“Oh, What a Happy Time”: The NEA National Heritage Fellows Concert in Washington D.C.

What are your hobbies? What are you passionate about? I bet most of you will say sports, reading, or cooking, right? Well, for me and many others, music is a passion—but not just any music: Sacred Harp singing. This tradition has been part of my life and in my family for many years—at least six generations. Others may be the only member of their family to participate. But together we are still one group from all over the world keeping a tradition alive. Whether born into it, or just joining after having heard about it from a friend, we keep fellowship with friends and create a joyful noise together for ourselves and to the Lord.

Cheyenne Ivey with her uncle David Ivey, 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow, after the awards ceremony at the Library of Congress.

My uncle, David Ivey is a huge supporter of this tradition; this is why twenty-two of us made our way to Washington D.C. for the National Endowment of the Arts National Heritage Fellows concert in late September. He and eight others received an award in recognition for their work in preserving America’s traditions and crafts, inspiring old and young alike with their diverse art forms. Me and my dad, Rod Ivey, along with cousins Shane and Richard, met up with Uncle David and Aunt Karen on Wednesday September 16 to see the winners receive their awards in the Library of Congress. A few of the other singers met us there as well. Afterward, we went to a banquet with the fellow winners and their friends and family. It was an extravagant meal with fancy place settings, elegant glassware, and good food. After enjoying speeches, great conversation, and wonderful entertainment, we headed back to the Embassy Inn and Suites to get some much-needed rest. Most of us had been awake since 4 am for our flight that morning.

Thursday was our day to rest and tour the historical monuments and memorials. Dad, Shane, Richard, and I walked through the National Mall. Although we didn’t get to see all the memorials, we visited quite a few. We saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a long granite wall stretched out with names of the soldiers that were killed during this war. Seeing so many names was extremely emotional. Some visitors had left things such as letters or patches from uniforms in plastic bags against the wall along with miniature American flags.

Our next stop was the World War II Memorial. This one was designed much differently. It had the name of each state on a column and quotes from important people of that time engraved in various places around the wall. The columns surrounded a grand fountain right in the middle. The whole arena was filled with a solemn sense of awe in honor of the soldiers that were killed and the families that had been affected during this war. Although it has been years since the war, it still pulls at your heart. When our friends, Susan Harcrow and Scott Ivey visited the memorial, they got to be a part of a reunion of living soldiers from this war.

Cheyenne Ivey with her father Rod Ivey, at the Library of Congress after the NEA National Heritage Fellows awards ceremony.

We stopped by the Lincoln Memorial, and although we didn’t stay long, it was still amazing. There were large groups of tourists walking around or sitting on the steps of the building. A few of the monuments had been damaged by the storm that hit months before, but are now being repaired.

Once Susan and Scott arrived in D.C., we met them and took a tour of the Arlington National Cemetery. The place is so large it is sectioned off and numbered. We saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. There used to be four of the unknown soldiers, but now there are only three. Thanks to new technology, a family was able to identify one of the soldiers. The steps of the guards are so precise that you can see the worn places on the ground where they walk. They stay at their post constantly no matter the weather: morning, noon, and night. Another group was scolded by the guard because too many people were talking. We then visited Robert E. Lee’s house. What a majestic view of the city!

After our adventures on the Mall and at the cemetery, we walked back to the hotel feeling totally exhausted. That evening, our group of singers had dinner together, and returned to the hotel to sing with a few of the fellow award winners. We all became close over the course of the week since we were at all of the same events and stayed in the same hotel.

On Friday, we spent the day rehearsing our songs, checking the lighting, and learning our placement on stage and off stage for the concert that night. We stayed and watched each of the performers practice. Everyone then got back on stage to dance and sing, preparing the finale we would join in for at the end of the show. For the couple of hours before the show, they drove us back to the hotel to eat and rest. We were the first group to perform at the concert, which was very exciting! Perform—still a word I can’t get accustomed to when referring to Sacred Harp singing. Unlike our usual tradition, we practiced where to stand, what to sing, and what to wear. In our normal routine at a singing, everyone dresses how they feel comfortable and gets to choose their favorite song to lead for that day. This time things were a little different, but we all adjusted well to the change. When we first walked out on the stage it was dark and as we began singing “Idumea” (p. 47b in The Sacred Harp), they slowly brightened the lights over the stage. David was interviewed by the host, Nick Spitzer, and we demonstrated the hollow square and sang major and minor scales. Then, we sang “Florida” (p. 203), “Christian’s Farewell” (p. 347), and “Wayfaring Stranger” (p. 457). I felt that it was a very moving experience, and I think everyone that was there would agree. [For more on “Idumea,” see the essay elsewhere in this issue on the “Cold Mountain Bump.”—Ed.]

Each of the other performances was fantastic! I don’t think any of us could have picked just one favorite performer to watch. All of them were so kind and talented. It seemed that no one was there to outdo the others, but welcomed each other as equals. This was an unforgettable trip and I feel blessed to have been a part of it. There is no way I could write about all of the wonderful experiences I had or completely express how exciting this opportunity was for me. It was quite fun and gratifying to meet all of these new people. The only way to truly know how fulfilling this trip was is to have been there. Speaking for the Sacred Harp group, I know that to us, each new friend is like a family member. I loved learning all that these people had to share from family traditions that have been around for many years. If there is a family tradition that you haven’t tried yet, go for it. You might be glad you did.

About Cheyenne Ivey

Cheyenne Ivey is a high school senior from Henagar, Alabama who has been singing her entire life. She enjoys country life, riding horses, and traveling to singings.
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