“My Interest Was in the Background of the Music”:
Raymond C. Hamrick and Alan Lomax in Conversation

Editor’s Note: Alan Lomax interviewed Raymond C. Hamrick during a break in 1982 June memorial singing at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church in Bremen, Georgia. An outspoken and prolific folklorist, Lomax attended the convention with a large crew to record the singing and interview prominent participants for his acclaimed 1982–83 PBS series American Patchwork.

Never before published, Lomax’s conversation with Hamrick is notable in comparison with his interviews with other singers such us Hugh McGraw and George and Martha Woodard for its relative brevity, and for Hamrick’s subtle pushback against the priorities Lomax brought to the interaction. Lomax frequently positions himself at a comfortable intellectual distance from his interview subjects, claiming the role of interpreter and analyst. In this conversation, Hamrick subtly upends these roles, offering his own sometimes divergent assessments of Sacred Harp practices, especially in his assessment of “scooping.” Furthermore, Hamrick emphasizes his own experience as a researcher, pointing out his relationship with the folklorists and institutions that made Lomax’s own encounter with Sacred Harp singing possible.

Thanks to Nathan Salsburg, curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity, for generously granting permission to publish Lomax’s interview with Hamrick.

Alan Lomax interviewing Raymond C. Hamrick, Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, Bremen, Georgia, June 1982. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Alan Lomax: Mr. Hamrick, I have heard a lot about you from Hugh. Your first name is—

Raymond C. Hamrick: Raymond.

Lomax: Raymond. This is Raymond Hamrick who is probably the most active composer in the Sacred Harp tradition. Up until, oh all through the nineteenth century, the talented people of the southern backwoods were writing in fuging tunes in four parts to be published in the various editions of The Sacred Harp and other parts of the shape note literature. And Mr. Hamrick here is I understand one of the people who is still actively practicing composition in that field.

Hamrick: Yes, a good bit. It is kind of a hobby of mine.

Lomax: I have heard a lot about you from Hugh McGraw.

Hamrick: Well, I hope it is accurate, let’s put it this way.

Lomax: When did you begin to compose? Tell us a little about your life as a composer.

Hamrick: Well, actually my interest in it was in the background of the music. I met George Pullen Jackson in 1950 and he interested me in the history of it a good bit, so we began to look into the background of the composers and the way that the composer, the performance characteristics are what intrigued me about it, so when they began to—

Lomax: What did you find out about that? Tell us.

Hamrick: Well, it would take all day to get into it. I’m still working on some phases of it. There is so much in it that most people do not even consider. The pitching, for example, is one of the performance characteristics that the general public never notices. They take it as a matter of course, but pitching is a very peculiar talent that has to be learned.

Lomax: I’ve discussed this with a number of the singers. It is fascinating.

Hamrick: It takes a lot of experience. I have arrived at one or two conclusions. First of all that it takes a familiarity with the music, a great familiarity with the music, and a feeling for the voices. You have to establish very quickly the range of your class. For example, in the morning the voices are down a bit and you pitch a little bit lower to take advantage of that. And then as the voices warm up during the day, then you gradually raise the pitch, but this music is consistently pitched a little bit lower than it is written anyway because in the early books … if you look in The Bay Psalm Book, for example, they say that in pitching this music, you pitch it so that the high part doesn’t squeal and the low part doesn’t grunt, and they still go by that. And the habit of the composers is when they compose a tune they pick the highest and the lowest tone and place it upon the staff so that they use very little ledger lines. They don’t like ledger lines. But this automatically means that the music is going to be from anywhere from a tone to a tone and a half higher than it should be. And what the pitcher does, he accommodates this tone, a tone and a half high, by lowering it that much. So when he pitches a tone that is supposed to be F, he is actually about an E flat. But he has to do this because if you don’t, you’ll have your high part squealing, and if you miss it very much on the low side you will have your basses grunting. So it becomes a built-in, almost automatic correction. But you’ll notice that here today, for example, if they sing a hundred songs, they may re-pitch one. And it’s a little unusual to even re-pitch any, so they have it down to a fine science.

A letter from Hugh McGraw inviting Raymond C. Hamrick to attend the singing at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church that Alan Lomax planned to document, 1982. Raymond Hamrick Papers, Archives and Manuscript Dept., Pitts Theology Library, Emory University.

Lomax: What about the sliding notes? That’s always interested me a lot.

Hamrick: What do you mean? The swooping/scooping? Well, that’s—

Lomax: Well, Hugh calls it sliding.

Hamrick: Well, that’s entirely up to the individual. I think everybody has their own method of singing it.

Lomax: Do you think it adds to the music a lot?

Hamrick: Well … yes, in some respects, I think it gives you a good bit of dissonance in some of your chords sometimes.

Lomax: That’s nice.

Hamrick: But, uh … if they are singing it as an individual, as a solo, it’s beautiful. But I don’t like to hear too much sliding in the harmony parts. Bass and treble and alto I think should be right where they are supposed to be and then let the melody slide if they will. They are going to anyway. You might as well adjust to it.

Lomax: That’s old-style West European singing.

Hamrick: Yes, it is. It is. It’s traditional. In old days, of course, they learned it by ear from older people and each person it was transmitted to put his own imprint on it.

Lomax: Over in Ireland they call it the “blas,” that you can put all of those decorations in it. It is very elaborate.

Hamrick: And it is lovely. It really is. And you hear a lot of that here. I wasn’t really so much aware of it until I listened to a recording made over at the first Sacred Harp singing in Birmingham two years ago. And they had a lady sing a song by herself just to show how she sang and it was like listening to an old English minstrel. It was beautiful.

Lomax: You said you had written a couple of papers and something had happened to them.

Hamrick: Well, yes, there were … I don’t think that it’s a good idea to do this type of research and not write it down and put the weight on somebody else in later years to try to do it. Every little bit that you can contribute I think should be done. And these papers were written for my own amusement, and the Library of Congress saw one of them and asked if I wouldn’t mind giving them copies, so I did and they tell me later that somebody paid me the ultimate compliment; they stole both of them, so I had to replace them. But I haven’t sent them the last one. I just finished one of pitching, the role of the pitcher in Sacred Harp.

Lomax: This is a part-time activity of yours.

Hamrick: Oh, yes. Very much part-time.

Lomax: You’re a professional … uh …

Hamrick: Jeweler.

Lomax: Jeweler. That’s been your life work.

Hamrick: Oh, yes. Forty-six years of it.

Lomax: So composing and jewelry work are sort of similar in a sense.

Hamrick: Well, the early composers all composed, wrote music as a hobby. They all had other jobs that they made a living at. Yes. And it’s a great relaxation to me, jewelry, and I am a professional watchmaker, too, and this type of work requires relaxation, and music is certainly a relaxer.

About Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax (1915–2002), folklorist, musicologist, writer, and producer, spent six decades documenting and writing about the world's musical traditions.

About Raymond C. Hamrick

Raymond C. Hamrick (1915–2014) served as a member of the Music Committee that edited The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition and was president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. A watchmaker by trade, Hamrick was a prolific composer. In addition to his six songs in The Sacred Harp, hundreds of his compositions are collected in The Georgian Harmony.
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