that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Huxley (1894 - 1963)
in front of the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Pipe Organ, the medieval-sounding
a cappella harmony and sometimes-fatalistic lyrics from the Sacred Harp
chorus was a perfect fit for the stage in Spivey Halls world-acclaimed
concert auditorium. There is a kinship. The music, like Spiveys
benefactors and supporters, is quintessentially Georgia and the origins
of Sacred Harp are as ancient as the first appearance of the pipe organ
in European churches.
For those still unfamiliar with Spivey Hall, Georgias performing
arts gem on the campus of Clayton State College and University, it is
the result of a group of philanthropists with a collective vision to bring
into this region the great music of the world. Through family and corporate
donations, Spivey Hall was completed in 1992, outfitted with a 20,000
pound pipe organ built by Fratelli Ruffatti, and designed with such acoustic
perfection that you can hear a stage whisper on the back row of the intimate
and regally appointed concert hall.
Over the years at Spivey Hall, I have enjoyed jazz greats Gene Harris,
Cleo Laine, Betty Carter, Dianne Reeves, Russell Malone, and Charlie Byrd
along with opera legends Renee Fleming, Denyce Graves, Dawn Upshaw and
Byrn Terfl. My favorite memory is a June evening in 1998 with Dixie Carter
which included an interview. Ms. Carter, I learned, is a skilled cabaret
performer who trained to be an opera singer and once played Maria Callas
My life is enriched by Spiveys cultural mission.
Harp music singing at Spivey Hall was part of its unwavering commitment
to music education and community betterment, and was on the acclaimed
stage largely through the dedication of Gene Pinion who serves as Spiveys
outreach coordinator. Most authorities concur that Sacred Harp is Americas
oldest continuing music form and stands right alongside the other great
music born, synthesized and popularized in the south: gospel, blues, country,
bluegrass, jazz and rock and roll.
Historically, the melodies of Sacred Harp were probably the product of
the Reformation in Europe and came over with all the diverse groups who
settled the colonies. While the music was sung in early New England, it
was driven south after the American Revolution by church-sponsored culture
wars, and found a happy home here in Appalachia and beyond. The acknowledged
preserver of Sacred Harp was a Georgian, B. F. White, whose collaborative
effort resulted in the first Sacred Harp hymnal in the 1840s.
Another Georgia native, Hugh McGraw, has fostered the Sacred Harp tradition
and is the primary force in publishing the revised hymnal in Bremen, Georgia.
The National Endowment for the Arts recognized McGraws lifelong
effort and honored him with the National Heritage Award in a White House
ceremony. With this award, McGraw stands alongside other recipients like
B.B. King, Blind Boys of Alabama, John Lee Hooker, Ralph Stanley and Doc
Sacred Harp singing appears easy, but it requires instruction that is
very abundant in almost every area of the country. Put Sacred Harp music
in a search engine and youll find everything you want and much more.
Basically, the four harmony divisions face each other to make a square.
A leader, who is customarily rotated after each song, announces the name
and page number of the song, a pitch is established and the singing begins
with the leaders hand movement establishing a beat.
The songs have obscure titles but are often familiar. While at Spivey,
the choir sang two versions of the venerable hymn, Amazing Grace,
an original in the Sacred Harp tradition. It was titled New Britain,
and sounded like a song that King Arthur might have heard at chapel. Another
hymn of first impression had the familiar music of Auld Lang Syne.
Each song has a comforting effect, is somehow soul soothing and harkens
back to unknown ancestors. Therein, according to observers, are the main
ingredients of the growing popularity of Sacred Harp singing in such places
as Manhattan, Boston, New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles, plus college
of Sacred Harp music has caught Hollywoods eye. The soon to be released
movie, Cold Mountain, based on the chilling best-seller about
the horrors of Western North Carolina at the end of the Civil War, has
Sacred Harp throughout its soundtrack.
I have enjoyed Sacred Harp music in Nashville, New Orleans, Louisville
and Raleigh. But, here in the Atlanta area, it is performed somewhere
weekly, notably in Alpharetta and Decatur. Every other year, the Georgia
State Sacred Harp Convention takes place in the Old Dekalb Courthouse
and you can hear the joy-filled music blocks away.
Sacred Harp music is geared to participation, not perfection. By encouraging
each participant to sing with power, there is a beneficial emotional release.
I cant imagine anyone singing in this style and leaving for home
other than happy. It indeed has euphoric qualities.
Keith Willard, a Sacred Harp enthusiast in Minneapolis, described the
experience as sounds composed in heaven with a thunder greater than
any chorus of angels. Sharing round the pain of dying by singing right
down in the face. Living and singing with the people who were and are
too stubborn to trade in the beautiful for the acceptable. To be part
of a remnant in time, attached the roots of a great old tree and given
the chance to partake in its nurture.
Spivey Hall was the perfect place for Sacred Harp music on a splendid
Georgia summer day.