Traveling across the South and sifting through undiscovered family history, Webb sets out on a personal quest to reconnect with her ancestors who composed, sang, and lived by the words of Sacred Harp music. Her research irreversibly transforms her rose-colored view of her heritage and brings endearing characters to life as the reality of the effects of slavery on Southern plantation life, the thriving tobacco industry, and the Civil War are revisited through the lens of the Dumas family. Most notably, Webb’s original research unearths the person of Ralph Freeman, freed slave and pastor of a pre-Civil War white Southern church.
Wringing history from boxes of keepsakes, lively interviews, dusty archival libraries, and church records, Webb keeps Sacred Harp lyrics ringing in readers’ ears, allowing the poetry to illuminate the lessons and trials of the past. The choral shape-note music of the Sacred Harp whispers to us of the past, of the religious persecution that brought this music to our shores, and how the voices of contemporary Sacred Harp singers still ring out the unchanged lyrics across the South, the music pulling the past into our present.
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Legacy of the Sacred Harp
By Chloe Webb
TCU PressCopyright © 2010 Chloe Webb
All rights reserved.
The Sacred Harp
In a dentist's waiting room, I turned through pages of the August 1987 issue of Texas Highways and a photograph caught my eye. Aged hands held a book of music with oddly shaped notes. The article's headline read, "Sacred Harp, a Tradition Lives." The unusual music looked curiously familiar and the out-of-date print of the book's title page called to mind a music book Grandma had given me. This much-used book, The Sacred Harp, had belonged to her father, and earlier, to her grandfather, whose brother, Edmund Dumas, had written a number of its songs. The passed-down book was so worn that most of the cover was missing, the pages were yellowed, and the frayed binding threads were rotten. But I could never have thrown it away. I thought perhaps I could find Grandma's copy of The Sacred Harp in a collection of sheet music and songbooks at my home.
I realized with surprise that Grandma had been dead over a decade now, yet I felt her presence as near as the person in the next chair. I could hear the familiar timbre of her singing voice; she'd said her father and grandfather played the fiddle, but she just sang. Oh, how Grandma loved to sing.
On one summer afternoon during our family's annual visit to Louisiana, I sat next to Grandma in the glider on the porch, helping her shell peas. Suddenly, she burst out loudly, "I'll sing halle-lu-jah, and you'll sing halle-lu-jah, and we'll all sing halle-lu-jah, when we arrive at home!" Her foot tapped a lively beat, and, when a hand was occasionally free, she gestured her arm to the rhythm in an emphatic up-down motion.
"Chloe Ann, you're a good little singer. You ought to stay and go with me to one of our singing schools. All we do is sing, all day long—except to eat, which is almost as important. Everybody brings a dish for dinner on the ground. It never fails that it's a real feast. We'll try to talk your folks into letting you stay on a while longer when they go back to Texas. The next one's going to be at Rocky Branch Church up by Antioch. It'll be a real rafter-shaker."
It was easy to see that Grandma loved those folksy, hymn-like tunes, but I was skeptical; I'd never heard anyone sing like she did. There seemed to be no melody. I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I was convinced Grandma couldn't carry a tune and those singing schools weren't doing her any good whatsoever. Still, I was thrilled to have her Sacred Harp songbook because anything Grandma loved was precious to me as well.
A page in the book held a glimpse into the budding romance of my grandparents. I pictured the young Burch Nolan taking Grandma's book at a singing and penciling his words to her above the song "Fillmore" #434 in The Sacred Harp. From the hurried look of his writing, she'd struggled playfully to get it back, but she must have been pleased for she never erased his bold message: "Miss Terry Dumas is my girl." Terry Louisa (pronounced Lou-eye-za) was his girl the rest of their lives.
I'd made only slight attempts to play the music on the piano, because the strange three-line staff was unlike any music I'd ever seen. It was written with two lines of treble clef and one of bass, with note heads in a variety of shapes, not the familiar round notes. I concluded that the music was written exclusively for fiddle players. The magazine article, however, explained that Sacred Harp had nothing to do with any musical instrument. It was to be sung a cappella, for the sacred harp is the human voice.
