Seasonal Songs


One choice every singer at a Sacred Harp singing faces is what song to lead. The songs leaders choose are building blocks that construct our experience of the day, and how leaders make such choices is surely as individual and varied a process as any in our music. In this essay we address one small but measurable factor influencing singers’ selections: the time of year. Reflecting on our own experience, we can certainly think of times when leaders seemed to select a song because of its relationship to a holiday such as Christmas or the Fourth of July. Analysis of the minutes backs this up. Certain songs do indeed show a measurable and statistically significant burst in popularity at specific times of the year. Yet the reasons why some songs are led seasonally vary, as do the specific contours in the leading patterns of such songs over time. In this essay we explore the variety of seasonal songs in The Sacred Harp to shed light on just how singers think about songs in relation to the calendar.

Holiday Songs

Many of the most pronounced seasonal spikes in the popularity of songs coincide with holidays. Singers draw on titles and hymn texts to associate certain songs with Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, New Year’s, and even Father’s Day.

Christmas songs make up the largest and most popular group of holiday-related songs. The most popular Christmas songs experience a modest, but significant, seasonal bump. “Oxford” (p. 306 in The Sacred Harp), a setting of the Christmas hymn “Shepherds, rejoice! lift up your eyes,” spikes in popularity in the run up to Christmas, led at between 26.0 percent and 15.3 percent of singings in the month and a half before the holiday, 2 ⅓ times as many singings than during the rest of the year. Yet the song is also popular throughout the year, led at an average of 9.6 percent of singings outside of the Christmas season. “Sherburne” (p. 186), a setting of the well-known Christmas hymn “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” is so popular year-round that it’s Christmas bump is even less marked. The song is led at 49.4 percent of singings in mid-November and 41.7 percent of singings in mid-December. Yet during the rest of the year it is still highly popular, led at an average of 31.7 percent of singings outside the Christmas season.1 “Plenary” (p. 162) an arrangement of the “Auld Lang Syne” tune associated with New Year’s that is reasonably popular year round likewise exhibits a modest spike in use immediately before and after the New Year’s holiday.

Many other songs in The Sacred Harp feature hymn texts and titles that invoke Christmas. “Cookham,” “Shepherd’s Rejoice,”“Portuguese Hymn,” “Christmas Anthem,” and “Shining Star” (pp. 81b, 152, 223, 225b, and 461) are relatively little used in general but attract more attention as Christmas approaches, and consequently experience an even more pronounced spike at that time of the year. Indeed, these are among the most dramatically seasonal songs in the book. “Cookham,” the Christmas song with the most seasonally extreme leading patterns, is led at one out of every four singings just before Christmas, but at just 0.68 percent of singings outside of Christmas season. The song is twenty-six times more likely to be led at a singing in two months before the holiday than at other times of the year. Unlike “Sherburne” and “Oxford,” singers don’t typically turn to these songs unless motivated by the season.

415EasterMornThere are examples of both types of seasonal tunes among the Easter songs in The Sacred Harp. “Jesus Rose,” “Weeping Mary,” “Easter Morn,” and “Mary’s Grief and Joy,” (pp. 156, 408415, and 451), like “Shepherd’s Rejoice” and “Christmas Anthem,” are songs strongly associated with the Easter holiday, yet little used during the rest of the year. Yet the song most often associated with Easter is so popular it exhibits only minimal seasonality. “Easter Anthem” (p. 236) shows a modest swell in the weeks leading up to Easter, but is so extraordinarily popular that its seasonal spike is more of a minor bump. The song, the second most widely used anthem in The Sacred Harp and the eighty-eighth most popular song in the book, is just 1.6 times more likely to be used in the weeks leading up to Easter than it is during the rest of the year.2

346AmericanStar 110MountVernon Songs in The Sacred Harp with patriotic texts experience seasonal spikes around the Fourth of July. “The American Star” (p. 346), relatively little used, is led 5.8 times as often at a singing around the nation’s birthday than during the rest of the year. “Ode on Science” (p. 242) also benefits from an Independence Day bump: the ode is four times as likely to be led around the fourth of July than during the rest of the year. These two songs and “Liberty” (p. 137), which experiences a less pronounced swell around the Fourth of July, feature texts celebrating the nation’s independence. Remarkably, “Mount Vernon” (p. 110), a song with text commemorating George Washington’s death and a title named for his famed residence, likewise swells in popularity during the six weeks around Independence Day, but also experiences spikes during the two week blocks surrounding the first President’s birth and death.

