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NYT Article: Sacred Harp music from Fultondale and "Cold Mountai n"

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu For a Timeless Song Style, a Chance at the Big Time By RANDY KENNEDY Published: December 23, 2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 23, 2003
      fyi...aj wright // ajwright@...

      For a Timeless Song Style, a Chance at the Big Time

      Published: December 23, 2003

      FULTONDALE, Ala. — The Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church on
      the outskirts of Birmingham is a long way from Hollywood, literally and

      So it was a little strange one Sunday to hear a group of people in the
      tiny bare-walled church swapping stories about Anthony Minghella, the
      Oscar-winning director of "The English Patient," who was pronounced by
      one elderly Alabamian that day to be "a pretty decent guy."

      A woman near him agreed, but as she loaded her paper plate with
      lunchtime chicken casserole, she added, "I do wish they'd hold the
      premiere in New York instead of out in L.A."

      Her preference was only practical: she and a handful of others would
      soon fly to the premiere of the new big-budget movie directed by Mr.
      Minghella, "Cold Mountain." They would also hear their own clear, strong
      voices booming from the theater's speakers as they watched the movie for
      the first time alongside the director and two of its stars, Nicole
      Kidman and Jude Law.

      When this Civil War drama opens nationwide on Christmas, the hope among
      these singers is that it will accomplish something more meaningful than
      a glamorous trip to Hollywood. They hope it will introduce their kind of
      music — a powerful and beautiful but relatively obscure form of a
      cappella choral singing known as Sacred Harp — to a broader audience.

      The music, also known as shape-note or fasola singing, has been waiting
      a long time for that attention. The style of singing, whose rudiments
      stretch back at least to Elizabethan England, flourished in Colonial New
      England and in its present form took deep root in the rural South, where
      it is still sung today in four-part harmony. But many of its
      practitioners — whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents
      sang it in little churches and town squares throughout the South —
      fear it could die out. So they are waiting eagerly to see whether the
      use of Sacred Harp music on the movie's soundtrack, released on Dec. 16,
      could do for their music what the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art
      Thou?," the Coen brothers comedy, did for rural blues and bluegrass.
      (The "O Brother" album unexpectedly sold more than five million copies
      and won the album-of-the-year Grammy in 2002.)

      In early reviews of the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack — which also
      includes performances by Alison Krauss and the White Stripes' Jack White
      — several music writers have called the Sacred Harp singers a
      revelation. Anyone who has ever listened to recordings of such singing
      (the musicologist Alan Lomax has made several well-regarded field
      recordings) will know why.

      But to attend a weekend singing, as they are called, is to experience
      the music in the full-throated way it was intended and to understand why
      the Sacred Harp tradition has endured in a world that seems to have
      passed it by.

      The singing at the Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church in
      November was an annual gathering known as the Alabama State Convention,
      now in its 104th year, and it drew more than a hundred singers from 17
      states, including many veterans from Alabama who had lent their voices
      to the soundtrack. Singers, among them farmers, welders, lawyers and
      retirees, began arriving at the hilltop church on a sunny Saturday
      morning in cars and pickup trucks and vans, and the singing began even
      before the appointed starting time of 9.

      "All right, let's get started," an elderly man said at 8:55, and
      suddenly the narrow, fluorescent-lighted church was full of the almost
      deafening sound of harmonizing voices.

      One thing that becomes immediately clear to the visitor at a Sacred
      Harp gathering is how much such singings care about singing to the
      exclusion of almost everything else.

      The release of the movie and its soundtrack were hot topics over the
      weekend. But many of the older singers in particular appeared wholly
      uninterested and seemed to regard the subject as a distraction.

      "Basically," said Elene Stovall, a singer from Birmingham, "you could
      stand Nicole Kidman or Jude Law up in the middle of the room here, and a
      lot of these people would not know who they were. And if they did, they
      wouldn't care anyway."

      For a Timeless Song Style, a Chance at the Big Time

      Published: December 23, 2003

      (Page 2 of 2)

      There was some brief conversation about other topics, chiefly concerns
      about the church's floor being carpeted, which would dampen the sound.
      Occasionally singers would also pause to dab a little peppermint oil on
      their tongues to help gird their vocal cords for the two-day choral

      But mostly they just sang song after song, happily and with little
      interruption, their triple-forte voices rising and the harmonies
      broadening and converging, ringing out like bell tones. In traditional
      fashion the singers sat facing each other in what is known as a hollow
      square, with basses on one side and the trebles, altos and tenors on the
      other three. Singers stood up in turn in the middle of the square to
      lead songs, which are sung from an oblong burgundy-colored book called
      "The Sacred Harp," which was compiled in 1844 and revised only four
      times since.