The writer continued that Sacred Harp singing, called fasola or solfège music, originated in Elizabethan England and was brought to America by early colonists. Although they had no room on their ships for any but the smallest musical instruments, the colonists could always sing. The syllables Fa, So, La, and Mi together formed a simplified method to write down both new and well-known folk tunes. Churchmen later used this method to teach their uneducated parishioners to read music easily. An American innovation allowed for even easier music sight reading; recognizable shapes—triangles, circles, squares, or diamonds—were assigned to all music note heads, visually indicating the corresponding syllables—Fa, So, La, or Mi.
The magazine article told of the upcoming 119th Annual East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention to be held in Henderson, only a couple of hours from our family home in Dallas. The writer advised that the music was not performance music but instead could be better described as participatory. A long-time singer said he'd travel a hundred miles to sing the music, but he wouldn't cross the road to listen to it. "Uncle" Tom Denson, a Depression era singing school master, cautioned readers, "If some of you folks don't like this Sacred Harp music, you'd better get out, 'cause if you stay here, it's going to get aholt of you and you can't get away."
My husband, Doug, had an early tee time at the golf course that particular Saturday, and Elise, the last child still at home, had nothing planned until evening, so early Saturday morning my daughter and I headed for Henderson down Interstate 20. At the end of the pleasant drive we reached the outskirts of the small town and, after asking directions three times, located the community center. A single space remained vacant near a tree at the edge of the large graveled parking area. As I stepped from the car, I heard a sound like nothing I'd ever heard.
I quickly glanced at Elise, and she rolled her eyes. "Weird."
The music had an eerie quality with a compellingly primal appeal, somewhere between bluegrass and a Gregorian chant. As we entered, a thunderous rolling chorus of voices reverberated off the hard surfaces of the large hall and washed our bodies with rhythmic vibrations, like being baptized in sound. Although it was new to me, it seemed I'd known the music before I was even born. We sat in two folding chairs near the door and settled to soak in the experience.
An elderly woman offered me a book marked "Loaner." The seating was arranged in four singing sections facing the center, forming a tight square with a hollow core. The singers sang not for an audience, but to each other. At the end of each song, a name was called for a new leader: "William Brown, who will be followed by John Doe." William then stepped to the center of the square, immediately raised his arm to give the downbeat, and got the song started. Then it was everyone for himself. One singer pitched the key, like the first violin playing the A at the symphony. However, this was not the standard A found on a pitch pipe, but a relative A that accommodated the vocal range of the singers.
The meaning of participatory music was readily apparent. With the exception of a few on the sidelines, each of the approximately three hundred people present sang loudly and enthusiastically. It was equally evident that auditions were not required. I struggled to understand the words until I realized that, on beginning a new song, they weren't singing words at all, but the syllables, Fa, So, or La. The four sections of voices weren't even singing the same syllables at the same time as they followed the music, yet the names of the strange shapes came easily to their tongues.
Only men sat in the bass section, women in the alto section, and both sang in the tenor and treble sections. Even small children were called to the center of the square; a child only five years old led one song with an assurance that rivaled the adults. Most of the singers were white, but a round of affectionate applause followed an aged black man as he hobbled, leaning heavily on a cane, to the center to lead. I later learned that he was Dewey Williams, who had been featured in a Bill Moyers PBS special about the universal appeal of the hymn "Amazing Grace."
I was unable to determine who was singing any particular line. In conventional choral music, the top line, typically soprano, ordinarily has the melody; here, there was no soprano. The top line was called treble, but the trebles didn't have the melody. I spotted a couple of vacant chairs in the section nearest us and indicated to Elise to move at the song break. After we took our seats in the tenor section, following the third line down, the singers began a number titled, "New Britain." "So-Fa La-Fa-La, So-Fa-La-So," they sang, and I recognized the tune of "Amazing Grace."
