Review: The Makers of the Sacred Harp

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Ever since I had the opportunity to read ]]’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:

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