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The Sacred Harp in the Land of Eden


[clock] 27-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1934

In the plantation country of Middle Georgia is a land which ought to be, but is not, called Eden. Whatever one may argue about the phantasmic impositions of automobile and radio upon appearances, here there is little change in the essence of things as they were in other days. Small farmers, to be sure, have invaded what was once only a land of great estates, but this change is simply a more intimate mingling of the old elements of the Southern tradition.

To the modern visitor, the noteworthy fact is that the tradition has here been preserved at the very time when there has been the greatest temptation to depart from it. Perhaps, in their conservatism, the folk of Eden have been armored in nothing more formidable than innocence; but their innocence is now beginning to look like wisdom, or at the very least like a rare fidelity to which time may give some reward. The folk of Eden do not have to study much over what to keep and what to abandon, because they know how they wish to live. The town of Eden keeps some things, and the country around it other things, but they do not make it their business to disturb one another where their ideas of preservation do not happen to coincide. Indeed, they do not particularly notice what they are keeping or make any great outcry pro and con. Thus it happens that the land of Eden has kept alive, almost unwittingly, the all-day singings which have been a feature of life in the South since eighteenth-century times.

My tale here is not of the town, except as it good-naturedly tolerates or ignores the slightly different customs that prevail in the surrounding country. The all-day singings take place on the fringe of Eden’s land and not in the town. In the town the churches have choirs of the regular sort that sit behind an elevated rail with a little velvet curtain. At intervals they dutifully rise to sing the hymns provided in decorous books published by church boards in Nashville or Atlanta—books from which zeal and musical vitality have been fairly well extracted by years of revivalism and musical professionalism in the church. The choir sings competently because it is made up of educated musicians with well-behaved voices. The congregation listens obediently because that is what it is supposed to do. When the service is over, they all go home to dinner without knowing exactly what is missing from the procedure to which all the people once said Amen—actually said it, did not leave it to a choir to intone. It would never occur to them that they have allowed improvers and reformers to deprive them of a musical tradition that was once native to their religion, and is now in the keeping of their humbler brethren, outside the church organization. To rediscover this tradition, one must forsake the neo-Gothic churches of the town, which reflect the fleeting prosperity of the New South and the taste of the Gilded Age, and seek out the plain rectangular “church houses” that stand beside lonely graveyards, in groves of pine or oak, in the midst of old plantation lands now sometimes tilled by tenants from North Georgia or Alabama.

Here the “old timey singings” still flourish, as they did a century ago. Upon question, the townsfolk of Eden may talk about them a little—half-condescendingly (because one is used to hearing Walter Damrosch or Lily Pons on the radio), and half-wistfully (because the old music is still in their blood); but they rarely attend the singings in any numbers. They have not yet got around to reading George Pullen Jackson’s account, in “White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands,” of “the lost tonal tribe of America”; and they are therefore as ignorant as urban America of the nature of the choral art that flourishes at their very doors: the tradition of the “shape-note” singers that once swept the rural South, after a fleeting residence in New England and the West, and that seems to be the original source of the Negro spirituals.

Many of the Eden-folk had seen the “shape-notes” in the older hymn-books, in the days when even the churches had to yield to the old-fashioned method; but they had forgotten the singing “classes” that were once taught to associate the tones of the scale with the shapes named “fa,” “sol,” and “la,” and thus developed a remarkable facility at a kind of a capella religious singing. They could hardly be expected to know what Dr. Jackson had gone to such labor to discover, that the “Fa-sol-la Folk” used a method of music reading that derived from Elizabethan England and sang from books like “The Southern Harmony” and “The Sacred Harp,” which garnered up some of the noblest and most ancient strains of folk and art music in combination. The Eden folk did know, however, that old tunes like “Amazing Grace” had a power to move them far beyond the polite dilutions offered in modern hymn-books. They answered a stranger’s questions tolerantly but vaguely. Yes, there were singings at Cedar Valley and Salem, but they hadn’t been there in years. Dinner-on-the-grounds, of course, was something anybody could relish— Lord, what dinners there used to be! If we wanted old-time singing, why not go to the Negro churches, where one could hear all those Negro spirituals that people up North kept talking about?

