The Tradition

Jim Carnes
January 1989

"All-day singing and dinner-on-the-grounds."

There is melody in the very phrase, and the image it conjures--the church in the grove, soaring harmonies, feasting and fellowship--has somehow remained central to the South's idea of itself. It soothes the soul like a remnant of Eden, or a preview of the Promised Land. In a culture increasingly immune to simple pleasures, few Southerners today partake of such an experience by any means more direct than secondhand nostalgia. There exists in our midst, however, a wellspring of the living past.

The "hollow square" they call it--a compact, often makeshift arrangement of chairs or benches around the bare church floor. Seated by vocal part in this formation, facing one another across the square and taking turns at leading from the middle of it, scores of Alabamians raise their voices each week in the fierce and lovely harmonies of the frontier. On most Sundays of the year and many Saturdays, followers of the Sacred Harp shape-note tradition meet to sing, without accompaniment and all day long, from a hefty, longwise volume that has changed little in a century and a half. The singers travel in cars now, on mostly paved roads, and electricity illuminates all but a few old "houses," yet the experience of a shape-note singing remains essentially untouched by modernity.

In the empty church, the morning quiet takes on an air of expectancy. There might be coffee made as the crowd gathers. Generally by nine-thirty all parts are sufficiently represented to begin--mixed voices on tenor and treble, women on alto, men on bass. The chairman of the previous session enters the square and offers a brief welcome before calling the first number. A singer on the front row of the tenor or lead section, which the leader faces, intones a pitch selected for the group's comfort on that particular tune. Like motors revving, the parts join in to "sound the chord." A simple vertical motion of the leader's arm sets the tempo, and the singing is underway.

Much of the procedure and terminology the shape-note tradition derives from the "singing school," an 18th-century institution that remains, in modified form, the primary mode of Sacred Harp instruction today. The typical Sunday "class" commences with a straightforward selection such as "Ninety-Fifth," its bright tune and easy cadence bringing the voices out of rest and into alignment. Tentative at first, perhaps, they swell directly--full-throated and without vibrato--to fill the room. An opening prayer precedes the election of new officers. In the course of the day, the "arranging committee" will call each willing participant to lead a "lesson" of one or two songs. Children, novices, and elder members of the group receive the warmest indulgence. Some leaders make their song selections as the spirit moves them, while others return week after week to their personal "sugar sticks." Nearly a hundred of the more than five hundred songs in the book will be sung before the day is over.

The first time through on each tune, it is customary to "sing the notes," calling their shapes by the ancient syllables fa, sol, la, and mi. Originally used as a learning device, this solmization produces a kind of pure vocal music, unshackled by poetry and theology. Though most Sacred Harp singers know these tunes by heart, they treasure the fa-sol-la's as part of their identity.

Throughout the morning, stately, chordal hymns such as "Wells," "Primrose," and "Idumea" alternate with intricate "fuging tunes," which exploit the dynamics of part-singing by bringing in the sections sequentially on the chorus, or "fuge." Favorite examples of this type include "Liberty," "Stratfield," and "Morning Sun," each a paragon of contrapuntal harmony. Revival songs like "Desire for Piety" and "Save, Mighty Lord" preserve in their urgent rhythms and "shouting" refrains the fervor of 19th-century camp meetings. At the other end of what might be called the Sacred Harp spectrum are the elaborate and lengthy anthems and odes. A few of these, notably "Easter Anthem," are sung with some regularity, but most are reserved as opportunities for the especially capable class--and confident leader--to shine.

Within certain strictures, styles of leading vary widely among the singers. The basic element, a "down-up" stroke of the arm ("down-down-up" for three beats), marks a whole measure, demonstrating the tempo with great economy. Flourishes of the hand, nods of the head, and movements of the body may add grace or emphasis or simply give natural expression to the leader's own enjoyment. Nowhere does the music sound better than in the center of the square.

Tempo is discretionary, though as a rule the hymn tunes are sung rather slowly, while the revival songs and especially the fuging tunes often proceed at a brisk clip, allowing leaders so equipped and inclined to cue the entrances of successive parts with dance-like precision. Regional differences also occur. For example, Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama is renowned for its "four-beat" style, marked with an L-shaped arm-motion and producing a deliberate, formal effect. By contrast, a leader from an adjacent county to the southwest is likely to warn against "dragging the bucket." The lack of instrumental accompaniment makes clarity of tempo crucial to the music's success. Impelled by the rhythm, many singers in the class keep time with their hands and feet, synchronized like pistons in some great musical engine. The pace and intensity of the singing can seem relentless to the uninitiated, but those conditioned to its demands find it exhilarating. Face to face around the square, they grin and nod approvingly at one another, and cries of "Good singin'!" erupt after an especially vigorous workout.

