Raymond Cooper Hamrick (1915–2014), of Macon, Georgia, was a well-loved singer, composer, and scholar whose intellectual curiosity, generosity of spirit, and kindness seemed boundless. Perhaps the greatest Sacred Harp composer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Hamrick imparted to his music a distinctive voice that recalls the earliest American composers while embracing a fluid melodic style and expansive chordal palette all its own. He wrote hundreds of shape-note songs across a sixty-year period, contributing some of the most popular and well-loved songs to The Sacred Harp, and consenting to have some 179 of his songs published in two editions of The Georgian Harmony. Hamrick’s singing voice was renowned, an accurate bass singer with a warm and round tone. Hamrick harbored an unquenchable curiosity—he collected rare tunebooks, studied the history of the tradition’s songs and composers, and asked and answered questions about the music’s practices in the groundbreaking articles he wrote for Sacred Harp newsletters and scholarly journals. Hamrick was a gracious and generous mentor and a friend to many. He shared his knowledge of Sacred Harp’s history, his insight into composition, and his thoughtful opinions with singers young and old over decades.
Hamrick was born on June 14, 1915, in Macon, to Horace Clifford Hamrick and Ida Eugenia Berry. His family attended Sacred Harp singings in the surrounding area but neither Raymond nor his older brother Horace were interested in the music in their youth. As Raymond Hamrick later recalled, “at that age … you’re more interested in social things than you are musical.” As a teenager, Hamrick developed an interest in classical music and began working as a jeweler and watchmaker.1
During the Second World War he served as a member of the US Army Air Corps. Hamrick narrowly escaped disaster at an Air Force base where he was stationed in Idaho. While preparing to conduct a routine test flight on the base, Hamrick noticed the plane had missed recent maintenance and urged that it be checked before the flight. His colleague wanted to fly the plane anyhow and decided to do so despite Hamrick’s protestations. The plane suffered an equipment failure and crashed, killing Hamrick’s colleague.
After the war, Hamrick returned to Macon and the jewelry business, but found that his social network from before the war had evaporated, a likely consequence of the mid-twentieth-century rural southern depopulation accelerated by the opportunities created by the GI Bill. Feeling “at a loss,” in 1946 he agreed to accompany his older brother Horace to a singing school in the southern part of Bibb County taught by Primitive Baptist Elder J. Monroe Denton. Hamrick enjoyed the experience, finding he knew many of the young pupils attending the school. Yet soon he was intrigued by the eighteenth-century composition dates of many of the songs in The Sacred Harp, and ultimately wrote for more information to George Pullen Jackson, the author of numerous books and articles on the songs collected in tunebooks such as The Sacred Harp. For Jackson, it was “a pleasure to find one like [Hamrick], a real Southerner, so deeply interested in his own native music. It is usually the Northerner who sees beauty in it and the Southerner who despises it,” Jackson wrote in his reply to Hamrick, along with information on some of his books.2 The two began a correspondence that cemented Hamrick’s interest in the history of the tradition’s music. [Hamrick recounted his correspondence with Jackson in an interview with Alan Lomax published elsewhere in this issue.—Ed.]
Hamrick soon began attending singings outside his South Georgia area, meeting prominent Sacred Harp singers, teachers, and composers Hugh McGraw and Alfred Marcus “A. M.” Cagle. These two recognized Hamrick’s love of Sacred Harp singing and were impressed by his historical knowledge of the music and his deep, sonorous bass voice. They soon enlisted him in activities supporting Sacred Harp singing. Hamrick was among a group of eight Sacred Harp singers McGraw recruited to join another group of eight singers organized by Dewey President Williams to participate in the 1970 Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife, held on the National Mall in Washington, DC. He returned to Washington in 1973 to participate in another festival, supported Hugh McGraw by anchoring the bass section at numerous singing schools and recording sessions, and was present to sing during the dedication of a historical monument to Sacred Harp co-compiler Benjamin Franklin White in Hamilton, Georgia, in 1984.
Driven by his interest in the history of the tunes in The Sacred Harp, Hamrick began to collect old shape note tunebooks. He placed advertisements in book dealers’ trade journals indicating his interest in oblong shape-note tunebooks and corresponded with dozens of used booksellers across the United States who responded. He ultimately accumulated about 100 volumes, many of which were the best preserved or only surviving copy, rarely paying more than $5 or $10 per book. He acquired what was then the best available copy of The Hesperian Harp for $15, later commenting that he was reticent about spending such a large sum for a tunebook but decided to go ahead given the rareness of the volume. Hamrick studied these tunebooks, lent them to researchers, and provided them for use in producing facsimile editions, making their contents accessible to singers and scholars.
