|Sacred Harp Singing
|Rounder CD 1503
|Journey Vol. 9: Harp of A Thousand Strings
|All Day Singing from the Sacred Harp
|Rounder CD 1709
|Southern Journey Vol. 10: And Glory Shone Around
|More All Day Singing from the Sacred Harp
|Rounder CD 1710
|Songs of the Old Regular Baptists
|Lined-Out Hymnody from Southeastern Kentucky
|Smithsonian Folkways CD SF 40106
The lined-out hymns of the Old Regular Baptists are published in songbooks, but the tunes are learned and transmitted orally, and as such, they are easily, and rightly, thought of as folk music. Jeff Todd Titon, who collected the music on, and shared in the annotation of, the Smithsonian Folkways CD, observes that the written harmonies contained in printed shape-note collections have been a serious challenge to the heterophonies of lining out; the Primitive Baptists, for instance, "have probably lost lining-out beyond recovery." One can understand why Elder Elwood Cornett, having asked Titon to repeat his statement that lining-out had been going on for more than 350 years, observed to the singers assembled to record, that "It would not be wise if we were known as the generation that lost this way of singing."
And yet, it would be silly to try to set up an opposition between these two forms of devotional music, to see one as more 'folk', or more 'authentic' than the other. Shape-note singing may be quite unlike most folk music, in being sung from printed scores, and in that most of the hymns can be ascribed to known lyricists and composers; but it is unquestionably the province of folk musicians, gaining its sound and, just as important, its meaning, from those who perform it, and the way they do so. William Caldwell, who published Union Harmony in Tennessee in 1837, was listed as composer of 42 of its tunes, but he explained that "Many of the tunes over which the name of the Subscriber [ie Caldwell] is set are not entirely original, but he has harmonised, and therefore claims them. Many of the airs which the author has reduced to system and harmonized, have been selected from the unwritten music in general use in the Methodist Church, others from the Baptist and many more from the Presbyterian taste." As Harry Eskew observes in Grove, he and the other early compilers "were largely folksong collectors who notated and harmonized their tunes for the singing-school tune books. They also composed original tunes, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those taken from oral tradition."
Those who are unfamiliar with the rationale of shape-note singing will find good explanations in all three of the CDs under review, but briefly, four syllables are used to sing the scale: fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa, and they are represented on the page by differently shaped note heads: fa by a triangle, sol by a circle (like the sun!), la by a square and mi by a diamond. Conventionally trained singers can simply ignore the shapes, and read the score like any other, but it has certain advantages: in music education, it does away with the need to learn keys, and what note each line and space of the printed stave corresponds to. It will also be observed that the "scale" given above is a series of tetrachords, which has advantages when singing the gapped, modal scales commonly found in Sacred Harp tunes. (Sacred Harp singing - as distinct from shape-note notation, which could be used to write down any music whatever - is named after the most popular of the collections of sacred tunes, first published in 1844, and most recently revised in 1991.)
The performance practice is for a leader to choose the song - usually by number or tune name, rather than by reference to the first line; the leader gives the initial pitch, and there is usually a run-through, with the note names, not the words, being sung. Then the lyric proper is performed, and the singers move briskly on to the next tune - and I mean briskly; Alan Lomax states that "in one day [in 1959] a hundred songs had been performed." The rehearsal sing-through is necessary because Sacred Harp music is made, not at a church service, but at a singing convention, to which people may have traveled from all over the South; the 1959 convention Lomax attended in Fyffe, Alabama, was also attended by singers from Georgia, Tennessee and Texas. Occasionally, the run-through is dispensed with, if a tune is universally known; leaders can be heard specifying "just the words" on occasion.
Rounder 1503 reissues a famous LP of songs recorded by Lomax and the great authority George Pullen Jackson in Birmingham, Alabama in 1942. The notes (by Jackson, brilliantly expanded by Wayne D Shirley) are complemented by beautiful photographs, taken by Ed Clark in Tennessee on December 7, 1941, the day of Pearl Harbor. (Pictures from the same series also adorn the two Southern Journey CDs, which do not, however, acknowledge that they are from a different place and time than the recordings. Needless to say, the photographs in these two booklets are also spattered with the masturbatory white text that has so disfigured this otherwise exceptional series.) The 1942 recordings seem to have been very important in American musical life. Serious composers were looking for an authentically American sound world from which to take inspiration, and shape-note, along with other folk musics, gave them a resource to draw on alongside the jazz they'd already explored; Henry Cowell, for instance, wrote 18 Hymn[s] and Fuging Tune[s] between 1943 and 1964, although it should be said that, shape-note being a written-down music, he naturally had access to printed resources.
