What I’ve Learned from My Sacred Harp Elders

My love of Sacred Harp began with my grandfather, Jim Fields, who took me to a singing school in 1958, when I was ten years old. H. N. “Bud” McGraw was the teacher. I was immediately in love with the music, the warmth, and the welcoming hugs for a little newcomer. Some of the other attendees of that singing school were Hugh McGraw, Jeff Sheppard, Buford McGraw (and lots of McGraw children), Charlene Wallace, and Jack Hicks, my grandmother’s cousin, who was in his eighties and had never learned to sing Sacred Harp. I remember being able to show him which line to sing on for the tenor part. Years later, when he was more than 100 years old, Jack had fun telling the story of how I helped him learn to sing “when he was a young boy.”

James T. (Jim) Fields and Dessie Brown Fields, 1921. Dessie Brown Fields' brother, Leman Brown, served on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company board of directors and was married to Ruth Burnham Brown.

James T. “Jim” Fields and Dessie Brown Fields, 1921. Dessie Brown Fields’ brother, Leman Brown, served on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company board of directors and was married to Ruth Burnham Brown. Photograph courtesy of Louise Holland.

On the way home that first night, Papa, my grandfather, seemed a bit nervous for some reason. We chatted, and he asked me some roundabout questions about the night. Finally, he said, “You’ll like it better when you get used to it.” I responded, “I already like it!” My grandfather told me years later that he was worried that I wouldn’t want to go back the next night. That singing school was the beginning of my love affair with Sacred Harp music and the Sacred Harp family.

We attended the singing school every night for two weeks, two hours each night. The first hour was spent on instruction and the second on singing with everyone sitting in parts. We newcomers stayed on the tenor part to learn the lead before we tried to sing another part. Each of us had to jump in and learn to lead as well; the first song I led was “Weeping Sinners” (p. 108t in The Sacred Harp). Papa taught me never to lead without my book. To this day, I can’t lead without at least holding my book. It’s the prop holding me up. We had a theme song that we practiced each night with the goal of singing it well on the last night of school when the community would be invited to come sing with us. That song was “Lawrenceburg” (p. 380). That was a real challenge, but we did it! After the singing school ended, I didn’t realize it was only the beginning—I cried and hid my face in the book. What a happy surprise it was to learn that we could sing somewhere almost every weekend!

Jim and Dessie Fields with their daughter Ruth Fields Ayers, ca. 1948. Photograph courtesy of Louise Holland.

Jim and Dessie Fields with their daughter Ruth Fields Ayers, ca. 1948. Photograph courtesy of Louise Holland.

My Papa died late in 1959, so we didn’t get to sing together very long. Still, when I sing the songs that have been sung by so many generations before me, I feel a sense of place, of belonging, on the timeline of Sacred Harp history. I feel the ones who came before me, and I feel those who will come after me. I’ll always be thankful to him for that wonderful, loving gift.

Another strong influence in my singing life came from Jim and Lillie Belle Ayers. They became my surrogate grandparents, friends, and means of getting to singings. As I grew up, I learned from them how much it means to others to encourage, teach, love, and transport those who wouldn’t otherwise have a way to go to singings. I would call them as often as my mother would allow it—she didn’t want me to be a nuisance! It’s probably a good thing there was no caller ID: “Oh, no, it’s that Holland girl again!” They were unselfish with their time and their love. When the 1960 Edition of the Denson book was published, we had local evening practice sessions to learn the new songs. Each time we would go, Jim would have a new song picked out for us to practice. We would pull off the side of the country road, learn the song right there in the car, and be ready to sing it with the group when we arrived.

A scene from the 1960 United Sacred Harp Musical Association in Bowdon, Georgia, captured by a reporter for the Bowdon Bulletin. From left to right: Hugh McGraw (convention vice chairman), Will Laminack (“oldest in attendance”), Kathy Holland (“youngest in attendance”), and Jim Ayers (chairman). At twelve, I wasn’t really the youngest attendee—I was just the one that Jim chose!

