By Murray Simmons, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

first published in Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter Volume 7, #4, December 1991
used with permission of the author

He was just sitting there beside the road with his cap on his knee. He looked like a homemade mailbox some fanciful country artisan had put together with Grandpa on his mind, so that what should have been an easy day's work had turned into this, a labor of love for the passing public to see and marvel over -- Grandpa all over again, every detail in place, even down to the plaid collar buttoned tight about the neck and the shiny brass clasps on the overalls: something too fine for everyday use, so that it must adorn only the loveliest and most conspicuous place imaginable; and there he sat on the steep clay bluff of this remote stretch of road, monumental and profound among the yellowing hickories and sweet gums of a sun-struck September morning in Mississippi. Then, with a startling ear-to-ear grin, Grandpa revealed himself as flesh and blood: "trying to find Lossascoona Primitive Baptist Church? Just follow us," he said, indicating with the least motion of his head a pickup truck. I like to think that I saw a path opening out there on the hill, and that I saw the truck emerging from it, but I can't swear to it. Suddenly the truck was just there, full-sprung, leaving me with the dizzy feeling that somehow the trees had bent over for it like grass and reared back in its wake, all in that instant when I looked up at the sky to see how high the sun was getting. Grandpa stood up agile as a squirrel and swung his chair into the back of the truck and climbed in the cab with his friend, and off we went , a little caravan of two, John Merritt and I following behind, down a narrow, uninhabited road swaying with goldenrod, around curves and over hills, across a wooden bridge, until at last the truck veered and plowed into an opening in the wall of woods about coffin=wide. We trusted in the Lord and pounded in behind it, this time down a dirt road with grass growing thick between the ruts, bouncing along to the rhythm of "Rocky Road."

But whatever's going to happen to you in your life, whether to your sorrow or your elation, the moment the dust of your arriving settles, and you look about and see where you are, you know it's not going to happen here, not today; not on this last Sunday in September in Mississippi; not at Loosascoona Primitive Baptist, which has never known a drop of paint inside or out; not in these woods that have not seen the ugly glint of a blade in over fifty years/ Here, the edges of joy give way to a sweet melancholy, and the hard corners of despair are rounded with serenity. No matter how far you wander toward the extremes of your emotions, inevitably you find yourself back at the quiet center from which you started. The nearest interstate is an hour's drive away and you've left the closes crossroads hamlet a dozen mile behind; you don't have to tax your powers of imagination to fancy yourself far removed from the world's bustle and grind, for they're long vanished, and you try to think when last you saw even a house. The woods in the distance bend and overhead the trees you stand under tremble with a springwater-like brilliance of sunlight; out of what seems an almost primeval stillness a solitary acorn falls and you hear it strike ground, roll a ways, see it touch the stem of a black-eyed Susan -- which releases a single petal that drifts to the ground and rests with an impact you're certain you hear. One insect voice breaks into song and then in chorus the crickets and locusts raise a tune in defiance of winter blasts to come, just at the moment when a human voice inside the church gives the pitch and human throats shake out a tune nearly as ancient and just as defiant of a similar doom. and even if the sky were to suddenly darken and a fine drizzle of autumn rain begin to fall, you think with what utter tranquility you might sing in that church and watch the slow drip from the eaves, how beautiful would be the dull, wet gray of so pristine a place as this -- despite any preconceived notion you might have that Grace only descends out of a clear blue sky on sunlit days. Here on is absolved not only of doubt but of certainty as well.

