Remembering Toney Smith: Singer, Leader, Teacher, Organizer, Reviser, and Encourager

Editors’ note: Toney Smith, a member of the seven-person music committee that revised The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition, received the Sacred Harp Publishing Company’s posthumous citation in 2017. In this tribute, David Ivey, who served with Toney Smith on the 1991 Edition music committee, attests to the many ways Smith contributed to Sacred Harp singing in his West Alabama region and beyond.

Toney Smith was a stalwart Sacred Harp singer and teacher in Alabama throughout his lifetime. And what an excellent singer he was! Toney sang the bass, tenor, and treble parts with ease, but I will mostly remember him as a strong bass singer. He could carry the bass section with his voice and skill. Toney could sing every song in the book and sing them well.

Toney Smith leading at Zion School, Gordo, March 13, 2010. Photograph by Martha Beverly.

Toney Smith leading at Zion School, Gordo, March 13, 2010. Photograph by Martha Beverly.

Toney Smith was born into a singing family and was raised in Fayette County, Alabama, in the Mt. Lebanon community. He and his family regularly attended Sacred Harp singings in that part of west Alabama. Later as an adult he resided and worked and sang in Tuscaloosa.

Toney could lead every song in the book. He regularly led “All Saints New” (p. 444 in The Sacred Harp) with ease, a challenging minor tune that intimidates even the most experienced singer and leader. He masterfully and humbly led his songs in a way that the class could readily follow. As we sometimes say, “he got a lot out of the class.”

There was a wonderful class of singers for Toney’s funeral in Tuscaloosa in July 2016. It was striking how many of the singers in attendance that day went to their first singing school under Toney when they were young. His pupils—Larry Ballinger, Lisa Geist, Elene Stovall, Amber Davis, Cassie Allen, and more—spoke of wonderful memories of Toney as an encouraging teacher.

Toney Smith supported Hugh McGraw’s work to promote the spread of Sacred Harp singing. He helped Hugh start the National Convention at Samford University in Birmingham in 1980. Toney was the First Vice Chair of the first several National Convention sessions. As a young singer, Toney was a member of the groups we hear on the albums the Sacred Harp Publishing Company recorded in the 1960s and 1970s.

Toney Smith (second row, second from left), was among the singers featured on the first studio recording of Sacred Harp singing published by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company in 1965.

Toney Smith (second row, second from left), was among the singers featured on the first studio recording of Sacred Harp singing published by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company in 1965.

Toney was selected for and served with distinction on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company’s Music Committee for the 1991 Revision of The Sacred Harp. His wide ranging singing experience and knowledge of dispersed harmony was invaluable in the five year work of this committee. Toney’s love of Sacred Harp was never more evident.

Toney was married for sixty-eight years to Lavoy. Toney and Lavoy were always totally committed to one another, and they were almost always together. They even worked together in Tuscaloosa, Toney as a barber and Lavoy as a hairdresser. Lavoy faithfully attended singings across Alabama and Georgia with Toney, even though she did not lead. It was always “Toney and Lavoy,” together, and it was not unexpected that Lavoy only survived Toney by three months.

I will always remember Toney as an encourager. He complimented young singers on their leading, their voice quality, or their choice of songs. His singing school pupils remembered this clearly. He was content to sit on the second row, to be the vice chairman, and to ask a young aspiring “keyer” to pitch his song—all to help promote Sacred Harp singing in his own way by preparing a new generation of singers.

We miss Toney’s voice, his spirit, his encouragement, his talent, and his love for us all. I can still hear him singing, and I hope to sing with him again over Jordan.

Toney Smith, leading at the first National Sacred Harp Convention, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, June 1980.

Toney Smith leading at the first National Sacred Harp Convention, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, June 1980. Courtesy of the Sacred Harp Museum.

About David Ivey

A lifelong Sacred Harp singer, David Ivey is the president of the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association and the director of Camp Fasola. David was a member of the Music Committee that revised The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition. David lives in Huntsville, Alabama, where he is program director of the Alabama Supercomputer Center.

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