Alabama Folkways Articles

 April, 1993

NINETY-FIVE YEAR OLD HELPS PRESERVE SINGING TRADITION

by Henry Willett

On March 7, there was a birthday celebration at St. Mark's A.M.E. Church in Ozark, Alabama. Sacred Harp singer Dewey President Williams celebrated his 95th birthday with an all day singing, and barbecue and fried chicken dinner-on-the-grounds. (photo at left by S. Grauberger)

Williams was born in the Haw Ridge community in Dale County in 1898, and has been singing and teaching Sacred Harp music for most of his 95 years. His grandparents, who were slaves in Barbour County, also sang Sacred Harp.

Sacred Harp singing, also known as "shape-note" or "fa-sol-la" singing, is a traditional musical style of great antiquity. (musical example 452k-mp3) Its origins date to the nationwide religious movement of the early 19th century known as "The Great Awakening."

Sacred Harp singing takes its name from the songbook The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844. The musical style, however, predates the publication of the book. Itinerant singing school masters in the 18th century competed in their efforts to devise a system for teaching their classes to sing "by-note." The important innovation, introduced into the singing school tradition in the Great Awakening years of the early 19th century, was the idea of assigning different shaped note-heads corresponding to the fa, sol, la, and mi syllables. Despite the rapid decline of shape-note song books in the latter half of the 19th century, The Sacred Harp, in its various revisions, has maintained a popularity in the Deep South. The tradition, characteristically associated with white culture in the South, has enjoyed a vibrancy among African-Americans in southeast Alabama for over a century. Dewey Williams has been one of the leading proponents of African-American Sacred Harp singing.

Williams' work has been recognized in his receipt of the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, and was featured in Bill Moyers' PBS documentary, "Amazing Grace." But on the first Sunday in March each year, it is Williams' home community which celebrates his birthday, just as it has for the last fifty years.

As the singers arrive, they seat 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 and then the lyrics, a practice emanating from the traditional singing school classes, where singers are taught to sing the notes and then the words. Every singer is given an opportunity to lead a song.

The Dewey Williams Birthday Sing marks the beginning of the singing "season," which will run through October. On almost every Sunday between March and October, Dewey Williams joins with fellow singers at the County Line Church in Slocomb, the Mount Sinai Church in Henry County, or at any one of a dozen or so churches in Southeast Alabama, to form the "square" and sing "fa-sol-la" just as many Southeast Alabamians have been doing for over 100 years.

Dewey Williams will be appearing at the Alabama Folklife Festival in Montgomery on May 29-30. The festival will also feature a traditional Sacred Harp singing school.