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In 1942, Vanderbilt University professor George Pullen Jackson and folklorist Alan Lomax produced what David Warren Steel, in the liner notes to I Belong to This Band, calls “the first convincing field recordings of a large Sacred Harp convention.” Early sacred harp recordings, according to Steel, were often of small groups.
The most enduring collection of sacred harp hymns—B.F. White and E.J. King’s 1844 song collection The Sacred Harp, A Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Odes, and Anthems (the title actually goes on a bit longer)—became, Steel says, quoting some unnamed sage, “the book oftenest found in the homes of rural Southerners other than the Holy Bible.” Despite the book’s domestic popularity, the music is in its element when performed in large-group singings—“a community musical and social event” Steel writes, that “came to be associated in the deep South with church and community homecomings and decoration days,” right down to the “sumptuous ‘dinner on the ground’ spread in the churchyard at noon.”
“Harp” is an odd word for the human voice. The genre may be described more properly as shape-note singing because it’s written with four shapes representing two pitches apiece—the better to teach sight reading. In a vestige of its singing-school past, performers run through the “fa-sol-la-mi” notes of the song before heading on to the lyrics (Nicole Kidman, Donald Sutherland, Jude Law, and others are seen singing sacred harp as news of secession arrives, in Cold Mountain). Since sacred harp is usually performed a cappella, pitch is relative, as are the unusual open-fifth harmonies that are blasted out as loudly as possible.
According to Dust-to-Digital founder Lance Ledbetter, the style was initially popular in the Northeast but fell out of favor. “It ended up coming South,” he says, “and when it came South, it found a place and it stayed.” Despite its popularity, Steel explains, the music was “ignored by the cultural elites” until the arrival of Jackson’s 1933 book, White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands, which “established its connection with folk song.”
Since its inception in 1999, the Atlanta label has specialized in mostly obscure music, performers, and recordings, with a serious quirk factor—a six-disc gospel box packed in cotton, a compilation of ersatz old-timey records from the vaults of Frederick, Md., supercollector Joe Bussard, and the recent How Low Can You Go, a three-disc collection of string-bass music from 1925 to 1941.
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Given the label’s preoccupation with the past, though, what’s surprising about I Belong to This Band is that nearly half of its 30 tracks stretch all the way back to George W. Bush’s second term. Thirteen of the compilation’s songs were recorded at a sacred harp convention in De Kalb County, Ala., early last July. Actually, what’s even more surprising is that the newer tracks are arguably better than those that date back to the first half of the century. They may not have the pop and hiss that signal classic recordings’ provenance, but between the modern recording equipment and the sheer size of the singing groups (about 200 participants) the July 2006 recordings have a forceful clarity.
Take “Ninety-Fifth, page 36b,” the only song to appear twice in the collection. The recordings are separated by nearly eight decades. On both tracks, singers sing that “I can smile at Satan’s rage/And face a frowning world,” but there’s a noticeable difference between the two renditions: The November 1928 recording by the small Denson’s Sacred Harp Singers of Arley, Ala., opens with soft piano and features warm, precise small-group singing; the 2006 recording of the same number is all about strength—get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices and you start feeling a little sorry for the devil.
The modern full-group treatment works especially well on the foreboding 10th track (“Morning, page 163t”), which, after about a minute of warm-up, offers an ominous lyric (“He dies, the friend of sinners dies/Lo! Salem’s daughters weep around/A solemn darkness veils the skies/A solemn darkness veils the skies/A sudden trembling shakes the ground”) sung to an equally ominous tune.
If the occasional cough or throat-clearing on the newer tracks underscores the all-are-welcome aspects of the music (the democratically minded words with plain rules for learners are visible on the liner notes’ photo of the The Sacred Harp’s cover), on the older tracks, in general, individual voices are more prominent, and the singing sometimes seems more skilled. The first track, laid down by Denson’s Sacred Harp Singers of Arley, Ala., in 1928, at times calls to mind the strictures of barbershop. Partway through their shape-note warm-up on their 1940 spin on “Weeping Mary, page 408,” members of Roswell Sacred Harp Quartet launch into a round of shape-note solos (one sings something like “sol sol la sol la mi fa”).
When Steel’s notes assert that the new tracks are “presenting a variety of genres and styles, and confirming the emotional depth and sheer joy that has inspired singers for several generations,” he’s half-right. The joy and depth come through, but a little more information on the inspirations of and stylistic differences between the new recordings would have been welcome. To unchurched ears, they pretty much sound the same: spectacular, but still.
That said, the overall quality of the collection erases any concerns about Steel not nerding out more. Ledbetter says Dust-to-Digital aimed to present as much rare material as possible (an exception is Track 24, “Present Joys, page 318,” which is included in I Belong to This Band, Steel explains, to correct a slow recording speed that caused “excessively fast and high-pitched sound of the pressings”), which precluded the inclusion of the 1942 Jackson/Lomax recordings. Still, the side-by-side comparison of the fuller, technically excellent newer recordings and the eclectic small-scale sounds of the older tracks makes for a compelling listen.
The last stop chronologically before last July is a recording called “New Morning Sun, page 436,” made circa 1960 by S. Whitt Denson as “a one-voice quartette.” Denson accompanies himself by laying down several varied tracks of his own voice. (Denson’s father, according to the liner notes, had composed the music in 1911, and when Whitt’s “college-educated son” heard that his father had multitracked the recording, he said, “Daddy, you can’t do that!” Dad’s reply: “Son, you can’t, but I can!”) The results are one of the collection’s best tracks—a double mold-breaker, giving up the a cappella requirement as well as the traditional shape-note warm-up. Denson reminds, in a chorus of one, against a piano accompaniment, that “Youth like the spring will soon be gone.”
The collection’s lyrics, with their blend of hope and world-weariness, take the long view as well. Souls seek out “Another home/A brighter world on high,” a world where “I shall bathe my weary soul/In seas of heav’nly rest” quite apart from our own “vain world of sin.” The same old songs will probably stay popular as long as folks continue to fear sin and yearn for Paradise. Or simply look on from afar.