A Happy Life: Reflections on Sacred Harp Singing by Barrett Ashley

On Sunday, July 4, 1993, after the end of the second day of the Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Henagar, Alabama, Chicago Sacred Harp singer Jerry Enright sat down with Barrett Ashley, a singer from Collinsville, Alabama, and one of the key members and supporters of the Lookout Mountain Sacred Harp singing community. Jerry had started singing Sacred Harp at the beginning of 1989; four and a half years later, he sat in Liberty Baptist Church with his friend Mr. Ashley, a lifelong singer “born into it,” and recorded their conversation about Mr. Ashley’s life, the times he’d lived in, and his lifelong love of Sacred Harp singing.

Barrett Ashley died just over four years after this conversation took place, on July 29, 1997, at the age of eighty-seven, and is buried in New Bethel Cemetery, Cherokee County, Alabama.

—Karen L. Freund
Algonquin, IL
April 13, 2014

Jerry Enright: You were born here?

Barrett Ashley: I was born in a log house.

Jerry: A log house on Lookout Mountain. … Where did you learn to sing Sacred Harp?

Barrett: I was born into it. … My parents sang it, and my daddy was a teacher in this music. They sang it, and on both sides of the house: my mother’s people and his people, we all sang it. … We sang at home, and a lot of time, after supper, somebody would start a song and we’d get started to singing—there was four of us kids, and my mother and daddy—and we’d get started to singing, and we had all parts—sometime we’d sing [until] ten, eleven o’clock at night.

Jerry: No kidding.

Barrett: We’d do that two, three times a week, sometimes four.

Jerry: That must have been a lot of fun.

Barrett: A lot of fun, a lot of joy. And I tell everybody I had a happy life because I was born and raised in this old Sacred Harp singing. Now I don’t claim the Sacred Harp singing altogether. I believe in the church. I’m a member of the church and I believe in the church. But if I have a calling, it’s to sing. I go by the calling, I believe in the calling, in my heart, through God, and my Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what I believe in. And when you leave that, you’ve left me. And this singing is part of that. It’s a part of it that will never, never die.

Jerry: Well, I think we can see that when you lead.

Barrett: [Laughs] Well, I enjoy it, sure do. Sometimes I get so full and get so happy … I just might have to hold the bench to keep from getting up and hollerin’—seem like you’d hear me four mile, but I’d cut it down to three.

Barrett Ashley leads “Happy Home” (p. 343 in The Sacred Harp).

Jerry: Do you remember any of your singing school teachers?

Barrett: Uncle Telly Reed, that’s S.T. [Reed]’s grand-daddy, and his other grand-daddy’s Uncle Sherman Oliver. … I been going to a singing school ever since I was just a little old bitty feller. I’d say three or four years old, I can remember going to a singing school. We lived close and if my daddy wasn’t teaching, well, Uncle Sherman Oliver and Uncle Telly Reed, why they’s a-doing the teaching and I’d go out—we lived right close to the church.

Jerry: Did you go to school at all at Pine Grove? Was that after your time?

Barrett: That’s all the schooling I got, was right there at Pine Grove. I was borned and raised right there in hollerin’ distance of Pine Grove. … I got all my schooling and everything, except experience. That’s the greatest teacher.

Jerry: How did you get to singings, the early singings, when you were young?

Barrett: We hooked a pair of mules to a two-horse wagon.

Jerry: And how far were you able to go to a singing?

Barrett: Ten miles, sometimes ten or twelve miles, something like that, we’d get up and leave by sun-up, in a wagon, we’d go, we’d get there, start about ten o’clock. … If there was four or five miles, why us young people, we’d walk, you know, there’d be a road full of us, you know, going to the singing where it’s four or five miles, you know, if it’s further than that most times we’d go on a wagon.

Jerry: How many people did you used to have at the early singings? It’s hard to remember.

Barrett: Well, we didn’t have… I would say, when I first began to direct and lead, we’d have thirty-five to forty maybe.

Jerry: That’s a good number.

Barrett: And I can remember when they call leaders, they didn’t have one song or two songs, they had fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, and some of the older ones would have thirty minutes, I can remember that.

