Sacred Harp, a fading tradition

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 29, 2005

Hardwood floors.

Windows opened wide.

Ceiling fans pretending to bring relief from the Southern heat.

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Dinner on the grounds.

Funeral home fans with a picture on the front of the Good Shepherd holding a lamb. The muffled, sometimes stomping sound of feet keeping time on the floor.

Covered dishes lining tables set up in the back of the church, tin foil shining here and there along the way.

A bowl of peppermint on the front table for those with a scratchy throat.

You might just be at a Sacred Harp singing.

I wish I could say that you could attend one on any given Saturday or Sunday in Butler County, but the sad fact is it is a dying tradition in this area.

Sacred harp is also known as &uot;Fa-sol-la&uot; or &uot;shape-note&uot; singing.

It is acappela; you couldn’t find a musical instrument within ten miles of a singing even if you tried.

Singers believe that the voice is the &uot;sacred harp&uot; of the mind, body and soul; therefore, no musical instruments are needed.

If you’ve ever attended a singing, you probably soon realized that the singing comes from the heart; it is not a competition but a compilation of voices.

These voices are arranged in what’s known as a &uot;hollow square.&uot;

You have the tenors facing the pulpit, the trebles on the right, the bass section on the left, and the altos facing the entrance of the church.

A leader is called, and he or she announces a song number from an oblong book, which most everyone has.

The key man, or in some cases, a key woman, sounds the pitch, and everyone picks up his or her sound.

The notes are sung first, then the words are sung.

Many times, the chorus is repeated.

I’ve been singing sacred harp since 1992. My mother, Mrs. Emmie Lou Grayson, and Mrs. Harold May are also singers and supporters in the Butler County area. Also, Buddy and Ruth Tindal and Horace Batchelor were avid singers before they passed away. They would all travel around together to attend singings.

These are precious memories, ones that can never be replaced.

After my grandmother, Mrs. Nettie V. Grayson, died in 1991, I made the bittersweet discovery of her B.F. White Sacred Harp songbook. Not only that, I found her father’s book, Mr. Robert Ethington Newton, my great-grandfather.

What priceless treasures.

Other singers in the Butler County area from years ago were Scott Newton, Richard Newton, Mr. and Mrs. Roy Branum, Arthur Newton, Ollie Burt, Henry Jones, Lillian Burt and Sidney Newton.

I’ll take this time to ask if anyone has old singing photos or old songbooks that belonged to a family member, I would love to see them.

I must admit, I could talk about it all day.

How many of you have seen the movie &uot;Cold Mountain&uot;?

There are two sacred harp songs sung in that movie.

I must admit that was the only reason I went to the theatre to see the movie whenever it came out.

As soon as I heard the first notes of &uot;Idumea&uot; during the opening battle scene, I began to cry.

It’s not like you hear it every day.

&uot;And am I born to die? To lay this body down? And must my trembling spirit fly Into a world unknown?&uot;

Haunting words to a haunting melody.

From John Etheridge in Baker, Fla., to Stanley Smith in Ozark, Ala., to David, Kathy, Clarke and Julie Lee in Hoboken, Ga., to Karen Willard in Buckley,Wash., sacred harp singers are connected in such a way that no amount of time or space can ever truly keep them apart.

This Thursday, July 21, everyone is cordially invited to attend the 19th annual Capitol City Shape Note Singing, located in Old Alabama Town at the Loeb Reception Center.

The center’s address is 310 Columbus Avenue in Montgomery.

It is sponsored by the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, which is a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

It will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information, please call 334-242-3601, or feel free to contact me at 382-3111, Ext. 126.

Regina Grayson is a reporter with the Greenville Advocate.

She can be reached at 334-383-9302, ext. 126 or via email at