Alabama Folkways Articles

  April, 1995


by Henry Willett

With major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and additional funding from the Lila Wallace-Readers' Digest Fund and the Anton Haardt Foundation, the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is conducting a major project exploring and celebrating Alabama's various sacred music traditions. The project will culminate in a two-day celebration (produced in cooperation with the Gadsden Cultural Arts Center) of a number of the state's most enduring music traditions. That celebration will take place on May 13-14, 1995 at the Gadsden Ampitheatre.

"In the Spirit: Alabama's Sacred Music Traditions" will feature artists from throughout the state showcasing the depth and variety of Alabama's traditional sacred music -- from Sacred Harp, gospel quartets, bluegrass gospel, hymn singing and Christian Harmony to gospel choruses and choirs, psalm singing and country gospel.

Also included in the multi-faceted project are a compact disc anthology, produced by Joyce Cauthen and the Alabama Folklife Association, and the publication of a book, edited by Henry Willett, with essays by Willett, Willie Collins, Joyce Cauthen, Buell Cobb, Jo Dan Boyd, Anne Kimzey, Charles Wolfe, Fred Fussell, Doug Seroff, Jack Bernhardt and Erin Kellen. Both the CD and book are scheduled to be released in early May.

For some 200 years, communities and congregations from Athens to Mobile have created, nurtured and sustained a variety of sturdy and joyful sacred music traditions of immense beauty and power. Folklorists and ethnomusicologists have long recognized Alabama's sacred music traditions as among the state's most remarkable cultural jewels.

Alabama's settlement in the early nineteenth century followed closely the spread of religious revivalism, known as the Great Revival or Second Great Awakening, that swept across the South in that period. The movement, initiated by Tennessee preacher James McGready's fiery sermons on a second Pentecost, brought to Alabama, through tent meeting services, evangelical Protestantism, particularly among Baptists and Methodists.

This religious fervor renewed interest in sacred song. Dozens of songbooks, such as Kentucky Harmony Union Harmony and Southern Harmony , were published, and found widespread popularity at religious gatherings throughout the state. The sacred music repertoire of this period (1800-1850) was comprised mainly of psalms, hymns and spirituals. The second half of the century (1850-1900) saw the spread of shape-note singing, particularly from The Sacred Harp, across Alabama. The twentieth century brought the explosion of gospel music, in its many forms, with Alabamians playing major roles in the development of those musical styles.

Antebellum Alabamians sang the psalms and hymns of sixteenth and seventeenth century British composers and eighteenth and nineteenth century American composers. This period also witnessed the development of African-American spirituals.

Events of history and culture combined to produce a unique musical tradition in Selma, an African-American congregation preserving a music tradition with direct links to the psalmody of sixteenth century Scotland.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church maintains a 400 year-old music tradition, holding to the belief, based upon Biblical directive, that unaccompanied singing of texts from the Book of Psalms is the only proper way to sing God's praise. According to the church Synod "musical praise employs God's word only, thus making use of the divinely inspired Book of Psalms of the Bible. In keeping with the New Testament church's directive for heart worship, we sing without the aid of musical instruments."

This small Presbyterian sect's origins date to the sixteenth century claiming Protestant Reformation leaders Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox as spiritual fathers. Often called "Covenanters" (referring to the popular name of those who resisted the establishment of an official state church in seventeenth century Scotland) most of the early church leaders were slain or driven away during the "killing times," a campaign launched by James I, finally ending in 1688. Descendants made their way across the Atlantic establishing the first Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America in 1743.

The origin of Selma's African-American congregation dates to the years following the Civil War when a group of Illinois Covenanters, long known for their opposition to slavery, defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act and participation in Underground Railroad activities, came to Selma to build a mission for Freedmen. The result was the establishment of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Selma, an African-American congregation which has, for over 120 years, preserved an ancient Scottish psalm-singing tradition.

Other Alabama congregations have preserved sacred music traditions with origins in the religious music of Africa. Spirituals, first recognized in the early nineteenth century, retain African emphases on vocal embellishment, strong rhythmic qualities, hand-clapping percussion, improvisation and call-and response.