The singing at Loosascoona is a dream come true, quite literally. Mr W.T. Wortham, president of the singing, dreamed of this place on night years ago. This church so dear to his childhood had long since fallen into disuse. but in his dream it was the center of activity again. His dream was not one of legend and memory, with mule-drawn wagons tied along the road and T-Model Fords parked under the trees; no, the automobiles parked about were present-day and people climbed the church steps in contemporary dress. He related the dream to a friend who had also grown up singing and hearing preaching in this church, and the friend said, "Let's make the dream a reality." And that's what they did. this was in 1968. you cannot escape the place without hearing the story. Far off from the beaten path as this little spot in Mississippi might seem to most Sacred Harpers, the stories that abound here can hold heir own with the best of stories anywhere. Hugh bill McGuire, a man unsurpassed among traditional Southern singers and with very few equals, used to stand in the square and sing with his great-grandfather, a man who belonged to the time when the first conventions were organized in this area well over a hundred years ago. Miss Bernice Embry smiles when she tells you her grandfather was not only the Elder who preached at M. Herman church, site of the Fourth of July singing in these parts, but helped fell the trees and plane the lumber that went into its making. Miss cleo Hawkins is famous, hereabouts, for having once told a photographer at a singing that he could put the thing with the flashbulb up, she didn't have her teeth in.

Comic stories. Beautiful stories. Stories of the glorious past. We take them to our hearts; with tears in our eyes we look back to the long ago and embrace it as the treasure it is. Yet we add to it our own cherished moments, when all the distinctions of age and region gave way to an effervescence of laughter all around; or more personally, when something unexpected and uncanny took hold of us while singing this music, and it seemed there was no containing such sudden and unbargained-for ecstasy. These stories get exchanged over the telephone, in letters, during breaks in the singing and at dinner on the ground. Some find their way into the pages of this newsletter.

Here's a story:mine.

Some Southerners grow up without ever feeling the need to doubt or question or be anything other than what they've always been. Others are afflicted early on with an affinity for the abstractions and neuroses of the modern age, and these fall into two categories: those who find severing their ties with the past a quick, easy chore and those who find it a protracted agony. This latter group I understand all too well. for life doesn't toss you a friendly rope to haul yourself out of the abyss you've come to imagine the south is; it lets down a strand of barbed wire, and you grab hold of it and climb an inch at a time, denying the pain and bits of hide, hair, and blood you leave along the way. The unlucky ones make it over the edge despite all; the fortunate ones never do.

At Loosascoona that day I was standing outside under the trees minding my own business; it was the dinner hour and the blessing had been said and people were lining up at the table with that leisurely, slow-motion grace that characterizes the little community of singing and is found almost nowhere else. About that time I saw coming toward me a simply dressed gray-haired woman with a gleam in her eye, a gleam my lifelong intimacy with these people told me meant something portentous. With all the forthrightness for which Primitive Baptists are justly famous, she jabbed me in the breastbone with here finger and said, "You believe the words you sing. I know you do. I could tell it when you stood up and sang 'Ninety-third Psalm.' "

I'm certain I turned pale. Those who never suspect the degree to which they expose themselves are always stunned to have the truth tossed in their faces, and to my complete horror I realized she was right. But it was a short-lived horror. Her words were like persistent feet stomping my fingers that still clung to some last ledge of skepticism and detachment. I knew it was finished and I let go.

It was a soft landing. My feet touched that familiar ground with an ease I never imagined possible. Behind the lady's head the cemetery lay in the distance awash in pure sunlight, the sandstone cairn of the Revolutionary War soldier, the learning old marbles and the squat new granite markers no longer poignant commemoratives of decaying flesh and dry bone but restored to their symbolic meaning: facing east toward Jerusalem, toward the morning of the resurrection, when the dead will rise head first to meet Christ in the air at the sounding of the Morning Trumpet.

So that's my story, and some may wonder why I bothered to tell it at all, may even regard it as a religious polemic with which Sacred Harp needn't be troubled. By way of apology for this subjective and possibly pointless tale, I can only plead the case of a great many people who often have the sinking feeling that their inherited concerns for redemption, for life and death and time and eternity, are being relegated to insignificance in ha haggle over whether the basses in "Northfield" should be brought in by turning on the ball of the foot or the heel. The technicalities of singing, fascinating as they are and with their boundless capacity to spark conversation, are an end in themselves to a good many. As none of us walks on water, it's no one's place to disparage. I merely ask a kind indulgence for those who see technicalities as no more than a perfunctory means toward an altogether specific and deeply rooted spiritual end, yet who would never dream of intruding their personal brand of salvation on folks busily working out their own.

