The Old World Seeks the Old Paths: Observing Our Transnationally Expanding Singing Community

In 1982, Alan Lomax, the controversial ethnomusicologist and folklorist, predicted that thousands of Americans would be singing from The Sacred Harp across the country in the following years. He cited Sacred Harp singing’s rich sound, democratic ideals, and generous community as portending its future as a national singing phenomenon. In a winded spout of inspiration on-the-fly, Lomax compared Sacred Harp singing to musical traditions of western and eastern Europe—the four-square melodies of Britain, Cornish harmonies, Ukrainian and Macedonian choral singing—as he rapidly patched together a mythical transatlantic prehistory of music in the Appalachian Mountains. Yet even Lomax couldn’t reach to suggest that people in Europe would also be singing from The Sacred Harp.

Phil Summerlin—seated next to Lomax in the 1982 video—expressed cautious support for Sacred Harp as a national phenomenon. Comparing such a spread to the marketing of bluegrass music during the folk revival, Summerlin feared that Sacred Harp “could … be taken over somewhat, as bluegrass has been taken over.” A few years earlier, Buell Cobb had expressed similar concerns, writing of the emergence of new singings on northern college campuses, “It could be said that the flower is being cultivated and the roots themselves neglected.”1

Alan Lomax and Phil Summerlin on Sacred Harp singing in 1982

Aaron Kahn, now of Hong Kong, leads at the first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention in Cork, Ireland, March 6, 2011. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg

Aaron Kahn, now of Hong Kong, leads at the first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention in Cork, Ireland, March 6, 2011.
Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg

Today, as Lomax predicted, Sacred Harp is sung across the United States. Yet the tradition’s widening beyond US borders has exceeded the most imaginative predictions of the 1970s and 1980s. Sacred Harp singing has made its way to nineteen countries around the world. Our beloved fasolas resound in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Hong Kong. The majority of this dispersion has occurred within the past seven years. In 2007, the hollow square could only be found in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia.2 Today, new local singings form frequently—so frequently that I struggle to keep up with them while based in New England. Are these singings rootless bouquets of southern flowers, cut and exported to the world? Or are the roots of our music and its traditions being planted abroad, their systems radiating outward, stretching towards each other? Through my brief, but focused encounters with Sacred Harp singers in Europe3—many of whom I now count as excellent singers and dear friends—I am convinced that the roots of these new singings are growing, and will soon run deep. European singers strive for a rich, personal understanding of Sacred Harp singing as a living tradition. They respect its past. And they invest in building and nurturing local and transnational community.

Commitment to Sacred Harp’s Past, Present, and Future

Singers across the Atlantic find meaning in Sacred Harp. They care about its history, and they care about its future. They are drawn to the tradition for many of the same reasons as new American singers. They are enamored with the striking, open harmonies found in The Sacred Harp. Newcomers who lack a personal background in music delight in discovering the strength in their own voice. Weekly and monthly singings provide opportunities for regular fellowship, and are enticing reasons to get out of the house, travel, and connect with friends old and new. For many European singers, the powerful combination of music, hymn text, and community facilitates meaningful and personal worship. And lets face it: we all love the food! While some of the dishes may differ, the importance of dinner-on-the-grounds has not been lost on European singers.

A sumptuous dinner on the grounds at the first Poland Sacred Harp Convention, September 22, 2012. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

A sumptuous dinner on the grounds at the first Poland Sacred Harp Convention, September 22, 2012.
Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

Old World singers care about the history of Sacred Harp. Many study the history of the tunebook and the families and traditions that surround it, and they enthusiastically share this knowledge with newcomers. They have learned from singing schools like Camp Fasola in Alabama and Poland, and from dedicated mentors, such as Michael Walker, Phil and Cath Tyler, Tim Eriksen, and Juniper Hill, to name a mere few. They also learn from online resources including Fasola.org, and uksacredharp.org. Several European singers are acquiring deep knowledge of the various songbook editions, tunes added and removed, and individual composers. Calum Woods, from Halifax, England, produces astonishingly detailed Sacred Harp facts, even about tunes that have been removed from the book, an especially remarkable feat considering that he is just sixteen. Rebecca Over, also from England, has conducted significant historical research into one of Sacred Harp’s most influential families, the McGraws. [See Rebecca’s recent Newsletter article “In the Footsteps of Lee Andrew McGraw” for a taste of her research—Eds.] Singers in Europe are also aware of how The Sacred Harp fits into the broader history of shape-note tunebooks, and occasionally sing from other sources including the Cooper edition of The Sacred Harp, the Christian Harmony, and the recently compiled Shenandoah Harmony. And although Sacred Harp is understood as a tradition grounded in the southern United States with historical connections to New England, some singers in the Old World find meaning in even older historical connections with Europe: the European ancestors of American shape-note composers, the many European hymn writers and composers included in The Sacred Harp, and the English roots of the four-shape solfege system.