But Mr. Knowles, the barber, knew all about the white spirituals. By practice and preference he was of the old “four-shape” school, and a devotee of the “Original Sacred Harp.” Systematically, he had started out to master every one of the 609 tunes in that great collection—a “new edition” of a work dating back to 1844. Yes, he had learned to sing by the “four-shape” method: fa, sol, la for the first three notes of the scale (triangle, circle, square); and fa, sol, la again for the next three; and mi (a diamond) for the seventh if you ever needed it. But he had learned the “seven-shape” system too, which went do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, with a different shape for every note. And he had even learned the round notes, he was careful to remind me, for I should know that his preference for “shapes” was no Hob-son’s choice. Mostly he had figured it all out for himself, just as he had spelled his way through the Bible.

From a drawer beneath the hair tonic and shaving mugs he took out a well thumbed copy of the “Original Sacred Harp,” and from another drawer a pitch-pipe and a tuning-fork. This was the way one sang. One set his pitch-pipe for whatever the key-signature was, and sounded “fa.” Then it was easy to go right ahead, because the shape of the notes told you exactly what sound to make. If you used a tuning-fork, of course, you often had to work up or down, and it was harder to hit the key. The book fell open at “The Morning Trumpet,” which Dr. Jackson has ear-marked as the probable original of a famous Negro spiritual. Could he sing this one by way of illustration, I asked. Well, he didn’t know that song, but he would try. He didn’t have to noddle his head over new songs, like some church pianists he had seen. Let’s see—this song was a minor—F sharp minor. He set his pitch-pipe, blew a thin strain, and then went through the plaintive old air without missing a single note. It was a convincing exhibition of sight reading. The church choir, I fancied, would have noddled their heads considerably over “The Morning Trumpet,” which fazed Mr. Knowles not at all. This was the music I wanted to hear.

Very good, he said, the singing was to be at Cedar Valley„ the last Sunday in April, as it had always been. The Cedar Valley people sang in the old-fashioned way, out of “The Sacred Harp” only. They permitted no departures, and they used no instruments of any kind, not even a tuning-fork or a pitch-pipe. For this strict orthodoxy they suffered a little, Mr. Knowles thought, for if the leader did not watch, he would set the tune too high. The Cedar Valley folks disdained pitch-pipes to their hurt. Nevertheless they were fine folks and fine singers, right down to the very children. They were not like the “new way” folks at Salem (though these were good singers too) who used “seven-shape” notes and had a new book every year; they stuck to the Sacred Harp. We must be sure to go.

II

So we went, and a fine Sunday morning it was, with the sun bright on the cotton plants and the peach orchards. The hard-paved highway turned into a sand road that wound past deserted Negro cabins and half-plowed fields, red with sour-grass plumes or brown with sedge where the earth lay fallow. We passed Hog Crawl Creek, a muddy rivulet, and presently, there among the pines, with a grassy clearing in front, was Cedar Valley Church. It was a small white building with rickety front steps. A little beyond showed the bare sand, and marble or wooden headstones of the bury-ing-ground. Already a school bus, a few automobiles, and a mule wagon were drawn up in the shade. Men and boys lounged on the steps of the church. Women sat in the cars, chatting and waiting.

A huge man, who but for his horn-rimmed spectacles was the image of girt John Ridd in all his brawn, turned from the Model-T Ford where he was talking with some new arrivals and came to greet us.

“Oakes is my name.” He extended a great hand, rough from plow and axe. “I see you all are strangers here. We are mighty glad to have you.”

Yes, we came from Tennessee, but were living at Eden for the winter.

His blue eyes twinkled speculatively, but he suppressed the desire to question these foreigners who came from so far North that they might as well be Yankees, and welcomed us heartily.

