The Cold Mountain Bump: Hollywood’s Effect on Sacred Harp Songs and Singers

Poster for Cold Mountain (2013).

Almost every Sacred Harp singer has heard of the film Cold Mountain, the 2003 Academy-Award-winning motion picture which featured a pair of songs from The Sacred Harp: “I’m Going Home” (p. 282) and “Idumea” (p. 47b). The film led to an unprecedented surge of publicity for Sacred Harp singing.1 Many of us know other singers who first heard about Sacred Harp singing thanks to its inclusion in the film. Perhaps you yourself started singing Sacred Harp after encountering it in Cold Mountain.

Tim Eriksen (who pushed to include Sacred Harp in the film), David Ivey (who arranged for Liberty Baptist Church to be used for a recording session for the film and soundtrack), and the various other singers involved hoped that Cold Mountain would draw attention to our music and bring new singers to Sacred Harp. Anecdotal evidence and our own experiences suggest that the film did, indeed, increase the prominence of Sacred Harp singing in U.S. culture and draw new singers to the hollow square. But can we actually measure this?

Analysis of data included in the Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings shows that the “Cold Mountain bump” is real and measurable. The motion picture’s release coincided with a noticeable jump in the number of Sacred Harp singers, and this increase endured. The two songs included in the film also experienced a spike in popularity the year after the film hit theaters. While one of the two songs included has since retreated from its peak in popularity, both are used more often today than they were before the bump. Ten years after Cold Mountain’s premiere, the film continues to draw the occasional new singer to Sacred Harp. Likewise, “I’m Going Home” and “Idumea” continue to find favor with singers.


Sacred Harp singing has been growing since at least 1995, the first year for which digitized records of the minutes of singings are available (more on that growth in a future installment of this column). But while the growth in the number of singings held each year has been more or less steady, the growth in the number of leaders at minutes book singings jumped noticeably the year Cold Mountain played in theaters.

Total number of leaders at all Sacred Harp singings each year as recorded in the Minutes, 1995–2013. The largest increase coincided with the release of Cold Mountain.

Total number of leaders at all Sacred Harp singings each year as recorded in the minutes, 1995–2013.
The largest increase coincided with the release of Cold Mountain.

Why associate this bump in leaders with the release of Cold Mountain? While there could be other factors at play, timing makes a Cold Mountain bump as good a guess as any. Cold Mountain was released almost exactly ten years ago—on Christmas Day, 2003. The jump in question showed up the following year. In 2004 the film finished its twenty-seven week run in theaters and received wide media attention during the run-up to the Oscars. Throughout the year Sacred Harp singers had a chance to draw on the attendant wave of publicity to promote local singings and many participated in events like the national “Great High Mountain Tour,” which featured artists from the film’s soundtrack and that of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Why would Cold Mountain’s popularity cause the number of leaders to increase but not have a comparable effect on the number of songs led or the number of singings held? Cold Mountain exposed millions of people to Sacred Harp singing for the first time. We wouldn’t guess that members of the subset who wanted to learn more would found new singings immediately—rather they’d be more likely to find their way to existing Sacred Harp singings held nearby. We also wouldn’t guess that these new potential singers would contribute to a higher number of songs being led. Singings tend to start and end at around the same time of day year after year. Adding a leader may make a given singing one song longer, or it may—if time requires—mean leaving another local leader off, reducing the number of singers called to lead a second time, or pairing up another two singers to lead together.

It’s easy to imagine, on the other hand, why Cold Mountain might have led to an increase in the number of people recorded over the course of a year as having stood in the center of the hollow square. Some new singers may have found themselves invited to stand in the middle with a long-time singer to experience the sound of our music in all its glory. Others may have worked up the courage to lead at their first singing, or may have attended a practice singing for a few months before deciding to try leading at an annual singing recorded in the minutes.

Change versus the previous year in the total number of leaders at all Sacred Harp singings as recorded in the minutes, 1995–2013. During the year Cold Mountain was in theaters the number of leaders increased by 10 percent.