      The music is called shape note because the heads of the notes in the
      book are given distinctive shapes — squares, triangles, diamonds and
      ovals — to indicate pitch. The melodies of the songs can often be
      traced back hundreds of years to English and Scottish folk tunes. Many
      of the lyrics, nearly all religious, date from the 1800's, and they lend
      the songs evocative names like "Panting for Heaven," "Sweet Affliction"
      and "The Last Words of Copernicus."

      Yet for all the religious trappings of the singings, they have nearly
      always existed apart from church services. "Altogether the tradition is
      a curious blend of the sacred and the secular," writes Buell E. Cobb
      Jr., whose book, "The Sacred Harp: The Tradition and Its Music," is one
      of the definitive histories of the phenomenon.

      Perhaps because of this mingling of religious and social tradition, the
      singings themselves and the communities of friends and acquaintances
      that form around them can be remarkably inclusive. In addition to many
      singers who were brought up in Primitive Baptist churches and came to
      the music as a form of worship, the Birmingham singing also attracted
      longtime singers whose backgrounds were either not religious or not

      One woman from near Chicago described herself as an atheist Jew.
      Charles Franklin, a photographer from New Orleans who has been singing
      for more than a decade and documenting singings around the South with
      his camera, is a Buddhist. But he said that despite his religious
      differences with many of his fellow singers, he was "very much
      appreciative of the spiritual aspects of the singing."

      "To me, if you don't get that," he said, "you're missing the whole

      The question that remains as the movie opens of course is whether the
      record-buying public will also appreciate that spiritual quality, which
      is much more pronounced than that of the "O Brother" soundtrack. While
      bluegrass and rural blues exist at a distinct remove from pop music,
      Sacred Harp can seem to be on another planet altogether, with haunting,
      ancient harmonies and lyrics that make Ralph Stanley's "I'm a Man of
      Constant Sorrow" sound like a jingle by comparison. (In the Sacred Harp
      song "Ye Heedless Ones," to cite one example, the message is
      unvarnished: "Ye heedless ones who wildly stroll/The grave will soon
      become your bed/Where silence reigns and vapors roll/In solemn darkness
      'round your head.")

      "I don't think it's going to become the cool new thing really, in the
      `O Brother' sense," said Tim Eriksen, a longtime singer who helped
      arrange the recording session for the two Sacred Harp songs on the
      soundtrack. "I don't know if the general public is quite ready for this.
      But a lot more people are going to hear it, and that can only be a good

      Comparisons to `O Brother' are only natural. The producer of that
      record, T-Bone Burnett, is also a producer of the "Cold Mountain"
      soundtrack, and in the summer of 2002 he traveled with Mr. Minghella to
      a small church in Henagar, Ala., to record the Sacred Harp songs, which
      were performed by 63 singers who were paid $200 each for their efforts.
      (The original idea had been to take the singers to a studio in
      Nashville, but the producers were eventually persuaded that there was no
      substitute for recording the songs in the clapboard country church,
      Liberty Baptist, where singings have been held for decades.)

      Mr. Burnett's label, DMZ, which he formed with Columbia Records and the
      Coen brothers, also plans to release another album of songs from the
      Liberty church singers in the spring. And the Coen brothers, Mr. Eriksen
      said, plan to include a Sacred Harp song on the soundtrack of their
      movie "The Ladykillers," which is planned for release early next year
      and will star Tom Hanks.

      Many of the singers in Birmingham that weekend, in the midst of their
      excitement, were a little worried that joining the ranks of soundtrack
      singers might be a mistake, that they might be overly commercializing
      their music. Would tour buses start to show up in front of the doors of
      their churches? Would talent scouts and agents appear in the pews? In
      the end, many said, they felt it was worth the risk to keep their music
      from disappearing.

      "Everybody needs this music in their lives," said Amanda Denson, a
      veteran singer, smiling fiercely. "They just don't know it yet."
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