A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

First mention: Sacred Harp

Besides what must be a playful reference to a fake invention, the “Sacred Harp of Eloquence,” and a brief mention in a letter to the editor, the first mention of the Sacred Harp in the New York Times comes in a review of Eleanor de al Vergne Risley’s “The Road to Wildcat: A Tale of Southern Mountaineering,” a memoir of her travels; the reviewer says she went to the ‘Appalachian foothills of Alabama and then went on to the mountain country.” The anonymous reviewer writes:

The only pleasureable activities of the hill people, one gathers from Mrs. Risley’s pages, are singing and dancing. And one is not sure how far the word “pleasurable” may properly apply in respect to the “sings.” These community affairs, at which between one and two thousand persons may assemble, are virtually confined to religious singing, and are undertaken in the hope of “sanctifying” the neighborhood. Sometimes these “sings” lead to disputes which are, no doubt, important to the primitive people gathered together, however amusing they may seem to the classist Eastern snob sophisticated. Mrs. Risley gives the views of the president of the singing society on one of the points at issue.

The president informed me (she writes) that a dispute rages between the followers of the “Sacred Harp” book and another called, I think, “Christian Harmony.” The bone of contention was alto. The president himself did not hold with alto. But, as six counties were represented at the Sing, he was for compromise, and used both books. He told me that in a Sacred Harp Sing only four notes were permitted–mi, fay, sic, sol and la; that the four-note system originated at Pentecost where the Disciples just naturally burst into song; and that for his part he did not believe that there was an alto present.

And “The Road to Wildcat” is filled with just such humanly effective scenes as this of the singing meeting. Incidentally, it might be added that the swaying and crooning and bellowing would go on all night, and the sing might even last for days. Along with the rationalizing on religion in England in the eighteeth century there was also this emotional side; the followers of John Wesley started the revivialistic idea.

Well! What to make of that? Did the president really think the shapes were given at Pentecost (seems unlikely)? Did the singings go on overnight (also seems unlikely)? Did they ‘sway’ (also unlikely)? Did a singing really have over 1,000 people?


One response to “First mention: Sacred Harp

  1. R. L. Vaughn May 9, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Will, I’m glad you found and posted this interesting, though probably somewhat convoluted, tale.

    “Did the president really think the shapes were given at Pentecost (seems unlikely)?” I’ve never heard that passed down among any Sacred Harp singers. But things I’ve heard in my upbringing and wanderings around in rural Baptist churches in the South makes it possible for me to believe an SH convention president really could think that.

    “Did the singings go on overnight (also seems unlikely)? Did they ’sway’ (also unlikely)?” Perhaps these could have some foundation. As for swaying, I and other singers sometimes tend to rock the upper body back and forth in time. Perhaps an outsider would describe this as swaying (I wouldn’t). In “Black Sacred Harp Singing in East Texas,” Donald Ross describes attending a “singing did not break up until somewhere around midnight.”

    “Did a singing really have over 1,000 people?” I have read old newspaper reports that described conventions in the thousands. Of course, that included politicians, horse-traders, suitors, etc. in addition to singers.

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