Notes 60.1 (2003) 134-136
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The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook. Edited by Kiri Miller. Carrollton, GA: The Sacred Harp Museum, 2002. [xiv, 359 p. ISBN 1-887617-13-2. $25 (pbk.).] Illustrations, index of names.
The Sacred Harp tradition is known to librarians and scholars as the chief surviving repository of a repertory and performance practice that originated in eighteenth-century American singing schools and that later incorporated folk melodies and camp-meeting hymns in diverse musical styles. That it is known at all in academic circles is largely due to the writings of George Pullen Jackson and others, who characterize the Sacred Harp as a "lost tonal tribe," possessing a "harmonic complex of singular charm" (both quotations from "The Fa-Sol-La Folk," Musical Courier 93 : 6-7, 10) and embodying the values of an earlier, simpler time. In his recent study, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), John Bealle exposes this outsider's view of Sacred Harp as a "cultural object," exploited by local color writers (Carl Carmer) and agrarian ideologues (Donald Davidson), as well as by some folklorists and music historians (pp. 84-131).
Bealle contrasts this writing tradition with an insider's view rarely heard or seen by those not involved in the tradition. In their official reports or "minutes," traditional singers generally record only the names of songleaders at each session, with the page numbers of the songs they lead. Only rarely does the insider's writing expand into affective description or ideological exhortation. Among the noteworthy exceptions discussed by Bealle is Earl V. Thurman's centennial history of the Chattahoochee Convention, written in 1952 and now published for the first time as the centerpiece for a sesquicentennial publication. The editor, Kiri Miller, is a doctoral student in ethnomusicology at Harvard; her masters thesis, completed at the University of Chicago in 2000, was entitled "'To Die No More': Sacred Harp Memorial Lessons and the Transmission of Tradition."
This book is neither an introduction to the Sacred Harp singing tradition nor an historical narrative of that tradition's oldest institution, founded in western Georgia in 1852 and convening annually in August since that year. Miller's preface makes it clear that the impetus and basic shape of the book came from the Georgia singers who participate in the convention, and who have long been aware of Thurman's manuscript and of the unusually copious surviving records of its history, still proudly displayed at annual sessions. This gives the project a somewhat archival emphasis, with ethnomusicological insights and discussions confined to the editor's twenty-four page introduction. Miller states that the book is "not meant to serve as an introduction to [Sacred Harp] music for absolute beginners" (p. 6). Yet, the editor asserts, music in the book (even if not in the sonic or notated form) reflects the social circumstances that create and support the sounds, and illustrates Miller's contention that "the ways in which singers write and talk about Sacred Harp do not passively reflect their attitudes about the music but actively contribute to the ways they sing, think, and feel" (p. 7).
Though many of the documents seem humdrum to the outsider, to the lover of sacred song they resonate with multiple themes. These include the 1866 schism in [End Page 134] the Southern Musical Convention over the issue of notational systems (which, in turn, strengthened the Chattahoochee's position among the conservatives who retained The Sacred Harp and its four-shape notation [Philadelphia: T. K. Collins, 1844; reprint, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1993]); the changing role of women (recognized as members and occasionally songleaders from the start, but only gradually increasing their role since the 1880s); the perennial prominence of the singing convention as a setting for courtship leading to marriage between members of singing families; the occasional hostility of religious leaders toward nondenominational musical activities that often occupied church buildings; and the periodical ebb and flow of interest and...