Monday, November 26, 2007

"Death in the Sacred Harp"

I recently read Death in the Sacred Harp , a master's thesis by Jessica Tilley. It made me think of some minor thoughts on death that I recorded in my history of the East Texas Musical Convention.

A bridge to the past is constructed by identification with the adversity faced by Sacred Harp predecessors, coupled with the remembrance of the unavoidable appointment with death. In modern American society the subject of death has been sanitized in real life and trivialized in the media. The television medium can portray fictional injuries and deaths in most gruesome detail, while the real infirm, injured and aged have been transferred out of homes to hospitals and care facilities. Corpses awaiting committal have been moved from homes to funeral parlors, and the committal itself from the responsibility of the community to the funeral director. Sacred Harp provides a solemn reminder of ubiquitous nature of pain, sorrow, and death. One reviewer of a Sacred Harp recording called the music “fatalistically sad and spookily beautiful.”[1] Yet the Sacred Harp community with its built-in catharsis probably suffers less from depression than the average American. According to F. E. Abernethy, “The memento mori[2] theme is characteristic of Sacred Harp music and that separates it, as much as anything that I can think of, from modern music – church or otherwise. The only ones that keep reminding us of our eventual and inevitable trip to the grave are the insurance salesmen. As a result maybe we have lost some of the seasons of life. What makes this October so sweet and beautifully mellow is our knowing that the year is nearing the end of its time. The people of Sacred Harp know this and they sing about it…The words of the old Harp songs are often sad and mournful. The verses (many of them) were written by people who knew too much of this world’s suffering…They were not romanticizing when they wrote, ‘Time swift as an Indian arrow flies’.”[3]

[1] Ratliff, Ben, “Faces of Jazz: Late Greats, Rare Gospel, Cool Caribbean”, New York Times, Sunday October 31, 2004).
[Accessed Mon Nov 1 5:59:03 am US/Central 2004]
[2] Reminder of death
[3] Abernethy, F. E., “History of Sacred Harp”, Sacred Harp Preservation Symposium

-- copied from Approaching 150: A Brief History of the East Texas Musical Convention and Sacred Harp in East Texas, page 58

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