Echoes From Sand Mountain

by Stephen Parker

first published in Prairie Harmony Newsletter, Volume 2, #3, July 1991
used by permission of author

I could feel my heart suddenly thumping in anticipation. The voice of the tenor leader slid up and down the scale to pitch (artificial means of pitching are unknown here) and in a moment the room rang with fa-so-la. I looked up feeling the thumping from within and the buzzing of my breast bone from without. The small, spare chapel in the Antioch Baptist church in Ider, Alabama held about a hundred and a half singers. Altarless simplicity meant hard pews and a single small picture of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. The last chord of the preceding hymn meant I had to rise and speak to lead: "5-6-9, bottom!" Jeff Sheppard's wry smile caught my eye warmly and buoyed me on my shaky knees as my hand moved all by itself to start the singing of the notes.

The center of the hollow square is a sacred space and not just by definition of some people's religious orientation. As it is the focus of the power of shape note singing, of all the bonds that arise and ring in this vocalization most would say lies just this side of a shriek of grief and glory, so it is also the center of the drum circle, the flames of a sacrificial fire altar--the empowering place where any people of any place and time and practice sit facing one another with focussed hearts full of love that hunger to pour out their love into voice. It is a place where power is given, never taken--shared. The children, the uncertain beginners, guests and those who thought they could just sit and listen all are given their invitation to stand here and receive the gift of this place.

"Beneath the sacred throne of God I saw a river rise. . ." The sung words strike my body and stun enough that I lose the beat. But it just goes along, the front bench singers beating it out, some rocking back and forth. The old men, beautiful, are red-faced and weeping with devotion--grief and joy and love that pours out of them like the rain falling over the white dogwoods outside. I realize that I am not needed here; I am wanted, welcomed, empowered, invaded. My skin's flimsy boundary cannot resist the solvent of this sound. The music is so insistent, so thick here I can only float on it, let it carry me, let it dissolve my arrogance, intoxicate me and send me back to my seat humbled and trembling.

"Lunch on the grounds" has the warm ambience of all the church picnics I remember dimly as a four year old from Wilsonville, Nebraska. The more temperate South allows for permanent, roofed concrete banquet tables, thirty or fifty feet long. And within ten minutes' time barely a square foot of grey space shows between the tupperware and corningware, the stoneware and porcelain, the glass plates and old plastic ice cream buckets full of hospitality. The curtains of foil and waxed paper are drawn back from a feast that the inexperienced might fear would raise the danger of sleep. But this singing is hard enough to earn its place as exercise and as we work at refreshment on fried okra and pecan crusted sweet potato pie, ham and roast beef and chicken for the carnivores, on the exquisite apple cake its maker crowed about, the hosts in Baptist Sunday best slowly do the work of welcome, making sure each new face is greeted, their journey appreciated, something of them known and the beauty of this place and time and tradition shared.

There is an intimacy here sidestepping chilly cracks about Yankees that is best summarized by Richard Delong of Carrollton, Georgia: "Sometimes you may not know who's on the list, but if they're a Sacred Harp singer or the friend of a Sacred Harp singer you know they're alright people."

Back in for the afternoon, I am invited into the front row of the bass section, sitting next to Charles from Texas who shares with me the same voice--range, timbre, and taste for high and low options. It is our second full day of this singing at full voice and volume and neither of us feels the customary hoarse constriction. I have not had a single lozenge the whole weekend--pure spirit must have taken over because if I'd been singing my voice I'd long ago have croaked down to a whisper.

To our left the altos' unearthly wail is met, facing, by the trebles' ringing hoot and the tenors' strong lead at the right hand. Up and down the arms, metronomic, are beating out the measure. A slight and wiry man with sharp, bright eyes looked from his greying hair to be in his seventies. "I've been singing Sacred Harp for eighty-two years. My Daddy was a singing teacher." We talked for several minutes at the break. After a while his name is called and he steps into the hollow square without a book and pitches up No. 186, Daniel Read's "Sherburne". I see by his lead that he is setting a blistering pace and it is enough into the day that all are warm and sparkling and ready. "As shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground . . ." With the words Barret Ashley began to bounce, fiercely conducting the fugue with all his youthful arms back and forth, bringing in each part with the deftness of flames, inviting us to combustion.

After the first several hymns of the afternoon comes the memorial lesson where we remember singers who have died in the preceding year and those who are sick or homebound. The custom carries one of the great aspects of this hymnody. Moderns forget the proximity of death to our forbears and this music, if it has anything, is full of awareness and readiness for death and grief. It proves a potent antidote to the studied ignorance of modern life with its habit of marginalizing all suffering. The Divine, we are told by many traditions, is good; well He or She or However You See It is also "bad" since "It" is All and more. The restricted perspective of human experience needs help in making a whole of this knowledge, in making it "holy". We need help with our grief, with getting it out, with helping it become meaningful, with seeing in it our wounds and the seeds of our liberation. This music opens the wound with beauty, binds it with community and heals it, paradoxically, with an open voice, with singing that knows how seeds are planted in the wounded earth. Grief in this tradition becomes transformed to nurture, in the words of Trungpa, "the manure of experience on the field of enlightenment."

I suspect this beauty of singing Sacred Harp is what draws such disparate sorts of people to it. It is a healing we can sense and feel and, really, nothing more need be said about it. (According to some, I have probably said quite enough already.) Some will object to this characterization as being too Christian. It is not. It is Christian enough for those who are Christian, Buddhist enough for the Buddhist, Cherokee enough for the Cherokee--it is a need for humans in relationship to the larger world regardless of one's particular personal metaphors. The wholeness is there and works its wonder nonetheless.

At the day's end our hosts, the Woottens, gather around to thank us for coming and watch in perhaps more customary amusement at our strangeness as we change our clothes to travel kit, shoot final pictures, cram the luggage carriers and ourselves into the van for our twenty hour return. Later in the van the thirteen of us who undertook this journey do not sleep. In the chatter and songs and jokes that continually erupt from the vibrant light we all carry, the stories slowly arise. We were not really friends before this. We begin to speak of what a risk this was and how much each of us had worried about how hard it could be to spend 45 hours in a van over a weekend with thirteen people we'd never been with for more than a few hours at a time. ,p> Driving into the night towards Nashville, I take the role of Pa and Mary Ann at co-pilot becomes Ma with our unruly eleven. Soul, R&B, music hall songs, all take their turns, enriched by our other singing. Closer to dawn we turn terminally punchy; Ma and I get the giggles over and over. In Wisconsin we all become nuns--"Sister Mary Pa", "Sister Mary Ma", "Sister Mary Captain Keith, Beatified" (beatified for having driven the first twelve hours straight)--and on and on. And more hymns after daybreak.

The circle is broken in Rochester as we drop John and Collette. Entering ordinary time again, it is now the ordinary chore of delivering each one home from another weekend trip. And yet, three weeks later, as we gather at St. Clement's for our monthly local singing, we have changed. There is more brass in the sound. I pitched alone for the first time. My eyes met Ma's and we both lost it again in giggles. Somehow we are much older friends. We have grieved together, and sung it through. We now carry among us a new community, blessed by the warm embrace of our friends to the south. Is this Canaan?