Allison Steel's "Freta" features a Polish language text. Manuscript by Allison Steel, 2009.

Allison Steel’s “Freta” features a Polish language text.
Manuscript by Allison Steel, 2009.

Perhaps most importantly, European singers care about the future of Sacred Harp. Many feel ardently about building a singing community that will last for future generations. European singers consider themselves a part of a Sacred Harp lineage that stretches back to America. They recognize this heritage in their memorial lessons, and believe that it will continue to stretch forward, even after they are gone. Several singers also contribute to Sacred Harp’s musical future by composing new songs. Shape-note tunes pour out of countries such as England and Ireland. Fynn Titford-Mock, of Norwich, England, has worked on over 150 original pieces since 2011. Sadhbh O’Flynn, of Cork, Ireland, has published a tune in The Trumpet, as have Jacek Borkowicz and Zofia Przyrowska of Poland. Some new shape-note tunes even use poetic texts in languages other than English. Allison Steel of Massachusetts set her tune “Freta,” included in The Shenandoah Harmony, to a Polish language text. Just as The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition included songs by singers from the northeastern and midwestern United States, future editions of The Sacred Harp may contain works by contemporary European shape-note composers, and perhaps composers from across the Pacific as well.

Building Community Locally and Transnationally

European singers participate in Sacred Harp by singing, composing, and learning about its history. They are highly committed to Sacred harp singing, and care deeply about its future. But how do our fellow singers build and maintain community? From what I have observed, European communities operate in much the same way as they do in the United States. Just as on this side of the Atlantic, ties to the Sacred Harp community are layered. Today’s singers experience local, regional, national, and now transnational ties to Sacred Harp.

Local Sacred Harp communities in Europe tend to operate much like they do here in US regions outside of the South. They hold a regular weekly singing (a few meet only once per month). These gatherings attract dedicated singers who attend regularly, as well as others who attend only occasionally. Such frequent contact with the same people generates local singing styles and preferences for certain types of songs, or even specific tunes. In Bremen, Germany, for example, most singers prefer minor songs. In Cork, Ireland, singers have adopted particular vocal flourishes and ornaments.

Matthew Parkinson leads at a weekly singing at the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, England, 2013. Photograph by Ellen Lueck.

Matthew Parkinson leads at a weekly singing at the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, England, 2013. Photograph by Ellen Lueck.

These regular singings are critical to community formation. Not only do they promote rapid progress in Sacred Harp singing ability and its nuanced style, but they also create personal connections amongst an immediate local group. Friendships run strong, and many local community members get together outside of their weekly singing. In Norwich, England, for example, you might find a group of Sacred Harp singers at The White Lion, a local watering hole, whether on Monday—the day of their regular singing at the Octagon Chapel down the road—or on any other day. In London, Sacred Harp friends frequently gather with just a few hours’ notice in nearly any location for an impromptu singing. Singers have met in an empty warehouse, a city park, and even a tube station.

National networks form a second layer of community for European Sacred Harp singers. National singings form similar functions as statewide singings in the United States. On this side of the Atlantic, for example, many connect with our particular local community (Atlanta, Sand Mountain, or Austin, for example), as well as our respective states. We express the importance of statewide bonds in the titles of many conventions—Georgia State Convention, All-California Sacred Harp Convention, Keystone Convention, for example. All-day singings and conventions in Europe demonstrate the same principle. The United Kingdom Sacred Harp Convention, which will hold its nineteenth annual session in September, rotates among various singing communities in England. The first Germany Sacred Harp Convention was held this May. Although hosted in Hamburg, singers from Bremen and other German cities helped plan for and support the big weekend. [Read Álvaro Witt Duarte’s report on the first Germany Convention.—Eds.]

Singers from across the United Kingdom, and across the Atlantic Ocean, sing at a social after the 2013 Scotland all-day singing. Photograph by Ellen Lueck.

Singers from across the United Kingdom, and across the Atlantic Ocean, sing at a social after the 2013 Scotland all-day singing.
Photograph by Ellen Lueck.

Intra-European ties form another layer contributing to Sacred Harp community. In terms of geography and accessibility, this European network resembles America’s national singing network. Singers have described Sacred Harp as a national community for over twenty years, linking communities from across the huge geographic and cultural spans of the United States, from Florida to Alaska. Likewise, despite cultural, historical, and even linguistic hurdles, Sacred Harp singers in Europe maintain a friendly, reciprocal, intra-European Sacred Harp network.

