Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sacred Harp Singing and More

While the Bear may not be blogging much for a time, he'll be popping up (as Bears tend to do) unexpectedly with unusual items he finds interesting. (Or, in your swimming pool.)

This one's about haunting musical traditions in Appalachia. It ought to occupy you for a while.

The name "Sacred Harp Singing" comes from a hymnal written in New England in 1844, but the tradition goes back to the 18th century. The musical notation is called "shaped note" and was invented as a simple way for people who did not know standard musical notation to sing hymns by recognizing the four different shapes of notes. Traveling preachers sold the Sacred Harp hymnals in the hills and hollers of Appalachia, where things tend to survive.

The leader stands in the middle of the congregation, which is divided into four sections, and conducts. The documentary shows an eight-year-old girl as leader.

Sacred Harp singing almost died out. It got a boost from the horribly depressing 2003 Civil War movie Cold Mountain. The style can also be found in the British Isles, sometimes called Gaelic Psalm Singing. The Bear's slapdash research seems to show it was taken across the Atlantic in the 19th century and somehow adopted by Scottish Presbyterians in remote places.

Fortunately, Sacred Harp singing is making a comeback, as recounted in the second clip.

EDIT: A kind person Tweeted this link on Sacred Harp music. It includes many local groups. (If you don't follow the Bear on Twitter, he's @CorbiniansBear also linked on the sidebar. His Twitter account and official Facebook page are excellent ways to know when there's a new post here and enjoy random misfirings of his 450 gm brain found nowhere else.)

All these tunes are spine-tingling for the Bear, whether Sacred Harp, lined-out hymnody, or traditional mountain folk. He has culled YouTube for a variety of clips for your edification and listening pleasure. (Movie links are to Wikipedia, whose plot summaries include spoilers.)

The first clip, "Good Old Way," is 2:36 long and for the ears only. If you listen carefully, you can hear the singers begin practicing the tune in the four shaped notes. That way, the congregation had the tune down before beginning the actual hymn.

The second clip is a seven minute long documentary that includes the history and revival and is well worth watching.

The third clip is not Sacred Harp, but lined-out hymnody running a hypnotic 3:29. This form of call-and-response music is usually associated with black churches, but it was also used by illiterate white folk in the mountains of east Tennessee and West Virginia.

The fourth clip is a four minute departure to a wonderful scene from the Coen Brothers great 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou. It is loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, and the seductive ladies are sirens. (Caution: PG Sensuality - they're sirens!) Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss and Emmylou Harris are the voices behind the actresses. This is one of Bear's favorite movies and showcases George Clooney's comic chops as well as some great music, including the "Po Lazarus" chain gang song by the a capella gospel Fairfield Four. (Bear's daughter Ragsy loves this movie, too.)

Finally, there's a haunting and edifying song from the 2000 film Songcatcher, "O Death" running 2:37. In an interesting twist, an unlikely character proves he has not forgotten his roots by singing a verse, then other characters each take successive verses. It's a good movie about a woman who heads into the hills in 1907 to record traditional Appalachian music. Young Emmy Rossum shows talent far beyond her years. Watch the full movie for the music, but beware of the lesbian scene out of left field at the very end. (Sorry, Land Shark, there is no lesbian scene at the end of the clip Bear chose.) It's worth watching up until that - just stop when you see the objectionable scene coming and read the ending on Wikipedia.

Sacred Harp Singing: "That Good Old Way"
The Denson Parris Sacred Harp Singers

Sacred Harp Singing: Documentary
Pop Goes the Culture

Lined-Out Hymnody: "I'm Going to a City"
Indian Bottom Association of Regular Baptists

O Brother Where Art Thou: "Go to Sleep Little Baby"
Coens, Touchstone Pictures / Universal Pictures
Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris

Songcatcher: "O Death"
Written / Directed Maggie Greenwald
Songcatcher LLC / distributed by Lions Gate Films


  1. Of course LS went immediately to the forbidden scene, but after suffering for 3 minutes (what the hell was that?) it wasn't even there. Did I just get tooled? LS will exact his revenge.

    1. Bear has clarified, the objectionable scene is at the end of the movie not the clip. He regrets your disappointment, but he would hardly embed a clip of lesbians, which cause war flashbacks for him in any case. The film is rated PG-13, so he supposes it was not so much pornographic as gratuitous and unexpected.

  2. My (Catholic) mother and non-denominational brother participated in one of these groups for several years. I'm not sure why they stopped. My mother started going when her parish got a new music director and he dissolved all the choirs.

    1. I see from the website I put up that central Illinois has an event. Maybe I'll go check it out. It must be amazing to be at the center of that powerful music.