"Grace, tis a charming sound," the tune runs, "harmonious to the ear..." Few, if any of us, would argue with that truth, regardless of whether we see it as a truth embedded in theology or a beautifully nebulous one. And certainly I needed a measure of Grace to help me face a very sobering truth awaiting me that day. For having survived human vagary for well over a century and endured one period of neglect already, Loosascoona is again threatened.

While every year more and more Southerners forsake the little community singings for the big conventions and the converts settle into a ticket season of favorite attractions North and South, here at Loosascoona, and at far-flung places just like it throughout the South, a last desperate warfare is being waged against dissolution. That I choose this particular place as a symbol of something indelibly pure and sacred and threatened, not only here but everywhere, stems from the sure knowledge that its strong walls can support the weight of any symbolic meaning I might wish to attach to them. Build in another century out of the trees of a then-unspoiled wilderness; the heartgrain of those ancient trees sacrificed to its making still naked to the eye and smooth to the touch; the head of every nail holding it together visible and a testimony of human faith and human devotion; every perfectly joined corner a tribute to the thru eye of the banished race that raised it -- it is a fit place for a remnant to gather and dream, even if it's a futile dream, a last dream.

"Thus far the Lord hath led me on, thus far His power prolongs my days..." The trees nod in the wind and the sunlit open spaces acquiesce, as do the wood in their eternal silence that take as their own anything the singers release to them through the open windows -- solace to a handful whose best efforts to bring in new singers have come to nothing, whose bread on the water seem never to return and always to get lost between the here and there.

I sit here and cast glances at the large number of listeners who, unlike many places, far outnumber the singers. They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first settlers, and once a year they abandon their lives elsewhere and return to hear the old songs sung, to spread dinner under the trees and partake of the grace this place offers in such rich abundance, to relish again the local brand of fried pies, which here are muscadine, not apple. I look over the heads of the singers and meet their eyes and dream that one day some tune raised here will reverberate with the power of the Old Testament trumpet, and as at Jericho that invisible wall separating the singers and listeners will crumble. But it never does, and what if I think I see on those intensely listening, seeing, feeling faces is the agonizing of, if not an entire region, at least a portion of it:
"..how is it that we let this happen? There was a time when the rigors of frontier living gave way to a new ease, and it seemed life had never been so sweet, and there was that delicious luxury of knowing that wherever you went, you could always come back and find life unchanged and unchanging, the old rhythms unperturbed, the old slow grace of living just as it used to be. But somehow, while we dallied with the world, the old amenities began to erode, and now they're vanished, or nearly vanished, and the little that remains slips through the fingers in the very act of trying to hold it, and how is it that we let this happen? But it's too late, too late.."

So one looks inside the square then, for surety; and the weight of a tradition settles on the shoulders of those with the strength yet to bear it. The young look to the old and what they see in those faces is neither hope nor despair but the quiet determination of those who have put their hand to the plow nd never once looked back, who are here to see a thing through to the end, whatever that end might be -- a tale justly to be told, a strength justly to be praised, and no recounting of past triumphs need ever eclipse such courage as this. A smile lights old eyes and it says, "As long as there is life and movement in these limbs, I will be here, for you." And blasted by such love what is there for the young to do? Open our book. Open our mouth. Maybe try opening something else as well: "Do not I love thee, O my Lord? Behold my heart and see."

Out of the lengthening afternoon shadows, at the very heart of a tiny wooden church so pure in its essence, a small thing rises into the air and hold. It hangs there like a benediction. Then it begins a slow descent, and at the moment it falls level with your eyes it seems, like the opening of a flower and the flight of a deer, the very distillation of everything consummate with grace -- a human hand. It rises and falls, staving off dissolution, fanning a tiny flame, spreading undulations of Grace, beating time to an old rhythm of life that, for today, still abides.