaven, quiet, and every inch the middle-class professional, and Rodney, bearded with a mullet haircut and a broken front tooth, winkingly flirtatious, and a working man to his core; grandchildren ranging in age from three to sixteen; and a few other singers. At Coy and Marie's house that evening, much of the breadth of the Sacred Harp singing community was on display, in the contrast between brothers David and Rodney as well as in the gathering of northern and southern singers, of high-school students and graduate students, of a technical writer and a construction worker, of a farmer and a lawyer.

At Sunday's singing, the memorial lesson, held to remember singers and their loved ones who had passed on in the previous year, was conducted by a committee that had clearly been chosen to be geographically representative, consisting of Elene Stovall from Alabama, Marcia Johnson from Chicago, and my traveling companion Kelly House from Rhode Island. Elene and Marcia gave brief speeches that were a study in contrast, with Elene quietly drawing on the Bible and memories of her father, a lifelong singer, while Marcia orated more dramatically, without mention of the Bible and with reference to older southern singers unrelated to her as well as to a deceased son who had not been a singer. When Elene and Kelly led the closing song of the lesson, I looked across the square and saw that the entire front bench of the tenor section, all adult southern men, was crying unashamedly. On the last verse of the song, which uses the words of Newton's "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds"—"Dear name! the rock on which I build, My shield and hiding place; My never-failing treasury filled With boundless stores of grace"—all the singers rose spontaneously to their feet, and I looked over to the treble section and saw that, like me, Kelly's sister Karen House was close to tears, though neither of us knew any of the singers on the memorial list.

By the end of the weekend, I knew that a significant part of my manuscript lay here; whether "here" was the United Convention, Liberty Church, or Sand Mountain more generally remained a mystery, and the importance of community in what I was witnessing escaped me completely, but I was on fire with ideas. Though I had attended singings throughout the Northeast and in Georgia and Alabama, the weekend's singing was well beyond anything I had experienced, both in the quality of the music produced and in the way it brought together the loose threads of my thinking on interactions between northern and southern singers and on what constitutes "real" Sacred Harp singing. There was a great deal that was new—and somewhat exotic—to me, as well. The sheer number of people sharing the last name Ivey, the fact that among the singers there were people who had been recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959, that Coy and Rodney Ivey offered us moonshine on Saturday evening all highlighted the distance between the lives of singers on Sand Mountain and my own. Both the specifics of what I witnessed that weekend and the path that it set me on have shaped my research since: How do people form community not around structural forces, such as geography or occupation, but around a shared interest? How is community formed despite differences of religious or political beliefs, or despite regional, educational, or class differences? How is community shaped by shared (or not) notions of what is authentic or real?

A number of theories exist to explain why certain groups of people do not interact much with each other; while the culture wars thesis has been cast into doubt by engagement with empirical data, its persistence in the public debate and the emergence of related concepts, like the opposition of "red" and "blue" states suggest that it continues to speak to a widely held perception of cultural conflict. Network theories and patterns of class, status, and religious endogamy are widely cited in explaining social segregation. Similarly, many recent studies have suggested a decline in community or social capital. What is less certain is how such barriers are overcome in forming community across difference.

I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah! shows how one such community (composed of many smaller communities) is created and maintained around a shared practice, joining a growing body of work insisting that the doing of music be attended to. In theorizing this doing of music, Tia DeNora stresses that

case studies provide a means for describing the mechanisms of culture (music) in-action—for specifying how music works. Such a focus on practice leads us further away from a focus on musical textual objects and toward a focus on the materiality of music as event—its relations, its uses, and its circumstances and technologies of production/ reception.

Music can shape social life in many ways—and mine is not the first work to suggest that community or solidarity may be formed around music. Sacred Harp is distinguished, though, by its participatory nature and the fact that people come together solely for the purpose of singing it, rather than using it to create solidarity to a specific other end, such as a political one.

* * *

The Sacred Harp is an 1844 tune book that gives its name to a tradition of a cappella singing practiced continuously in the southern United States since the book's publication; it originated as only one of a number of nineteenth-century tune books set in shape notes, a late-eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century system designed to make sight-reading easier. Today, though a few other shape-note books survive, The Sacred Harp is the one most actively used.

Shape notes were part of one of several waves of music education initiatives in the early United States. The noteheads are literally shapes, with each shape corresponding to a syllable in a solfège system, much like the more famous "do, re, mi"; Sacred Harp singing uses four shapes, a triangle called "fa," a circle called "sol," a rectangle called "la," and a diamond called "mi." With only four shapes, some notes repeat in each scale—the major scale runs "fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa," and the minor scale is "la, mi, fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la." At Sacred Harp singings, the names of the notes are sung before the words, both because the notes continue to be a useful tool for singing new or difficult songs and because doing so is a tradition of many generations' duration.