Abiding affection manifests itself in every facet of the occasion. Between lessons, the singers joke and tease, often with surprising sarcasm. Cards for the sick or bereaved are passed for all to sign. And the half-hour before lunch is commonly set aside for the "memorial lesson," honoring loved ones who have died during the past year. With age and infirmity in their midst, images of death abounding in their songbook, and a cemetery just beyond the nearest wall, Sacred Harp singers are continually mindful of life's fleeting nature. Yet their music binds them in irrepressible joy. The noon meal spread on the long table under the trees gives substance to this communion. Helping themselves to the bountiful meats and vegetables, cakes and pies, tea and lemonade, the singers settle into quiet conversation, restoring themselves for the exuberant "final stretch" ahead. The afternoon announcements of upcoming sings reinforce the continuity of the yearly cycle. And at the close of the session around three o'clock, as friends mingle to take the "parting hand," it is with the assurance that one day there will be no more parting. Clusters of singers linger in the shade. "Come go home with us!" someone calls from a car. There is a watermelon to cut, the long evening to fill, and a hollow square waiting at the kitchen table.

The durability of the Sacred Harp tradition affirms the conviction and resourcefulness by which it was forged. Infused with the democratic spirit, colonial New Englanders sought to rekindle the zeal and discipline that had long since died out of English congregational singing. When illiteracy, musical and otherwise, proved a hindrance, enterprising sing-masters set about to improve instruction, combining the old European practice of solmization, or syllable singing, with various systems of "patent" notation.

The system that took hold assigned one of four shapes to each note of the familiar seven-tone scale. The right triangle was designated fa, the oval sol, the rectangle la, and the diamond mi. In the Sacred Harp, as in its precursors, the tonic or keynote of any major scale appears as a fa, with the scale ascending fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa. Correspondingly, all minor scales begin on la, proceeding la-mi-fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la. While the shape notes are positioned on the staff in the same manner as "roundheads," they aid sight-reading by providing an additional means of recognizing intervals between notes.

The lively part-singing that the shape-note system supports is sometimes called dispersed harmony. In this style of composition, that harkens back to Renaissance polyphonal part writing, each vocal part--treble, alto, tenor, and bass--contributes a sort of tune, occupying its own separate staff, with the parts freely crossing one another and the tenor, or third line, carrying the chief melody. The special typesetting requirements of dispersed harmony give "fasola" hymnals their characteristic oblong shape. In as generous an accommodation to other traditions as one is likely to hear at a Sacred Harp gathering, a certain leader allows that he would gladly sing from "any book wider than it is tall."

Shape-note singing met a variety of needs among early Americans. Perhaps most immediately, it made written music accessible to those not formally trained. An itinerant singing-master could ride into town, offer a singing school of a few weeks' duration, and create an eager market for tunebooks before he moved on. Composers and compilers proliferated, "singing societies" developed, and modest churches devoid of keyboards and choir lofts rang with thrilling polyphony. Such New England "tunesmiths" as William Billings, Daniel Read, and Oliver Holden had already gained renown by 1800, but the principles of dispersed harmony, expounded by teachers and in printed "rudiments," seem to have tapped new reserves of native talent. In a period of remarkable industry and creativity, a kind of musical alchemy ensued, whereby tireless compilers transformed rustic folk melodies, fiddle tunes, even drinking songs, into hymns. The vigorous, sociable nature of such music--coupled with suitably pious poetry--well expressed the spirit of the times.

Outsiders hearing shape-note music for the first time nowadays often find it "harsh" or "eerie." Comparisons to the bagpipe are particularly well taken, since many of these tunes employ a pentatonic, or five-toned scale of ancient celtic origin. Frequent use of "open" chords and of the minor and other less familiar musical modes also imparts a haunting, plaintive quality. Compounding this effect are the antique texts, which speak as vividly of loss and travail as they do of delight and fulfillment. Indeed, few devotees of the tradition, much as they savor it, would ever accuse it of "easy listening." The close harmonies to which gospel hymns, quartet singing, and secular music have accustomed most modern ears make the Sacred Harp, by contrast, seem a pungent medicine. The taste for sweetness, first popularized in the early 19th century by a renewed European influence and the advent of the piano, pushed shape-note singing out of the cities of the Northeast. Among the country folk, for whom sober realities and simple virtues still prevailed, the old music retained its appeal, and it was these stalwarts, by and large, who brought it south and west over the mountains.

Wherever a few singers or new tunes could be rounded up, the compilers plied their trade. Ananias Davisson's Kentucky Harmony of 1815 was notably successful. In 1835, William Walker of South Carolina published The Southern Harmony, failing to acknowledge the collaboration of his brother-in-law, B. F. White. Southern Harmony flourished, but nine years later, after moving his family to Georgia, White and a young associate named E. J. King, who was to die shortly thereafter, issued a new compilation, entitled The Sacred Harp . By virtue of its comprehensiveness and of White's wide personal influence, this songbook eclipsed all others in the South and earned a place of honor in most homes second only to that of the Bible.

