WIREGRASS SACRED HARP SINGERS ERA 1980
MUSICS OF ALABAMA:
African American Sacred Harp singing conventions in southeastern Alabama began near the last third of the 19th century. While singing, for the most part, the same repertory of Sacred Harp music as their Anglo American counterparts, a vocal stylistic difference is clearly apparent.
Dewey President Williams and Henry Japheth Jackson, Essie Byrd (middle)
Liner notes below are from Wiregrass Notes: Black Sacred Harp Singing from Southeast Alabama produced by Hank Willett.
During a typical convention singing the participants arrange themselves in a square according to voice part, the basses facing the trebles, and the tenors facing the altos. A song leader stands in the middle of the square leading the singers first through the notes to the songs and then through the lyrics, a practice emanating from the traditional singing school classes, where singers are taught to sing the notes and then the words.
The singing style takes its name from the The Sacred Harp, first published in Philadelphia by B. F. White and E. J. King. The musical style, however, predates the publication of the book. The itinerant singing-school master was a common phenomenon in colonial New England, and various masters competed in their efforts to devise an instructional system where congregations could be taught to sing "by note." By the mid-eighteenth century, religious songsters were commonly employing shape-notes to indicate the sounds based on the old British solfège system using syllables fa sol la fa sol la mi. From the fuguing tunes of William Billings to the popular melodies of Jeremiah Ingalls, religious songs found widespread circulation in hymnbooks such as William Walker's Southern Harmony, which was popular throughout the South in the early nineteenth century.
The important innovation introduced into the singing school tradition during the "Second Great Awakening" in the early nineteenth century was the idea, first utilized by New Englander William Law, of assigning different shaped note-heads corresponding to the fa sol la and mi syllables. As the singing school tradition declined in New England the new shape-note songsters, such as Kentucky Harmony, Virginia Harmony, Union Harmony, and Southern Harmony gained widespread popularity in the South. It was in this setting that the Sacred Harp made its initial appearance in Georgia in 1844. Despite the rapid decline of four-shaped tune books in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Sacred Harp, in its various revisions, has maintained a popularity and currency in the South unequalled by any of the other shape-note songsters.
There are three major revisions of the Sacred Harp that enjoy current usage. The White revision, published in 1911 by J. L.White is now used only in a few isolated areas of north Georgia. The most recent revision, the Denson revision, published in 1935, is by far the most widely used of the Sacred Harp revisions. It is found at most Sacred Harp sings throughout Georgia, in North Alabama, and in parts of Mississippi and Tennessee. It is the Cooper revision of the Sacred Harp, first published in 1902, that is used by both white and black singers in South Alabama. W. M. Cooper, from Dothan, Alabama, prefaced his edition with the statement "The selections are from the old Sacred Harp, remodeled and revised, together with additions from the most eminent authors, including new music." The remodeling" he referred to was the transposing of a number of songs into a lower, more-easily sung, key. The "revising" was the standardization of the alto part in all selections, a practice followed by the later revisers. Many of the melodies are adopted from traditional tunes including Celtic jigs and dance tunes. Typical of folk tunes they are often in the lonian and Aeolian modes, and occasionally the Mixolydian and Dorian. The song texts are taken mostly from the verses of the popular eighteenth century hymnists, most notably Isaac Watts and Charles Worley. The "additions" were a number of gospel songs and camp-meeting selections. The Cooper revision was again copyrighted in 1907, 1909, 1927, 1949, and 1960, and is currently published by the Sacred Harp Book Co., Inc., of Troy, Alabama.
(back l to r) Dewey's brother, Armilla Blackman, Robert Reynolds, Dewey P. Williams, HJ Jackson, Mr.Humphrey; (front l to r) Emanuel (Little) Franklin, Mrs Green, Bernice Harvey, Nathaniel (Big) Franklin, Pauline Jackson Griggs, Dovie Jackson Reese, Cleona Berry, Alice Williams
In 1934 a most interesting Sacred Harp variant was published in Ozark, Alabama. The Colored Sacred Harp contains seventy-seven songs, all but one composed by black singers from southeast Alabama and northwestern Florida. Judge Jackson (1883-1958) is listed as the book's author and publisher." Jackson had first heard shape-note singing while a teenager in Montgomery County, Alabama and was composing tunes of his own by his twenty-first birthday. In the 1920s Jackson had several of his compositions printed on broadsheets which he gave and sold to friends and acquaintances in Ozark and Dale County.
In the 1930s a committee of the Dale County Colored Musical Institute and the Alabama and Florida Union State Convention offered the following recommendations:
The committee report was signed by fifteen members, many representing families still prominent in the black Sacred Harp tradition.