Bobby Watkins and Taylor Watkins

Bobby Watkins and son Taylor sport seasonal outfits at the 2014 Henagar-Union Convention. Photograph by Martha Beverley.

The timeframe in which leaders select seasonal songs also varies among holidays. The Independence Day bump is a short burst coinciding exactly with the two week block surrounding the holiday. Visitors to the singing at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, Alabama, on the first Sunday in July and the Saturday before will likely recall leaders selecting songs with patriotic texts as well as those who choose to mark the holiday by wearing clothing in red, white, and blue, or even preparing holiday-inspired food, like a sheet-cake decorated like an American flag. Singers also have the opportunity to mark the holiday at the Fourth of July singing held at Camp Lee in Anniston, Alabama, the site of the youth session of Camp Fasola. Patriotic songs are frequently called at these singings, whether they occur on the Fourth of July, just before, or just after, helping to ensure the seasonal spike right around the holiday. But singers typically wait until the holiday is just around the corner before taking up Fourth of July songs, and those tunes fall off in popularity just as speedily after the holiday occurs.

Christmas songs, in contrast, rise in popularity for a whole two-month season in the run up to the holiday, before falling off dramatically around the New Year. Christmas itself falls on the only weekend of the year when no annual singings are scheduled. The Christmas spike for several songs, unsurprisingly, occurs during the two week block preceding the holiday. Yet other Christmas songs experience their pinnacle of popularity a full month earlier, in mid-November, shortly before Thanksgiving and the unofficial start of the Christmas season, with a sustained bump through December’s annual singings. By the time singings resume around the start of the New Year, interest in leading such songs has waned.

The seasonal bumps for Easter songs vary, sometimes demonstrating a striking relationship between the songs’ text and the calendar in the weeks before Easter. Songs with texts speaking of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, like “Weeping Mary,” “Mary’s Grief and Joy,” and “Easter Morn,” are popular either during the two week block before Easter Sunday or during the full month surrounding Easter, reflecting singers’ tendency to choose these songs to illustrate different parts of the Easter story. In contrast, “Jesus Rose,” which features a hymn text beginning after the resurrection, experiences its seasonal spike on Easter Sunday and the two week block following. “Easter Anthem,” which likewise speaks of the resurrection, is popular during a much longer period. It begins to swell in use about ten weeks before Easter, leaps to yet higher popularity at the start of Lent, and continues to rise until Easter, remaining seasonally popular through the two week cycle after the holiday. While these other songs’ bumps may indicate leaders’ specific associations of their hymn texts with events in the Christian calendar around Easter, “Easter Anthem,” despite it’s text’s specificity, also acquires a broader capacity to signal the season at large.

413LovedOnesAt least one other among the most seasonal songs features a spike that corresponds with a holiday. “The Loved Ones” (p. 413), due to a text which urges singers to “be kind to thy father” and tells of the different roles of a father early and late in life, experiences a dramatic spike around the time of Father’s Day. The song is a particular favorite at the singing at Hopewell Primitive Baptist Church in Heard County, Georgia, on Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June, and is also led at other singings held on Father’s Day, including those at Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church in Section, Alabama, King’s Schoolhouse in Natural Bridge, Alabama, and Little Vine Primitive Baptist Church in Empire, Alabama.

Winter and Spring

“Winter” and “Spring” (pp. 38t and 188), songs in The Sacred Harp with names (and hymn texts) that identify them with seasons of the year, also show leading behavior that corresponds with the calendar. We might expect such seasonal songs to follow a different pattern than holiday songs, showing a gradual swell rather than a sharp spike, but in fact analysis of the leading patterns for these two songs show both a spike at a certain time of the year and a swell over a longer duration.

Both “Winter” and “Spring” experience the most pronounced use during the two week blocks coinciding with the official starts of their respective seasons: the winter solstice for “Winter,” and the vernal equinox for “Spring.”3 It’s perhaps surprising that singers mark these dates, which receive less attention than Christmas or Independence Day, by singing these songs. Yet knowingly or unknowingly, singers do.

