On April 12, 2014, at the annual State Line Singing, the Sacred Harp Publishing Company presented Pam Nunn and Rene Greene with citation awards recognizing the contributions of their parents, Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard, to Sacred Harp singing. Jeff and Shelbie became the eighty-fifth and eighty-sixth recipients of the citations, given since 1969 to “honor and express appreciation to loyal supporters and dedicated singers for outstanding work in the company and untiring support of and dedicated service to the cause of Sacred Harp music.” [Learn more about the company’s citation awards, and read about the 2013 recipients.—Ed.]
Of these eighty-six recipients, Jeff and Shelbie are only the third couple to be recognized. Shelbie is only the eighth woman. Shelbie’s mother, Lessie Cates, and Jeff’s brother, Jerry Sheppard, are past recipients of the citation.
During the presentation of the awards Karen Rollins spoke on the Sheppards’ contributions to Sacred Harp singing. Jesse P. Karlsberg addressed the couple’s involvement in Camp Fasola. We share these remarks below.
Supporters of Sacred Harp Singings
Those of you who are not from around here really can not know how much we will miss Jeff and Shelbie at our local singings. Especially in the last ten years or so, they were the backbone of the smaller singings in this area. You could breathe a sigh of relief when they walked in the door because you knew that they could fill in the missing parts and keep the singing going smoothly.
I speak of them as a unit because that is how most of us knew them—always together sharing their goals and experiences as well as their lives. They were a “Sacred Harp Couple,” a vanishing breed. Both of them came from singing families; I remember Shelbie’s parents. Her mom, Lessie [Cates], especially, was a strong singer. I do not remember Jeff’s parents, but I have heard my father talk about his admiration for their leadership in singing.
We will miss their knowledge and wisdom. They knew our traditions, they knew how songs should be sung, they knew how to lead properly, how to key music, how to cook for a large singing, how to conduct one’s self in the hollow square; the list could go on and on. And they shared this knowledge. Whether teaching at Camp Fasola, commenting at a singing, or teaching by example, Jeff and Shelbie were always ready to instruct, encourage, and lead us. Whether we were ready to learn or not, Jeff and Shelbie were there to teach us.
We will miss their humor. All of us have favorite tales of what one of the Sheppards said to us or about us. Jeff, especially, was surrounded by laughter wherever he traveled. I recently read some of the diaries that my mom kept on the bus trips of Mrs. Ruth [Brown]. Jeff was a central character in her stories. “Jeff wore a wig to the singing.” “Jeff put on Lonnie’s hat and serenaded the bus.” “Jeff told the waitress that we were nightclub dancers.” You had to laugh with Jeff even when you were the target of his taunts.
We will miss their hospitality. Shelbie and Jeff opened their home to singers from everywhere. They gladly shared whatever they had. They were the epitome of southern hospitality and many of you, I am sure, spent time in their home. We will miss their love. No one could hug like Jeff. He had lots of practice.
We will miss their dependability. As long as they were able, they could be counted on to show up for a singing and do their part. I am sure there were times that they did not feel like going. But they knew they were needed and they made an effort to be there.
We will miss their leadership. Whether serving on the music committee, as Jeff did, or serving on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company board as Shelbie did for a decade, or chairing a singing, or starting a Camp, or singing at a funeral, or organizing a trip, or editing the minutes book, Jeff and Shelbie did their part—and more. Those of us who remain now have a job to do. They have left a large hole in our Sacred Harp fabric. I hope that we have learned our lessons well and that we are ready to honor their legacy and practice what they taught us.
Contributors to Camp Fasola
Karen has just encapsulated so wonderfully Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard’s contributions to Sacred Harp music and to all of our lives. I want to speak just a little longer about their contributions specifically to Camp Fasola.
