NYT Article: Sacred Harp music from Fultondale and "Cold Mountai n"
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For a Timeless Song Style, a Chance at the Big Time
By RANDY KENNEDY
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
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
"Everybody needs this music in their lives," said Amanda Denson, a
veteran singer, smiling fiercely. "They just don't know it yet."