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Review: The Makers of the Sacred Harp

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Ever since I had the opportunity to read Kiri Miller‘s book on the topic, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism, I have been interested in a traditional Southern form of singing known as the Sacred Harp. In this volume, David Warren Steel (University of Mississippi) and Richard H. Hulan brings to us a needed work not of deep analysis but one of reference in which we find discussion on the region and culture which produced this form of music as well as sketches on authors, composes and even the history of the tunes as well as a listing of the songs in the Sacred Harp. Don’t let the label of ‘reference’ scare you, because unlike what you would expect as a reference book, Steel and Hulan brings life to these notes, or perhaps, gives history a tune which should be heard.

It is always important when writing about a particular regional tradition to maintain the respect for it that others have, and the more so, it seems, when that particular regional tradition is somehow related either to the American South or Appalachia and involves ‘old-fashioned’ religious zeal. Steel, in his introduction, survives this examination well and is able to bring some of the beauty of the tradition to those either unfamiliar with the style or perhaps inherently disdaining of it. This introductions serves as a very brief introduction to both the book and the tradition and is not to be missed in anticipation of getting to the rest of the book and indeed, informs us as to the reality that this music “stands on the persistent collaboration of generations of composers, songbook compilers, editors, and revisers, singing teachers, song leaders, and singers of all ages” (xi). The book is divided into four parts. Parts One and Two are essays on various topics while parts Three and Four serve to provide the expected reference material. In Part One, the origins, cultural infusions, and traditions of Sacred Harp are explored while in Part Two, the words of the songs are given their due. Part Three contains perhaps one of the most fantastic parts of the books, the biographical sketches of the Composers. To top this section off are plates of things important to Sacred Harp’s sacred history. The book ends with a listing of the songs of Sacred Harp as well as the bibliographical sources for the songs.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims are called ‘religions of the book’ and if that is the case, then it is entirely possible that the tradition of style surrounding shaped-note singing is a style of the book, with the singers being another ‘people of the book’, with that particular book being the Sacred Harp. It is an old book, sometimes updated, but well used. Steel takes the time in this volume to give you the particulars of who brought this musical sacred text about, their stories and indeed, how it has come to shape the Tradition in a way often times seen as odd or undescribable by outsiders. This ‘origin story’, as it were, takes up the first chapter of the book, but in this, we are welcomed into the hollow square ready then to hear about the people who wrote the songs and the tunes as well as the sources and other pieces of the history of this book. As it is difficult to ascertain the origin of the style itself, this book, the Sacred Harp, has taken a unifying presence among the various strains of Sacred Harp music. The singular quote from Steel to this effect, and indeed, one which easily sums up recent views into this tradition is found in the introduction,

“Sacred Harp singing is a community musical and social event emphasizing participation, not performance, where people sing from a tunebook called The Sacred Harp, printed in music notation using four shaped notes. (xi).

From here, Steel is able to build a bridge into this community. He begins by addressing the history of the first editors and the contents, as well as the myths which surrounded it. He notes that these books weren’t nearly as backwards as we might picture them of the time, but represented a sophisticated class of people of the era. Starting in the Appalachian east, the music tracks steadily westward, or rather, westward for what time, which was western Georgia and areas on the other side of the mountains. During this time, the backdrop of a developing country takes shape as well as the religious revival era in which many of these songs were produced. The Sacred Harp, like other sacred writings, wasn’t created in a vacuum, and Steel reminds us of that, often times speculating on a tangible preexistence of musical histories of the groups which contributed to the Sacred Harp. In this examination of the history, he hits on various intersections of history, including the War Between the States and the role which the Sacred Harp played in the life of the soldiers of that late conflict. What comes to the reader’s mind is the role in which this book played in the life of many Southern and Appalachian Americans historically, and if taken with Kiri Miller’s recent work, continues to play in the life of a variety of Americans today. Hulan would then caution us as taking this material is simply music, but to seek to understand the entire system which is intertwined with each and every song printed in the Sacred Harp as well as all of the other aspects to this Tradition.

As I noted earlier, after the essays which are essential, the book provides a valuable find without the usual distance to look for it. Composers, songs and other items are given biographical sketches, bring the names printed on the Sacred Harp to life. These things make this book a must have for those interested in the Sacred Harp tradition, or indeed, American music history, Appalachian and Southern folk history, or those who appreciate the value in which music has played in our collective life and history.

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Below is the author of work speaking on it:

In the Mail: The Sound of (Methodist) Music….