One can see how Sacred Harp music appealed to composers and intellectuals on the left; massive, rugged, unpolished, favouring open harmonies (fourths, fifths and octaves) over thirds and sixths, it's rural, open-air, democratic, and communal - music with its sleeves rolled up. (The male singers in the illustrations almost all wear suit and tie, and the woman are members of the hat-wearing tendency, but I hope the metaphor may be forgiven.) Shape-note hymnody also appears to be a distinctively American invention, with its roots in 18th Century New England, although it only flourished from 1801 onwards, when Little & Smith published The Easy Instructor. In his notes, Jackson makes the rather confusing assertion that it's "a tradition which was born centuries ago in the British Isles," but he may only mean the tradition of unaccompanied choral music, rather than shape-note specifically. What does go back to 18th Century British practice is the writing of the tune in the tenor part. In practice, as Shirley observes, tenors often double the soprano parts at the octave, and vice versa, which helps create that massive Sacred Harp sound.
Which, perhaps, it's time to hear. Shirley classifies Sacred Harp tunes as either hymns (strophic) or anthems (through-composed); the hymns may or may not incorporate simple imitative counterpoint (fuging). Here, from 1942, is the first verse of Evening Shade, a setting of The Day Is Past And Gone, a lyric attributed to John Leland (1754-1841). (sound clip); and here, from 1959, is the second verse of the same hymn, to a different tune, Logan. (sound clip) Those two excerpts serve to illustrate the force and enthusiasm of Sacred Harp singers, the way that tunes, not words, identify the song - which is not, of course, to say that the words are unimportant - and the practice of fuging. They also show what a difference technological advances made to the recording of this music. Superb and important though the music on CD 1503 is, the advent of stereo, of magnetic tape, and of inherently superior recording equipment means that the aural experience of listening to the 1959 recordings is a far more exciting, compelling and involving one. For the listener who wants a taste of Sacred Harp, rather than to study it in depth, one or other of the 1959 CDs is to be preferred. If it is not intended to buy both, either may be purchased with confidence; much of And Glory Shone around is previously unissued (21 of 27 tracks), but this is in no way a reflection on the music's quality, only on the timidity of record companies heretofore. From that disc, here is the rehearsal of A Cross For Me, described as one of the most popular songs in the Sacred Harp (sound clip). It illustrates a number of things: the sound of the sol-fa run-through, some particularly nice fuging, and the continuity of this 'composed folk music': the text is from 1793 and the tune from 1935, but author and composer are clearly kindred spirits across the gap of years.
Kinship and fellowship are important components in Sacred Harp singing. Members of the Denson, Cagle and McGraw families are famous in the movement as composers, revisers, teachers and singers. Present Joys, sung on CD 1710, was composed in 1908 by A Marcus Cagle, who was present in 1959 to testify that "I love the Sacred Harp because the thoughts, the sentiments of these words gets down into your soul. It stirs your heart, and makes your soul happy, and it makes you love everybody. It makes you love your enemies. It makes you love the old-time religion, and this is what we stand for." Uncle Will Laminack, who leads a number of songs, was a vigorous 90 - "a little older than I used to be" - in 1959, and had attended every convention since 1904. He announces Bear Creek ("Two sixty nine," say several voices immediately), and someone says, "Uncle Bear (laughter) - Uncle Will's a-gittin' old, but he don't git no slower. Just like a song, the older it gets, the better it gets." This is what he leads them into. (sound clip)
Indeed, of the two Southern Journey CDs, if only one is wanted, I would recommend And Glory Shone Around, since the editing has been done to preserve a number of spoken comments, which help to illustrate how important the social aspects of this music are. Sacred Harp singing is a get-together - often an "all-day singing with dinner [potluck] on the grounds" (Shirley), and the picnic lunch served at Fyffe in 1959 seems to have been almost as memorable as the singing. The religious content of the occasion is clearly vitally important to the participants, but it's also a chance to meet with old friends, and to mourn those who have passed on since the last convention; the Memorial Lesson on CD 1709 is both very moving - and also, as the speaker keeps misreading the names, almost comical. He concludes, "We recommend that a lesson be sung in their memory, and that this report be made a part of the minute of this convention. This is signed by [he gives various names]." This hints at what is not much explored in the notes, that these conventions must take a deal of organising, and that it seems to be done by way of formalised systems. Many African-American gospel quartets, whose members usually live close to one another, operate according to laid-down rules, and use formal procedures for the conduct of meetings; it's not surprising that this should be paralleled in the running of a movement that brings together many people, from far afield, and at comparatively long intervals. Buell Cobb's The Sacred Harp: a Tradition and its Music is much quoted in the booklets, and has gone on to my "buy" list, for what light it may shed on these matters among others; its subtitle seems to imply, what comes over strongly from these recordings, that Sacred Harp is not just a music, but a system of folkways expressed through music, an occasion for people to get together and affirm their faith and their community through song.
