Monday, February 27, 2012

His Honor and the Sacred Harp

When I was growing up the stifling heat of July mean one thing… was almost time for the Land Family reunion where the offspring of several generations from two people would gather at Sharp Mountain Baptist Church in Ball Ground, Georgia for dinner on the ground.  

In those days we met under a shelter outside the church where the longest table constructed of slabs of marble and concrete blocks I had ever seen extended through a stand of pine trees.  The table would be a checkerboard of various cotton tablecloths brought by the women for them to place their lunch.   All the designs formed a rather strange and beautiful quilt. 

Assorted picnic baskets and Tupperware would be unloaded and stacked underneath the table.   My mother’s Tupperware always had Band-aids stuck on the bottom with her neat handwriting…..Mrs. Geraldine B. Land.   Lord forbid someone got the wrong ham carrier or salad bowl!

The table literally groaned underneath all of the food – every sort of vegetable you could imagine from stewed squash and green beans to fried okra and sweet potatoes – some topped with marshmallows, some with pecans and brown sugar, of course.  There would be fried chicken, country fried steak and salmon patties….roast with carrots and potatos, sliced ham, and pork roast, too.  Biscuits, corn bread, and every type of dessert you could imagine.  I always grabbed one of the largest Chinet plates in the stack and promptly filled it to capacity.
After dinner the kids would go running off up the hill to the cemetery to play tag among the headstones of family members long gone or play school in one of the Sunday School rooms.  The adults of every age would talk and contemplate their full bellies in lounge chairs scattered around the table.

And then the singing would begin. 

My Great Uncle Homer loved his singing.   He’d head into the sanctuary by himself and fuss at any of us who might be running through the church building.  He’d tell us “the singing” was about to begin and we better hush up and be still.

Homer would begin to holler for the adults to come on in and sing…..or at least listen, and bit by bit most everyone would straggle in to watch and hear Uncle Homer.   You couldn’t help it.   The comforting sound would draw you in.   He’d select the hymns and then lead us in “a singin’” as he would call it. 

I loved it….and miss it very much.   Uncle Homer has been gone for several years and reunions really aren’t the same without sitting on that wooden pew with my cardboard fan printed with Jesus at The Last Supper on one side and ads from local businesses on the other trying to keep the hot air moving around me.  Everyone from 5 to 85 was flapping those fan so….it’s a wonder we all didn’t just lift up off the ground and rise to Glory.

Sweating and singing with family……it WAS glorious.

Like my Uncle Homer Douglasville’s Joseph S. James was a huge champion for singing – shape note signing, that is.

I’ve written about Judge James before here, and if you aren’t up to speed on Douglasville’s greatest champion and Founding Father then you really need to click through and read a bit. 
Go on… through and get up to speed.  I’ll still be here.

Judge James also had a love of music in his bones.   He was born in 1849… a singing teacher named Stephen James (1821-1872) and his wife….Martha Shipley.

Besides reading law James also attended the singing school of J.R. Turner and became what is described to be a tireless promoter of Sacred Harp singing in the Atlanta area.

I hear the crickets chirping.    I would imagine many readers might not know what the Scared Harp might be.  

Let me help…..

This website advises, Sacred Harp is a uniquely American tradition that brings communities together to sing four-part hymns and anthems…Technically, [the] style of singing is “shape note singing” because the musical notation uses heads in four distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading, but it is often called “Sacred Harp” singing because the books that most singers use today are called “The Sacred Harp”…The term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice – that is, the musical instrument you were given at birth…In 1844, “The Sacred Harp” was just one of more than 100 oblong hymn books published in the United States.  It has been continuously updated ever since.

This video is a great representation of shape note singing:

Joseph S. James was a shape note singer and composer.   He helped to organize the United Sacred Harp Musical Association in 1904. 

Between the years 1904 and 1911 he published five different works including the Revised Sacred Harp in 1911.  The revision added alto parts to most of the songs and restored several songs that had been deleted from the 1869-1870 version.  Unfortunately, the James’ revision ended up being challenged and our Judge James found himself defending himself in a lawsuit that he eventually lost.

You can read a little about the lawsuit here.

Of course the loss was a huge blow to Judge James, and in 1920 he wrote a pamphlet titled An Explanation of the Sacred Harp in order to defend his position regarding his version of the work.

It’s amazing to me Judge James had time to devote to shape note singing.  He was our first mayor, promoted the railroad through town, involved with our first cotton mill, as well as many other businesses and let’s not forget he had that law career as well.  

When Judge James passed from this Earth his memorial service in Atlanta attracted several hundred singers.  I can only imagine what it sounded like as they tried to honor the man who had been so devoted to shape note singing.   Judge James is buried in Douglasville Cemetery.

The Judge was given credit as a collaborator with S.M. Denson for the arrangements for the song Traveling and The Great Roll Call which is performed in the video below by singers at Mount Pisgah in Stroud, Alabama.


The soundtrack for the movie Cold Mountain is also a great resource for shape-note singing.  Many of the tracks are found on YouTube.

I feel certain my Uncle Homer and Judge James are still singing….perhaps they have even teamed up and are leading a band of angels!

A new documentary regarding The Sacred Harp and shape note singing will be released in March.  You can find out more about it here.

Have a great week and please share this column regarding Douglas County history with a friend or share with your Facebook friends. 

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