Celestial Fruit on Earthly Ground:
Singing at Antioch

by Steven Levine

first posted to fasola mailing list, April 14 1994
used with permission of the author

I had been preparing for ten years for the singing at the Antioch Baptist Church in Ider Alabama that I attended last weekend. I didn't know that this is what I had been doing. I thought I had been singing Sacred Harp, learning the shapes, adopting some aspects of the style (as filtered through Northern practitioners and gleaned from visiting Southerners), and becoming friends with some very fine folks who enjoy the music. I had thought, I suppose, that singing Sacred Harp was an end in itself: A folk music that felt good to sing, and a fulfilling way of spending time with other people. To tell the truth, this would have been enough. This was plenty.

It was more than plenty. I have often felt the physical pleasure of locking in on harmony with other singers, and feeling the bones in my head ring. I have been transported by the poetry of the hymns wedded to the soaring music. I have even taken what you might call spiritual comfort from the music and community of the Sacred Harp groups I sing with in Boston and Minneapolis.

Keith and Jenny Willard and sundry other singing friends convinced me to go to Alabama, to the annual singing of the church whose forty families include many members of the Wootten clan. It was there, for me, that the Sacred Harp was so very much more than an end in itself; where it became, uncompromisingly, the means to an end. Something happened over the course of the day that defies the rational part of my temperament and upbringing. I am struggling to understand and to communicate what that something was. What made the Antioch singing special and uplifting and categorically different from a Northern singing? I don't rightly know, but I can say for certain is that it was not raised sixths.

I praise the circumstances of my unknowing decade-long apprenticeship. Because I know most of the music well enough to sing closed-book, I was free from the distractions of reading notes and words and able to watch and listen and communicate by eye with the singers around me. I am completely comfortable in the hollow square; it is home, even in the valley between Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. I am secure enough in my leading that I can stand in the middle of the square and relax into the sensation of being physically supported and cushioned by the singing that surrounds me. The familiar setting and traditions gave me a solid base from which to appreciate what was not familiar.

What was not familiar? Me. My own response to the day was the least familiar part of all. Shortly after dinner, when my voice was surprising me with unprecedented strength and stamina, I started to cry. I started to cry just as I have seen others do -- with a combination of joy and passion and pain and delight and grief. Two men stood up to lead a song that had been a favorite of their father's, and involuntary warm tears welled in my eyes. These tears did not sting.

I was stabbed to the heart when a young woman led a song for her late father, a song from the notebook of songs they use at the Antioch Baptist Church to supplement the Sacred Harp. The song was a gospel song I do not know (or specifically remember) with the familiar theme of father's-in-heaven. We sang the song with straightforward sincerity; there was not the slightest trace of a maudlin or mawkish sensibility. Is this innocence? I don't think that's quite the right description. Is emotional directness the same as innocence? Is the ability to shed cynicism the same as innocence?

I search the events of the day for other clues to my state of mind. Maybe geography is important: I left late winter in Minnesota and arrived at early Spring in Alabama, with its explosion of blossoms and greenery and the first warm breezes I've felt in seven months. Maybe the simple setting of a small, rectangular church building eliminates the distractions of the more ornamented, cathedral-like large churches of the North. I am convinced that the abundant, rich food we ate was significant: the platter upon platter of fried chicken and sliced ham and custard pie and cole slaw and barbecue and macaroni and cheese and bread and salad and banana pudding. I note that the serious testifying and emotional elation begins in earnest only after dinner.

We can't create singings that feel precisely like this in the North. We can reproduce every nuance of tone and intonation. We can sing of bane and blessing with pain and pleasure. We can even learn to make fried apple pie and twelve varieties of deviled egg to bring to dinner on the grounds. But I do not believe that we can lose our emotional self-consciousness. I don't think we can sing together as do folks who, in addition to singing Sacred Harp, worship together and share a religious worldview.

But still, the singing at Antioch brought me to a level of emotional release that is priceless and rare in my life. As often happens after a good singing, one or two particular hymns remain in my head for days and days -- driving me crazy and comforting me at the same time. The voices that have been singing in my head since Sunday afternoon are Southern voices this time. What is probably more significant than I am willing to admit is the line that I keep hearing: How happy every child of grace.