Saturday, October 26, 2013

I Remember Sacred Harp Singing

The following reminiscence was written by Oran Heaton Griffith (1914--2004). Brother O. H. Griffith was born in Panola County, Texas -- once a hotbed of Sacred Harp activity -- and was an active Baptist minister for over 60 years. His father W. G. Griffith was a Baptist minister and a Sacred Harp singer (Bro. Greer's memorial marker mentions his singing Sacred Harp solfege to songs other than Sacred Harp, e.g. Jesus Loves Me). After Brother O. H.'s retirement brought him back to our area he attended our singing as long as he was able. During his service as Editor-in-Chief of the Baptist Sunday School Committee he was involved in compiling the American Baptist Hymnal.

Bro. Griffith credited the "help of Lewis Vaughn and D. J. Burks" in preparation of the following article, which was mainly intended for the churches of his association he figured had largely forgotten about Sacred Harp. I found it interesting, and thought it might be so to some of the readers. I don't know exactly when this was written, but I'd guess the early 1980's.

I Remember Sacred Harp Singing

They came from miles around and from every direction: wagons, buggies and Model T Ford cars. They were filled with men, women and children. When they arrived, children piled out of the wagons and cars and soon were engaged in childhood games. The men greeted each other with a warm handshake. Most of the women embraced. Each family brought a large box, "hump-back" trunk, or a #3 washtub filled with good "ole" country food: fried chicken, dumplings, dressings, salmon patties and whatever vegetables were in season. Previously men had set up long tables on the ground. Several vinegar barrels had been filled with water and a tin drinking cup hung on each. Inside the church house several benches had bee arranged in a "hollow square".

The PLACE could have been any large community with a church house. The TIME, July or August of the 1920's or 1930's. The OCCASION, a Sacred Harp Singing. About ten o'clock several men and women assembled inside the church house to sing. Some of those who did not sing would visit on the outside, control the children and guard the food against a raid by the community dogs. Others would go inside to listen to the singing.

The previously arranged hollow square accommodated the singers. Each of the four-part harmonies occupied one side of the square. The parts were treble, tenor (soprano), alto and bass. A man would be selected as "keyer". He would begin each song by sounding one or all the voice parts, and "pitch" it within a voice range comfortable to all. With the starting tone in mind, the singers could read their parts by following the shaped notes. There was no musical accompaniment, so the singers would go through one verse singing the notes: fa, sol, la, mi, somewhat like a church pianist playing through a song once to familiarize the singers with the melody. Then they sang the words, keeping time time with hand and arm, or toe-tapping.

Both men and women would lead a song. When a woman led, a man courteously stood up to keep the time for her. It was mostly an adult exercise, but usually a few teenagers participated. And, nearly always there would be at least one child, maybe not even of school age, who would lead a song. The child might stand on a low table in the middle of the square and direct the song entirely from memory. A high point for many, especially for the children, was when singing dismissed for "dinner on the ground." After dinner, the singers reassembled and sang for another two or three hours.

Today Sacred Harp is thought of as "folk music," and I guess it is, but it was sung with deep religious feelings. Some of the songs may be found in most church hymnals. This style of singing originated in England, and was brought to America by the Pilgrims. Today it is found only in the United States, and mostly in the South. However, in recent years some young people in Chicago, and the New England areas have organized classes of Sacred Harp singers. Several annual conventions are conducted in East Texas, one in Henderson. Most of the early churches used the Sacred Harp as their hymnbook. A few continued to use it to near the mid-twentieth century.

[The help of Lewis Vaughn and D. J. Burks in preparation of this article is gratefully acknowledged.] by O. H. Griffith


Leland Bryant Ross said...

" Most of the early churches used the Sacred Harp as their hymnbook. "

Is there much evidence for this assertion? My impression is that the contrary is true, that is, that there was never a time when any of the 4-shape tunebooks was the predominant hymnbook in the regular worship services of the Baptists and/or Methodists in any significant portion of the Southern US. But I've never really explored the question and my impression is not as far as I know based on any real corroboration, just random hearsay sorts of sources.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Leland, first I think that Brother Griffith is only speaking about East Texas when he writes that (and I expect he even more narrowly had in mind Baptist churches in western Panola County & eastern Rusk County). I know that his father pastored Zion Hill Church that used the Sacred Harp into probably the 1930s or so. His experience may have colored what he thought other churches in the area did. I have seen some evidence of the book itself mentioned as used in churches in East Texas, but there is not much to directly support that most of them did so. Of course, Brother Griffith had some life knowledge that was before my time. My opinion (and that is all it is) is that more often words-only hymn books were used with tunes sourced from the Sacred Harp -- at least in areas where Sacred Harp was popular (which would be much of the Deep South and Old Southwest). In another place give a quote from David Waldrop, who is older than Brother Griffith, that discusses Sacred Harp source of church tunes.