Yes, this was the place where the old-timey singing went on. When he took this church—hit was a Missionary Baptist church—he kept up the old singing because he was used to it where he came from, over in Clay County, Alabama. The old songs were the best. They tetched you right thar (he motioned toward his heart), but the new songs only got into folks’ feet and made them want to dance. But songs were anyhow mostly better than preaching; better, at least, than the new-fangled sermons that had too much starch in them, all filling and no real body of the gospel. Not so many folks could sing by the old way as there used to be. At a burying now, it was sometimes hard to find anybody to set a tune. Still, a lot of people always came to Cedar Valley on this Sunday—people from all around, from Macon, even from Atlanta. Wouldn’t I lead them in a lesson, he added, courteously?

No, much obliged, I could not. I liked the singing, but came only to listen.

Well, there were many such. But we must jine in when the singing began. And now wouldn’t we step out and meet some of the folks?

Particularly there were Mr. and Mrs. Dunn. He was a stocky man with a drooping flaxen moustache and she a slender, wistful woman, a good farmer’s wife. They were eager to talk and anxious to make the visitors feel at home.

Like Brother Oakes, they came originally from Alabama. Mr. Dunn wanted to go back, but Mrs. Dunn was against that. She didn’t want her children to have to hoe that rocky ground, as she had had to do. But this was a good country. They lived near Vienna, twenty miles away. Their farm was really a five-mule farm, but now, times were so bad, they were plowing only two mules. And so I was from Tennessee? And my wife from Ohio? Ohio was too incredibly far away for comment, but Mr. Dunn said he had always wanted to go to Tennessee. His father, after he had fought in the Confederate War, had always talked so much about that fine Tennessee country. And two of his seven sons had been selling Bibles up in Tennessee—the same two that had been going to Miss Martha Berry’s school at Rome. One of the boys was here now—the only one, out of all seven, who liked the Sacred Harp singings. He never missed a singing anywhere—he had even been known to hitch-hike in order to get to a singing—and he was really responsible for their coming today.

We talked on, as the sun drew higher and the crowd increased. People came in all sorts of vehicles: mule-wagons with chairs and planks for seats, a buggy or two, a couple of “Hoover carts,” automobiles of fairly recent models, school buses, open trucks, and many Model-T Fords and ancient Chevrolets. There were many more young people than old. The girls wore their lipstick and rouge with an air. Their hats and dresses were in the spring fashion or not far behind. People had on their Sunday clothes, which might be unobtrusively patched or darned; but nobody wore overalls. A few of the older men wore the broad-brimmed black hats and string ties of another day, but among the women there were no old-fashioned shawls and bonnets. They were a handsome, hearty race, unconquered by depression or modernity; and the children, running numerously to and fro, were the handsomest and most neatly dressed of all.

As ten o’clock came near, Brother Oakes began to get worried. There was a shortage of books. In the past they

had depended on old man H-, who regularly appeared

with an armful of “Sacred Harps,” some to lend, some to sell. He was not at the Unadilla singing last Sunday, a voice said. He must be sick then, said another, for he was never known to miss a singing. Brother Oakes went through the crowd and returned. There were nine books, he said. That would do to begin with—everybody come in!

The people filled the rude wooden benches, and the singers gathered at the front around the pulpit. For the singers there were benches at the sides and a bench or two facing the congregation, so as to form, with the front benches, a hollow square, four sides for the four parts of the songs. There were many more men than women. As the singing got under way, late arrivals came up from the rear or entered from the side door. Before long, at least forty singers were engaged, and the volume of tone, a little unbalanced at first, swelled to majestic proportions.

A few of the singers were oldsters, of sixty and upwards. A much larger number were in their hale fifties. There were several young men and a few young girls. One tiny girl of about ten years sat on the front bench and sang from her mother’s book. In the rear of the singers a few men joined in at times; they had no books but they knew some of the songs by heart.

“The lesson will begin,” announced Brother Oakes, “with Number Fifty-nine.” (For this ancient ritual still keeps the procedure of the eighteenth-century singing school; it speaks of “lesson” and “class.”) “Not all of our friends are here. Some are missing that have always been on hand. But we have enough to make a show. Now everybody jine in as we sing these songs of Zion, and if you ain’t got a book, open yore mouth and make a noise anyway.”

