Help Me to Sing: Raymond Hamrick as Composer and Teacher

Raymond Hamrick was a master craftsman. For close to eight decades, he worked as a jeweler repairing watches at Andersen’s Jewelers. For most of those years, he also used this eye for detail to craft and teach the art of Sacred Harp singing. It was this willingness to instruct that first brought me into contact with Raymond.

I came to Sacred Harp music through the back door. I grew up in Texas, but I did not have family or friends who attended singings. My first exposure to the music came through the Cold Mountain soundtrack, and my first impression was a mix of bewilderment and intrigue. [Read more about those who found Sacred Harp through Cold Mountain in vol. 2, no. 3 of the Newsletter—Ed.] I was not familiar with shape notes, and I could not understand the seeming gibberish at the beginning of each Sacred Harp recording. I was a student of traditional music, old hymns, mountain songs, and spirituals. I play a variety of instruments, learning a new one every other year or so as the interest takes hold. At first, I treated Sacred Harp in the same way. It was a musical curiosity, to be tucked away in my mental catalogue of musical forms, pulled out from time to time. It was not until I viewed Matt and Erica Hinton’s Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp that I became truly enamored of the form.

Cover of Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, courtesy of Awake Productions.

I was particularly taken by the portions of the film featuring Raymond Hamrick. The story of an old watchmaker whose musical masterpiece came to him in a dream seemed the stuff of folk legend, like Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads. Beyond the romance of Raymond’s story was the power of the music in the film. I had never heard anything with so much urgency and passion, and all in the interest of praising God, petitioning sinners, and mourning our mortality.

I began seeking out any and all recordings of singings, digging into old hymn books, and reading any scrap of history I could find on the subject. I didn’t want to just learn about the form. I wanted to connect with its elder statesman. As a multi-instrumentalist who loves to dabble in various forms of American roots music, I wanted to try my hand at contributing to the tradition.

A barrage of online searches led me to Jesse P. Karlsberg’s essay on Raymond. [Read an updated version of this biographical essay elsewhere in this issue—Ed.] A few emails later, I had Raymond’s mailing address in Macon, Georgia, and an assurance that he would welcome letters or calls regarding Sacred Harp. I sat down the same day and wrote a letter, declaring my interest in composing in the Sacred Harp style and asking advice as to how I should start. I had no idea if or how he would respond to my naive and presumptuous query.

It turns out, I needn’t have worried. Raymond has spent almost as many years mentoring others as he has singing. Hugh McGraw, Sacred Harp composer and former executive secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, was an early recipient of Raymond’s willingness to mold aspiring composers. “I met him in about 1955 or 1956,” McGraw said. “He was a good friend of mine. He and I used to compare songs and compare ideas and help one another. He said to always have your words ready before you wrote the music, because the words had to be metered. He wanted to help everybody.”

From left to right: Horace Hamrick, John Garst, Raymond C. Hamrick, and P. Dan Brittain, at a Sacred Harp singing in 1972. Photograph courtesy of Patti Hamrick Dancy and Susan Hamrick Hatfield.

P. Dan Brittain, composer of Sacred Harp songs including “Cobb” and “McGraw,” (pp. 313b and 353 in The Sacred Harp) also developed his technique in conversation with Raymond. “My first singing was the Chattahoochee in 1970. That year it was at Poplar Springs Primitive Baptist Church near Bowdon, Georgia,” Brittain said. “Raymond was at that singing. I sat behind him, if I recall correctly. I started writing in this style in probably October of that year. The first few efforts were dismal. Having had training as a composer, I had not yet learned which rules to ignore and how to adapt.” Brittain began attending singings on a regular basis and would often chat with Raymond about differing styles of Sacred Harp writing, gaining exposure to composers such as Leonard P. Breedlove and Edmund Dumas. As he did with McGraw, Raymond would offer critiques and insights into areas where Brittain could refine his compositions.

Jesse P. Karlsberg, vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, related similar interactions.

I met Raymond Hamrick at the 2006 June singing at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church. I had begun corresponding with him the previous year at the suggestion of a friend who knew him. I had been trying to write Sacred Harp music for a couple of years and wanted feedback on my music and mentioned to my friend that I admired Mr. Hamrick’s compositions. She suggested I send him some songs for feedback. He responded with a kind note and honest feedback, pointing out a number of ways in which my songs were unidiomatic, as well as with encouragement and the suggestion to try writing simpler music. I made plans to attend Holly Springs after a few more letters at his suggestion of a singing I could attend where he planned to be present. We continued to exchange letters and music for the next five years until I moved down to Georgia and was able to see him more regularly. On one occasion, I was flummoxed by a particular measure in an in-progress song of mine and wrote to Raymond for help. He sent back a handwritten music suggestion as a possible approach to the problematic spot.