Proximity and accessibility help make this possible. By plane, some of the furthest journeys from one singing to another—from Warsaw to Cork, for example—take only three or four hours. Compare this to the frequent six-hour or longer journeys that Pacific Northwesterners endure to sing in Georgia or Alabama, and you begin to see how convenient attending singings across Europe can be for travelers. The cost of travel can also be less expensive in Europe than in the United States. A Sacred Harp singer can purchase a budget airline ticket from Warsaw to Cork for the cost of a casual sit-down dinner for two, a fraction of the price of a ticket from Portland to Atlanta. Beyond the geographic and economic ease of travel within the European Union, the draw of such a fun and supportive Sacred Harp community is enough to lure scores of singers across the continent for several intra-European trips a year.

The outmost layer where Sacred Harp community forms is the transatlantic Sacred Harp network connecting Europe and the United States. Dozens of European singers have traveled to attend American singings in Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota, California, Oregon, Pennsylvania and New York, among other places. Likewise, numerous Americans have gone to Europe to sing from The Sacred Harp. Singers who have crossed the Atlantic in both directions in the past few years have found their expectations exceeded in many ways. Portland, Oregon, singer Thom Fahrbach relayed to me his experience of singing in Cork at the first Ireland Convention in 2011—the event that catalyzed ardent intra-European support of Sacred Harp singing.4 “I first came here thinking that they could really use a lot of help.” But to Thom’s surprise, the Cork singers were well organized, had a strong local community, and could really sing! American singers continue to be astounded by the high level of musicality, rapid growth, and sincere hospitality and friendship they find when singing abroad. European singers who travel to the United States are often delighted by just how friendly and welcoming the national community is. Some are also shocked to discover that many American singers still have a thing or two to learn about Sacred Harp. After all, not every class sounds like the groups that Lomax recorded.

Sacred Harp singers from eleven countries, including a sizable contingent from the United States, attended Camp Fasola in northern Poland in September, 2014. Photograph by Olgierd Orlikowski.

Sacred Harp singers from eleven countries, including a sizable contingent from the United States, attended Camp Fasola in northern Poland in September, 2014. Photograph by Olgierd Orlikowski.


As more and more singers cross the oceans to sing together, our growing international Sacred Harp community becomes stronger. I am convinced that singers in the United States, Europe, Australia, and East Asia can learn a lot from each other—not just about the rich history and tradition of Sacred Harp in the US South—but about what it means to be part of a Sacred Harp community in a globally connected age. To return finally to Buell’s botanical metaphor, although the Sacred Harp roots that have been transplanted abroad are still young, they continue to grow and thrive in a wide variety of environments. Some of the flowers that sprout may vary in appearance—just as they do in Sand Mountain, Carrollton, and Chicago—but they all spring from the same plant.

Notes

  1.  Buell E. Cobb, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978), 160. []
  2. Thanks to Shawn Whelan for noting that Melbourne’s Sacred Harp singing began in 2002, prompting the addition on April 20, 2016, of Australia to this list. []
  3.  The research and social observations presented here are part of a much larger dissertation project, still in progress. I have traveled to the All-Ireland Convention twice. I toured England and Scotland in the summer of 2013, where I visited over a dozen singings. I also attended the First Germany Sacred Harp Convention in the summer of 2014, and Camp Fasola in Poland in September, 2014 []
  4.  See Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Ireland’s First Sacred Harp Convention: ‘To Meet To Part No More,’Southern Spaces, November 30, 2011, http://southernspaces.org/2011/irelands-first-sacred-harp-convention-meet-part-no-more. []

About Ellen Lueck

Ellen Lueck is a Sacred Harp singer currently living in Connecticut. She frequently travels to singings across the United States and Europe. Ellen is pursuing graduate research in ethnomusicology on Sacred Harp singing’s impact abroad.
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2 Responses to The Old World Seeks the Old Paths: Observing Our Transnationally Expanding Singing Community

  1. Shawn Whelan says:

    Hi Ellen, thanks for this great article! I’ve been catching up on some reading in the afterglow of our 3rd annual Victorian All-Day Singing (in Melbourne, Australia) and really appreciate your insights into the formation of strong, interconnected Sacred Harp communities in Europe.

    I think many of your comments are equally applicable here in Australia—including the converse of your point about distance and airfares! Our opportunities to reconnect with the “roots” (and branches) through two-way travel have been limited, though increasing in recent years, and always immensely valuable.

    A minor correction for your records: the hollow square could indeed be found here in 2007, as we’ve had a regular local singing in Melbourne since 2002. But your general point stands: the spread of singing to Sydney, Blackwood and Canberra (and our own group’s confidence to host an all-day minute-book singing) has occurred only in the last few years. And with that growing confidence, we invite you to join us for the first Annual Australian Convention in late January 2016!

    • Ellen Lueck says:

      Hi Shawn, I am very glad to hear that you found such similarities between my accounts of Sacred Harp singing in Europe and your experience in Australia. I truly hope to be able to sing with you all there at some point in the near future. Also, thank you very much for the correction. 2002 is indeed quite a bit earlier than 2007! Permanently noted.

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