He peered at his book and hummed under his breath to set the pitch, leaning over to let the others try it with him. And now he had the pitch. To right, to center, to left he swept his hand, and the groups of voices in turn proclaimed the pitch. Then with the downward stroke of his hand they went through the tune together, singing the syllables, fa, sol, la, and calling to life the ancient shape notes that told singers how the tune went. Without a fumble they syllabled the tune, and the pines outside, and the plowed fields, and the throng of folk on the rough benches heard again the ritual of fa-sol-la, kept for them in hard times and good, by men and women who knew how to worship in song. The Sacred Harp, many voiced and strong, was sounding again in the land of Eden.

Though none there dreamed it, the tune first chosen was much like a dance-song tune that could have come from an English green in the time of Henry VIII, the king who loved music and himself knew how to set or make a tune. But here it was sung slowly. It was a good stately tune, and when the fa-sol-la-ing had ended, Brother Oakes adjusted his glasses and looked around. “The words,” he said; and they sang the words: “Brethren, we have met to worship, And adore the Lord our God. . . .”

Brother Oakes was a good leader. He tolerated no dragging. He swept all along—singers and crowd alike—with the strong trumpet of his voice carrying the air and the bulk of his great body that put out a commanding arm to wave us into the deep rhythm of the antique spiritual music. He knew words and tune by heart. He could fa-sol-la the tune with hardly a glance at the book. The songs of “The Sacred Harp” were a life that he lived, burningly and familiarly. Chosen by him, the songs went beckoning into the woods and fetched the people in. And they came in, leaving no bench unfilled, clustering at the doors and beyond.

The next song was in a minor key—a solemn and plaintive echo, with as much strength as mournfulness in it, of times when the songs of the faith had not brightened up into the persevering optimism of the exclusively major modes. When it was finished, Brother Oakes prayed for a blessing in the biblical language whose seventeenth-century idiom was not far removed from his own colloquial English. After the prayer, the customary committee was appointed to call up the leaders of the lessons in their due turn. Brother Oakes then led in his third song, “Farewell, vain world, I’m going home,” and presently another leader took charge.

By dinner-time nine leaders, besides Brother Oakes, had done their part, some spiritedly, some haltingly, but even the weakest with plausible correctness, and all with dignity and fervor. It was a point of courtesy for the committee to call up all who could lead or were ambitious to lead, and to compliment the veterans and the guests from far off by calling on them first. Brother B-of Macon, the second to appear, had a slight air of the professional. In his neat business suit he looked like any Rotarian; but he had a musical earnestness and expertness that no Rotarian ever dreamed of. He beat time with a pencil, and in the complicated “fu-guing songs” that he selected he waved up this or that part like the conductor of an orchestra. He was so accurate in hitting the pitch that succeeding leaders, if they felt a little uncertain, leaned over and deferred to him in their efforts to strike the right tone. In general the songs were astonishingly well pitched. Only twice were there false starts; both times, the pitch was too high. One or two of the leaders were old gentlemen whose quavery voices were well-nigh lost in their beards. One of the younger men was obviously frightened and shaky. The most self-assured and even was a girl of nineteen or twenty, whose rouged lips and smart spring dress might have nominated her for the ranks of the jazz singers and crooners; but she led the difficult old music like a veteran.

III

The choice of songs included one or two familiar hymns, other much less hymn-like tunes that might be called the classics of the shape-note tradition, and a general sprinkling of the “fuguing tunes” that required the parts to follow out contrapuntal figures. The selections fully revealed the richness of “The Sacred Harp” collection and the good taste and varied inclination of the leaders. The device of rotating leaders was itself a revelation of the sturdiness and good sense of these musical democrats. There must be no true singer who could not lead, and no leader who could not in turn give way and enter the ranks.

