Singing sacred Harp
by Jaz Brisack | email@example.com
Photograph from A Day in Water Valley by Lanier Doty
Sunday, March 12th, 2017
The crescendoing harmony reverberates through the room, bouncing off the high, cheesecloth-draped windows, reaching to where a crystal chandelier dangles incongruously from the old pipes still crossing the concrete ceiling of the Powerhouse. The music has no words, yet. Just notes. “So, so, so, fa, so, la…”
Oxford’s 37th annual Sacred Harp Singing has begun.
Also known as shape-note singing because of its unique musical notation, Sacred Harp music traces its roots to the rural parish churches of 18th century England, though it is typically associated with the American South.
“It’s very historic,” says Chuck Howell, the General Manager of the Pontotoc Electric Power Association, who has been singing since 1973. Remembering attending gatherings in country churches that had been abandoned before electrification had reached their communities, he says, “You almost feel like you’re going back 50, 70 years.”
Rows of chairs are arranged to form a square; the singers sit separated by vocal types. After each number, someone steps up to lead the next song. These leaders appear to exhort the audience, bending toward certain sections, beckoning the harmonizing voices higher. Couples, and even entire families, rise and lead together. Holding the songbook in their left hand, they conduct with a precise up-and-down motion of the right arm, punctuated with flicks of the wrist.
Those willing to come forward are already experts in this craft: “It takes a person five or seven years to learn enough to feel comfortable getting up and leading,” Howell says.
That makes it all the more impressive when an eight-year-old boy, whose position calls to mind the ancient saying “a little child shall lead them,” leads the circle in song (then bolts from the building as soon as his role in the spotlight ends).
This particular singing brought together a pharmacist, an electrician, several college professors, a dietician, an electrical engineer, a land surveyor, a trucking company owner, a schoolteacher, a yeast manufacturer and an investment broker, as well as people from several surrounding states. Shape-note singing is simultaneously tradition, worship, art, pastime and passion. It unites people from all backgrounds in preserving a common heritage.
Linda Thomas and Elene Aldridge Stovall, both fourth-generation singers who have passed the tradition on to their children and grandchildren, journeyed to Oxford from Alabama. “I grew up singing,” Thomas says. “I never remember not going. It was always at church, and it was worship to us.”
Stovall, who recollects traveling to Houston, Mississippi as a young girl to perform with her family on WCPC’s live Sunday morning broadcast, is dedicated to preserving the music and its history. She and Thomas contributed to two songs found on the soundtrack of the movie “Cold Mountain,” even traveling to the premier in Los Angeles where they sang onstage.
The film, a saga set in Civil War-era Appalachia, sparked a resurgence of shape-note singing in popular culture. First-time attendee Jesse Webb, a senior marketing major from Atlanta, credits the production with putting shape-note singing on his radar. “I was nervous about not knowing the protocol,” he confesses, “but I like how you can sit down and just start, and how the leaders fairly intuitively come up.”
“I’ve traveled all over the country and all over the world, singing,” says Stovall. The two women have taught singing schools in locales ranging from Great Britain and Poland to South Africa and Alaska.
Oxford’s annual Sacred Harp event was founded in 1981 by Dr. Warren Steel, a retired professor of music and Southern Studies, and the late Dr. George Boswell, an English instructor. Born into a musical family in upstate New York, Steel first encountered Sacred Harp singing in high school, when he found the specialized songbooks in his public library. “I tried to get my friends to sing from them,” he remembers.
Encounters with shape-note singers in Massachusetts and Michigan confirmed Steel's love of the musical style. When he accepted a professorship at the University of Mississippi, he was able to rekindle a practice deeply rooted in the region.
“There have been Sacred Harp singings in Lafayette County since the 1870s,” he explains, citing examples of Oxford area churches that had clung to the custom. “It’s not totally new to this area at all.”
Steel, who studied linguistics at Harvard, delved into music history during graduate school at the University of Michigan, tracing the origins of many familiar hymns. He assisted in revising the songbooks used in shape-note singings, helping verify authorships.
Another enshrined ritual is the “dinner on the grounds” accompanying the singing. An unquestionably Southern buffet replete with crispy fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, trays of vegetables and pasta salad, cakes, brownies, pecan pie, and jugs of iced tea. The feast is a symbol of the hospitality and community that draws people to this art.
“I love the music,” Steel says. “I love the sound that it makes, the poetry, and I especially love the community that forms around it. The thing that is so unique about it is that it is so detached from the commodity economy – all you need is a songbook, and people bring the food. There’s no audience, no performing, no money changing hands. Just good music for good people.”
May 9, 2017
Jaz Brisack plays a delicate balancing act between political organizing and pursuing a degree in journalism, public policy leadership, and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, where she also competes on the school’s debate team. Her love of social justice has led her to help deliver firewood to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, teach public speaking in the Mississippi Delta, organize with the United Auto Workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, and become involved with several civic and advocacy groups in Oxford.