In October, 2015, the members of the Board of Directors of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company voted unanimously to present a citation to the descendants of Billy Joe and Evelyn Harris. The practice of awarding citations to outstanding deceased members of the Company was begun in 1969. This joint award was only the third one given to a couple; previous double recipients were Virgil and Ruby Phillips and Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard.
Billy Joe and Evelyn loved singing and singers; they traveled to sing with others, they supported singings in their area, and they welcomed singers into their home in Oxford, Alabama. They were loyal participants in the “bus trips” conducted by Ruth and Leman Brown and Pearl Guier, an important outreach to new singing communities across the country. [Read a report on a 1985 bus trip to the New England Convention in vol. 2, no. 2 of the Newsletter—Ed.] Their presence on more than thirty-five of those trips was marked by love and laughter. They also were diligent in visiting singers who were homebound or otherwise unable to travel to singings. I have fond memories of their visits to my parents.
Evelyn came from a longstanding singing family; her family had participated in Sacred Harp for several generations. She learned to sing as a child and often accompanied her parents, Chester and Estella Warren, to local singings. As a teenager, she attended several singing schools. She introduced Billy Joe to the music after they married. When Mr. Warren passed away in 1951, Evelyn and Billy Joe (or B. J., as he was affectionately called) began regularly taking Mrs. Estella to singings. As long as they were physically able, they never stopped going. In fact, their adult children complained that seeing them on a weekend required an appointment because they were always “gone sangin.”
Evelyn and B. J. could be counted on to support local singings in every way: cooking many dishes, opening their home to visitors, and welcoming one and all—especially new singers. They were the backbone of singings in Cleburne County, Alabama, at Old Harmony, Cane Creek, Edwardsville, and Oak Hill.
Billy Joe was known for his sense of humor, his droll impersonation of local characters, his unlimited supply of jokes, and his ability to laugh at himself. He could engender laughs for even the dullest tales. He was quite the raconteur, and his “spot-on” delivery was unsurpassed. Frequently, he was the subject of the stories. I remember his recounting of the time he went to purchase a new luxury car. He wore his usual overalls and did not display the roll of bills in his wallet with which he intended to pay cash for the vehicle. When he admitted that he did not plan to borrow any money from the local bank and was reluctant to offer any information for a credit check, the salesman ignored him. B. J. promptly went to another dealership, purchased a similar car, and made certain that his route home took him by the earlier dealership so that he could tell the employee that the competitor did not ask for a credit check.
Evelyn continued to participate in singings after Billy Joe had passed away. She often volunteered to drive elderly singers to various locations. She also reached out to singers of all ages, taking a special interest in those who were newly introduced to Sacred Harp. When Mary Jo Shafer came to Anniston to work for the city newspaper, Evelyn encouraged her. This is Mary Jo’s account of the special relationship they shared:
I first met Evelyn when I attended my first singing in Alabama. It was the Labor Day singing at Shoal Creek in the Talladega National Forest. I was just settling in, getting adjusted to a new place, new job, and new people. In many ways I was far from my New England home! But, I knew that my move was bringing me closer into the homeland of traditional Sacred Harp singing and so I was excited to go to Shoal Creek that September day. As luck would have it, I sat down next to Evelyn in the alto section. From that serendipitous seating, I had found a real friend. It is her wonderfully welcoming and hospitable nature that I remember most about Evelyn. I include this as one of her key contributions to Sacred Harp. Evelyn was the most welcoming, considerate, and open-hearted woman. She made strangers feel at ease. She was always friendly, smiling, interested in one’s stories, and kind. In all these ways, she was a wonderful ambassador for Sacred Harp. I believe there are numerous other strangers who were put at ease and welcomed by her sweet smile and gentle voice. I count myself as very blessed to have gotten to know her and to travel to various singings throughout the area with her. She was also the best partner to go to a singing with because she was a fount of knowledge about the history and people who populate her corner of Alabama. Some of my best memories are of driving through Cleburne County with her, headed to a singing in a small country church, while she told me stories about her childhood and family and singings in the past. She was, to me, in many ways an embodiment of so much of the history and tradition of Sacred Harp—it was in her blood and in her bones—and she was always willing to share her knowledge and her stories. She did so with a quiet grace, never looking for attention or accolades. Evelyn was one of the many proficient and dedicated practitioners who have helped to keep Sacred Harp singing such a vibrant tradition. She did this through her faithful attendance at singings but I must mention too her dedication in cooking for the hungry singers. I was always amazed at her willingness to get up early and cook huge portions of food. She took much joy in this as well—being able to nourish those who had come to sing. I can still close my eyes and taste her sweet potato casserole, or salted pecans from her own tree. One of the many aspects of Sacred Harp that I appreciate is that we remember and honor those who have gone on before and so getting to hear these stories from someone like Evelyn is so important to me. I will be forever grateful for the time I got to spend with her. She helped me through her welcoming spirit, her infectious joy for the singing, and for her community, her strength, and her faith. She left a lasting legacy in the Sacred Harp community, as did B. J. Harris. I cherish their memories as true ambassadors of the tradition.
As Mary Jo noted, Billy Joe and Evelyn were the embodiment of the love and fellowship that surrounds the hollow square. Their lives will be remembered long after we cease calling their names in memorial lessons.