Reading list

Reading list: Sacred Song in America

I had a committee meeting tonight and could not attend the weekly Berkeley singing. Instead, a short reflection on an essay by Stephen Marini about Sacred Harp singing:

When he was writing Sacred Song in America, Stephen A. Marini spent seven years traveling across the United States finding out about American sacred song traditions. He participated in and listened to many different kinds of sacred singing, and he interviewed notable composers and performers of sacred song. Since he is a historian by trade, of course his book talks about the history of sacred song in the United States. The third chapter in the book, “Sacred Harp Singing,” is devoted entirely to the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Marini has been singing Sacred Harp since the mid-1970s, and he is a central figure in the New England branch of the Northern revival. He not only has an intimate and first-person knowledge of key moments in the history of the Northern revival, he also knows a fair number of the most influential traditional Southern signers.

In “Sacred Harp Singing,” Marini tells us how Sacred Harp singing is a form of sacred song, although the way in which it is sacred may differ for Northern and Southern singers. He interviewed several prominent traditional Southern singers, and they told him that they explicitly consider Sacred Harp singing to be a form of sacred song. However, many Northern singers don’t talk about Sacred Harp music as being a form of sacred song and, says Marini, “the cultural divide between northern and southern singers could hardly be greater.” Many northern singers do say that they find something implicitly “sacred” in Sacred Harp singing, and some Northerners even talk about it as being sacred song. Yet even then, Northern notions of the sacredness of the music are typically different from, and less unified than, traditional southern notions. We could say that while traditional Southern singers are modernists, Northern revival singers are postmodernists.

Not surprisingly, this has led to some tensions between traditional Southern singers and Northern revival singers. Traditional Southern singers, says Marini, have sometimes found it challenging when Northern urban singers participate in this tradition that for so long belonged exclusively to the south. Marini quotes a traditional Southern singer to make this point:

“We want people to join our tradition and be a part of it,” Jeff Shephard told me, “but we don’t want them to come in and try to change us. We want to keep it as pure as we can.” Rather than be changed by the Sacred Harp revival, the Sheppards along with Hugh McGraw and Richard DeLong decided to change it…. On countless trips to state and regional conventions in New England, the Midwest, and most recently the West, these missionaries have patiently transmitted the history, techniques, and spirit of Sacred harp and invited new northern singers to join its fellowship.

In the early 1970s, the numbers of traditional singers was declining, and if the traditional Southern singers hadn’t reached out to Northern revival signers, the Sacred Harp tradition might have died out completely. Yet welcoming in the Northern singers brought its own challenges, as some Northerners ignored or misunderstood parts of the tradition — one Southern singer told Marini that maybe the traditional singers had traded one problem (dying out) for another problem (too many changes in the tradition).

In today’s Sacred Harp world, conflicts have mostly died down. Traditional singers may still find themselves being challenged by the postmodern post-Christian Northern singers, some of whom are tattooed and pierced, and some of whom eat strange vegan food at dinner-on-the-grounds instead of traditional Southern food. For their part, the Northern singers find themselves being influenced by both the music and the poetry of Sacred Harp singing; as Marini says elsewhere, it can be a profoundly moving experience to sing about death and love and God week after week. But on the whole, Marini contends that the traditional Southern singers have for the most part kept Sacred Harp singing in the well-trod paths that have been followed by generations of earlier singers.

Sacred Song in America can be previewed online at Google Books.