courtesy Travis Hardin Home : Essays : All Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground

Travis L. Hardin

Russ Gordon and his wife Linda of the Mensa group here suggested a trip to experience one of their interests––shaped-note singing, with dinner on the grounds.( Not actually on the ground, but on long wood-plank tables.)

Shaped-note singing is also called sacred harp singing and fa-so-la singing. Here is Russ’s synopsis of it:

1) This is a cultural experience that has been preserved almost without change since the last century. The early frontier church music style is unique.

2) Most of the tunes are polyphonal ... Sacred harp has four parts that are like four different melody lines sung by differently pitched voices that blend together. The blend has been compared to bagpipes, not unfairly.

3) It is considered (by the folks who attend these things regularly) to be a worship experience. The theology is in the lyric; there are no sermons preached.

Having been forewarned, I drove last Saturday [in September1999, I believe] to Henagar, a small town about an hour away from Huntsville. Then, taking a country road north out of Henagar, I reached a small to medium, white, primitive Baptist church, the site of this year’s sacred harp national convention. As I got out of my car and walked nearer the church, I could hear the full-voiced singers inside. Outside, other people were placing food and drink on the long tables, bringing water, and doing other chores. Some were sitting in folding chairs enjoying the comfortable weather. Among the latter, I saw two women from the local Mensa group, and I confess to spending the hour and a half left in the morning session pleasantly conversing with them under the shade of some trees.

As the noon hour approached, I could see people urgently setting out food, so I went to my car and got my store-bought fried chicken and pickles. As I set them out near one end of the long table, a woman beside me took the top off an electric skillet and eyed me in a triumphant way. In the skillet were 3 dozen lean short-ribs, hot and soaking in a sauce the sight and smell of which was a worshipful experience in itself––never mind the music. It was three minutes to noon. I looked down a table loaded with food, including fried chicken livers, fried okra, delightful meats, salads, and breads. Beyond the main tables were two banquet tables sagging with pecan pies and other desserts. At the side, men had made ice cream, using paddle-stirred freezers, and it was ready to serve on yet another set of tables: Peach, orange, vanilla. And over there was lemonade, and water, and hot coffee.

The reader may prefer to imagine that moment as a Keatsian still life scene rather than hear about the carnal act itself that followed.

After lunch, or dinner, as old-timers here say, I wanted to experience this time-honored music and maybe sing a couple of measures myself. I took my place in the tenor section, which was the main seating. People singing the same part sat together. Two other parts formed two wings, while the fourth part faced the main seating, leaving a square in the middle where the conductors stood.

People were called in turn to conduct ––this one from New York, another from Chicago, another from Texas; and many from Alabama. It was a national convention, as I said. I wonder if there will be very many more national conventions; there were only about a hundred accomplished singers, with perhaps another hundred spectators like myself. The second day of the convention might have brought more.

I had a hymn book, but often I didn’t even know which measure they were in. This was not helped by the lack of word cues. That is, they always sang the first verse in fa-so-la's. That answered my question, "Why can't you just read the music off the staff?" Naming the notes seems to be central.

Seated inside the church, I could hear the enthusiasm, the confidence, and most of all, the volume these singers had. As to their confidence, they seemed to know the hymn book cover to cover, they sang most songs at an amazing tempo, and they gave every note its full count. As to their enthusiasm, I saw people tapping their feet and conducting with their hands. Just after lunch I was in the bathroom and observed a bass come in, then leave, not missing a note. As to their volume, it hurt my ears. It struck me as amazing that several dozen people, without amplifiers, can generate a painful level of noise.

Sometime before 3 o'clock I got up, put my book on a table, and took my leave. It was not pleasurable because of the volume. I walked out the front door and closed it. By that time, another song was in progress. The rapid diminuendo made the music at my back sound sweet and haunting. I looked up. The sky was blue with a hint of clouds. Across the country road, hay waved gently in the field under a benevolent sun. To my left, a pond lay, smooth and clean. Two children with their mother and grandmother walked among the trees on the church ground. To preserve the harmony of that moment was my wish. It would have been a wonderful time for religious conversion, but I wasn’t in the mood. To those of us who believe this earth is all we’ve got, worship is an intransitive verb. There need be no object of worship. If you have felt your insignificance, and yet felt thankful for your existence, that is worship; if you have felt harmony within yourself, or with others, or with all of nature, that is worship. I had my worship for the day, and it was good.

The location of Liberty Church, as it is called, is on Sand Mountain, a plateau known for its good farmland. On my way home, I stopped at a fruit stand and bought tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers for salsa. The best bargain I saw was one I didn’t take advantage of: 50 pounds of potatoes for $6.00. I’ve spent the last few days thinking: If I bought them where will I store them? How will I ever eat them all? Those darn cheap potatoes have take over my mind.