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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