Jerry: And you didn’t call everybody at all either.

Barrett: No, no. And some of them, they want to talk a lot, you know, and some of them just want to sing, take up all their minutes in singing, and some of them would want to sing some and talk some, and that was enjoyable, I remember that part of it. It was quite amusing when they would begin to leave that off, you know, and they begin to call leaders, we used to lead four at a time, on the floor, there’d be four of us on the floor, and we would march. At the end you sing after the first stanza, on the repeat or where the repeat is, and you exchanged places that way, and when you repeated it you changed and you marched, that’s what we used to call marching. … We begin to have more company, more singers, we begin to run short of time, and I made the suggestion to use one song, sing one song, and one person, and if we got around, pick the leaders that’s the furthest off, let them sing twice. I made the suggestion to do that and they took it up, and then we went ahead with that, we sang one, we could sing a whole lot more leaders that way than we could singing two or four, a lot more. And it worked out fine, and then the time come up, keeping time. You know, the older people, they taught four beats to the measure. There’s no books, no Sacred Harp books teaches four beats, they went back to Showalter’s and Gaines and all of them you know and the seven shapes, and that’s what they got the four beats, to teach the four beats, if you understand. But I always liked the two beats to the measure. But of course I went along with the crowd, I kept four for a long time.

Jerry: So when you learned to lead they were singing four beats?

Barrett: Singing four beats.

Jerry: Up on Lookout Mountain.

Barrett: On Lookout Mountain, yes sir. And we had one book at that time, and that was the Cooper book. It was the old Cooper book.

Jerry: I would never have guessed that.

Barrett: And I’ve got one of the books used back in those days, still got one of the books. And then the books began to change, you know, they come up White come out, you know.

Jerry: Did you switch to the White book then?

Barrett: No, we used both, we used both, the Cooper and White, we used both books. And then we used them two and James come out with one, then we kind of put the Cooper kind of on the back shelf, and took the James and the White, because James had a few new songs in it, but though we would sing some of the songs in all three of the books, we’d go back and sing some in the Cooper book, you know, but our main song would be in the James book and the White book. And then we used that ‘til Denson’s come out in 1936, and now Denson come out in 1936, then we dropped the James because they had the songs that was in the James, most all of them you know that wasn’t in the Cooper and they put that in the Denson book. The first books that come out in the Denson book was 1936. And I come to this convention, it was held up here at New Hope, and there was some people there that had the book, I bought my first book there, at New Hope, of the Denson book. Give two dollars for it. [Laughs] … And I remember very well the first convention that I visited other than our convention, the Lookout Mountain Convention, that’s all I knowed, about ten, twelve year old, something like that. It was the North Alabama convention … that’s the first time I ever visited a convention. We had people that was, by that time I was singing a lot faster than most people, well any of our class sang faster, but not as fast as they do now, but anyway, and they had people there, a few, that they didn’t like fast singing at all.

Jerry: They were four-beat people?

Barrett: They were four-beat people, they didn’t like two beats to the measure. And there was an old gentleman there, he was a wonderful man, he was a foundation of the Sacred Harp music, he was real old at that time.

Jerry: Do you remember his name?

Barrett: It was Uncle Tommy Durham, Uncle Tommy Durham, and I went to that convention, and I was called on to sing.

Jerry: Did you get fifteen minutes?

Barrett: No, I just got one song, whenever we was. … I sang 298, and I sang it fast, too. I sang the notes, and Uncle Tommy Durham, settin’ over in the chair, he got up and he told me where I was headed to with that fast singing, he told me I was ruinin’ the singing and so forth and so on. Of course, I was just a kid. I didn’t say a word. I could have, but I didn’t. I respected him, because he was an old gentleman, and he had done so much for the Sacred Harp, but he wanted it done his way, if you understand. He wanted the singing to go, but he wanted to still stay like he wanted it, and he had a perfect right to feel that way if he wanted to, I didn’t fault that with him like that at all.

Jerry: There are some [singings] that really stand out. Liberty’s a good one, and Lookout Mountain is always my favorite place to sing. The people there are such wonderful people, that there’s a spirit there that you don’t, I don’t find at other singings, and I, you know, I know a lot of people and I sing all over the country, and there’s lots of wonderful singings, but there’s nothing that matches Lookout Mountain.

