Academic journal article Southern Cultures

To the Land I Am Bound: A Journey into Sacred Harp. (Essay)

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

To the Land I Am Bound: A Journey into Sacred Harp. (Essay)

Article excerpt

One Saturday before the fourth Sunday in August, as such things are reckoned, I arose early in the morning and drove south from my hometown of Nashville, provisioned with coffee and water and accompanied by some choice CDS and an oblong book bound in deep red cloth. The day proved typical of late summer, bright and dry, with rising but bearable heat. Some three hours after my departure from Nashville I turned off a highway in rural northeast Alabama and followed a dirt road across a valley to the foot of Lookout Mountain. At this point, some seventy miles southwest of Chattanooga, the ridge is far less imposing than it is at its more famous northern end, home to the battlefield and Rock City. Nonetheless, as I found myself climbing over clay and gravel, negotiating switchbacks and sudden steep upgrades, I found myself thanking God for the weather and myself for my brand new transmission. As I reached the top and crossed the plateau, passing isolated farmsteads and deep woods, I began to wonder if I was in the right place at the right time. Why would anyone come up here? Did I miss a turn? Reassurance finally came in the form of a wooden sign, pointing left toward Pine Grove Church. Shortly thereafter I spied my destination: a plain cinder-block building with an open pavilion in front, and along the road and in a field opposite the church a swarm of cars, from pickups to Lincolns to minivans, some with plates from Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri. I found a spot to pull over, switched off the engine, and through the deep quiet of the mountaintop heard the surging harmonies of page 388 in my red, oblong book: "She's the old ship of Zion, hallelu! hallelu! / And her captain, Judah's Lion, hallelujah." (1)

Taking my book, I went to the front of the building, paused to register at the table there ("Will you lead?" asked the form. "Yes," I responded, with a gulp), and stepped in the front door. The interior was as stark as the exterior; concrete floor and cinder-block walls, with an electric clock and a picture of Jesus on the far wall. The pews had been arranged to face inward on four sides of a tight square. In the pews, and on extra rows of folding chairs and sometimes standing against the walls, were well over a hundred singers, densely packed in, filling the space with waves of massive, four-part a capella harmonies and intricate "fuguing tunes." In the center of the square stood a lone figure, leading what singers, recalling the origins of these gatherings in old-time singing schools, call the "lesson." Many of the "class," especially on the front rows of the square, kept time as well, and their arm motions, combined with the volume and pulse of the tune, made it seem as if the whole room, if not the world, was swaying with the music. I worked my way to the front right-hand side, where the trebles (men and women), or sopranos, were clustered, and opened my book. As a new leader called a new tune, I joined in at the Lookout Mountain Sacred Harp Singing Convention.

It was not my first real "traditional" Sacred Harp Convention, nor, blessedly, my last, although from that time forward it has been among my favorites. Look-out Mountain is legendary for the skill and power of the over one hundred singers who regularly come, for the unlikely acoustic gem of a church, and the lavish "dinner on the grounds" held under the adjoining pavilion, featuring Chairman Bud Oliver's lemonade, allegedly from a Lookout Mountain spring and assuredly the beverage of the angels.

I did in fact lead a lesson that day from the tune book that gives these singings their name, The Sacred Harp. The "arranging committee" of a convention is responsible for assuring that all who wish to lead--even total strangers--get their turn in the square, and in any case no one who comes to sing and shows proper respect for the tradition is ever treated as a stranger. My lesson was page 224, "Save, Lord, or We Perish," a "fuguing tune" depicting a storm at sea. …

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