An antecedent to spirituals, "moaning," is regularly practiced in a number of African-American churches in Alabama. According to ethnomusicologist Willie Collins, "moaning" is "a sacred chant of one sentence, repeated two or three times. . . expressed a cappella during prayer, devotion or the preacher's sermon. Moans are melodically embellished with melismas, having a unison and heterophonic tune, and are usually performed in a slow, sustained manner." During Sunday devotional service at Spring Hill Baptist Church in Macon County's Cotton Valley, or at any one of scores of other churches across Alabama, the moving and plaintive sound of moaning can be heard. Moaning is often a part of, or interspersed with, the lined-out singing of "Dr. Watts" hymns.

"Lining out," more than likely evolving as a practical solution to a lack of hymn books and literacy in both white and black churches, is where a song leader sings or reads two lines of a hymn, the congregation then repeating the lines in song. "Dr.Watts" refers specifically to the English composer Isaac Watts; though, in fact, refers to any hymns sung in that particular style.

Typically written to be sung in simple meter (common meter, long meter, short meter, etc.), Alabama's African-American "Dr. Watts" adherents sing the hymns with abundant melismatic adornment, counter©rhythm and improvised harmony. The effect is successive waves of vocalization climbing one over the other. Hymn raiser Luella Hatcher of Mt. Mariah Primitive Baptist Church in Orrville feels that the singing of "Dr. Watts" hymns helps to "push the devil out."

A very different style of hymn singing is found in those Sacred Harp singings of which some 300 occur in Alabama every year. Taking its name from the songbook The Sacred Harp , first published in Hamilton, Georgia, in 1844, this style of singing predates the actual publication of the book. By the eighteenth century religious songbooks were commonly employing shape-notes to indicate the sounds on the then-popular English musical scale fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa. From the fuguing tunes of William Billings to the popular melodies of Jeremiah Ingalls, religious songs found widespread circulation in shape-note hymn books such as Southern Harmony and Social Harp . It was in this setting that The Sacred Harp made its appearance in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century.

Taught by singing school masters to first sing the notes and then the lyrics, that practice remains to this day a defining characteristic of this a cappella tradition. Another defining characteristic is the practice of forming "the square"; basses, tenors, trebles and altos all facing one another.

Typically associated with white culture in the Deep South, southeast Alabama has, nevertheless, enjoyed a vibrant African American Sacred Harp tradition for well over a century. Alabama slaves might have sung Sacred Harp with whites as early as the 1850s, establishing segregated singings and conventions after the Civil War.

The exceptional durability of Alabama's Sacred Harp tradition is no doubt the result of the strong dedication of a number of extended families; the Woottens of north Alabama's Sand Mountain and the Jacksons of southeast Alabama's Wiregrass region who have taken on the responsibility of keepers of this cultural tradition.

Similarly, the Deason family, of Bibb and Tuscaloosa Counties, has played a key role in the nurturing of another important Alabama shape-note tradition, Christian Harmony. First published by William Walker, who earlier had published the four-shape Southern Harmony Christian Harmony , published in 1866, employed the "modern" seven character note system do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. It also contained a number of newer, more contemporary compositions.

There was a time when the two traditions competed for followers, and, in the end, The Sacred Harpwon many more supporters. But, as witnessed in the annual Capitol City ShapeªNote Singing, where both four-shape and seven-shape songs are sung, there are now a number of singers who participate in and support Sacred Harp singings and Christian Harmony singings.

While the early twentieth century brought the "Golden Age" of Sacred Harp singing in Alabama, it also brought a new style of sacred music; gospel.

The roots of gospel music can be traced to the emergence of camp meeting songs, revival music, and the incorporation of various styles of secular popular music in the religious songbooks of increasingly sophisticated music publishers. The James D. Vaughan Publishing Company, founded in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, in 1903, issued one or two new paperback songbooks a year, and, by 1912, was averaging sales of nearly 100,000 books annually.

These books, printed in seven-shape notation, contained mostly new material with about 25 percent of the pages reserved for standards and old favorites. To help promote and market the books, Vaughan created a music institute in Lawrenceburg, where dozens of Vaughan quartets were trained and then sent out to Alabama and across the South to organize singing conventions, to teach singing schools, and, of course, to sell songbooks. Vaughan soon had competitors, most notably from the Dallas-based Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company, with its theme song "Give the World A Smile Each Day."

The direct result of the publishing activity of Vaughan, Stamps-Baxter and others are the dozens of community gospel singing conventions, both white and black, found throughout Alabama. The indirect result is the profound impact on the development of a whole variety of gospel styles.

