Sacred Harp, a fading southern tradition
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 21, 2006
The hill of Zion yields, A thousand sacred sweets, Before we reach the heavenly fields, Or walk the golden streets…..Then let our songs abound, And every tear be dry; We're marching through Immanuel's ground To fairer worlds on high.”
The sound rings to the rooftops. The echoes reverberate through the rafters. The steady clomp of feet keeping time on the hardwood floors keeps a steady rhythm like the pulsing of the heart through the veins. The constant whirring motion of the hand-held funeral fans pretends to bring relief from the summer heat. The ladies swish and fan at the flies and gnats vainly keeping them away from the bountiful spread. Dinner on the ground.
You might just be at a Sacred Harp singing.
Sacred Harp, “fa-sol-la,” or shaped-note singing is a southern tradition that has a rich heritage and deep roots in Crenshaw and Butler counties. In fact, the entire south-central portion of Alabama was at one time filled with all-day singings with dinner on the ground.
I grew up singing seven-shaped gospel music with the Butler County Gospel singers with my grandmother, Nettie Vee Grayson. Every Saturday night, we had a different church that hosted a Saturday night singing. They are dwindling now, mainly because there are too few young people coming up in the tradition, which is always a sad thing. As the elders pass away, there is no one to fill their places. Today's young people don't know what a good time they're missing.
After my grandmother's death in 1991, I made the bittersweet discovery of a blue, oblong book; not just hers, however. Among her things, I found a B.F. White Sacred Harp songbook that belonged to my great-grandfather, Robert Newton, and I also found my grandmother's Sacred Harp songbook, the “Cooper” book, it is also known as. It was the one she used as a child. Yes, a bittersweet yet most precious find. Needless to say, they are two of my most prized possessions today.
At a Sacred Harp singing, which is acappella, the four parts are seated in a square; the treble, tenor, alto and bass sections surround the song leader, who stands in the middle of the “hollow square.” After all, that is one of the best places to be in order to hear all of the harmonies.
The leader calls out a song number, and the key man (or woman) pitches the note. Everyone picks up on his or her sound. In Sacred Harp, the class sings the notes first – fa, sol, la or mi – and then the class sings the words.
I've been told that you either love Sacred Harp or you hate it. I don't know about that; I just know that once it gets into your heart and soul, you'll drive a long distance to get to a “singing.”
There is an annual singing at Darien Primitive Baptist Church in October of each year. The last annual all-day singing in Butler County was in November of 2000 at New Providence Primitive Baptist Church. After my dad, Theo Grayson, passed away in April of 2000, my mother, Emmie Lou Sexton Grayson, decided that she just couldn't handle all of the responsibilities of hosting a singing by herself. At that time, I was not living in Greenville. That was a very sad day in my life.
Sacred Harp flourishes in northern Alabama, different parts of Georgia, Florida, Texas and Mississippi. It has caught on like wildfire in the Northeast and even in states such as Washington and California. I have flown to Chicago to attend a Sacred Harp singing. See, I told you so……
What I wouldn't give to see this rich, deep tradition come alive again here in this area.
Regina Grayson is a Greenville native and Managing Editor of the Luverne Journal. She can be reached by phone at 335-3541, or by email at: email@example.com.