Texas "Sacred Harp"
- A Story That Needs Telling
How Texas Singers Helped The First American Composers Keep
Their Music From Being Censored By Pompous Windbags
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.
History Of Sacred Harp Singing
Excerpt from A Short Shaped-Note Singing History
By Keith Willard
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.
Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc., New World Records,
liner notes commenting on Lowell Mason......
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).
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).
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
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
singing convention in the United States.
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.
- 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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