Thanks to Michael at the University of Illinois press,

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From the product description:

Providing new insight into the Wesley family, the fundamental importance of music in the development of Methodism, and the history of art music in Britain, Music and the Wesleys examines more than 150 years of a rich music-making tradition in England. John Wesley and his brother Charles, founders of the Methodist movement, considered music to be a vital part of religion, while Charles’s sons Charles and Samuel and grandson Samuel Sebastian were among the most important English composers of their time. Exploring British concert life, sacred music forms, and hymnology, the contributors analyze the political, cultural, and social history of the Wesleys’ enormous influence on English culture and religious practices. Contributors are Stephen Banfield, Jonathan Barry, Martin V. Clarke, Sally Drage, Peter S. Forsaith, Peter Holman, Peter Horton, Robin A. Leaver, Alyson McLamore, Geoffrey C. Moore, John Nightingale, Philip Olleson, Nicholas Temperley, J. R. Watson, Anne Bagnall Yardley, and Carlton R. Young. Nicholas Temperley is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of The Music of the English Parish Church and other works. Stephen Banfield is Stanley Hugh Badock Professor of Music at the University of Bristol. His books include Sensibility and English Song: Critical Studies of the Early Twentieth Century.

Review: Traveling Home, Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism

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Surely, some of you remember singing out of those shaped-note hymnals at Church some time ago. I grew up on the shape notes found in the Jimmie Davis hymnal, signing with fire and points, but that was the way we did it. It was a rural church, and indeed, in West Virginia, we had them too. Shape Notes. Told us what to point. What to highlight. How to sing. Sacred Harp singing, however, is more about just an easy way to sing, but involves a rich texturizing of America that is rarely seen, and written about, in such a positive light. It is the story of American culture, rooted in the South and carried forth through a disjointed diaspora of Yankees, agnostics, believers, and those on the political Left and Right. The author sheds new light and brings an appreciation to the Tradition of Sacred Harp singing which only an insider could.

Written by Kiri Miller, the Manning Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University, it tells the story of the author’s own interaction with the Sacred Harp singing community. You cannot help but note her own inner connection to the community as well as her utmost respect while questioning many of the different aspects of it.

She writes,

What are a Southern conservative Christian and a Liberal queer agnostic intellectual doing singing hymns together, one weekend in a university hall in Chicago and the next in a one-room church in rural Alabama? (38)

Previously, she noted her emotional reaction to the songs at one particular convention, although she was ‘not a Christian.’ (24) She goes on to describe in warm detail some of the diverse communities springing up in this tradition, all the while calling attention to what exactly establishing tradition entails. It is not written from a far off, scholarly, doctoral dissertation view, but one who is every much a part of the community, citing her ‘conversion’ (my word) when she was in college.

She treats Southerners, Christians, and Conservatives with respect, care and precision so as to not inflict a political conversation into the mix, but to note that a history rich with Southern roots, originating with Christian hymns, is not the racial hegemonic one would expect nor bound to political rhetoric to the extent that these things so out shine the glorious light of the singing conventions. She notes fully the stereotypes of the South and shows-up ‘Northerners’ in their attempt to classify this as anything but a rich tradition nurtured in the South. The South comes off as a culturally wealthy segment of the country and Miller is not hesitant about showcasing the treasures found there.

Her second chapter (the first being an introduction to the tradition and in some ways, to the author), is the author’s imagining of a cultural diaspora of Sacred Harp singing, hence the title of the book. She beautifully, and for this ‘exiled Southerner’, calls to mind the Southern accents, the floorboards of old country church houses, and the family connections exhibited by Southerners. While it may be just my romanticism erupting, Miller’s writing is almost lyrical and with some of her points, my mind hearkens back to the South and her deep traditions and rich culture.

In the third and fourth chapters she begins to highlight the rich tradition found inside the communities, and in this, we can see the passing along of faith, text, tradition, and styles, mirroring that of other traditions, more especially religion. It would be interesting, in the social sciences, to note with great enthusiasm, how these traditions become so, are defended, revised, and upheld across the diaspora which Miller notes included a stream of new converts who generally refuse to classify themselves as traditional.  Following these chapters, the fifth explores the effect that the outside world has had on Sacred Harp singing.

She goes on to note that the raw material would have included local culture, which during the turn of the last century, would have included not just music (such as Sacred Harp) but language, customs, and the like which more than not, Northerners used for their own ends while savaging it. Think Dukes of Hazzard and other shows set in Appalachia, or shows with characters from Appalachia. It is no doubt that for a period of time, the entire South was treated with a colonizing disdain, but even today, Appalachia still remains a colony, a hallmark of capitalism.

It is in the sixth chapter, however, that the community is taken to the human level, in which we see it dealing with political correctness and controversies over particular songs, the influx of new members and new geographically influenced cultures, as well as how to proceed if Sacred Harp loses its Southern roots. Yet, this transience as it is labeled, where in the midst of exile Tradition is preserved over and over again, Sacred Harp singing is taking root across the culture spectrum of America keeping itself embedded in our culture, where I hope it remains for a long time.

Reading Miller’s book has provided me with a better appreciation for Sacred Harp singing, having come to see it as a living tale of ‘Americanness’, culture diaspora, and a real overture to the past which we so often reject in our modernity. It tells the story of little stone churches, white picket fences, graveyards in Sacred Harp strongholds, and the power which I know that music has. The music, the lyrics, the words, and the traditions of Sacred Harp, which includes prayers that are even enjoined and said by non-believers softens the heart of the singers and gives them, many of who aren’t Christians themselves, a fuller appreciation of the Christian life as sung through the tears of the Sacred Harp.

