Preserving Sacred Harp’s Past for the Future:
Interning at the Sacred Harp Museum

Editors’ Note: The Sacred Harp Museum made great strides this summer in cataloging, archiving, preserving, and digitizing our collection thanks to Sasha Hsuczyk’s service piloting our new internship program. Below Sasha shares her experience living and working at the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Headquarters during her stay.

The Publishing Company looks forward to hosting our 2017 interns, Nancy Novotny and Andy Ditlzer, to build on this foundation. Please visit our internship page to learn more about the program. Our internship program is possible thanks to generous donations from members of the Sacred Harp community. We welcome your support.

Sasha with Hugh McGraw at the museum’s entrance. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

During the summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to spend a month working in the Sacred Harp Museum in Carrollton, Georgia, as the first resident intern in the Museum’s new internship program. I felt “like a kid in a candy shop” as I spent a blissful month learning, researching, connecting with people, and singing. I was peering into the Sacred Harp’s history as I dug through a treasure trove of artifacts, while simultaneously experiencing it as a contemporary tradition by attending singings and sharing fellowship with singers.

Hugh McGraw’s old license plate, part of the Museum’s varied collection.

Understanding the origins of cultural traditions has always been of interest to me. I began singing from The Sacred Harp in the fall of 2010. As my enthusiasm for Sacred Harp singing grew, so did my curiosity about its history and the people who have kept the tradition going. This curiosity eventually led me to Camp Fasola in Alabama, and then on many subsequent singing trips down South. I started to try to think of ways to spend some length of quality time in the South to attend singings and further my understanding of the tradition and its people, so I was delighted when the opportunity arose to work at the Sacred Harp Museum as the first participant in a pilot internship program.

The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Headquarters stands on land donated by the Denney family.

The Museum is located in the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Headquarters, on land donated by the Denney family, who have sung in West Georgia for many generations. During my time there, locals Philip and Gail Denney made me feel very welcome by kindly attending to my comfort in the museum, visiting frequently, and even inviting me for homemade meals.  Philip took me down the road from the Museum to see historic Emmaus Primitive Baptist Church, where his family has worshiped and sung for over a century, and where Sacred Harp singings are still held. I was delighted to learn from Philip that A. J. McLendon, the composer of one of my favorite songs, “Sister’s Farewell” (p. 55 in The Sacred Harp), was once the clerk at Emmaus, and that some members of the McLendon family are buried there.

Old copies of The Sacred Harp and traditional fans inside a cabinet at Emmaus.

I would often begin my days at the Museum sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, gazing out on the field across the road, crossing things off of a work list and adding new things to the bottom. The sun was strong and the days hot, save for a few with much-needed rainfall that Philip explained was a blessing during a particularly dry summer. I found the museum’s peaceful and quiet setting in a rural area outside of the city of Carrollton particularly conducive to productive work.

Because the Museum is filled with such an amazing variety of material, it was a task just to decide where to start with it all. I worked with the museum’s curator, Nathan Rees, and Director of Research, Jesse P. Karlsberg, to formulate a plan for my internship; we agreed that the highest priority was to begin the process of cataloging and digitizing the collection while ensuring that materials are cared for with proper archival methods.

The museum’s collection includes video and audio recordings of singings, original copies of historic shape note tune books, photographs of singers and singings, letters to and from a variety of significant singers, music manuscripts, copies of The Sacred Harp that belonged to notable singers who have passed, and other singing-related ephemera. Many objects have a unique connection to specific singers, since much of the collection was donated by singers and their relatives. One significant part of the collection is a set of scrapbooks put together by life-long singer and dedicated Sacred Harp community member, Charlene Wallace. She filled a number of large books with carefully cut-out newspaper clippings and fliers from past singings. Charlene, who has been the driving force behind the museum since its inception, came for a visit and an interview early on during my stay and shared many singing stories, always with a sense of humor.

