Sacred Harp music is no stranger to southern Georgia. Its haunting melodies and messages have echoed through the generations bringing tears of joy and sorrow to countless singers. Unfortunately, the decades have taken their toll on this beloved tradition in this region. Where once singings were numerous, loud, and vibrant, now only a few remain. Though small in number, these singings still possess the same passion that any large singing could muster up.
The annual singing held at Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist church is one of the few singings that remains active in southwest Georgia. This singing is held on the second fifth Sunday of the year. Set back on a country road several miles out of the small town of Sylvester, this singing is off the beaten path and has been forgotten by many. For me, the singing at Mount Pisgah is very special. It is my “homecoming” singing. It was several years ago at this location where I attended my first all day Sacred Harp singing.
This year’s singing was held on April 29. The official time to commence was set at 10:30 though it was almost 10:45 before we started. Lauren Harrison once told me the farther south, the later the singing starts. Singers are arranged in the traditional hollow square. The exception is that no altos fill their spot below the pulpit. While we pray for this section to be filled, we don’t stress. After all—much of the original music in The Sacred Harp was written without alto lines anyways.
The singing was called to order by Louis Hughes Jr. leading “Tribulation” (p. 29b) and “Ogletree” (p. 138b). The opening prayer was offered myself (Trent Peachey). Singers were called to the square by Tim Meeks who served as secretary for the day. It is traditional at this singing to lead two tunes during a lesson. By the time we were a few tunes into the singing, it was clear that even though small in number, the spirit of Sacred Harp was alive and well within this group. Oscar McGuire led “Irwinton” (p. 229). The words of this song do a good job of describing the singers at Mount Pisgah: though small in number, a poor, despised company, these children of the King sing loudly and with joy. By the time lunch had arrived, we had sung through our list of leaders. This stands in contrast to some larger singings when you may each person may only lead one song all day.
Lunch was the usual dinner on the ground, with each cook proudly bringing their contributions to the spread. If anybody left hungry it was because of their own negligence and certainly no fault of the cooks. Adding to the good food were the joys of catching up with friends. Topped off with a piece of delicious caramel cake, the lunch hour was soon over.
The afternoon session was called back to order by Louis Hughes, Jr. This session was very interesting to me as a relative newcomer to Sacred Harp. The singers shared memories of times past and how they used to drive all over the states of Georgia and Alabama to attend singings. George Ann Corbin shared memories of singers coming down from Atlanta to teach singing schools and staying at her parents’ house when she was a little girl. Before leading us in “My Shepherd Guides” (p. 490), Lamar Robinson encouraged us to sing the music not only for its pleasing sound, but to pay attention to the message of the songs and to allow them to speak to us. For me this is the greatest appeal of singings in our area. Many of the singers in southern Georgia are descendents of generation of Sacred Harp singers. Their families and lives are woven into the very core of this music. Such individuals are often singing not only for the sake of the music, but for the message. Singing in such company, I sometimes almost feel as if I could catch a glimpse of the beliefs of the composers of this music.
Our lack of alto and small numbers certainly didn’t keep us from the fuging tunes in the afternoon. We enjoy trying out numbers like “Present Joys” (p. 318), “Homeward Bound” (p. 373), and even “Easter Anthem” (p. 236). Tim Meeks—our lone treble—made his presence known on “Eternal Day” (p. 383). In closing we sang Raymond Hamrick’s “Christian’s Farewell” (p. 347) and took the parting hand, hoping and trusting that we would once more gather to sing these tunes that have stood the test of time.