Change versus previous year in the total number of leaders at all Sacred Harp singings as recorded in the minutes, 1995–2013. During the year Cold Mountain was in theaters the number of leaders increased by 10 percent.

Yet it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which few of these new leaders stuck around. After all, the chart above includes all leaders. Whether a singer led one song or fifty, he or she is counted. So if all Cold Mountain did was bring a bunch of newcomers to singings where they were invited to stand in the middle, and then sent on their way, never to return, we might still see a jump in 2004.

Average increase in the number of leaders per year—before, during, and after Cold Mountain. The average annual increase was 4.3 times greater in the years following the film's release.

Average increase in the number of leaders per year—before, during, and after Cold Mountain. The average annual increase was 4.3 times greater in the years following the film’s release.

That the Cold Mountain bump was sustained, however, suggests that many of the singers who found Sacred Harp thanks to the motion picture returned again, and again, and again. A number of us know singers like this. Our analysis suggests that between 2003 and 2004 our Sacred Harp community grew by about ten percent—adding about 250 new leaders—thanks in part to the film. While small—even infinitesimal—when compared with the number of people who watched Cold Mountain in theaters, a 250-person jump in leaders is about nine times larger than the average change in the number of leaders over the previous eight years. 2004 also seems to have inaugurated a period of relatively robust growth in the number of leaders. While no year has matched the increase in leaders between 2003 and 2004, our singings have added an average of 107 leaders each year since 2004, 4.3 times greater than the average increase before 2003.


Still from

Still from “We’ve got our war,” the scene from Cold Mountain featuring the song “I’m Going Home” (p. 282).

We can also detect the Cold Mountain bump by tracing changes in the popularity of the two Sacred Harp songs featured in the film, “I’m Going Home” and “Idumea.” One way of looking at how popular a song is at singings is calculating what percentage that song’s use is of all songs used for each year and charting the change in percentage. For example, the most popular song in The Sacred Harp, “Hallelujah” (p. 146), has been sung 0.91 percent of the time between 1995 and 2013, while the least-used song, “Edmonds” (p. 115), has been sung just 0.0116 percent of the time during the same period. [For more on “Hallelujah,” see Harry Eskew’s essay on William Walker.—Ed.]

Both “I’m Going Home” and “Idumea” were relatively popular before Cold Mountain came out. But both songs experienced dramatic spikes in popularity after the film’s release. “I’m Going Home” leapt from 0.49 percent to 0.95 percent while “Idumea” jumped from 0.42 percent to 0.71 percent. In 2003 “I’m Going Home” was the forty-second most popular song out of the 554 in The Sacred Harp; in 2004 it was the second most popular song in the book. “Idumea” jumped from fifty-sixth most popular in 2003 to twelfth most popular in 2004. As those of us who have been singing since 2003 can attest, the songs became practically omnipresent after the film’s release, sung regularly at all-day singings and conventions as well as at practice singings, and often led by request or sung by an experienced singer joined by a newcomer who had encountered Sacred Harp singing in the film.

Popularity of

Popularity of “I’m Going Home” (p. 282), 1995–2013.
After Cold Mountain was released the song nearly doubled in popularity.

Both songs have remained more popular in the nine years since Cold Mountain’s release than they were beforehand. “I’m Going Home,” however, has fallen off from its position in 2004 as the second most popular song in The Sacred Harp. The song dropped sharply in popularity each of the three years after 2004, finally settling in as around the twentieth most popular song in the book. “Idumea,” however, held onto its newfound popularity during the years when “I’m Going Home” was falling. The song remains among the top ten most commonly led songs. In 2013 it was the seventh most popular of all the songs in The Sacred Harp.

Popularity of "Idumea" (p. 47b), 1995–2013. The song's jump in popularity after the release of <em>Cold Mountain</em> has been sustained.

Popularity of “Idumea” (p. 47b), 1995–2013.
The song’s jump in popularity after the release of Cold Mountain has been sustained.