"We finally found the melody," I whispered.
My whisper carried farther than intended and, at the song's end, the woman seated next to Elise leaned forward to say, "Actually, no one section has the melody all the time. All the parts together are needed to form the complete sound. That's why we face the center. The center is where the sound converges. It's the very heart of the music. We change leaders when we change songs so everyone can have a chance to stand in the center and hear the full sound in its entirety."
It's like Mozart's description of opera, I realized—what God must hear when we make our individual and simultaneous petitions. I then understood why Grandma's songs had no obvious tunes; she sang only one part of the whole while hearing the other parts of a great choir in her head.
A mid-morning break was called to catch a breath and sip of water. The woman next to Elise leaned forward again, her book in hand, to give a few pointers for reading the shape-note tunes. "Fa is a triangle-shaped note, like a flag. Sol, or So, is round, like the sun. La is a square. Think of two adjoining Ls." She positioned her thumbs and forefingers into two right- angled Ls, forming a square. "The diamond shape is for Mi, which isn't used often. Think, 'diamonds are for me.' "
She explained that the syllables Fa, So, and La are repeated in ascending order and Mi becomes the seventh note in the full octave—Fa-So-La, Fa-SoLa-Mi-Fa. "To play an octave on the piano, a pianist knows exactly how far to reach eight notes from the bottom Fa to the top Fa. In the same way, you'll learn to know the interval between the first two Fas—four notes up the scale, or a fourth interval. The same is true for the intervals between the two Sos and between the two Las. An easy way to remember how a fourth interval sounds is to think of a song like, 'The Eyes of Texas' or 'Here Comes the Bride.' The repetition of syllables might sound confusing at first, but you'll become accustomed to hearing the fourth intervals. That is extremely significant; because it will then become a marvelous tool to help you sight read any kind of music."
At lunchtime, singers greeted us from all sides, insisting that we join them, because socializing over food is almost as important to a Sacred Harp convention as the music. I took only small portions from the bountiful table, and yet my plate was brimming before I was halfway to the end.
I purchased a copy of the songbook the group was using and met Hugh McGraw, head of Sacred Harp Publishing Company, publisher of the latest edition. I showed Grandma's tune book to him, and he gingerly turned the pages. "I see these early editions from time to time," he said. "The old books tended to drop out of usage when newer versions with the latest compositions became available, but you could have used your family heirloom for many of the songs we sang this morning."
He explained that the front part of the book has remained basically the same since the first one in 1844, which had three lines for three-part singing. A fourth line for an alto part was added after The Sacred Harp was originally published. "This old book has obviously been to many a Sacred Harp singing. These occasions haven't changed much at all since the first one came out— other than the vehicle that brought 'em there, that is. They might have come in covered wagons; or more often, the wagon was uncovered, their version of a convertible with the top down."
Elise chose to sit in the rear of the hall when the singing resumed after lunch. "I'll follow along in the loaner book. Don't forget we're going to leave at the break. You promised."
"I'll keep my eye on the time." I wished I'd let her stay home. Her interest level was the same as my own at her age. But now, I didn't want the singing to end.
On our return drive to Dallas, Elise said she'd located some of the songs written in the nineteenth century by our relative Edmund Dumas. "The words are strange," she concluded. "I guess you could call them 'churchy.' One of his songs wouldn't go over today, even in church. No way. It says the wife is supposed to obey. I know I'll never agree to let some guy tell me what I can or can't do."
"I think it was a given back then. There was a pretty definite pecking order in families."
"Did Grandma have to obey?"
"I'm sure the phrase was in their marriage vows. But women have usually found their own power."
"The words of the song said the husband is commanded to love his wife, but it didn't say she had to love him," Elise said, sarcastically. "She just belonged to him, I guess, like a slave, who had to obey. But does he really love her if it's an order? What kind of relationship is that? I think everything should be fifty-fifty."
"Grandma used to say it had to be ninety-ten on both sides."
