“I am going to bring nine people to Paxton, Illinois to organize a state convention. Saturday, May 25 is the date. St. Louis will be next.”
That’s what Hugh McGraw, executive secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, wrote on a note tucked in a shipment of books to St. Louis singers in 1984. Meanwhile, those of us in Charleston, Illinois, thought we were gathering at Paxton on that date to meet and sing with the Chicago singers we had recently met. We didn’t reckon with the power of Hugh McGraw! This was to be our first real introduction to the tradition of Sacred Harp singing and, I like to think, an important part of the story of its expansion across the country.
Early Days: Charleston and Chicago
Back in 1980, Lee Steinmetz and Dave Miller, English professors at Eastern Illinois University, concocted the idea of getting a group from our church choir together to try singing from the 1971 Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision. Dave had been introduced to Sacred Harp while a graduate student in Iowa. I don’t recall how we grew to a group of singers with regularly scheduled meetings, but I do know that we thought we had found some lovely, different choral music, even though it had some obvious “errors” in the harmony, which we fixed. We also added dynamics (we probably hadn’t found the few tunes which had them written in) and arranged the songs to suit our pleasure. I should mention that our efforts didn’t please Dave, who obviously had some idea of what Sacred Harp singing should sound like. We didn’t sit in a hollow square, but all sat together, seated around someone’s living room or in rows in the church choir room, with our choir director leading by nodding with her head.
I visited the library at Eastern, wanting to know more about Sacred Harp, and there discovered Buell Cobb’s book, The Sacred Harp, A Tradition and Its Music.1 I still love that book and was so thrilled when I met Buell for the first time at the National Convention.
Meantime, our group began singing at churches and clubs to give programs wherever we could get people to invite us or invited ourselves. Although these would probably be considered performances, our intent really was to spread the word and gather more members, which we did. This led to our “performance” at a talent show at Eastern. We had styled outfits for ourselves: the women wore gathered calico skirts with a ruffle on the bottom and the men wore dark pants, white shirts, and narrow string ties.
During this time we were invited to sing at Eastern’s Celebration, a “smorgasbord of the arts,” held every spring on the campus. It was there in about 1984 that a talent scout from the Libertyville (Illinois) School of Folk Music came to Celebration, looking for groups to sing for their programs and were invited to Libertyville to perform.
The summer before that performance, five of our group—Lee and Doris Steinmetz, Hal Malehorn, Don Bardsley, and Ruth White—decided to attend the National Convention in Birmingham. We all were excited to hear their report when they returned, and they had lots to tell us! Everyone sang really loud and fast! And the ladies wore their finest dresses and jewelry. They reported about dinner on the grounds, the social gatherings, and some of the great people they met, including Hugh McGraw. So we decided to incorporate some of that into our presentation at Libertyville. We worked up a program, including coming with baskets and pretending to spread out “dinner on the grounds.” Another thing they brought back that we used was the comment “that was a good ‘un” after singing a tune.
We had a great adventure that weekend. Several carloads of us made the trip—we must have had twenty singers or more. We were to sing at 8 pm, I believe, but were told on arrival that they had booked an Irish harp player and singer at the last minute and we would follow her. So it was 11 pm before we performed our “gig.” But here’s the amazing thing: when we got up to sing, we saw several folks out in the audience with Sacred Harp songbooks, following along. So for our last number, we invited them to come up and sing with us. And that was our introduction to the fledgling Chicago singers.
The Chicago singers arrived more or less at the same point we did prior to Paxton but by a very different route—one might say by way of folk music rather than choir music, and that made quite a difference. It was a time when singers from all over the “north” were finding and falling in love with this music through these and other pathways.
The First Illinois Convention
The Charleston and the Chicago singers were so amazed to find one another that we decided we should get together to sing. Lee and Doris Steinmetz had a good friend who was a United Methodist pastor at Paxton, on I-57, about halfway between Chicago and Charleston, and agreed to let us use their church; so a date was set, May 25, for the
Ted Johnson remembers that it was his wife Marcia and fellow Chicago singer Judy Hauff who were in contact with Hugh and who received the phone call from him enquiring, “Y’all are going to have a convention?” So Hugh sent them the bylaws, the minutes and promised to bring a group of singers from Georgia. Oh, and he said, “do y’all sing the shapes?” and, after a significant pause, “Well, you’ll learn.”
Most of us in Charleston had no idea what a convention was or what was in store for us as we entered approached our encounter with traditional Sacred Harp practices. Each of our groups worked up some songs to perform for one another. We in Charleston couldn’t believe it when we heard these folks were coming from the South. We had planned to sing in the church basement and had a music stand in the center of the square to hold the book for whoever was leading. Next thing we knew we were upstairs in the sanctuary and people were pouring in from all over: Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota. I will always remember how supportive the southern singers were. They didn’t tell us we were doing everything wrong (though they must have shared that among themselves!), just gently drew us into the tradition. And Hugh came prepared with copies of the constitution for the first Illinois Convention, which is what we became on that momentous occasion.
