Some Dos and Don’ts for Sacred Harp Singers

Editor’s Note: Nashville Sacred Harp singer and aptly-named Presbyterian minister Priestley Miller wrote this pithy collection of Sacred Harp “dos and don’ts” in 1965. His admonitions retain their currency fifty years later. Contemporary singers too need the occasional reminder that our singing style has a proud history but is also of “the present age.” His call to embrace fellowship among our pan-generational community is a wonderful reminder of why so many of us value our music. Miller published the piece in vol. 2, no. 4, of the Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News, the first newsletter on Sacred Harp singing. Miller founded the monthly periodical in 1964 and edited it until his death in 1969, when he was succeeded by William J. Reynolds. We thank Reynolds’s son Tim for permitting the Sacred Harp Museum to digitize and preserve his collection of Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News issues. Keep an eye out for more great essays from the collection in future issues of this publication.

Priestley Miller. Image courtesy of the Priestley Miller Preschool at Harpeth Presbyterian Church

Priestley Miller. Image courtesy of the Priestley Miller Preschool at Harpeth Presbyterian Church.

DO remember that the music we sing is worthy of the best that is within us.

DON’T be “conned” into singing it in places where it doesn’t belong. This only makes the music sound “strange” and us ridiculous. Remember, these are hymns, not hootenanny pieces.

DO be glad that young people are interested in Sacred Harp music. If they pick up the tempo a bit, don’t think the world is coming to an end. It may be that your upper plate is loose. It is thrilling to see people of all ages at Sacred Harp singings and this is the way it should be.

DON’T let the over-tones of this “singing rurals” bit get too much recognition. It is too easy to pass from that into the idea that Sacred Harp singers are “nothing but a bunch of hicks,” and this simply isn’t the case. The shop-worn publicity image of “a few octogenarians with tattered song books” is gone and so should some ideas associated with it. They are, for the most part, wonderful and gracious people, and let Sacred Harp singers be proud, not only of their heritage, but of the contribution they can make in serving “the present age.”

DO have FELLOWSHIP. The devotion and dedication that has gone and does go into this music makes it a cause. With the Apostle Paul some need to say “forgetting those things which are behind.” This can be done as we “press forward.” Frequently we hear at singings the exhortation to “notice the words.” So, let me ask you to do something for me. Turn to page 330, bottom. Then notice the title of the tune and the words. Amen.

About Priestley Miller

A talented song leader and ready writer, Priestley Miller (1905–1969) was pastor of Harpeth Presbyterian Church, founding editor of the Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News, and chair of the 1966 United Convention.
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