Despite my own total lack of experience, Raymond was equally supportive of my inquiries into the art. “I applaud your feeling for this music,” he wrote. “One either likes it or doesn’t. There is no in-between. It is a subject that will embrace you more and more as you learn more about it. It is a subject that seemingly has no end as I’ve discovered. As to composing Sacred Harp music I must tell you I really can’t offer too much good advice. I think that one’s musical background is most important here. You have to immerse yourself in the music until you get a feel for the style.” He closed his initial letter with a gentle suggestion that I wait to try my hand at composing. He enclosed a copy of New York City Sacred Harp singer and composer Aldo Ceresa’s handout on writing Sacred Harp music from his Camp Fasola “Sacred Harp Tunewriting Workshop” and invited me to reach back out should I wish to pursue the conversation further.

Our conversation resumed roughly a month after our first correspondence, with Raymond further describing his composing process. “I have felt from the beginning that what I wrote was completely inspired,” Raymond wrote. “I have been engaged in music for many years and had never experienced any desire to compose. Then suddenly my mind is flooded with tune after tune.”

I would later learn that these moments of inspiration were buoyed up by relentless work and a surprising amount of technological innovation. After making Awake, My Soul, documentarian Matt Hinton established a friendship with Raymond that would reveal much about his composition process.

He would take two reel to reel decks that were stereo, they had distinct signals left and right. He would link them up so that it would give him four tracks, before that was really available. He was doing that in the 1960s. He would do anywhere from two- to four-part recordings.

Hamrick shared with Hinton the order in which he composed the various parts. “He would always start with the tenor, and ordinarily would write the bass next,” Hinton said. “Then treble and then alto. I think that’s pretty standard among Sacred Harp composers. Sacred Harp composition is horizontal and not vertical.”

Hinton remembers him describing his approach as putting “the emphasis on a singable tune, not on blocks of chords vertically rendered. He’s working on a whole tune horizontally, and then another tune horizontally.”

Raymond was equally meticulous when it came to marrying words to the music. Unlike some other Sacred Harp composers who start writing music with a hymn text as inspiration, for Raymond’s songs, the music typically came first. He often spent more time searching for just the right text and adapting it to the often unusual text meters in which he composed than writing the music itself. “I’ve always felt that every tune conveys a sense of feeling—sadness, joy, praise, etcetera,” Hamrick wrote, “so, in searching for a suitable text, I looked for one that also expressed one of the above. It involved many hours of searching and in most cases I was successful. In a few cases, nothing came up and at such times felt impressed to furnish my own lyrics, although I am not a poet.”

Beyond the technical, Raymond emphasized the aspect that inspiration played in his composing process. The most famous example is his experience of composing “Lloyd” (p. 503), which Raymond said he had heard in a dream, being sung by bands of white-clad angels. This sense of the ineffable movement of the spirit seems to have been ever-present in Raymond’s compositions, working in ways that not even he fully understood. It came and went of its own accord, and nothing he could do could alter it. It is what gave birth the final masterwork, the Georgian Harmony, a collection of hymn and fuging tunes written over the course of decades. “What is odd to me is that when the Georgian Harmony was published any urge to compose vanished,” Raymond told me. “I’ve been quite barren ever since then.”

Raymond C. Hamrick with Hugh McGraw, at the Emory Sacred Harp Singing in Atlanta.
Photograph by M. Patrick Graham.

Several months passed before I sent a letter to Raymond again. I put aside my efforts at composing, realizing how much I still had to learn. Late in the fall of 2014, I sat down and wrote him again, plying him with more questions about the art of Sacred Harp. I did not hear from Raymond, but I was not surprised. As he told me early in our correspondence, it was at times an effort to write. “I have to get in the right frame of mind to write,” he said. “That takes a bit longer at my age.”

On November 24, 2014, Raymond Hamrick passed away. I don’t know if he received or read my final letter. To date, I have still not completed a composition, but my passion for the tradition has grown. As Raymond predicted, the more I have learned and studied, the more it seems to give. Above all I remember his earnest counsel: “We must always remember the admonition, ‘Seek the old ways, and walk therein.’”

About Shaun Jex

Shaun Jex is the editor of the Citizens’ Advocate newspaper in Coppell and the author of a biweekly blog titled “Walking the Jericho Road.” A multi-instrumentalist, Jex developed his love of Sacred Harp and shape note singing while studying the musical traditions of Appalachia.
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