Jim was a prankster. He loved to get a gentle chuckle with his tricks. His car was a 1959 Cadillac, the one with the tall fins in the back and the taillights about halfway up the fins. I had never seen such a fancy car, with its electric window controls. I had no idea that Jim could control all four windows from the driver’s seat. One time, he lowered my window in the back seat, then told me not to be playing with the windows, all the time watching for my reaction in the rearview mirror!

Fellow altos (left to right) Joyce Walton, Charlene Wallace, and Carlene Griffin, at the first National Sacred Harp Convention, Birmingham, Alabama, 1980. Photograph courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

I learned to sing alto from Charlene Wallace and Joyce Walton. When I arrived at a singing, I would rush to put my book on the chair next to Charlene’s. She would sing toward me and point to my page when I got lost or made a mistake. She was so patient. She has helped countless youngsters and not-so-youngsters learn to sing. Just sitting beside her was a learning experience. I still love to sing beside Charlene.

Around this time, I learned another important lesson: when there is a book on a chair, that chair is spoken for! I don’t remember specific instances, so I’m sure I was gently reprimanded, probably when someone’s book was already on the chair next to Charlene’s. That lesson has stuck so well that I still remember, with shame, the two times in sixty years that I moved someone’s book after reaching a reasonable age of accountability! I remember where each of the two singings was, and I remember whose books I moved.

I attended singing schools taught by H. N. “Bud” McGraw, Jeff Sheppard, George Phillips, Loyd Redding, Buford McGraw, Euclid McGuire, and others I’m sure I’ll remember later. Most of these names will be unfamiliar to many of you. I name them to say that I learned from them, collectively, and that there is always something new to learn, someone new who needs help, someone new to love and encourage. I can’t tell you how many times I saw Jeff Sheppard reach forward from his front row seat to take the hand of a child or an adult who was learning to lead. In one of the last pictures I saw of him, he was doing just that.

Jeff Sheppard, always an entertainer, often in a borrowed hat, aboard one of the many bus trips to far-off singings organized by Ruth and Leman Brown. Photograph courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

Jeff Sheppard, always an entertainer, often in a borrowed hat, aboard one of the many bus trips to far-off singings organized by Ruth and Leman Brown. Photograph courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

Jeff was also a prankster and an entertainer, his green eyes always dancing with mischief. At the end of the 2007 Camp Fasola at Camp Lee in Anniston, Alabama, everyone was visiting, saying goodbye, and hating to leave. I was chatting with Jeff at one point and he kept glancing at my pickup truck. Finally, he said, “Would you like to come by my house today?” Well, I was flattered, and said, “Yes, I’d love to come visit with you and Shelbie this afternoon!” He ducked his head, chuckled out loud, and I realized I’d been had. He had a stepladder he wanted to load in the back of my truck so I could bring it to his house. From pranksters and mischief makers like Jeff I’ve learned how much fun it is to get to know my fellow singers on a different level. I think that’s one reason so many singers return to Camp Fasola year after year—to learn, of course, and to sing, but also to spend time with each other in a more intimate setting than usual. We come to know each other in a broader and deeper sense.

Ruth Brown (right) with Jasper "Jap" Walton, at the first National Sacred Harp Convention, 1980. Photograph courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

Ruth Brown with Jasper “Jap” Walton, at the first National Sacred Harp Convention, 1980. Photograph courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

My great aunt and uncle, Leman and Ruth Brown, were the wise owls in our family, the ones whose counsel we sought. You may have heard stories of Aunt Ruth’s bus trips to Sacred Harp singings. If you were at the youth session of Camp Fasola in 2015, you heard some of those stories first hand from those who had traveled with the “Bus Lady.” [Read about a 1985 trip to the New England Convention on Aunt Ruth’s bus in vol. 2, no. 2 of the Newsletter—Eds.] From the perspective of a family member, her niece, I learned how important it is to be patient with your fellow travelers. Luggage doesn’t arrive immediately at a hotel door. Someone is given the wrong key. Another’s room isn’t satisfactory. Still another doesn’t like what is being served at a group dinner. One such participant, on a trip to Hawaii, refused to come to the bus at our scheduled time because she had been chatting and hadn’t finished her lunch. People get tired and irritable traveling on a tight schedule. Through it all, Aunt Ruth maintained her grace, dignity, and patience, and vented privately, not to her bus people. That’s not to say that she didn’t have the ability to quietly but firmly put one in one’s place when the occasion demanded it.