Miller’s hollow square provides a panoramic view of Sacred Harp, and one which is not told by an outsider, but by one who is part of the family. Her experiences in this family gives this book the added weight of grace which is gained by experiencing the deaths memorialized during a lesson, the coaching by traditional singers, and one who politely reminds us that while these ancient pious hymns are sung, they are sung by such a cross-section of Americana (p164), that it would be more harmful than not to simply classify them as anything by Sacred Harp singers.

Traveling Home without the Local Color

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In the fifth chapter, Kiri Miller starts to scrape away some of the patina which surrounds Sacred Harp music but writing on something near and dear to my heart – the patina of Appalachia.

In a quote (p144) from another book, Miller notes that in the post-Civil War (her words) South, especially in the mountain areas, the peoples were colonized,

Transportation, law, and standardized education systems were developed – even as local industries were destroyed, land distribution was rearranged, and raw material was transferred to the colonizing country.

She goes on to note that the raw material would have included local culture, which during the turn of the last century, would have included not just music (such as Sacred Harp) but language, customs, and the like which more than not, Northerners used for their own ends while savaging it. Think Dukes of Hazzard and other shows set in Appalachia, or shows with characters from Appalachia. It is no doubt that for a period of time, the entire South was treated with a colonizing disdain, but even today, Appalachia still remains a colony, a hallmark of capitalism.

After reading Miller’s book, I have come to a better appreciation for Sacred Harp singing, seeing it as living tale of ‘Americanness’, culture diaspora, and a real overture to the past which we so often reject in our modernity. It tales the story of little stone churches, white picket fences, graveyards in Sacred Harp strongholds, and the power which I know that music has. The music, the lyrics, the words, and the traditions of Sacred Harp, which includes prayers that are even enjoined and said by non-believers softens the heart of the singers and gives them, many of who aren’t Christians themselves, a fuller appreciation of the Christian life as sung through the tears of the Sacred Harp.

Miller’s hollow square provides a panoramic view of Sacred Harp, and one which is not told by an outsider, but by one who is part of the family. Her experiences in this family gives this book the added weight of grace which is gained by experiencing the deaths memorialized during a lesson, the coaching by traditional singers, and one who politely reminds us that while these ancient pious hymns are sung, they are sung by such a cross-section of Americana (p164), that it would be more harmful than not to simply classify them as anything by Sacred Harp singers.

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Southroners, Christians and Agnostics in Traveling Home, Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism

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It is not a typo. If you know what a Southron is, then you know… you know? These are the notes from which I’ll draw my final review. But, for those of you interested in the singing culture of the South or Sacred Harp/shaped-note singing, you might do yourself a service and go ahead and get the book.

I love this book. Yes, it is not overtly theological, although defining Tradition, listening to how people interpret themselves and their culture, and watching as something within people connect individuals into a community across the spectrum is surely as theological as several of the books in Scripture.

Written by Kiri Miller, the Manning Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University, it tells the story of the author’s own interaction with the Sacred Harp singing community. You cannot help but note her own inner connection to the community as well as her utmost respect while questioning many of the different aspects of it.

She writes,

What are a Southern conservative Christian and a Liberal queer agnostic intellectual doing singing hymns together, one weekend in a university hall in Chicago and the next in a one-room church in rural Alabama? (38)

Previously, she noted her emotional reaction to the songs at one particular convention, although she was ‘not a Christian.’ (24) She goes on to describe in warm detail some of the diverse communities springing up in this tradition, all the while calling attention to what exactly establishing tradition entails. It is not written from a far off, scholarly, doctoral dissertation view, but one who is every much a part of the community, citing her ‘conversion’ (my word) when she was in college.

She treats Southerners, Christians, and Conservatives with respect, care and precision so as to not inflict a political conversation into the mix, but to note that a history rich with Southern roots, originating with Christian hymns, is not the racial hegemonic one would expect nor bound to political rhetoric to the extent that these things so out shine the glorious light of the singing conventions. She notes fully the stereotypes of the South and shows-up ‘Northerners’ in their attempt to classify this as anything but a rich tradition nurtured in the South. The South comes off as a culturally wealthy segment of the country and Miller is not hesitant about showcasing the treasures found there.

Her second chapter (the first being an introduction to the tradition and in some ways, to the author), is the author’s imagining of a cultural diaspora of Sacred Harp singing, hence the title of the book. She beautifully, and for this ‘exiled Southerner’, calls to mind the Southern accents, the floorboards of old country church houses, and the family connections exhibited by Southerners. While it may be just my romanticism erupting, Miller’s writing is almost lyrical and with some of her points, my mind hearkens back to the South and her deep traditions and rich culture.

I am looking forward to finishing this book.

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