CMS Talks: Sacred Harp Singing

Saturday, October 26
2:45–3:40 p.m.
Conference Theater

CMS Talks are 15-minute presentations related to a single theme that are meant to teach, inspire, engage, and/or motivate the audience, often with supportive visual imagery. Three CMS Talks will be presented consecutively within a single session:

Shape-note singing in America is both a contemporary and historical activity with its roots extending into the 1700s. It serves communities and churches by improving the quality of their singing. Well trained shape-note singers are a formidable group. Their sight-singing skills surpass those of most college voice majors. This continued interest has been fueled by master shape-note teachers who actively teach and promote the use of this form of notation and repertoire. The number of shape-note leaders have diminished drastically since their heyday in the mid-twentieth century. However, the strength and vigor of the current contemporary shape-note singing community is significant. In addition, there are groups of shape-note singers who continue to sing from the tunebooks of the 1800s. The Sacred Harp tunebook singers are quite active and the Christian Harmony tunebook singers are renewing their strength.

My particular interest has been the persistence of gospel shape-note singing, education, and composition. Gospel shape-note leaders and their choirs are focused on serving the needs of a worshipping community. It is a homegrown American music form that birthed Southern gospel quartets and conventions. In 1994 I produced a film documenting activities of gospel shape-note singers in Watauga County, NC. Two local leaders facilitated the project. My film documents rural singing schools, a regional convention, and the actual process of teaching shape-note singing and conducting to very young singers. I was soon drawn into the regional network of leaders, teachers, publishers, and composers. It is an amazing network of worship music educators who train themselves and their communities apart from the university music education system.

mary greeneMary Greene has continued to celebrate and present the traditions of her Appalachian community. She grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the daughter of a hard-working farmer and a schoolteacher. Her parents instilled in her the deep love of community and tradition, and the sense of place that informs her programs.

Her early musical experiences, provided by her hymn singing father and the local shape-note singing school leader, were in the religious music tradition. Later, she learned traditional ballads and folk songs (restoring a broken link to her ballad singing grandparents). Her expertise in the region’s cultural arts coupled with experience as the director of educational services at the award-winning Appalachian Cultural Museum equip her with multiple views of Appalachian culture.

Mary has presented folklore and music traditions at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife and has also taught and performed for more than a decade at the Appalachian State University’s Dulcimer Playing Workshop. She has also provided educational sessions for groups such as the National Association of Music Librarians and the National Eastern Parks and Monuments Association. With funding from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1994, she produced a documentary recording on North Carolina Heritage Award winner Ora Watson, a traditional fiddler and singer. She completed her own recording, The Unclouded Day, in 1996. She produced and directed a documentary film titled Blue Ridge Shape Notes: Singing a New Song in an Old Way in 2004.

Green has coordinated, and performed at, numerous festivals, events, and concerts presenting regional traditions to schoolchildren, adults, newcomers and tourists. Green ios a Blue Ridge Heritage artist as well as a Master Traditional Musician for the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program. 

Mounting interest in folk and world music has led to increased choral performance of Sacred Harp, or shape note, repertoire. Sacred Harp is a communal musical practice originating in colonial New England; today it has hundreds of American and several burgeoning international singing chapters. Participants do not rehearse or perform, and there is no conductor; community and collective musicmaking are its central purposes.

Lack of awareness in the choral community regarding Sacred Harp music and its widespread accessibility for participatory learning has perpetuated a theoretical, distanced choral approach to Sacred Harp. Many choral conductors interpret this music abstractly, even when they desire to present authentic performances.

Recent choral scholarship on Sacred Harp music is sparse and largely emphasizes the reproduction of Sacred Harp musical style rather than a culturally sensitive representation of a living community. The absence of meaningful discussion in the choral community regarding the ritual and cultural aspects of Sacred Harp leads to performances that oftentimes merely imitate or entertain, failing to draw public attention to the active Sacred Harp community.

This session presents a fresh perspective for choral performance of Sacred Harp that places participation at the foreground and advocates for greater dialogue between the choral and Sacred Harp communities as a basis for all choral interpretations.

The privileges and responsibilities placed upon conductors in repertoire selection will be discussed and parallels drawn to other frequently performed participatory choral music. Recommendations for choral performance of Sacred Harp music are offered with respect for the rich ongoing legacy of Sacred Harp.

leann conley holcom Dr. Leann Conley-Holcom is Director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Seattle University, where she oversees the voice program, conducts choirs, and teaches conducting. Dr. Conley-Holcom is in demand as a choral clinician and music educator nationally and internationally; recent guest conducting highlights include the Seattle Men's and Women's Choruses and the Shaoxing Philharmonic Children's Chorus in China. In addition to teaching and conducting, Dr. Conley-Holcom performs regularly as a singer, with recent appearances including Maryland’s Mountainside Baroque, the Oregon Bach Festival, and her solo debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York City Chamber Orchestra. Prior to her appointment at Seattle University, Dr. Conley-Holcom directed the choral and vocal programs at Chabot College and conducted choirs for the GRAMMY-award-winning Pacific Boychoir Academy and the acclaimed Tacoma Youth Chorus. She holds degrees in voice and conducting from Pacific Lutheran University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Washington.

Writing well over a century ago, in his 1903 intellectual canon The Souls of Black Folk, scholar-activist W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) posed the following argument, which in many ways continues to chronicle the underlying realities of life for people of African descent in the United States:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul through the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, two unreconciled strivings, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.1

DuBois’ premise proves instructive in efforts to grasp the full range of meanings and significance of the shape note/sacred harp tradition among African Americans in the United States. Shape note singing was not indigenous to Black Americans; on the contrary, it represents the transplanting of a singing school tradition that originated in rural British contexts, and, during the eighteenth century, resurfaced among Christians in New England as a strategy for improving the quality of congregational singing. Following the migration of this song tradition into Southern contexts in the US, African Americans adopted the practice, and developed their own distinctive traditions which flourished in such places as Alabama and Texas until the dawn of the twenty-first century.

This presentation will explore the ways in which African Americans sustained and reinterpreted shape-note singing by absorbing musics celebrated among their neighboring whites, yet at the same time, allowed them, as people of African descent to reinforce their own deeply held cultural and musical values, grounded in the African past.

1. William E. B. DuBois. The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in Three Negro Classics. Discus Books/ Avon, 1965, p. 215.

burnim mellonee2Mellonee Burnim is professor emerita in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and retired Director of the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. A past Director of the Ethnomusicology Institute at IU, she held a post-doc at the Interdenominational Theological Center (2001), is a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of North Texas, and served as the first Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Ethnomusicology and Ritual Studies at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music (2004).

Burnim has done fieldwork on African American religious music across the United States, as well as in Cuba and Malawi. Founding director of the African American Choral Ensemble at IU, she has also directed choirs in churches of various denominations. In 2018, she delivered the keynote address at the British Forum for Ethnomusicology in Aberdeen, Scotland. She is co-editor of African American Music: An Introduction, 2015, 2nd ed.), and Issues in African American Music: Race, Power, Gender and Representation (2017), both standard texts across the US and Europe in teaching African American music.