  3. Lesbian scenes can wreck great films, like it harmed "The Color Purple", but not irredeemably. I just skip it, and anyway it's not graphic at all. But back to the really great film of "O Brother Where Are Thou", which is also one of my favorites. I highly recommend it, for so many reasons. I can't stand Clooney's politics, the liberal goon, but he was only excellent in this film, as were the other actors. So many quotable lines it's hard to keep up, "I nicked the census man", "There's a good boy" is one of my favorites.
    The soundtrack has wrecked me for any other versions of O Death which isn't Ralph Stanley's, and "The Good Old Way" was done in that film too. Every track is worth listening to, and personally I find O Death to be a spiritually inspiring song, in a directly sobering way. There's a children's song that I really love, I can't think of the name, but it's great. Old timey American music is simply awesome. I would listen to those Protestant hymns all the day long, especially rather than tunes like "Gather us In" or similar junk. Either put it in Latin or old timey hymns.

    1. In the HIghways and the Byways Is the one I think you're thinking of, Kathleen.

      The rawness and even off-key singing of O Death from Songcatcher is authentic. It is very moving for me, its imagery right out of some Medieval Dans Macabre. It doesn't pull any punches. You miss your chance here, you go to Hell. Period. In the movie, this is a very powerful scene, for reasons I won't spoil here. Emmy Rossum is amazing. All the songs are. I guess the lesbian bit at the end drives the plot to its finish and there was probably a feminist subtext earlier I missed.

      Songcatcher and Matewan (a very powerful drama of the coal wars of the 20's or '30's) really evoke that time and place.

      I guess maybe it's my coal miner heritage, but I'm positively a Red when it comes to the workers' rights of coal miners. I can sing "Which Side are You On?" with Florence Reece or Natalie Merchant with the loudest. The mine bosses were not above murdering people. The company had machine guns mounted on the tipple, and, of course, plenty of thugs. There's a book about the southern Illinois county next to Bear's, called "Bloody Williamson." Part of the blood was from "The Herrin Massacre."

      The company had promised to honor the strike. Strikes were business as usual back in the 20's and 30's. My family had their gardens, hunted and fished, and then "Papa John" Lewis would tell everybody to go back to work when they had gotten a little raise.

      In 1922, the company could not resist the high price of coal, and reneged on a promise to honor the strike. They hired what my family called "scabs" and also thugs, and some union workers shot at them. Three of the union workers were killed in the gunfire.

      The union workers laid siege to the mine and promised safe passage to the non-union workers. The company agreed (Hell, the owner was going to make a quarter million dollars on the coal they had already mined for him; he didn't care.) The march turned into a deathtrap. 19 of the 50 strikebreakers were murdered. All of the killers were acquitted.

      This was all just a few miles from the Bear's birthplace and the irenic goat pastures of Zoar.

      As late as 1969 Jock Yablonski was murdered by rival UMWA president Tony Boyle, as some may remember.

      My great-grandfather was a union organizer. They'd have to escape in the middle of the night. There was a saying in my family, "The most mournful sound in the world is the cup scraping the bottom of the flour tin." (Or crock, I don't remember... another piece of family history now gone forever, but that's how poor they were.) He once robbed the company store for food. He walked in, laid a hogleg on the counter and told the grocer what he wanted. The grocer didn't mind. I suppose it was one of the times they had to skedaddle.

      I don't pay much attention to actors' politics. I love George Clooney. MIchael Clayton was a great drama. I love the speech he gives to the hit-and-run guy at the beginning about how there's no magic solution, just mitigating the damage. I wish I could have played that for every client who told me, 'They said you were the best." Yeah. Best is a relative term in criminal defense.

      I think Clooney's versatility is underrated by his good looks and romantic leads. He's hilarious on O Brother Where Art Thou. "I'm a Dapper Dan man!" That movie never gets old.

  4. THIS is why we have to moderate comments. The Bear does get a kick out the the fractured English, though. LIke this loopy one:

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    from useful founder. I appreciate you someone online site!
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  5. I listened to the clips and figured out immediately why you like this style of music.....the minor chord resonating and harmonizing throughout; it is simply and basically the American South's profanation of Eastern Chant. Really...there is a thread.

    1. The history goes from 1770 New England to Appalachia & the South, a lot of Primitive Baptists and Regular Baptists. I don't think a historical connection is possible, although it might be similar to Eastern Chant (I'm not familiar with that). When I was Orthodox it was Russian Polyphony. I'm trying to remember the Trisagion and some others, Yes, there is that minor key/resolution going on, although Russian Orthodox music is more contemplative and not as energetic.

      I have already found a nearby group. It is my purpose to lead a song and report.


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