White Spirituals From The Sacred Harp
Liner Notes   Cat. No. 80205     Release Date: 1977-01-01
White Spirituals from the Sacred Harp
Excerpt from liner notes by Alan Lomax

Many listeners will be surprised to learn that this fiery choral sound comes not from somewhere in eastern Europe but from a rural white singing convention in northern Alabama. Even more astonishing is that the hundred-odd farmers, country lawyers, tradesmen, and wives and children were sight-singing this counterpoint from printed scores compose d in some cases by members of the chorus. They were using the Sacred Harp, a compendium of 573 four-part folk hymns, which has been the bible of the southern rural singing-school movement since 1840.

During the 1940s I had tried and failed, as had many others, to record this music monaurally. In 1959 I returned to the South with a modern stereo machine, hoping that with this equipment I could finally do justice to the haunting beauty of southern congregation singing, black and white. My old friends invited me to a weekend singing convention in a country church in Fyffe, a village in the low red hills of northeastern Alabama. When we arrived at ten o'clock that summer Saturday morning the singing had been in progress for an hour, and it went steadily on until lunchtime, when all adjourned to the long picnic tables set up under the post-oak trees. Lunch was fried chicken, ham, potato salad, hot biscuits and corn pone, and every kind of cake and pie known to the cooks of northern Alabama. I think the congregation enjoyed seeing us stuff ourselves almost as much as they did our struggles to mike their lively triple-forte choralizing. They were kindly, rural folk, whose summer recreation is to meet and sing together from the Sacred Harp.

Promptly at two o’clock the chairman formally called the convention to order again. The school assembled in the nave of the church—about forty people in rows around four sides of a hollow square, both sexes and all ages in each group—with a participating audience of about sixty in the pews. The committee had already made a list of song leaders containing the name of every experienced singer present, and the chairman now called the first conductor into the center of the square of singers, each of whom had a copy of the Sacred Harp in hand.The conductor immediately called out the page number of his first song, and in seconds every singer had found the page, an oldster had sung the tonic pitch, and the conductor, with vigorous straight movements of his right arm, had launched his scholars into a sol-fa rendition of the tune. Following the easy path of the shaped notes, they rehearsed the tune, and then, without a pause, they sang the verses of the hymn, all four parts at full volume — generally in quick time — right to the final note. There was no sentimental ending and no time to reflect before the next song was called for, located, pitched, rehearsed, and quickly caroled, and another leader summoned. Matters proceeded so briskly that in one day a hundred songs had been performed, and before the weekend was over all the favorites in the book had been heard, and everyone, down to the children, had conducted a set.

There was much changing of sides and parts as the session wore on, for every well-practiced Sacred Harper knows all the parts of all the songs in the book and can function on any side of the square. All conducted capably, but when one of the old-timers stepped before his scholars, he carried them with more swing.Yet there were no stars, just as there was no prettying up of the voice.The atmosphere was totally democratic, all participants displaying confidence in their natural voices, each adding his own embellishments and variations to the written part. This combination of musical skill and passionate individualism creates a thrilling choral texture, far from the classically admired blend but a quite original and fascinating way of performing counterpoint. The effect is not just of four individualized parts but of two-score emotion filledvariations on them. I wondered if this was not the way much early European polyphony was originally sung, before the singers were drilled and subdued. Here, I thought, is a choral style ready-made for a nation of individualists.

The meeting at Fyffe was intensely moving. The voices of speakers trembled with feeling. One old gentleman told me, as he slapped his big country palm down on his song-book, "I believe that every living word in that there book is as true as gospel." The convention ended with a memorial service for members who had passed away since the last meeting, and in the closing moments tears coursed down sunburned cheeks. The Sacred Harp folk feel they belong to a big family that will someday be singing its harmony with the angels.

The Alabama Sacred Harp Convention

White Spirituals From The Sacred Harp

Track Listing

Album/track(s) not yet available for download, but you may listen to clip(s) below.
Daniel Read
David's Lamentation
William Billings
Melancholy Day
H.S. Rees (also Reese)
Soar Away
A.M. Cagle
Wondrous Love
Joyce Smith
Traveling On
Traveling On (too)
S.M. Denison, J.S. James
New Harmony
M.L.A. Lancaster
William Walker
Prayer for Recess
Loving Jesus
White, Searcy
Daniel Read
Baptismal Anthem
John Stephenson
B.E. White
James Nares
North Port
David Morgan
R. Osborne
Memorial Service
Cusseta -
John Massengale
The Last Words of Copernicus
Sarah Lancaster
The Morning Trumpet
B.E. White
Homeward Bound
Howard Denson
Closing Prayer
Jeremiah Ingalls

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