Camp Fasola is now the only annual in-depth singing school teaching Sacred Harp singing and traditions. As such it is critical to our ability to continue to grow Sacred Harp and to give new singers the opportunity to learn about Sacred Harp singing and to deepen their involvement in our community. Camp Fasola would not exist without Jeff and Shelbie. As David Ivey has recounted, Jeff was a major part of the conversations that led to the idea for Camp Fasola, and Jeff searched for and found a location for Camp Fasola: Camp Lee.
Jeff and Shelbie played an active role in camp from its founding as long as they were able. Jeff served as co-director of Camp for much of its first decade. He taught rudiments and pitching. Shelbie taught classes on “proper behavior at singings” and “preparing and taking dinner to singings.” Together they participated in panel discussions on Sacred Harp history, and taught on “decorum and tradition,” and on leading—a topic which over the years, became identified with Shelbie thanks to her much anticipated “leading bootcamp” classes. The two were the subject of a tribute at Camp in 2010 at the conclusion of which they were presented with a “more than a lifetime” achievement award.
Jeff and Shelbie contributed to camp in other ways as well. The minutes from the 2003 session of Camp Fasola, the first, record that “David Ivey requested that students wear their green camp shirts, which Shelbie Sheppard had laundered and folded (all 75 of them), for the group photo and the community singing Wednesday.” David Ivey notes that Shelbie stayed up until 4 a.m. completing this work. This is the only time that the word “laundered” or “laundry” appears in our minutes!
When teaching the rudiments, Jeff sometimes went beyond what’s actually in the rudiments to share some of the norms and values that undergird our singings. To offer just one example, the 2004 minutes record that Jeff noted “when the front bench tenors ask you what verses you want to lead, they are really saying … ‘which one or two do you want?’ That is to say,” Jeff noted, “you should not answer ‘all of them.'” On another occasion, in a class on keying, Lauren noted her frustration trying to key music in the way I had learned to key, to which Jeff responded: “don’t let him tell you what to do!”
Jeff and Shelbie profoundly influenced the Sacred Harp experiences of thousands of singers across decades, and as Karen has attested, had a great impact on the singings and singers around them in Alabama and Georgia. But for a younger generation, including many singers who, like me, didn’t grow up singing Sacred Harp, Camp Fasola was where we first got to know Jeff and Shelbie. Through Camp Fasola, Jeff and Shelbie were able to reach this whole other population of singers. It is hard to overestimate the impact that they had, as teachers at camp, on my singing, my feeling of belonging to and membership in the Sacred Harp family, and likewise on the commitment to Sacred Harp of the whole generation of new Sacred Harp singers with whom I began singing.
This was accomplished through love and through admonition.
Preparing to attend camp for the first time in 2005, I had already heard a number of stories about Jeff and Shelbie, and I was deeply fearful of Shelbie’s “leading bootcamp,” as were many of the other singers then preparing to travel south to attend camp for the first time. When it was my turn to lead I instinctively stiffened up, attempting to censor the manner in which I imagined I would “jump, gyrate, bounce, sway, stoop, stomp, [or] … wave … [my] arm[s] wildly”—all affectations Shelbie had railed against in previous years. Much to my surprise, Shelbie told me that my leading was too contained, too stiff, and encouraged me to relax my arm, to take a step here and there, and to breathe. Getting through bootcamp was frightening, but the love and appreciation I felt from Jeff and Shelbie afterward was profound and enduring.
Jeff and Shelbie made dozens of northern singers feel deeply uneasy, but then even more deeply loved and included. Through their instruction and encouragement they insisted that new singers learn, appreciate, and adopt Sacred Harp traditions, and at the same time welcomed them into our Sacred Harp family.
Through Camp Fasola, then, Jeff and Shelbie renewed their deep commitment to sharing their love of Sacred Harp and the values it compasses with singers of all backgrounds. And through Camp Fasola their work will continue, and their love and guidance will reach future singers not yet born. This is a part of Jeff and Shelbie’s legacy. For that, I am deeply thankful.
—Jesse P. Karlsberg