C.A. Tindley, considered by music historians to be the true "father" of African-American gospel, was composing gospel songs during the first decade of the twentieth century; but, it was Georgian Thomas A. Dorsey, composer of such standards as "There Will Be Peace In The Valley," who became the giant of black gospel in the 1930s.

A certain combustion of sacred music styles, fueled by African-American migration from Black Belt tenant farms to the mining and mill towns of Birmingham gave birth to a unique gospel sound. The development of Jefferson County's a cappella gospel quartet singing tradition, beginning in the first quarter of the twentieth century, gave rise to the "Birmingham sound," an important and enduring contribution to American gospel music.

Combining the rich harmonies of the various university jubilee singing groups (Fisk, Hampton, Tuskegee) with the style of Vaughan quartets and elements of jazz and ragtime, the Jefferson County quartets discovered a vital new sound characterized by precise, snappy timing and harmonies, a preaching style of lead singing, the trading off of voice parts and a distinctive, percussive "pumping" bass.

Early quartets; the Foster Singers, the Dunham Jubilee Singers, the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Heavenly Gospel Singers and the Sterling Jubilees, under the tutelage of extraordinarily talented quartet trainers such as Son Dunham and Charles Bridges, set a standard of excellence for other quartets to follow.

Through recordings, radio programs and live performances, the"Birmingham sound" was exported to other cities, further influencing other singers and performers. And just as the early quartets had borrowed from popular, secular music styles, popular performers borrowed from the gospel quartets. The sounds of the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Platters, Sam Cooke, the Temptations, and Boyz II Men are all legacies of the "Birmingham sound."

A number of Birmingham's older gospel quartets are still active. The Sterling Jubilees, the Four Eagles and other groups have maintained the tradition's standards of excellence while inspiring younger groups, like the Birmingham Sunlights, who are bringing fresh innovations to the music while remaining true to the tradition's heritage.

The small town of St. Stephens, in southwest Alabama, has, in recent years, earned a reputation as the center for the promotion of a different kind of gospel sound; bluegrass gospel. Bluegrass, as a popular musical form, incorporates Southern string band music with elements of jazz, blues and gospel. Its vocal style is closely related to the gospel quartet style.

Since Bill Monroe first created bluegrass music in the early 1940s, gospel has been a part of its core repertoire. The Sullivan Family of Washington County, in their dedication to an exclusively gospel repertoire, have earned the unofficial title "First Family of Bluegrass Gospel Music."

A significant portion of the Sullivans' repertoire is drawn from the gospel compositions of the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira, from the Sand Mountain town of Henagar. This country brotherªduet was immensely popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and a number of their songs have become bluegrass gospel standards.

Other bluegrass gospel bands, the Maharreys and Jerry and Tammy Sullivan (both with connections to the Sullivan Family Band) also make the St. Stephens area of Washington County home. All three bands have deep ties to the Holiness-Pentecostal faith. With its relatively unstructured, emotional atmosphere, the Holiness Church accepts a variety of music styles, and warmly embraces the bluegrass gospel of the Sullivans and Maharreys.

Bluegrass gospel adds one more sound to the polyphony of sacred sounds which echo across Alabama: the sound of Luella Hatcher raising a "Dr. Watts" hymn, "A Charge to Keep I Have," at Orrville's Mt. Mariah Primitive Baptist Church; the sound of Japheth Jackson coming to the center of "the square" at the County Line Church in Slocomb, or of Terry Wootten doing the same thing at Antioch Baptist Church in Ider, calling out "page 82," and launching into "Bound for Canaan," a Sacred Harp favorite; the sound of Deacon Tim Menefee of Macon County's Spring Hill Church quietly moaning "Uphill journey but I'm on my way;" the sound of Ernest Phillips as he leads off the monthly meeting of the Lee County Gospel Singing Convention at the Auburn Recreation Center; the sound of John Alexander's Sterling Jubilee Singers performing "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away" at the quartet's 65th anniversary concert at the Bessemer City auditorium; the sound of song leader Gregory Woodson as he leads Selma's Covenanters i the singing of Psalm 95, "O Come and to Jehovah sing...." With voices raised, these individuals, and countless others, serve as the keepers of our cultural heritage. In their sacred sounds is the legacy of the Alabama experience.