Singing in Sacred Harp on a Sunday afternoon

February 5, 1976 – After most church parking lots have emptied on Sunday afternoon, and the congregations have left to spend the rest of the day at the golf course or in front of the television set, voices can still be heard drifting from an old, white-frame church just outside of Bruce.
At this church, which bears the name of “Bethel Primitive Baptist” on a black, smudged sign, the Sacred Harp singers of Calhoun County gather every third Sunday, harmonizing notes of “fa-so-la-mi”.
Inside the church are about 25 rather average looking people, mostly middle-aged or elderly. As they sing, they glance back and forth from their “Original Sacred Harp” hymnal to a slim, wiry man waving his hands vigorously to the time of the music.
This man, Hugh Bill McGuire, is known as the chairman. According to Dorothy D. Horn, author of “Sing To Me of Heaven,” he must have a “good loud voice,” know everyone for miles around, and know every song in the book by its number.
Each singer is classified as singing either bass, tenor (which always carries the melody), counter (alto), and treble (soprano). Both men and women can sing any part except bass.

As Mr. McGuire sings, his face reddens from the strain on his vocal chords. The only accompaniment is feet tapping to the beat of the music, but because of the harmony and enthusiasm of the singers, the musical instruments aren’t missed.
After he leads a few more sings, Mr. McGuire asks, “Are there any of you folks that’s got a favorite they’d like to sing?”
Following a short pause, an elderly woman raises her hand and says, “How about No. 85, Hugh Bill? We haven’t sung that one in a while.” The other singers thumb through their books until they find “The Morning Trumpet”, and Mr. McGuire motions for the woman to take his place. He takes his seat, gives the cue, and begins the song, as all the others, on the do-re-mi scale followed by the lyrics.
From then on the singers continue to take turns leading their favorite songs at the front of the congregation.

The singings are usually preceded by a covered dish meal, which is served on the grounds in warm weather and in the sanctuary in the winter. After everyone has finished eating, the singing begins and lasts until around 3:30.
According to Dr. George Boswell, professor of English at the University and a dedicated Sacred Harp singer, the Bethel church is only one of approximately 350 other churches where Sacred Harp is sung.
It is found strictly in the south, in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
Besides the Primitive Baptist Church, Sacred Harp is also sung in Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran and other Baptist churches.
“Its popularity seems to catch hold best in the hills,” Boswell said, “and rarely attracts people of the flatlands. In the Delta, for example, there is no Sacred Harp singing at all.”

Ironically, Sacred Harp singing didn’t begin in the South, but in New England over two centuries ago. According to George Pullen Jackson in his book, “The Story of the Sacred Harp,” once freedom of religion was obtained after the Revolutionary War, the “Old Baptists” of that era became even more radical. They opposed the songs of the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics, and began searching for their own body of song.
According to Boswell, the people desired “livelier, more original songs, also, because the Pilgrims had almost no recreation, they met in the homes of neighbors or at the church and sang sacred songs.
Therefore, the country Baptists began collecting many hymns written by their own church members, and in 1805 Jerry Ingalls wrote the first of these collections of songs, compiled in a volume entitled “Christian Harmony”, which is still used in the South.
Songs such as “The Weeping Pilgrim”, “Pilgrim’s Farewell”, and “Vermont” reflect the feelings of these pioneers of the New World directly from their hearts.”
Under the title of every song is a line of scripture which presented a base for the song, along with a few words about the author or history of the song.

As the music moved southward, Dr. Boswell explained, it began to decline in popularity in the north. People began to lose their respect for it, criticizing it for being too uneducated and for lacking sophistication. However, the music is still very much alive in the rural sections of the southeast.
During the time that Sacred Harp was dying out in New England, a new method was designed to teach “sight-singing” with the use of shaped notes. Sacred Harp singers still use these notes, as well as the concept of singing the notes first, to aid the non-musician. By singing the notes first, Boswell explained, it is easier for him to sing without the accompaniment of a musical instrument.
One of the singers at the Bethel church, S.T. Hawkins, added that Sacred Harp singing also spread into the black churches because many of the whites would bring their slaves with them to church. In turn, the blacks picked up the style and began developing their own form of Sacred Harp.

Joe Dan Boyd wrote that a few of these blacks composed their own songs with the elements of the Sacred Harp songs, and in 1934 “The Colored Sacred Harp” was published, which was compiled by Judge Jackson, a self-education black farmer.
Many of the singers at Bethel, such as Mr. Hawkins and Mr. McGuire learned Sacred Harp by having it passed down from their ancestors, while others learned about it from their friends.
Dr. Boswell’s interest was aroused in 1947 by George Pullen Jackson, a friend of his who was a professor at Vanderbilt and later had several books published on the subject. Jackson was fond of this type of music because it possessed a “genuine traditional European background.”

After he attended some singings in Southern Tennessee, Boswell also became fascinated by this form of music.
Although Sacred Harp singing has had difficulty in the past, reaching the younger generations, a community choral group of youths from Houston, Ms. decided to learn Sacred Harp singing as a bicentennial project in September of last year.
The Crusaders, as they were called, were instructed by an “old pro” at the art of singing Sacred Harp. Archie Stewart, 78, who used large hand-made posters displaying the music to help the beginners learn the notes.
Ms. Betty Wright, director for the group, said that the young people were “fascinated with Sacred Harp, and added that she found Sacred Harp to be an excellent exercise in rhythm and sight reading.
According to Mr. McGuire, the government is allowing a grant to teach Sacred Harp in schools. The sessions will probably be at night, and the students should be able to acquire the skill after about six sessions. However, a date for beginning the program is still indefinite.

Mr. Hawkins said that some of the singers were skeptical about the idea of having young people attend the singings for fear they would “mess up the sanctuary.”
“That wouldn’t bother me a bit, though, no sirree. Just gimmee the young folks,” he said.
He added, “Everyone is welcome here, and we want everyone to feel right at home. We’re just a bunch of country folks that come here to sing and have a good time.”
Miss Puckett is a sophomore in journalism at the University of Mississippi from Jackson. She and her father did the sketch of the Old Harp Singers.