Charlene Wallace outside the museum.

Charlene Wallace  donated her grandfather’s copy of Benjamin Lloyd’s Primitive Hymns to the museum.

Another visitor who came for an interview was Hugh McGraw, who led the Sacred Harp Publishing Company for a generation and oversaw the Museum’s creation. He gave me a tour of the headquarters building and recounted many amusing tales with his well-known endearing charm.

Hugh McGraw at the Museum.

One of my personal Sacred Harp-related interests is listening to field recordings of old singings, and so I was naturally drawn to a chest of drawers that contained an abundance of cassette tapes. Of all the tapes I went through, the most compelling to me was a recording of two small-group home singings from 1966 and 1969. The tape was accompanied by a hand-written list of the singers present for the recording, but not much other information. Based on some of these names I ventured it was recorded somewhere in West Alabama, and was eager to know more about who the singers on the list were.  Some months later, I attended a night singing in Huntsville, AL, where I met Lomax Ballinger, who grew up singing in West Alabama.  He was able to identify all of the singers on the list, many of whom were direct relatives of his.   It is exciting to be able to share such a special recording—and a great example of the important resources that we’re able to preserve and make accessible at the Sacred Harp Museum.

“Morning Prayer” (p. 411), recorded at the home of Elmer Conwill, September 23, 1966. Listen to the entire recording.

Ultimately, my work culminated in the implementation of a cataloging system that will help visitors navigate the collection; nine manuscript collections of items from the museum organized by topic; the beginning of a digital audio archive of the museum’s cassette tapes; and a collection of digital files that includes letters, accounts of Sacred Harp history, photographs, and musical compositions. I hope that this work can pave the way for future interns at the museum and eventually lead to a complete and thorough catalog of the museum’s collection.

Tapes from the museum’s collection in line to be digitized.

One of the best parts of being based in Carrollton for a month was the chance to attend singings every weekend. At every singing I went to, I was greeted with kind faces and welcoming words. One instance of kindness that particularly stuck with me was when B. M. Smith saw my well-worn Sacred Harp finally give in and fall to pieces in the middle of the square while I was leading at the Mt. Zion Memorial Singing, and at the next break he gave me a new copy. With his recent passing, the book he gave me bears so much more meaning. As the older generation of singers passes on, I feel more and more compelled to continue to connect with them and hear their stories, and to continue to sing and carry on the tradition with respect for its origins.  I hope that the work I was able to do can be a catalyst for further development of the museum as a resource for Sacred Harp singers everywhere so that the Sacred Harp Museum can continue to preserve Sacred Harp’s past as a valuable resource for the singers of Sacred Harp’s future.

Acknowledgments

For their support during my time at the museum, I would like to thank Jesse P. Karlsberg, Karen Rogers Rollins, Philip Denney, Gail Denney, Nathan Rees, Lauren Bock, Charlene Wallace, John Plunkett, Hugh McGraw, Alex Forsyth, Pitts Theology Library’s cataloging and archival team (Denise Hanusek, Armin Siedlecki, and Brandon Wason), Justin Bowen, Faith Riley, Henry Johnson, and Kathy Holland Williams.

About Sasha Hsuczyk

Sasha Hsuczyk grew up in Los Angeles, California, and studied in Western Massachusetts and Ireland, where she discovered a copy of the Sacred Harp in the university library. She now lives and sings in Pennsylvania, working in agriculture and music.
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3 Responses to Preserving Sacred Harp’s Past for the Future:
Interning at the Sacred Harp Museum

  1. Shawn Whelan says:

    Awesome work, Sasha! Thanks for sharing your experiences, it sounds like you had a great time.

  2. Micah Walter says:

    I loved hearing about your summer—thank you for writing this, Sasha!

  3. Micah Walter says:

    Also—in “North Salem” (p. 440), they say “gapping”!

    Wonderful recording—thank you for sharing this with us 🙂

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