Why has “Idumea” retained its popularity to a greater extent than “I’m Going Home”? One possibility may be that the song’s moving hymn text, stark harmonies, soaring alto line, memorable melody, and striking high notes toward the middle of the tenor part continue to appeal to singers irrespective of the song’s association with Cold Mountain. The powerful high notes in the tenor and treble parts during the chorus of “I’m Going Home” also continue to create moments of real energy at singings. Indeed, it may be that singers who were unfamiliar with the songs (re)discovered them after their wild popularity following Cold Mountain. This may be one reason why both songs remain more popular today than they were before the film aired.

Another factor, though, in these songs’ enduring popularity may be the continued impact of Cold Mountain. Even ten years after its premiere, new singers are still coming to Sacred Harp thanks to the film. A man from Texas who ordered a Sacred Harp songbook just this past fall had seen Cold Mountain in theaters in early 2004. Though he had meant to look up local Sacred Harp singings, he had only gotten around to doing so earlier this year. While Cold Mountain is no longer a major force bringing new singers to Sacred Harp singing, we can safely say that the Cold Mountain bump is real, and that—at least to some extent—it continues to effect singings today.

Acknowledgements

This essay expands on material presented by the co-authors at Camp Fasola 2013 in a class titled “True Stories from the Minutes Books.” Thanks to the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association for sponsoring Camp Fasola and for publishing and making accessible the minutes of Sacred Harp singings. Thanks to Chris Thorman for access to minutes data and for advice on parsing the minutes. Thanks as well to Lauren Bock and Leigh Cooper for useful suggestions and feedback on the material presented in this essay. Finally, thanks to the secretaries of all minutes book singings held between 1995 and 2013 for creating this valuable record.

  1. A group of singers traveled to the Academy Awards where, songbooks in hand, they sang backup to Allison Krauss on an Elvis Costello song from the film’s soundtrack. Another group of singers performed two songs during a televised performance at the Hollywood Bowl. Melissa Block narrated a thirteen-minute National Public Radio special on Sacred Harp singing, and numerous newspapers, magazines, and local television stations featured stories about Sacred Harp’s inclusion in the film. Singers from around the country participated in the Great High Mountain Tour that brought artists from the Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtracks—both overseen by producer T. Bone Burnett—together for a national tour. At each stop local singers were invited to join Tim Eriksen on stage for a short set. []

About Jesse P. Karlsberg

Jesse P. Karlsberg is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and co-edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Originally from Boston, he is an American studies doctoral candidate at Emory University.

About Mark T. Godfrey

Mark T. Godfrey makes music creation applications for mobile devices. His research interests include music modeling and information retrieval, machine listening, and interactive human-machine musical performance. He began singing Sacred Harp in 2011.

About Nathan Rees

Nathan Rees is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and co-edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Originally from Utah, he lives in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
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4 Responses to The Cold Mountain Bump: Hollywood’s Effect on Sacred Harp Songs and Singers

  1. Pingback: “Oh, What a Happy Time”: The NEA National Heritage Fellows Concert in Washington D.C. | The Sacred Harp Publishing Company

  2. Any idea whether the bump was geographical? For example, did certain areas—urban, rural, Deep South, New England—tend to benefit more from the bump?

    • I’d love to know the answer to this question. A major limitation of the minutes data, however, is that it lacks consistent information on where singings were held. The promise of figuring out whether things like the Cold Mountain bump relate to geography is one reason why we’re hoping to collect GPS coordinates for each singing location represented in the minutes.

      We’ve collected coordinates for just over forty locations so far (several of which you’ve submitted—thanks!). People can submit more coordinates through a simple Google form. We’re thinking about other ways to make it easier for people to help us collect this information. Any ideas?

  3. Leslie Booher says:

    We live in the heart of bluegrass country (Upper East Tennessee). After something I read in the newspaper yesterday, I’m wondering if there wasn’t an O, Brother, Where Art Thou? bump in bluegrass, like our Cold Mountain bump. This article was about someone who’s going to play in the area this weekend, and in it, the reporter commented that the bluegrass musician was a young teenager when O, Brother came out, and he immediately turned his sights to learning bluegrass.

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