Ted Mercer recalls that there was a great deal of preparation in Chicago, attempting to learn the shapes, and choosing a repertoire of songs to present. He recalls that nearly the entire group made the trip. We Charleston singers worked hard at preparing a number of tunes (not the shapes, though); and we had practiced some anthems that we would sing with the newly-found Chicago group. We caravanned down from Charleston Saturday morning, but the Chicago singers arrived on Friday and encountered the Georgia contingent at the motel. Ted remembers Hugh McGraw, Delores McGraw, Richard DeLong, and Matt DeLong. They gathered in one of the motel rooms for a warm-up. As Ted writes, “A new, deafening sound filled the small space; I almost felt like the room was about to explode. As he leaned past me to get a beverage from the cooler during the singing, [then-Chicago singer] Jim Carnes whispered to me, eyes wide and pointing to Richard DeLong, ‘he’s yelping!’”
Georgia singer Geneva Prichard, sitting behind Ted, invited him to Holly Springs the next weekend. He and Judy Hauff did attend and were deeply affected by that experience. He wrote, “After we returned to Chicago, our director Phil Trier expressed the opinion that the Illinois State had ‘mixed’ results. I think he was uneasy about the southern influence. Indeed, scarcely a month later after the contingent from Chicago went to the National Convention, singers were insisting on leading themselves rather than being directed and when director Trier said ‘Do you want to sound like a group of backwoodsmen?’ we responded with a spontaneous ‘yes!’”
From Then to Now
There were singers in our Charleston group who still wanted to sing choir music and perform. As many of us traveled south and adopted longstanding Sacred Harp practices, those people were either absorbed into the group or gradually fell by the wayside. Ted Johnson points out that one of the great things about this music is that it will accommodate and absorb all sorts of sounds into itself without harm. The Chicago singers were immediately hooked as they traveled to singings and learned all they could about Sacred Harp and its traditions. For us in Charleston, it was a combination of things: the influence of Hugh McGraw, southern singers coming to us on Ruth Brown’s bus, and some of us venturing south to sing. [Read about a bus trip to the New England Convention organized by Alabama singer Ruth Brown in vol. 2, no. 2, of the Newsletter.—Eds.]
And even before the bus came, bringing singers from Alabama and Georgia, Joan Aldridge ventured our way. I was singing alto back in 1987 and happened to sit next to Joan at the National Convention that year. She decided to make the long trip from Anniston, Alabama, to Charleston, Illinois, that fall and has hardly missed a convention since. We have been delighted to host many other singers from Alabama and Georgia, from Canada, and from the United Kingdom. It’s not just about singing or about food—it’s fellowship that keeps us going! And traveling. We learned from Bob Meek, stalwart Kentucky singer, sadly no longer with us, that if you want people to come to your singing you have to go to theirs.
The original intent was to alternate the Illinois State Convention between Chicago and Charleston but when the Midwest Convention was established the next year we inherited running the Illinois.
As I write this, we have just held the thirty-third Illinois State Convention (and I have attended all of them!). It now meets on the Saturday before the third Sunday in September and we sing from The Missouri Harmony as well as The Sacred Harp: 1991 Revision. We attract a small but loyal core group from Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, and other states, including many who came to that first tentative attempt to hold a convention; and we add an occasional new singer from here in Illinois. We haven’t been very successful in attracting musicians from Eastern Illinois University or church choir members. Those interested in history or folk music have been more likely to gravitate to us. I think that’s been true of much of the “northern” expansion of Sacred Harp singing; it’s not through churches as much as folk venues that we have grown.
The Holy Grail of the perfect singing site still eludes us. As we travel around I have been known to spot a small country church and wonder aloud if that would be a good place to sing. We have moved the convention around some as needs changed. Currently it’s at the Texas Christian Church, in the countryside between Clinton and Decatur, which is fairly convenient to both our major cooks.
Providing enough food for dinner on the grounds was a problem at first as we didn’t yet have the concept of cooking a dozen different dishes in preparation. After Terry Hogg and Lori Graber joined our group that was no longer a problem. Each of them individually could cook enough to feed the entire class!
Finally, I think it’s worth sharing these words sent to the singings list in 1999 by the late Larry Olzewski, Old Harp singer from Tennessee:
They do have a responsibility, those that join Harp singing. They must put away all their pains and groans and griefs and fears, to give the Harp community a priority in their lives. Their agenda must be as contributors to the community, for its wellness and awareness of the next person who walks in the door. If they dwell on what they get out of the Old Harp then they are not givers and don’t, it seems, last long. If the individuals who focus on giving and sharing to build the community harmony then they will stay.
That’s what we’ve tried to do over the thirty-three years of the Illinois Convention—find those who will stay. Age and death have taken some of our core group of loyal singers. I believe it takes young people to attract young people and we’re not very successful at that, though we have established a monthly singing at Urbana which attracts some students from the University of Illinois.
And there will always be some who respond to the pull from that rectangular book with so many old tunes and new, sharing our unaccompanied voices in praise, sadness, pleading, longing, and joy.
- Buell E. Cobb, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978). [↩]