Alabama Folkways Articles

 November, 1992

SACRED HARP SINGING IN ALABAMA

by Erin Kellen

The lady of the telephone wanted to know where she could buy some recordings of Sacred Harp music. She and her husband had just attended a family reunion where someone had come up to her husband and said, "You're father was the one with perfect pitch!" And that reminded him that his late father had been a singer of Sacred Harp music. This caused him to wish to hear again those songs his father loved to sing. His perceptive wife immediately started inquiring around and was eventually referred to the Center. And, yes, we arranged to get her some recordings so that she could surprise her husband with them for his birthday. These recordings, Wiregrass Notes: Black Sacred Harp Singing from Southeast Alabama Bound for Canaan: Sacred Harp Singing from Sand Mountain, Alabama, are by no means field recordings of a half-century ago when this man's father was singing. Rather, the singers on these recordings still meet regularly in little churches across the state for all-day singings and dinners on the ground. And that's the lovely part of the story. These dedicated singers have sustained the tradition of Sacred Harp singing through some lean times. Now "singing" is experiencing a revival, like many other kinds of folk music. Some of the new supporters of Sacred Harp music have links with the old tradition through their families, churches, and communities. Many others come from out of the South, drawn by the haunting tunes, the wild harmonies and the poetry of the music.

At a Sacred Harp singing, singers sit facing each other in a "hollow square," organized by the four voice parts: tenor (melody), bass, treble (soprano), and alto. They use oblong songbooks in which the notes are indicated by geometrically shaped symbols on a musical scale--fa, sol, la, mi. Singers vocalize the notes to the tune first, then proceed with the lyrical verses. Individual singers take turns selecting and leading songs. The singing is strong and loud, the singers singing more for each other (and for God) than for an audience. Participation and fellowship is the order of the day. The art of Sacred Harp Singing is often taught at "singing schools."

Many singings and singing schools take place throughout the year. Coming up is the Alabama State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, to be held on the "fourth Sunday and the Saturday before" of November--that is November 21 and 22--at Mount Pleasant Home Baptist Church near Fultondale, Alabama. This will be the fiftieth anniversary of folklorist Alan Lomax's field recording of the same singing. Two singing schools are sponsored by the Center in Montgomery. One is associated with the Alabama Folklife Festival on Memorial Day Weekend and the other takes place in July.