The Sacred Harp was published in Georgia and used most heavily there and in Alabama, though its use did spread to other states through the South, including Florida and Texas. It contains a number of styles of song popular at the time, including hymn tunes, such as "Amazing Grace" (called "New Britain" in The Sacred Harp) and "Wondrous Love"; camp-meeting tunes, in which well-known verses are joined with a chorus that can be picked up quickly by large gatherings at which there are more singers than books; fuguing tunes, in which the vocal parts begin the song together, then split off, one continuing while the others rest and then reenter in succession, before all finish together; and multipage anthems, with time changes, internal repeats, and unmetered texts often drawn more or less directly from the Bible. The book has been revised several times—most recently in 1991—each time adding songs by living composers.

Sacred Harp singing is a participatory, rather than performance-oriented, genre of music, ideally sung in large gatherings. As the term "sacred" suggests, the lyrics are religious, but The Sacred Harp songbook itself has not been adopted as a church hymnal by any major religious denomination (though it is used in a handful of independent Baptist churches). Neither is the music intended for formal performance. It is participatory congregational singing, and while some may come to listen rather than sing, the singers themselves and, for believers, God, are its main audience.

Participants sit in a hollow square, with tenors facing altos and trebles (sopranos) facing basses; the space in the middle is where the song leader stands. Both tenor and treble are sung by men and women in doubled octaves; the melody is carried by the tenor, but the harmony parts are unusually complex. Similarly, the words are not for the most part the self-referential texts of gospel and Christian contemporary music; instead, many of the texts are drawn from the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century religious poetry of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Philip Doddridge, focusing less on the individual than on the grandeur of God. In these ways, Sacred Harp is less akin to contemporary Christian, folk, or gospel music, and more to classical choral music, despite the "folk" context in which it is sung.

Every attendee of a singing, from children too young to read to adults too old to stand unaided, is given an opportunity to lead a song by standing in the middle of the square facing the tenors and beating time. The entire group sings the leader's song choice at his or her chosen tempo and following the chosen verses and repeats; no song is led more than once in a day and no one leads a second time until all have had an opportunity to lead once. An all-day singing begins between nine and ten in the morning and runs until two or three in the afternoon, with hourly breaks and a potluck lunch, or "dinner on the grounds," provided by local singers at noon. The day begins and ends with prayer.

In its traditional home in the South, Sacred Harp singing tends to be concentrated in predominantly white, rural areas and is often associated with extended families of singers, many of them with Primitive Baptist backgrounds, although some Independent Baptist and Methodist churches also have longstanding ties to Sacred Harp. These churches historically only held services one or two weekends a month, depending on the availability of circuit-riding preachers who served several churches over a large geographic range; singings were scheduled on weekends with no services. Most churches in a community had their own singing conventions—all-day participatory events lasting from one to three days—which singers would join as they would join a church.

Through the twentieth century, the number of singings dwindled as some churches lost interest, or replaced congregational singing with instrumental music or choirs, but many churches continued to hold singings, and as transportation improved, visits between singers increased. As a result of this history, many if not most southern singings are associated with particular families who have been members of the host church and supported the singing both within the church and by visiting other singings, thereby incurring reciprocity. In some cases these family connections are tenuous, the singing continuing through the force of will of a bare handful of singers, while in other cases the connections are thriving and immediately obvious to a visitor—dozens of usually nonsinging members of the host church show up to their church's annual singing, carrying food for dinner on the grounds; the names of the song leaders called are echoed on the tombstones in the cemetery behind the church; and groups of family members stand together to lead a deceased mother's or grandfather's favorite song.

Over the past twenty to thirty years, Sacred Harp singing has spread to many states outside its traditional home in the South, following the folk revivals and early music movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Sacred Harp never achieved the widespread popularity of more performance-oriented musics, such as ballad singing and fiddle tunes, it was made available in small quantities by folk-revival institutions, including recordings by Alan Lomax and features at the Newport Folk Festival. Over the years, therefore, relatively small numbers of participants in folk revivals came to Sacred Harp singing. Some continued to participate in Sacred Harp only occasionally, at folk festivals perhaps, while others became active Sacred Harp singers. As they built local singing communities, some people came to those groups along other pathways, but the origins of most Sacred Harp singing groups outside the South are nonetheless rooted in folk revivals and their adherents. More recently, two Sacred Harp songs were used in the film Cold Mountain. Following this, Sacred Harp singers were one of several groups performing in a concert that became a special on the A&E channel and is included on the Cold Mountain DVD. They also sang backup for Alison Krauss on a non-Sacred Harp song at the Academy Awards and were included on a concert tour of musicians from the Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound tracks. All of this has provided unprecedented publicity for the tradition, with a small but noticeable upsurge of participation resulting in some areas. It also provided a test of community strength, as some singers and not others were chosen for these events in contravention of the inclusiveness of day-to-day Sacred Harp practice; though some hidden tensions came to the surface, the encounter with commercial culture did not produce any serious ruptures and may indeed have added to its cultural capital and enhanced its recruiting efforts, especially among young people.


Excerpted from I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah! by LAURA CLAWSON Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Onto Sand Mountain, Into Sacred Harp Community
2 The South: Family and Community
3 The North: Tradition, Complications, and Change 
4 Belief into Organization
5 Creating National Community
6 Going Hollywood
Notes  Works Cited  Index

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