Barrett Ashley leads “Columbiana” (p. 56t) at the 1992 Henagar-Union Convention.

Barrett: We appreciate that. We appreciate you all very very much. It’s something that’s—there’s two conventions, this convention here, the Henagar Convention, the Lookout Mountain Convention, we’ve been together so long, singing together so long, we’re just like a family, we’re just like kinfolk, we get along better than kinfolk. … Because we love them, we loved them all their lives, sing with them all their lives, you know, so it don’t matter. That’s why I told you, the Henagar bunch and the Lookout Mountain bunch is so close because we been together so long. Well, the Woottens, you know, they’re all up there, you know, around Ider, why, they’re just the same way, yeah, they’re the same way, just plain old country folks, love singing, they’re good Christian people, it’s wonderful. I like to be with people like that, I like to be with people like y’all. Y’all have done a lot for our convention.

Jerry: Did the old singings sound different from the singings today?

Barrett: Yes.

Jerry: They were probably slower. If they beat them in four.

Barrett: Yeah, it was—

Jerry: Pretty slow.

Barrett: —something like that. I always said they just dragged the bark off of it. … And they had a singing in Gadsden every fifth Sunday. And after I got, oh, ten or twelve year old, I’d go down there every fifth Sunday. They used two beats. They shoved, I mean, they shoved it.

Jerry: You liked that.

Barrett: Everybody thought they just running away with it, but they wasn’t, they were just, they don’t, they didn’t sing near as fast as we do, you know, for common here. They sang a lot faster than we did with two beats to the measure, I loved that, and I loved the speed. And I enjoyed that very very much.

Now we used to, we’d have a house full of listeners, you know, some standing at the windows and all, you know, because they loved to listen at it. At Pine Grove we had a class, I mean, the biggest class there was in the country, and we’d go to singing there, where we had a singing right there at the Pine Grove, we’d go singing about 9:30, and we’d sing til 3:30, and a lot of time wouldn’t get around then, and that was the people that lived in the community and adjoining, in the surrounding communities, you see … a way back in. … People, they come there in two-horse wagons, mules and two-horse wagons, buggies and all that, you know, and they come there so long, when they turn out for lunch, why you couldn’t hardly hear your ears for the mules braying, they knowed it was dinnertime, they’d bring a bundle of fodder and corn to feed them mules right there on the ground, they had to have their dinner just like we did. … People talk about “dinner on the ground,” you know? It was on the ground.

Jerry: It was right on the ground.

Barrett: Right down … the womenfolk’d bring a sheet or tablecloth or whatever, most people had sheets, bedsheets. They spread that right down on the ground, and there’s where the dinner was put, down on the ground. And then we got to where that we’d move the benches, out, you know, and put it on the benches, and then we finally built a table, a stationary table, so that was a dinner on the ground. We didn’t have anything but well water, we had a well there.

We would go to the neighbors’, round to the Olivers’ and the Reeds’ once in a while and sing, you know, like that, but we done the most of our singing at home, you know, that’s me, I’m talking about my individual family. And we used to, the community there, well, let’s say the Sacred Harp singers, during the bad weather we didn’t go, we didn’t have singings in the wintertime, because we didn’t have no way of going in a two-horse wagon in bad weather, you couldn’t do that, you know, and ride in real cold weather and snowy weather and all that, you know, to a singing. But we’d meet at somebody’s house, they’d give a dinner, you know, and they’d fix dinner for all of us in the whole bunch, we’d go there and eat dinner…

Jerry: About how many people?

Barrett: Oh, Lord, I don’t know, there’d be forty or fifty. Yeah, everybody’s family, well, take your family, you know, everybody. …

Jerry: How long would you sing then?