Jackson's son Japheth (currently president of the Alabama-Florida Union State Convention) remembers accompanying his father in a mule-drawn wagon to pick up the one thousand paperback songsters at the Ozark train station.
The original edition contained, in addition to its seventy-seven songs, the Committee Report, pictures of Jackson and Walker, and a request:
The book, much to the frustration of Jackson, was not quickly adopted by the black shape-note singing community of southeast Alabama. It is not entirely clear why the book was not accepted.
Several songs, however, did catch the fancy of the singers. Among them are "Florida Storm," "My Mother's Gone," "Prosperity," and The Signs of Judgement," which are all sung with regularity at black Sacred Harp sings. As might be expected more songs from The Colored Sacred Harp are sung at the Jackson Memorial Sing, which occurs annually on the third Sunday in April.
By 1970, most singers were singing selections from The Colored Sacred Harp by memory as many of the original paperback copies had not withstood the more than thirty-five years of use. In 1973, The Colored Sacred Harp was reprinted in a hard-cover edition with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Humanities.
On the day of a typical black Sacred Harp sing the singers casually arrive in the late morning, seat themselves in the square according to voice part, and begin to sing and socialize. The dinner break occurs in the early afternoon, and the singers enjoy a covered dish "dinner-on-the-grounds" (or in the church basement) prepared by the women singers. The most intense and emotional singing usually occurs after the dinner break. Each singer takes turn leading a song of his choice. He comes to the middle of the square, calls out his page number, and waits for the tuner to key the song. Singers are discouraged by the other singers from repeating a song that has already been sung or "used." This proscription is often dispensed with, however, if the singer is particularly young, particularly old, or if the song has special significance to the individual song leader (perhaps the favorite song of a recently-deceased relative).
Every singer is given an opportunity to lead a song if he chooses to do so. Often older or infirm singers will request a younger singer to lead their song. The motions of the song leader are highly stylistic, and are generally more emotional and pronounced than the motions of white Sacred Harp song leaders. Young children are taught in singing school to mark time with their right arm while holding the book in their left. Typically a young singer will stand in place at the center of the square while leading the note singing. When he begins to lead the lyrics portion of the song he will often begin to "walk time" rhythmically pacing from one side of the square to the other, being careful never to turn his back to the tenor section. As the singer grows older and more confident he develops his own distinctive leading style. During fuging songs in particular he may gesture to each section of the square as its part joins in. Skilled song leaders often elicit applause or other emotional responses from the group. Occasionally a singer might reach an emotional pitch to the point of getting happy." These episodes might include a personal testimony from the "happy" person followed by a repeat of the last verse or refrain from the previous song. The singers usually break up at around 3:00 p.m. in time to go home and prepare supper.
With the exception of the annual state convention, which includes reading of minutes and committee reports, most sings are interrupted only by an opening prayer, dinner, and a closing prayer, and perhaps a special tribute speech if it is a sing in someone's honor. Most singings are of one day's duration (almost always a Sunday). Most sings occur between the months of March and October, months which are more conducive to travel and outdoor "dinners-on the-grounds."
"Pisgah" (Cooper, p.58)
This early nineteenth century revival tune is in a homophonic hymn style, but has built-in grace notes and other melodic ornamentation in all parts. Black singers usually perform this song in a slow, very steady manner.
The song note above was written by Doris Dyen for the LP publication of "Wiregrass Notes" that is out of print. The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is in the process of reissuing "Wiregrass Notes" on CD in the near future.
"PISGAH" is a traditional song sung from the B.F. White Sacred Harp Revised Cooper Edition page 58. Recorded by Stephen McCallum at an Alabama and Florida Union Singing Convention at Greater Old Salem Baptist Church in Dale County, Alabama 9-26-1980.
Extended Notes on
Dr. Warren Steel writes of
1. Note by Peter Ellertsen:
Karen Willard notes:
Dick Hulan suggests,
Listen Folkways Radio Series: Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers (click here). Singing masters Japheth Jackson and Dewey Williams (passed away 1997) provide the leadership for a small but active group of black shape-note singers in the Wiregrass region. Mr. Jackson, Mr. Williams and his daughter Bernice Harvey tell of the meaning and life long importance of this music for 'singing praises unto God.
Web References for Sacred Harp
Recent picture of Wiregrass Singers taken by Steve Grauberger at the 1999 Jackson Memorial singing at Union Grove Baptist Church in Ozark, Alabama
During Taping of Video at
WTVY Dothan, Alabama (back row l to r) Ed Snell, Kennon
Smith, Barney Roberson, Stanley Smith, Tommy Spurlock, Ms. Solomon;
(front row l to r) Doris Lewis, H.J. Jackson, Pauline
Jackson Driggs, Bernice Harvey