The hymns of the Old Regular Baptists sound very different, and their social nature seems to be different, too. It's obvious that the church members' beliefs permeate their lives, and their songs are similarly pervasive. (When Ralph Stanley and Roscoe Holcomb toured Europe together, they whiled away the time on the tour bus singing Old Regular Baptist hymns; see the spellbinding photograph in the booklet with Holcomb's Smithsonian Folkways CD 40079, The High Lonesome Sound.) In the notes to the CD under review, Elwood Cornett contributes a moving account of what membership of the denomination means. (John Wallhausser writes about history and doctrine, and Jeff Titon on the music.) Cornett's account begins, "The thing about being an Old Regular Baptist is the unspeakable joy of everyday life!" Members who speak on the final track, The Meaning Of Singing, talk about singing at home, overseas while in the Army, and elsewhere: "When the Lord blesses you, you want to hold your hands up when you sing, even when you're drivin'." Despite these comments, though, it appears that Old Regular Baptist hymn singing is most important to church members as a component of the two hour-plus Sunday morning services, which are held in simple, undecorated buildings. (The recordings on the CD were made at special meetings, held at Defeated Creek Church in 1992 and 1993, since the church members don't allow the paraphernalia of recording to disrupt worship proper.)
Other important parts of the service are handshaking - "almost a sacramental act" according to Wallhausser - and foot washing, which is a sacrament proper, on the same level as communion. These acts are powerful expressions of community, and the churches jealously guard their local autonomy, resisting centralisation, hierarchy, paid ministry, and even formalised mission, feeling that to turn the expression of faith over to professionals is to shirk one's religious duty. It's noteworthy that there are no Sunday schools, and that children take part in the full service (although they are allowed to move around, and even to go outside for a while); this must be a powerful factor in the oral transmission of the music.
To hear how very different that music is from shape-note hymnody, compare the Old Regular treatment of The Day Is Past And Gone to the Sacred Harp versions. (sound clip). This is the very antithesis of briskness. They take four and a half minutes to sing three verses; the Alabama singers of 1959 get through a rehearsal and three verses in two and a half minutes! Where Sacred Harp has rhythm, and often lively rhythm at that, this music has a pulse; its very slow tempos are like breathing, or the circulation of the blood around the body. It's noticeable that the leader usually starts to line-out just before the congregation has finished the preceding line, which gives an effect like the next wave building, and starting to advance even as the previous one breaks on the shore. Titon observes that "the singers' overall sense of time is remarkable. For example, each line in On Jordan's Stormy Banks lasts for either 16 or 20 seconds, depending on whether it is a 6- or an 8-syllable line." The singers speak of being "tuned up", together musically and spiritually, but although they are singing in unison, rather than in harmony, they are decidedly not singing in unity. As Titon points out, this is not a result of trying and failing to sing with precision: "on the contrary, the heterophonic singing is in step but deliberately just a bit out of phase - and this, I think is one of its most powerful musical aspects." It is regarded as an aesthetic positive to "curve" (decorate) the tune in one's own individual way, and the ability to make complex elaborations is admired.
Despite the very different approaches to singing, there are sometimes evident similarities - The Day Is Past And Gone is a good example - between the hymn tunes used by the Old Regular Baptists, and those found in shape-note hymnals, but it's equally clear that this is because, in Caldwell's words, they have been "selected from the unwritten music in general use" by the shape-note compilers. The Old Regular Baptists were using these tunes well before they were written down, and most of their melodies come from folk tradition. The lining-out which is the most striking feature of Old Regular singing descends from 16th Century English parish church practice; by the end of the next century, it was the customary way of hymn singing in the Protestant churches of both Britain and her American colonies, where it was also adopted by, and still survives among, African-American worshippers. In Britain, lining-out is now confined to the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland and Ireland [and Caribbean congregations in England - see our Article. - Ed]; anyone who has heard recordings of psalm singing from Lewis will immediately recognise the kinship of that music to Old Regular Baptist styles.
It should be unnecessary to say that the music of the Old Regular Baptists, like that of the Sacred Harp singers, is a magnificent and moving experience, but in case there should be any doubt, I will say it anyway. And who would venture to disagree after hearing this clip from I Am A Poor Pilgrim Of Sorrow? (sound clip)
Chris Smith - 26.7.98
|Top of page