Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Mother and The Sacred Harp

Last week Sacred Harp singer Raymond Hamrick passed away. He was 99 years old. My mother is 99 years old as well. She was born a couple of months before Mr. Hamrick. This connection got me to thinking about Mother and The Sacred Harp.

Like Mr. Hamrick, she has a life-long (99-year) history with The Sacred Harp. Unlike Mr. Hamrick, she was not a singer and will leave lasting memories on but few Sacred Harp singers. Mother was born into a community full of singers and singing. When she was young there was a monthly Sunday afternoon singing, as well as an annual singing. Her great Uncle Joe (Joseph Andrew) Chapman (grandfather's uncle) was a leading figure in the community singings and keyed the music until his health no longer permitted him to participate. Her Uncle Joe (Joseph C.) Chapman (grandfather's brother) was an active singer who also served as an area agent for the early Cooper editions of The Sacred Harp before his untimely death in 1912. "Daddy Bob" Chapman (mother's father) was also an active singer in his youth, though some circumstances of his later life seems to have driven his primary singing venue to the front porch.

It was there on that front porch that granddaddy would lay down on an old straight back chair, pull out his song book and sing the songs of the old Sacred Harp. It was there on that front porch that he tried to interest his little girl (Mother was the baby of the family) in singing those old songs. Mother remembers that she was more interested in running around playing than stopping to sing with her Daddy, as he belted out the likes of fa-fa-la-la-fa-fa-sol-fa-la; fa-fa-la-sol-fa-fa-fa; Saviour visit thy plantation, Grant us, Lord, a gracious rain.

As long as I can remember Mother has been hard of hearing, which has progressed to almost zero hearing without a hearing aid at the present. She was never an active singer even before that. But she has attended, supported, cooked for and been a permanent fixture of singings in Rusk County -- both Sacred Harp and "little book" -- for nine decades. Probably only a small cadre of singers now living even know who she is.

She hardly ever leaves her house now. One of her complaints before she stopped going to church services was that "they never sing the old songs." Now, understand, this church doesn't use any book that was printed after 1960 (54 years ago)! So "old" and "new" is quite relative here. When she complained that they don't sing the old songs, she means she didn't hear enough of the old songs from her youth -- meaning mostly the old church songs that are also common to The Sacred Harp.

She loves the old Harp songs, but, as she didn't mind complaining about the church's repertoire of songs, she also didn't mind noticing that there were some songs she didn't like. If I'm careful, you'll never hear me complain about any Sacred Harp song. I may have better and best categories, but I don't call any of them bad. Mother wasn't worried about such niceties. I don't remember now which songs she didn't like -- perhaps because I didn't want to hear negative comments about any of the old Sacred Harp songs -- but I do remember that she complained about one because it seemed like they were singing the same thing over and over and over. What would she think of the contemporary choruses??

Granddaddy probably thought he was unsuccessful in teaching his little girl to sing, but even today she will randomly burst into fa-fa-la-la-fa-fa-sol-fa-la; fa-fa-la-sol-fa-fa-fa -- well remembered after all those years even if her hearing won't let her hit just the right pitch intervals. Several months ago after a particular session of Mother lamenting about not hearing the old songs, I went and got my Sacred Harp book and we sat there in the two easy chairs and sang many of "the old songs". She sang along as best her hearing would allow, and I do believe that if I added up all the 56 years I've known her, that is the most singing I've ever heard from my Mother.

These thoughts may not mean much to those who don't know Mother, and I may express my meaning in a stumbling way. But I guess, apart from just reminiscing, I mostly aim to say that Sacred Harp needs both its Raymond Hamricks and its back seat supporters who may live and die unnoticed except to those who know them best.

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