Of the thirty-four songs sung during the two-hour morning session, four were in a minor key. Perhaps the prevalence of the major modes indicated that the old folk were yielding to the modern prejudice against minor scales, which dominates the new-fangled and heretical school of the “sevenshapers,” with their more jigging and conventionally harmonized tunes of “gospel hymn” flavor. Their performance in general was beyond the powers of the average church choir. In the morning they sang thirty-four songs; in the afternoon they would sing at least as many more, a total of seventy or eighty songs during the day. Some of the singers, of course, were Sacred Harp, or shape-note, devotees who frequented the singings that go on through the Middle Georgia neighborhood from early spring till fall; a few no doubt attended the Sunday afternoon “classes” held occasionally at Cedar Valley. But many had had no practice since last year’s singing at this place. Yet they must be ready to follow a leader who could choose anything he pleased from the five hundred-odd pages of “The Sacred Harp.” And they must follow, too, not merely some simple tune for which the harmony could be “faked,” but music in which the four parts were written on separate staffs and had to a considerable degree their own melodic patterns. If the song were not familiar, they must take it at sight; but they could do this (as they would have explained to the novice) because of the shape-notes, which from their contour as well as their position told what the tone was. If anybody were rusty and uncertain, the preliminary fa-sol-la-ing would set him straight.

The voices blended best, it seemed, and the musical effect was best, during this fa-sol-la-ing. Sometimes the tone was queerly balanced, though never exactly discordant, when the words began. The discrepancy came partly, I suspected, from a mechanical difficulty. To save printing space, the words, in “The Sacred Harp,” are distributed too compactly and awkwardly through the four staffs. The men who sing the “lead,” which is on the third staff, must glance up to the first staff for the first stanza of the words, while continually glancing down at the third staff to hit the tune.

The tonal effects were not what a trained chorus leader would seek to obtain. These singers were not trying to please an audience with a fine balance and blending of tone. They knew nothing about “artistic effects.” But they were singing to please themselves, to enjoy the music, to feel their own emotions in song. Hardly ever did they need the leader’s admonition to “keep together.” The deep organic surge of the music and everyone’s hand-beat sufficed for that. The powerful accents carried them along irresistibly. But there was no soft pedaling, no shading. Each musical democrat simply opened his mouth and let his feelings find utterance in unrestrained vocality. The singing was at its best when it reached its fullest volume. The rich bass and tenor of the men dominated nearly always. There were fewer women’s voices; and these few gave the chorus a quality that might have seemed harsh, or even offensive, to an ear accustomed to a different tonal balance. The women’s voices, too, separated a little stridently from the vocal mass. They had none of the sweet liquidity of the traditional soprano. They were not, in fact, sopranos at all, or altos; but theirs were the high “treble” (pronounced “tribble”) and the lower-voiced “counter” parts —the old terms for the parts sung by women.

To an unaccustomed ear the strangeness of the effect was increased by the peculiar intonation given to the words themselves. The word utterance of these folk (like the way of most old-fashioned singers in the South) was partly a sliding around and to the words intoned, and partly an oro-tundity and a separateness of one word from the next. It was the opposite of the intonation of trained singers who, in their zeal for pure tonality, obscure consonants and merge syllables so as to make words indistinguishable. To the Sacred Harpers the music was much, but not everything. They sang the words as well as the music. They believed in the words and loved the old figures of speech. They were happy to think that they “were marching through Imman-uel’s Land to fairer worlds on high,” or that “somewhere their troubles would be over.” Little wonder that at such singings the Sacred Harpers were often moved to tears. The singing was an intense personal experience; it was poetry and religion united in music. The words meant what they said, for the Sacred Harpers were like ballad singers to whom the ballad is as much story as song. Perhaps their manner of intonation was itself traditional and went back no telling how far, to some time when music was in truth wedded to immortal verse.

