The Texas "Sacred Harp"
- A Story That Needs Telling

Or
How Texas Singers Helped The First American Composers Keep Their Music From Being Censored By Pompous Windbags

Sacred Harp singing, also called "Shape note singing" is an important part of American musical history, with roots in early American folk music and early American music composition. Shape note music truly reflects the originality and creativity of early American music. Plus, as a bonus, the pieces are just plain fun to perform.

 

Some History Of Sacred Harp Singing


Excerpt from A Short Shaped-Note Singing History
By Keith Willard

The singing school, a vigorous social institution developed in the
English parish country side, was continued in eighteenth century New England. Invented in part to improve the quality of congregational singing, the singing school soon outstripped its purely church-centered focus and became an integral part of the social life of the community. Held for a week or month at a time, itinerant singing school masters would teach both secular and sacred three- and four-part music to a room filled with energetic colonial young adults of both sexes.

These singing masters frequently became their own tunesmiths, cranking out lively pieces, arranged in harmonies that emphasized polyphonic rather than vertical harmonic lines. Instead of composing in conformance with rigid European conservatory "rules" of the times, tunesmiths such as William Billings, Daniel Read, and Justin Morgan used as models the vigorous Scottish and English parish church psalmody which made free use of counterpoint and dance rhythms coupled with loose harmonic rules.

In New England, the singing school institution flowered briefly in the period prior to the Revolutionary war but then faded. A post war influx of European style trained musicians, systematically campaigned for the removal of this "crude and lewd" music and its schools. Under the influence of Lowell Mason* and like ilk, the teaching of singing moved from the informal process of community singing schools to the rigid (and regulated) control of the public schools. The "Better Music Movement"** was largely successful in the cities of the North.

However, two seminal events occurred which critically affected the survival and form of the singing school and its music. The first was the development of a four-shape notational system by Little and Smith in 1801. This notational advance complemented the oral four-syllable solfege system already in place in the singing schools, and helped set off a publishing explosion of the genre. The other critical event was the spread, through itinerant singing school masters, of this institution and its music into the south--what was then called the west; Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Missouri.

Books such as Kentucky Harmony, Missouri Harmony, Southern Harmony, and Sacred Harp were published in four-shape notation and used widely by a people isolated from the tyranny of citified "experts". It was in the south where the marriage of the New England singing school music forms to the oral Celtic folk tune heritage was completed, and the folk-hymn was born. It was here that the singing school found a permanent home in the rural areas of the Appalachians and the Piedmont.

In the city and in many country areas the development of gospel music in the second half of the nineteenth century superseded the old fashioned four-shape folk-hymns. But in many regions of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas there grew up a tradition of "singing conventions" where people would bring their harps or harmonies and sing for hours and days at a time, usually after the crops were planted and before their harvest. Potlucks at the singing ("dinner on the grounds") mixed socializing with the singings, and young singers fresh from recent singing schools were given an opportunity to try out their newly honed skills.

*Excerpt from the
Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc., New World Records, liner notes commenting on Lowell Mason......


Lowell Mason was the latter-day chief of the "scientific" Better Music movement that drove the popular shape-note tune books of the old Yankee singing masters out of New England, leaving what used to be called the Old Southwest (then not including Texas) the only spirited congregational singing in the country to this day, and bequeathing the Protestant Church in the Atlantic states its long, sad heritage of hired soloists, paid choirs, and shamefaced congregational mumbling. Not in the more than twelve hundred hymns with which Mason denatured our acts of communal praise nor in the pious secular inanities he pumped into our public-school music books is there a trace of our antecedent musical history or our native musical vitality. His hymns are so dully correct in harmony, so feeble in melody, and so uniform in their watery characterlessness that they constitute a monument to Christian antimusicality. At length one realizes that there is one function in which they are superb. Mason's hymns, like Charles Grobe's piano pieces, are marvelous commodities. Mason in fact packaged hymns as others packaged beans or cod, and there is evidence that he was not above exploiting a monopoly situation in the hymn and schoolbook markets.

** Excerpt from the writings of "The Community Band of Brevard"

The combination of the solfege singing system and the shaped note printing system fostered the popularity and wide spread of social singing events in America. However, the "Better Music Movement" led by Lowell Mason in the early nineteenth century pushed for the removal of this "crude and lewd" music. Mason's movement was successful except in the rural South (regions of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas).

George Pullen Jackson, an early 20th-century shape-note music scholar, lumped Mason and the other critics together as the "Better Music boys" and rued their influence as they moved west in the 1830s and 40s
(White Spirituals 16-19).

 

Sacred Harp Singing In Texas


Sacred Harp singing normally occurs not in church services, but in special gatherings or "singings" arranged for the purpose. Singings can be local, regional, statewide, or national. Small singings are
often held in homes, with perhaps only a dozen singers. Large singings have been known to have more than a thousand participants. The more ambitious singings include an ample potluck dinner in the middle of the day, traditionally called "dinner on the grounds."

Some of the largest and oldest annual singings are called "conventions". The oldest Sacred Harp convention was the Southern Musical Convention, organized in Upson County, Georgia in 1845. The two oldest surviving Sacred Harp singing conventions are the Chattahoochee Musical Convention (organized in Coweta County, Georgia in 1852), and the East Texas Sacred Harp Convention (organized as the East Texas Musical Convention in 1855).

Although sacred harp all-day singings and dinner on the grounds are not as widespread as before World War II, singings regularly take place throughout East Texas. Though monthly singings were once held in almost every rural community in East and Central Texas, several annual singings are still held.

Monthly singings, which were once held in nearly every community in East and Central Texas, have faded into the past, but several annual singings are still in existence. The East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention was organized in 1868, and is the second oldest continuous
singing convention in the United States.

So, there you have it. The story of how Texas singers helped keep alive the music of the first American composers, the "Yankee tunesmiths" who composed sacred music that is not only skillful and enjoyable, but was and is a sacred music that common folks can joyfully sing.

(Note - The image above is from an original painting commissioned by Max Berueffy in 2003. The specific church is Johnson Schoolhouse, near Carbon Hill, Alabama, but the painting is also meant to capture the feeling of Sacred Harp singings everywhere. The original painting measures 42" x 36" and is acrylic, India ink and colored pencil on paper.

Prints of this painting are available; a portion of each sale will benefit the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association. To order 18 by 12 inch prints you may contact SHMHA at www.fasola.org .)

 

 

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