Elise paused. "I wonder what the songwriter's wife thought about it. Do you know anything about him? Personal, I mean, how he treated her?"
"Personal? Good grief, no. That was back before the Civil War."
"Well, under some of the songs there are bio notes about the composers," she said. "Maybe we could find out more ... It says he lived in Monroe County, Georgia."
"Yes, Grandma's family was from Georgia. Her father was born there. Mother's cousin, Carine Dumas Nolan, might know something; she wrote the genealogy book about the family. We have a copy of her book at home and we can see what it says about him ... but I'll warn you that, for the most part, it's just the facts and not much more. It has about as much plot as the dictionary."
"How did she find out about all that old stuff?"
"She worked with a relative from another branch of the family tree who'd written an earlier version. They contacted the best genealogists they could find and traced our ancestors to where they lived in France and England."
Carine, my mother's younger first cousin, was a member of the Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the American Revolution, organizations with requirements that every generation must be documented. She was also the family member who organized family reunions regularly. The reunion had been important to Grandma, yet I had never gone. Mother still spoke of wanting to drive to Louisiana for the annual event, though she could no longer see to drive that far. I thought of her now-persistent cough and guiltily reminded myself to spend time with her before it was too late.
Elise, reminiscing on her own memories of visiting Grandma, stated, "She must have been a natural-born comedian. Granny told me about the time her daddy was rushing to town and asked Grandma to sew a missing button on his pants, and she sewed on a great big red one."
"Oh, Grandpa enjoyed pulling a good prank, too. They could afford a good laugh even in the hard times, and times were plenty hard back in the Depression. The whole family worked in the field together—all of 'em, right along with the hands. The children worked, too."
"Yeah, Granny told me when she was a little girl, she had to hoe and pick cotton," Elise said, laughing. "One time, she made an excuse that she wasn't a good hoe-er, and her mama said there's no such thing as a good whore."
Grandma's language could be rather earthy, but she always managed to work in a moral.
"Did she ever tell you about Uncle Elzy?" I asked. "She made it clear he was on Grandpa's side of the family. Behind his back, she called him B. Elzy Bubba. He'd led a scandalous life, but he got his comeuppance when he died. While the mourners were on the way to the graveyard, the wagon caught fire and they had to pull the casket out to keep it from going up in flames. Grandma said the Devil was in a hurry to claim his due."
David Burch Nolan and Terry Louisa Dumas were married in Union Parish, Louisiana, on January 18, 1906.
"Was that real," Elise asked, "or was it another story she just made up?"
"Pulling the coffin from the fire was real. I can't say about Uncle Elzy's soul."
The highway was going through a small town, and we passed a school yard. "If the kids had to work in the fields," Elise said, "when did they go to school?"
"They didn't work in the fields all the time. But the harvest wouldn't wait. Everyone on all the farms had an indispensable job. School was closed for the duration. Everything revolved around getting the crops in. Grandma started making preparations back in the summer with home-canned food they grew on the farm. When harvest was over, they celebrated with a big all-day singing and a pot luck feast called dinner-on-the-ground."
Excerpted from Legacy of the Sacred Harp by Chloe Webb. Copyright © 2010 Chloe Webb. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One. The Civil War Generations,
1. The Sacred Harp,
2. Grandma's Louisiana,
3. To Georgia—an Unclaimed Inheritance,
4. The Home Place, 1822,
5. Revelations—Settlement of the Will,
6. The Minutes,
7. The Prodigals,
8. Crash Course in Slavery,
Part Two. The American Revolutionaries,
9. Aunt Izzie,
10. Dumas Tavern and Mount Gilead,
11. Unseen Epitaphs,
12. The Presiding Elder,
13. Carolina—the Spiritual Trail,
14. Rocky River,
15. Fasola and the Margent Bible,
Part Three. The French Protestants,
16. The Huguenots of Saintonge,
17. The Advocate,
Part Four. Early Jamestown Colonists,
18. Stranger in a Foreign Land,
19. The Sea Venture,
20. The Year 1619,
Fort Worth, TX