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  • "Like Cords Around My Heart":Sacred Harp Memorial Lessons and the Transmission of Tradition
  • Kiri Miller (bio)

My Christian friends, in bonds of love,Whose hearts in sweetest union join,Your friendship's like a drawing band,Yet we must take the parting hand.Your company's sweet, your union dear,Your words delightful to my ear;Yet when I see that we must partYou draw like cords around my heart.

("Parting Hand," 62)1

After spending all day Saturday and most of Sunday morning engaged in full-voiced, energetic singing, the two hundred fifty people gathered for the 2009 Midwest Sacred Harp Convention grew quiet for the memorial lesson. The three members of the memorial committee stepped to the center of the hollow square of singers, carrying two lists of names: the deceased list, representing Sacred Harp singers, friends, and family members who had died in the past year; and the list of "the sick and shut-in," people too infirm to attend the convention. The singing room, an elaborately painted performance hall on the University of Chicago campus, had been ringing with sound all weekend; now even its bright Progressive Era murals seemed momentarily subdued. Bob Meek, a singer from Kentucky, spoke on behalf of the deceased:

I'd like to tell you a story, and it's about Chicago. Many years ago, when I had hair—and it wasn't the Midwest Convention; it was at the Anniversary Singing in January. I came up [from the South], and it was at the Irish-American hall, the heritage hall, and I was singing somewhere in the back row. And I looked up and saw—literally saw—a feathered angel sitting right across over the treble section looking down. Now, before you think I'm nuts: the Polish-American Christmas pageant was next door [laughter] in its full regalia with feathered angels, so one of the guys came over to see what was going on. All I know is I saw angels. So the only thing that I could think of when I got home, only in Chicago you would have a Polish-American angel looking over Southern-American music in an Irish-American hall.

And it brought to me the first Bible verse I will read, which is, "And after these things, I looked and, behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and people and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cried out with a loud voice." Now, who sings with a loud voice? I don't know. These might be Sacred Harp singers.

A memorial lesson is something that brings back sad memories and something that brings back happy memories. It's something that brings back this idea that one string from this Sacred Harp has been removed, and it's no longer with us. And because that string is gone, we miss them. And we wish they were here, because Sacred Harp has taught me one thing, and that is fellowship. I have listened to a lot of memorial lessons; one from Richard [DeLong] on a tape, and he would rattle off name after name after name of all these people that came and helped him to be where he is today. Everybody that stands here before you has somebody that helped you get here, and we have a tendency to forget. So this memorial lesson is simply an idea that this is our feeble attempt to honor those that have helped us along the way.2

The Sacred Harp is a non-denominational American shape-note tunebook first published in 1844 and most recently revised in 1991 (McGraw 1991).3 It contains over 500 four-part unaccompanied songs set to mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christian texts. Sacred Harp singers sit in a hollow-square formation with one voice part to a side and take turns standing in the middle to lead songs from the tunebook (see Figure 1 below).

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Figure 1.

The Hollow Square

The musical notation in the tunebook employs four...

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