188Spring 38tWinter For both songs, the official start of the season also seems to inaugurate a period of relative popularity. This season begins for “Spring” right on the two week block coinciding with the equinox. It starts for “Winter,” in contrast, a couple of weeks in advance—understandable given that winter weather in many areas where singings are held also often precedes the December winter solstice.

“Spring’s” swell in usage lasts for two months. During spring the song is twice as popular than during the other seasons. It then experiences what we might term an early summer lull, before a small but perhaps significant spike in mid-July. Why? Perhaps thanks to nostalgic longing for spring after summer’s heat sets in?

“Winter” too continues to be led more often than at other times of the year after falling from its solstice peak, but it experiences a longer and more gradual slide in popularity extending a full four months after the solstice, until mid April.4 Perhaps singers feel motivated by the second verse of the song, only added to The Sacred Harp in 1991, to lead “Winter” not just to mark its eponymous season, but also its conclusion as “He sends His word, and melts the snow, … And bids the spring return.”

Songs, Singings, and Singers

Sometimes a song’s seasonality can reveal a deeper association with a person or place. Mark Godfrey has developed a seasonality score, which ranks songs according to the spikiness of their leading behavior. A handful of the songs right at the top are those associated with a particular holiday, including several Christmas songs and the Father’s Day favorite “The Loved Ones.” But others are little used songs with no obvious relationship to a holiday. Why are “Tolling Bell” or “Mount Zion (Second)” (pp. 459 and 88b) so seasonal?

Bradford Grave

Mollie Obera Holmes Bradford grave, Gum Pond Primitive Baptist Church, Eva, Alabama. Photograph by Judy Caudle.

The answer is that for songs that are led relatively little, one leader’s association of that song with a particular person or place can produce a statistically significant spike. (Indeed, the holiday songs at the top of the seasonality list are all also relatively uncommon. Popular holiday songs like “Sherburne” and “Oxford” show up much further down the list.) In this way, a song’s seasonality can be a marker not primarily of its relationship to the calendar, but of the kinds of associations Sacred Harp singers often have for many songs, the sorts of associations that join the words and music in making such songs meaningful. We frequently speak of a song as belonging to a certain singer, as “his” or “her song,” because of our memories of that singer loving and leading that song over the years, and the seasonality of such unexpected songs can be a surprising indicator of just such a connection.

A full 27 percent of lessons with “Tolling Bell” feature Judy Caudle leading the song at Gum Pond Primitive Baptist Church.5 For Judy, leading “Tolling Bell” is a way to remember her great aunt Bera Bradford a member of Gum Pond and a Sacred Harp singer who was part of the group that organized the cemetery at the church in the 1970s. As Judy notes, the day of the annual singing at Gum Pond on the fourth Sunday in May

was established as the decoration day for the cemetery. Aunt Bera passed away in early 1976 and became one of the first to be buried in the cemetery. Her son, Ben Bradford, traveled to this area from Michigan each year for decoration day and the singing at Gum Pond. At the singing, he would request that “Tolling Bell” be sung in memory of Aunt Bera, and it became a tradition to do so. Even though Ben has since also passed away, we continue to sing “Tolling Bell” as the memorial lesson song on the fourth Sunday in May.

It is important to me that we remember those who preceded us in our Sacred Harp tradition. Some of my earliest memories of singings include Aunt Bera going with my family to attend a singing somewhere. I don’t remember that she ever led a song, although she may have in earlier years, but she attended and sang treble at many singings. When I was a young woman, and singing treble myself, she was instrumental in teaching me the intricacies of the treble part. It is an honor for me to remember her in song.6

“Tolling Bell’s” high seasonality, then, flows from its deeper meaning: Judy’s association of the song with Aunt Bera, Bera and her son Ben’s connection to the Gum Pond church’s decoration day, and the infrequency with which the song is used in other contexts.