As the tide of "folly and fashion" continued to press southward, fasola singing found in White's territory a higher ground. The Primitive Baptist movement, which had arisen in the 1820's and '30s in reaction against Sunday Schools, mission societies, and other "unscriptural" contrivances, was especially strong in rural Georgia and Alabama, and the Sacred Harp, with its organizational simplicity and astringent flavor, offered these independent churches a welcome enhancement to worship and fellowship. Though most Primitive Baptist congregations have by now adopted seven-shape "new-book" or "little-book" gospel music, many continue to use the "old book" occasionally and graciously give over their facilities for annual and semiannual singings. Rural Methodist and Missionary Baptist churches, while not as receptive to the music for their own purposes, have also provided on their "off" Sundays a haven for the Sacred Harp. The tradition acquired a civic dimension in many counties with courthouse singings that converted into squares in hollow squares, drawing thousands of participants and spectators. A handful of these events--notably at Cullman and Hamilton, Alabama--survive today in diminished form.

The depth to which the Sacred Harp took root in the Southern soil sustained it through the storm of the Civil War and the drought of the Reconstruction. A number of well-organized singing conventions from this period and earlier still meet annually. Following White's death in 1879, the course of the book's future publication became less clear, and several competing editions eventually emerged. The gospel-influenced W. M. Cooper revision of 1902, amended periodically by the Sacred Harp Book Company of Samson, Alabama, is used today in south Alabama, south Mississippi, and east Texas, as well as in the coastal black Sacred Harp community. J. L. White issued in 1909 a "Fifth Edition" of his father's work and was roundly criticized for tampering with the old harmonies. The more conservative revision he produced two years later fared better but did not remain long in print. Also in 1911, a group led by J. S. James, and more closely aligned with the elder White's endeavors, published the "Original Sacred Harp," which quickly won the loyalty of singers in the "Old Harp" stronghold.

During the period of revitalization that this edition stimulated, a remarkable family laid claim to the book's custody. A. Denson had been prominent among White's musical associates in Georgia, and two generations later, brothers Seaborn (S. M.) and Thomas Denson of Winston County, Alabama, both of whom had contributed significantly to the James edition, became the most influential singing-school teachers the movement had known. Under the leadership of Thomas and his son Paine, the Sacred Harp Publishing Company acquired legal rights to the " Original Sacred Harp" in 1933 and embarked upon revising it. Both Seaborn and Thomas died shortly before the Denson Revision appeared in 1936, yet in its present-day predominance the book bears their indelible stamp, serving still many of their former pupils. The community of singers erected a monument to the brothers's honor at the Double Springs, Alabama, courthouse in 1944, the Sacred Harp centennial.

Now directed by Hugh McGraw of Bremen Georgia, the Sacred Harp Publishing Company has issued three subsequent minor revisions, and a fourth more extensive issue in 1991. As in the past, each revision has admitted a few new compositions, hewn as closely to the old idiom as the writers could manage. A compilation of minutes from all Denson-book singings is published annually. In addition, the company periodically sponsors the production of record albums and audio and video tapes, in an effort both to document the present state of the the tradition and to attract the new singers who will carry it on.

There is no denying that the currents of taste, the lure of the cities, and the dispersal of families have taken their toll on this austere, rural, and communal folkway. Singing schools no longer put the entire youthful populations of communities through the rigors of fasola. The attendance at a typical convention no longer dictates that only the ablest leaders occupy the hollow square. And even during the summer "high season" participants no longer have the luxury of choosing from among a dozen nearby singings each weekend. but such quantitative standards do not suffice in measuring the strength of the Sacred Harp today. Defiant but loving adherence to the "the good old way"-- the same conservatism that has in part caused its ranks to narrow--has kept the form and substance of the tradition intact and pure. New singers, especially outside the South, are "discovering" it faster than ever before. Nationally circulated newsletters keep singers abreast of fasola activities in the Midwest, the West, and New England, as well as the southern "heartland". The National Sacred Harp Convention draws hundreds of singers to Birmingham every June.

Fidelity to the old ways, and the self-contained image of the hollow square itself, might suggest to the outsider a stern and introverted community. Yet, inheritors as these folk are of priceless legacy, and as vigilantly as they guard it against outside "influences," they nonetheless recognize the precariousness of their own number and welcome new singers like long-lost members of the tribe. "Come on up where the stove's hot!" urges a front-row bass at a late-summer convention, and as soon as the music starts the visitor grasps the unseasonable metaphor. It is a living tradition these singers preserve, not for some mere noble idea of such a thing, but for the unadulterated aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual experiences which it continues to offer, and which demand to be shared.