Front porches, iced tea and Sacred Harp

Published 3:49 pm Friday, September 12, 2008

A friend of mine once told me that air conditioning was the cause of the downfall of civilization. At first, I thought he was completely crazy because I know that I can’t live without air conditioning. But then he went on to explain that before everyone had central air, people sat on their front porches and talked with their neighbors. Old and young alike rocked back and forth in rocking chairs shelling peas or butter beans or shucking corn. Or, neighbors and family members sat on the front porch and drank a glass of sweetened iced tea and fanned with a funeral parlor fan and told the latest town gossip.

The reality of that statement quickly dawned on me, and I realized he was right. Today, as soon as we get home from our busy jobs and our busy workdays, we head straight indoors, turn on the air, and usually flop down on the couch in front of the TV. Or, we head to our computers and check our email. Or, we check our answering machines to see if we have any messages. But we usually don’t go sit on the front porch with a glass of sweet tea and a fan and invite our neighbors to come over and chat.

And then we wonder how people can become so isolated and cut off from others.

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Is that real civilization?

When I lived in LaFayette, Ala., I hosted an annual all-day Sacred Harp singing once a year. It was held on the fourth Saturday in May. It would take weeks to prepare food and get the house cleaned because I knew I would have Sacred Harp singers from all over the South, and as far away as Chicago, to come stay with me during the entire weekend.

As many of you may now know, I love Sacred Harp singing, also called “Fa-sol-la” or “shape-note” singing. There just aren’t many who still sing in this area. As the older generation has died, there haven’t been many young people coming up into this Southern tradition to continue it. And that is so sad and tragic to me.

One year, I had six members of the Lee family from Hoboken, Ga., staying with me. Now, they have deep roots in Sacred Harp. After the singing was over one particular Saturday, we changed from our church clothes into our shorts and jeans and were resting here and there around the house, you know, drinking iced tea and humming, our souls and spirits fed and full with the day’s events.

I joined Clarke and David, Kathy and Julie Lee on my front porch in the rocking chairs. We were just quietly enjoying the soft breeze and each other’s company. You know, when you’re with those you love, you really don’t have to talk at all.

The next thing I know, someone strikes up a tune, begins to hum, someone else joins in, I pick up the harmony, and we start singing a Sacred Harp song on my front porch.

I lived across the street from an elderly lady who sat on her front porch with her legs wrapped in a quilt on warm days, and on this particular day, she was sitting on her front porch, and she had the biggest smile on her face. I knew that she was listening to us and enjoying the singing and the fellowship.

So, tell me again how we got so “civilized” with the invention of air conditioning?

Regina Grayson is the Managing Editor of The Luverne Journal and The Lowndes Signal. She can be reached at