Some connections are more straightforward. John Plunkett has led the song on p. 88b, “Mount Zion (Second),” consistently at the two-day singing held at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Mt. Zion, Georgia—celebrating the coincidence between the song’s name and that of the singing and its location.7

459TollingBell 88bMountZion


For most songs in The Sacred Harp, seasonality in leading behavior is minimal or insignificant. Especially for the most popular songs in the book, different individual leaders may have multiple complementary associations of the tunes with particular people and their singings so that such associations, as represented in leaders’ choices, cancel each other out, or are overwhelmed by the many other reasons leaders select songs that have little or nothing to do with a particular place, person, or time of year. Some popular songs in The Sacred Harp may be associated with particular times, but the particularities of those associations inhibit seasonal leading behavior. For a number of singers, “Idumea” (p. 47b) is associated with the 2003 Hollywood film Cold Mountain. And while the song experienced a dramatic “Cold Mountain bump” in the year following the film’s premiere and has maintained its popularity more than a decade after the film’s release, the song is the eleventh least seasonal song in the book. Associating “Idumea” with a year and a movie doesn’t translate into seasonal bias. The song is popular year round.

Many of the other least seasonal songs are among the most popular in the book. “Beach Spring” (p. 81t), the seventy-seventh most popular song since 1995 is the most un-seasonal song in The Sacred Harp. The top five songs in popularity in the tunebook, “Hallelujah,” “New Britain,” “Northfield,” “Redemption,” and “A Thankful Heart” (p. 146, 45t, 155, 480, and 475), are all relatively close to the bottom of the seasonality list.8 Of the twenty least seasonal songs in The Sacred Harp, nineteen are among the 100 most popular.9

47bIdumea 81tBeachSpring


Seasonality expresses itself in different ways for different types of songs. Many little-used songs tied to a person or place experience a spike that represents the gradual accrual of lessons held on a given weekend of the year. Holiday songs, depending on the nature of the holiday and the singing calendar, tend to spike on or just before the holiday, sometimes with a gradual swell in prior weeks. The two truly seasonal songs, “Winter” and “Spring,” spike, remarkably, at the astronomically defined starts to their corresponding seasons and then remain popular until season’s end, or, in the case of “Winter,” long after.

Seasonality can only tell us so much. It pales in comparison to other reasons why leaders select songs: their words, their music, and the memories and emotions that accrue around them. But seasonality does shed light on these very things, and is exquisitely measurable, thanks to the comprehensive record the many secretaries of our Sacred Harp singings have compiled. The lessons we lead at Sacred Harp singings represent both the most basic building block of an all-day singing and a beautiful opportunity for each of us to teach the rest of us something, to share an insight, thought, belief, or feeling. Examining The Sacred Harp’s seasonal songs reveals just one small piece of how singers think about selecting a song for their lessons, and how these individual discrete decisions build over time, shaping the seasonal ebb and flow of our collective experience.

  1. This figure represents the song’s median popularity at singings held from two weeks after Christmas to six weeks before. []
  2. Mark T. Godfrey, “Analysis of the Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings, 1995–2015,” unpublished dataset, 2015. []
  3. “Winter peaks at 25.7 percent of singings at the winter solstice; “Spring” at 7.2 percent of singings at the vernal equinox. []
  4. The song is three times more likely to be used at singings during winter and early spring than at other times of the year. []
  5. Eleven times on the fourth Sunday in May and twice on the fourth Sunday in September. []
  6. Judy Caudle, personal communication, September 28, 2015. []
  7. Plunkett has led “Mount Zion (Second)” thirteen times, of which seven were at the Mt. Zion Memorial Singing. []
  8. The songs are the sixth, 133rd, forty-first, seventy-second, and eighth least seasonal, respectively. []
  9. But even here there’s an outlier. The exception, “Irwinton” (p. 229), is ranked 168th in popularity, sung about forty times a year at Minutes Book singings. Its leading is distributed almost evenly across the calendar, peaking slightly at New Year’s. Evidently there’s almost nothing at all seasonal about the song’s appeal! []

About Jesse P. Karlsberg

Jesse P. Karlsberg is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. He edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Born in Boston, he lives in Atlanta and is senior digital scholarship strategist at Emory University.

About Mark T. Godfrey

Mark T. Godfrey makes music creation applications for mobile devices. His research interests include music modeling and information retrieval, machine listening, and interactive human-machine musical performance. He began singing Sacred Harp in 2011.
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