Lonnie Rogers, 1990s.

Lonnie Rogers, 1990s. Courtesy of Karen Rollins.

From Lonnie Rogers, I learned how important it is to recognize and welcome someone you haven’t seen at a singing in a while. During my college years, in the late 1960s, I stopped  regularly going to singings. About 1971, I went to Lonnie’s singing at the elementary school across from his house in Ephesus, Heard County, Georgia, after having missed it for several years. It was cold that first Sunday in March, and as I stopped at the back of the room to take off my coat, Lonnie came to welcome me. He took my hand in both of his, and said, “Kathy, it just looks natural to see you coming in here.” He leaned in toward me as he spoke to me and looked directly into my eyes; he was so sincere and loving. He told me stories over the years about connections between our families. We lived in adjacent counties, and he wanted me to know these family stories that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Hugh McGraw, at the first National Sacred Harp Convention, 1980.
Photograph courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

From Hugh McGraw, in addition to many Sacred Harp lessons, I learned the importance of flexibility. In 1985 a singing friend told me she was going with Hugh and a group of singers to the New England Convention in Middletown, Connecticut. I wanted to go so badly, and to take my daughter. My friend told me to call Hugh and ask him about it. It didn’t occur to me at the time what a huge favor I was asking. Nevertheless, Hugh said of course we could go. He made all our reservations, had to change his car rental arrangements, and never mentioned any inconvenience. When we arrived at our destination airport and went to retrieve said rental car, what we saw was about the size of my Toyota Prius! Hugh walked all around that car twice trying to figure out how to fit us in. It just wouldn’t work. When he returned from his trip back to the rental office, he had the keys to a seven-passenger van for the nine of us. We had luggage stashed in every available space inside the van and more tied to the luggage rack on top! We had to stop a few times to retie pieces that fell off the edge of the rack. Three of us took turns sitting on a piece of luggage by the sliding door. We had a blast, attended a wonderful convention, and returned home without serious incident.

I know each of us has stories of people who have had great influence on our lives. These are just a few of mine. I’d love to hear some of yours sometime. And I’d like to leave you with some bits of advice I’ve learned through the years.

  1. Don’t forget that a book on the chair is a sacred covenant! Also, if you intend to change seats after a break, take your book with you.
  2. If you need to get up during a song, find a way to go around the perimeter of the group.
  3. Responsible front bench tenor singers always beat time with the leader and look up at the leader. Some leaders need your help, and some don’t. Watch them for cues. Also, there are times when singers on other parts can’t see the leader, and your help is needed.
  4. Have your song ready when it’s your turn to lead, and call it out from your seat when you stand. Have a backup song chosen in case your first choice has already been called.
  5. If you are called to lead immediately before or after the Memorial Lesson, choose a song that fits that mood.
  6. Let the person keying have some “space” to find their note. Help only if the pitcher asks you to. You can also pitch your own tune; just let the keyer know.
  7. Be aware of how the singing is flowing, with highs and lows throughout the day, when choosing a song to lead.
  8. Singers have a wide range of belief systems. What each individual makes of the music and lyrics is up to that person. Respect that right. I think that’s something we do pretty well, actually.
  9. Even long-time singers make mistakes or sing something incorrectly out of ingrained habit. It’s okay to give it a go and not do well—or just listen and try to follow along.
  10. Find your elders, those who have helped you in some way that you remember, and let them know over and over, how important they’ve been.
  11. Finally, when you know a friend who won’t be with us much longer, find a way to say goodbye. I learned this lesson from my mother, who taught me how important it is to acknowledge an impending death; to let that person know how much they have meant to me, and to say good bye.

About Kathy Williams

Kathy’s grandparents, Jim and Dessie Brown Fields, grew up singing Sacred Harp, as did her mother, Louise Holland. On the way home after her first night at singing school in 1958, when she was ten, her grandfather was so afraid she wouldn’t like the music that he said, “You’ll like it better when you get used to it.” “I already like it!” she replied.

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