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 home >> event archive >> botkin lecture archive >> lecture flyer for david warren steel 2010

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

October 21, 2010 Event Flyer

Makers of the Sacred Harp:

Presented by David Warren Steel

2010 Botkin Lecture Flyer for David Warren Steel

Sacred Harp singing is a community musical and social event, emphasizing participation, not performance, where people sing songs from a tunebook called The Sacred Harp. The book uses a system of notation in which each note is represented by one of four shapes. While not identical to the congregational singing of 18th-century New England, Sacred Harp singing preserves several fundamental characteristics from that era, including a complex of musical skills learned in singing schools and a repertory of religious part-songs by European and American composers, printed in an oblong songbook.

Sacred Harp singings employ a distinctive "hollow square" seating arrangement and a rotation of leaders; participants begin each song by singing sol-fa syllables followed by one or more verses of sung text. Despite its reliance on printed materials, Sacred Harp singing is a form of traditional music, standing on a persistent collaboration of several generations of composers, songbook compilers, editors and revisers, singing teachers, song leaders and singers of all ages who identify with its sincerity, enthusiasm, devotional strength and deep historical roots.

For over a hundred fifty years, the Sacred Harp tradition has represented cooperative community-based music making. The tradition relies on musical participation, rotation of song leaders, and contributions of food for a communal meal. It avoids contentious discussion of politics and denominational religion. Although the Sacred Harp tradition is often cited as an embodiment of American democracy, its history reflects the conflicts that formed the nation as well, having survived wars, political and religious struggles, commercial competition, litigation, and personal slights.

Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha James King, who compiled the book in 1844, were members of a tradition that was already several generations old. They drew on a repertory of English and American tunes popular in the New England states in the years 1770-1810, and they continued to select, print and circulate music from this repertory long after it had lost favor in New England. They reprinted or reset tunes already published in previous tunebooks. They collected, notated and harmonized tunes from a flourishing oral tradition, adapting them for use in churches and singing schools. Finally, they added their own compositions and arrangements, and those of other composers and teachers in their immediate region of Georgia and South Carolina.

Today The Sacred Harp, its singers, and its music may be seen as a "lost tonal tribe" whose activities, largely isolated from the commoditization of the musical arts, seem quaintly at odds with those of the commercial mainstream of American culture and music. It is astonishing how little money changes hands in the process of putting on an all-day singing. Many of the venues are free of charge, where the singing is part of a long-standing church or community observance. No admission fee is charged, and all are invited to partake of the dinner that the hosts have prepared. Sometimes a hat is passed for "minute money" (a payment to publish the secretary's account of the singing), or for an offering to the host church’s maintenance or "graveyard fund." No money is paid to "performers," even those who travel considerable distance. Visiting singers are instead repaid through reciprocal visits, so that the hosts’ expenses will be balanced out by the hospitality at locations they visit.

It is well to recall that The Sacred Harp was created as a commercial property from the start. This capitalistic enterprise was an integral part of the history and culture of the young American nation. The composers who contributed to The Sacred Harp represent a cross-section of white males, and even a few females, from a diverse range of wealth, education, and influence, during the age of Jacksonian democracy, when universal white male suffrage supplanted an earlier franchise limited to holders of substantial land or property. Most of them learned music in singing schools or informally in the family or social circle. They wrote for an audience of singers much like themselves, while working in a variety of trades and professions. They did not mean to found a "lost tribe."

In an era of westward movement and expansion, most Sacred Harp composers died west of their own birthplace. As they moved west, these singers and composers followed the "ever-retreating frontier," the land between urbanized civilization and the sparsely-populated wilderness. Their singing schools and conventions contributed to "breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities."

The songs of The Sacred Harp allude to the westward progress of civilization, to the young nation’s wars, and to reform movements such as foreign missions and temperance. Most of all, they express the religious experience of communities and individuals in the vivid language of camp-meeting revivalism: exhortation to conversion, prayer for conversions, despair, judgment, and spiritual pilgrimage and warfare.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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