The “folk” quality of the songs, or at least the folk-like quality, was recognizable enough. Not only did one hear borrowings from secular music—a song set to the tune of “Robin Adair” or “Long, Long Ago”—but the melodic patterns continually ran in the direction of folk music. The songs were often pentatonic in scale; in the fa-sol-la-ing one rarely heard the “mi” of the seventh. Their musical style drew one’s mind back to the great camp-meeting days, from which songs improvised and remembered found their way into collections like “The Sacred Harp.” As for Dr. Jackson’s argument that the Negro spirituals derive ultimately from the white spirituals, I thought as I listened that no one acquainted with the controversy between those who argue for a white origin and those who hold out for an exclusively Negro origin could remain unconvinced in the light of the Sacred Harp performance. Songs like “My troubles will be over,” “Oh, who will come and go with me,” and “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,” were remarkably like Negro spirituals, but they were demonstrably older than the recorded versions of the Negro spirituals that resemble them. They had been created in the heyday of the shape-note choral art and had been kept alive by the obscure devotees of Sacred Harps and Southern Harmonies. Doubtless the Negro had adapted them in his peculiar way, but he had first of all taken his songs from the source where he had got his Bible, his plow, his language.

Indeed, the music, I thought as I listened, was something whose influence every native Southerner has subconsciously recognized, even when he has not experienced its direct force. The Sacred Harp people were keeping alive a “native” American music which had made itself felt in unacknowledged ways upon many of the songs, secular and sacred, that reflect an indigenous American experience. The townsfolk of Eden had neglected or lost this tradition, but at least they had not gone out into the woods and tried to educate the Sacred Harp people into a progressive contempt for their good old music. Now it had lasted so long that it might become new-fashioned. One could cheerfully agree with George Pullen Jackson’s argument that the “cult of listening silence” encouraged by radio and the philanthropic patronage of orchestral and operatic performances might lead only to a sterile musical culture; but the Sacred Harp tradition, which was only a part of the larger shape-note tradition with its thousands upon thousands of Southern devotees, gave the living experience of music itself.

IV

As the singing went on, the congregation swelled in numbers. There was a little casual coming and going, but its informality did not mar the dignity and intense spirit of participation that charged the little church room. Now and then girls looked back, smiling and whispering, and went out to join their beaus. Late comers edged through the crowd and found places. But the Sacred Harp, with its many-voiced harmony, was lord in that place. The grave, attentive men in their Sunday suits, the women in their modest finery, the children quiet and a little awed, were borne with the choral music, their souls feeding deep on its archaic splendors. To them it was “the most beautiful music in the world.” Near the front, where there were still not enough books to go around, one saw hands on the backs of benches softly rise and fall, and open and close, keeping time as students of the Sacred Harp are taught to do. One could see an old man’s eyes close and his lips move, as he joined in some familiar chorus and thought perhaps of boyhood days, when first the singing-master came to the settlement from which the sound of pioneer axes and the noise of war had not long departed.

As the time drew near twelve o’clock, Brother Oakes again arose. “We have time for one more song before dinner,” he said. “Turn to 528. And I like it tolerable peart. I like it the way the brother led us just now. I never did care for a song to be drug out. When I was a boy I plowed with oxen, and when I got hold of an old blind horse I thought I was flying—I never went back to oxen. I never like to hear a song drug out.”

“Oh, For a Heart,” his last choice, was a sonorous minor setting of verses by Wesley. He led it vigorously. His eyes looked far off, hardly ever at the book. The song ended. The Sacred Harp was closed and put away.

We went out with the throng into the sunshine. The grove was full of vehicles and people. Everybody was shaking hands. There were more people outside the church than had been in it. Many of them were young folk, doing their courting while the elders sang. Our own car, we found, was occupied by two such couples, who laughingly made way for us.

Many were the invitations to stay for dinner. Surely we weren’t going right now, when the fried chicken and sausage and pie and cake were being set out, from baskets that the women had cooked all day Saturday to fill. But we were the mysterious strangers, the unaccountable folk from a long way off, who must say farewell too soon, far too soon. We left the Sacred Harp folk under their pines, where in a moment the preacher would ask the blessing of the Lord upon the bounty that His hand and His earth, in despite of man-made hard times, had given His people; and went on our way with the strings of the Sacred Harp still vibrant in our minds, and saw the cotton springing up, the peach trees in full green, the grain already nearly ripe for harvest in the land of Eden.

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