Barrett: Oh, well, we’d go and talk ‘til dinner you know, enjoy all that, you know, howdy to everyone and everything, and we always had something to talk about, you know. We’d eat dinner, we’d sing a while, and then sometimes we’d change that. … My daddy was a fiddler and I was a banjo-picker, and after dinner, I’d get the banjo and he’d get the fiddle, we’d have music that evening, and we’d have buck-dancing. … And then we had what we called square dances. And I went to many, many of them. And it was a little aggravating, after I got to be a young man, why, I loved to dance, you know …

Jerry: They’d make you play the banjo.

Barrett: … music would be short and I’d have to [laughs] pick music, you know. I didn’t like that much, but anyway, it was a great, we had a great time. … The people back then, you know, the Primitive Baptists, if you danced, they might turn you out, if you …

Jerry: Yeah, I was wondering about that.

Barrett: They might turn you out, you know.

Jerry: So how’d you get to do all this square dancing?

Barrett: Well, they got to where they slacked up on it, you know. Now this dancing they do now, you know, just two, you know, and all of them on the floor and everything, we didn’t know nothing about that. All we knew was square dancing.

Jerry: Do you think that the sound of the singing was different, you know, you said the speed was different, they used to sing it a lot slower, but do you think it sounded any different than it does today, or…?

Barrett: Oh, yes. It sounded different.

Jerry: Can you … I know it’s hard to talk about how things sound different, but …

Barrett: It’s improved. You see, when I was first started singing we didn’t have no altos.

Jerry: I never thought of that but you’re right.

Barrett: Never had no altos. And that’s … ladies fine for a singing. And you know I can remember the first alto we had at Pine Grove at our convention. Now me and my mother, there’s a song or two or three that we’d sing alto to before my voice changed. But that was all alto we had, we didn’t have any other alto. Do you know the Scoggins twins? … Now, they were just little old girls, and they come down there and they sang alto …

Jerry: The Scoggins twins were the first ones to sing alto at Pine Grove.

Barrett: And they sang on a high key. Altos sing on a low key now, you know. But they sang it on a high key.

Jerry: They sang an octave a …

Barrett: You know 137?

Jerry: Yeah, yeah, the one Virgil does.

Barrett: That high voice, that’s the way the Scoggins girls sang it, it was all high like that. … And they were the best, and they were just alike, I couldn’t tell ‘em apart. You know, I was, I don’t know, I was, I’m older than they are, some, and I thought they was the cutest things. … Uncle Lige, that’s Leonard’s daddy, he had the wonderfulest voice that you ever heard. It didn’t get too high for him, just as clear as a bell, he’d go with them girls, he was their uncle. And he’d get them girls to sing alto, he’d sing it all day with them girls, and that’s on the high pitch.

Jerry: Did he, he sung at that high octave where they were?

Barrett: High pitch, yes sir, right up there with them. I tell you we had some great singers. Voices, my Lord … give you just a little idea: Terry Wootten’s got one of the greatest voices. We had some even better’n he is. You know he’s good.

Barrett: I had a wonderful life, I had a happy life, yes sure did. It was wonderful. Raised in a wonderful community, great community. Everybody loved one another. … Well, it’s, I don’t, it’s like I said a while ago, I don’t mean to brag, it’s something I’m proud of, something that I’ll treasure as long as I know anything or as long as I live, whichever, I’ll treasure because I was brought up in a great community. Great people.


This conversation was transcribed by Karen Freund and Jerry Enright. The recording and transcript are © 2003 Squirrel Hill Recordings. The Sacred Harp Museum has published a complete transcript of this conversation as a complement to this excerpt.

About Barrett Ashley

Barrett Ashley (1909–1997) was born into a Sacred Harp singing family in DeKalb County, Alabama. A farmer and sawyer, Ashley served as secretary and chairman of the Lookout Mountain Convention for many years.

About Jerry Enright

James “Jerry” Enright (1943–2010) was a former teacher of philosophy and a master cabinetmaker from the Chicago suburbs. Jerry served as chair of the 1994 United Convention at Emmaus Church in Carrollton, Georgia, and of several sessions of the Midwest Convention in Chicago.

About Karen Freund

Karen Freund has been a Sacred Harp singer since 1994. She is a New Yorker currently living in Chicagoland, and was married to Jerry Enright, whom she met at the 1998 Lookout Mountain Convention, until his death in 2010.
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