Hamrick developed a particular interest in the early New England composers whose songs were included in The Sacred Harp, especially William Billings (1746–1800), the eccentric Boston composer-teacher-compiler who also worked as a tanner and occasional hog-catcher. Hamrick read the extant scholarship on Billings and other early American composers, studied their tunebooks in his collection, and wrote articles to share his knowledge of this era of American music history with his fellow singers. Hamrick wrote “The Twentieth Century Looks at William Billings,” summarizing Billings’s biography, compositional style, and then-recent “rising interest” in the early tunesmith’s works “by composers and conductors” for The Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News, the first Sacred Harp newsletter, in May 1965. In September of that same year, he contributed “The Curious History of Shape-Notes” to the newsletter, sharing the history of the invention of shape-notes in the context of changes in music pedagogy and printing technology. In both essays, Hamrick emphasized the “growing recognition being extended by music educators, musicologists, musicians, and academic communities” of features of The Sacred Harp, presenting this as validating what singers “have known all along.”3
Hamrick’s writing on Sacred Harp’s pre-history and his correspondence with scholars of early American music brought him to the attention of the editors of a scholarly journal on music education, The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, whose associate editor invited him to contribute to a 1996 special issue: “William Billings: A 250th Anniversary Celebration.” His essay, “Sojourn in the South: Billings among the Shape-Noters,” describes how Billings’s compositions were republished in early-nineteenth-century western and southern tunebooks, including The Sacred Harp, and remained popular among singers through to the present day. Hamrick, who recommended that Billings’s “Beneficence” (p. 486 in The Sacred Harp) be added to the 1960 Edition of the tunebook, recounted how the twelve compositions in the songbook were joined by yet two more—“Africa” and “Jordan” (pp. 178 and 66)—in the 1991 Edition. Hamrick’s “Sojourn in the South” was reprinted in Visions of Research in Music Education in 2010 and is included in this issue of The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter, along with his two contributions to The Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News.
Hamrick also became interested in the range of practices associated with Sacred Harp singing. Noticing that song leaders in West Georgia set faster tempos than those commonly heard in South Georgia, Hamrick began a sixteen-year-long study of singing tempos, documenting differences among regions, across networks singing from different Sacred Harp editions, and over time. His previously unpublished 1972 essay, “The Matter of Tempo in the Sacred Harp,” included in this issue, is the first to address tempo in Sacred Harp singing. In it, Hamrick places these regional and temporal differences in the context of tempos prescribed for different moods of time in tunebooks dating to the eighteenth century drawn from his personal collection and relays the shifting opinions of Sacred Harp singing school teachers on tempo across the twentieth century.
Hamrick also studied the practice of keying songs by ear, comparing recordings and surveying the preeminent pitchers at Georgia Sacred Harp singings. He wrote “The Pitcher’s Role in Sacred Harp Music,” the first article on the subject of keying Sacred Harp music, for the National Sacred Harp Newsletter in 1986. The article circulated widely and has influenced keyers ever since. It was republished in the 1980s in other Sacred Harp newsletters and in the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter, with an introduction by music theorist and Sacred Harp singer Ian Quinn, in 2013. A second article for the National Sacred Harp Newsletter, published later in 1986, demonstrated the value of shape-notes to composers, and is also reprinted in this issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter.
Hamrick’s interest in the music of William Billings and other early New England composers including Daniel Read and Timothy Swan, led him to try his hand at composition, beginning in the late 1950s. A self-taught composer, Hamrick had his first published song included in the 1960 Edition of Original Sacred Harp. The song, “Millard,” was dedicated to Millard Hancock, a tenor singer, pitcher for the South Georgia Sacred Harp class of singers, and mentor to Hamrick.4 Ever modest, Hamrick attributed the song to his wife, the former Joyce Rape, whom he had married in 1950, though he later acknowledged having composed the tune himself. Raymond and Joyce raised two daughters, Susan and Patricia (Patti), and later divorced amicably, with Joyce remarrying and taking her new husband’s surname, Harrison. Hamrick remained close with Joyce and his children.
Meanwhile, learning to write in the Sacred Harp style took considerable time and effort, Hamrick reported. “I still have some of my early efforts,” he wrote in 2005, “and I wonder where I came up with some of [the] musical ideas expressed therein.”5 Hamrick and McGraw exchanged tunes and advice on harmonization with A. M. Cagle until Cagle’s death in 1968, and continued to share music with each other in the decades that followed. While McGraw’s writing in many ways resembles the style of other twentieth-century composers such as Cagle and McGraw’s second cousins, once removed, Thomas Beatrice and Henry Newton McGraw, Hamrick’s music draws largely on the sweeter sound and more expansive chordal palette of the eighteenth-century New England composers whose work he so admired. As Hamrick remarked in 2006, “Marcus [Cagle] and I had some discussion on [harmony writing], but he felt, as I did, that you write what you feel.” “In my early days,” Hamrick noted, “I especially liked the Billings, Swan, and Read music.”6 But although Hamrick is unique among his contemporaries in having hewn so closely to the eighteenth-century New England styles, he is characteristic in his belief that the composers should emulate the model provided by The Sacred Harp. “As the book says, ‘Seek the old paths and walk therein,’” he insisted in 2006. “Change can’t improve a great traditional style.”7
An unusually prolific Sacred Harp composer, Hamrick wrote hundreds of songs over a sixty-plus-year period. He wrote of constantly having “music of various types running thru my mind,” remarking that “occasionally the urge to write becomes so strong that [a song] practically writes itself.” As Shaun Jex writes elsewhere in this issue, Hamrick attributed this urge to the Divine Spirit, and found that its presence ebbed and flowed across his life. Following the uniform practice of Sacred Harp composers stretching back to the book’s publication, Hamrick always began by composing the melody, or tenor line, followed by the bass, treble, and finally the alto, which, “being the least important, can then be dealt with.” Yet his music is notable for the flowing and melodic quality of all four parts, a characteristic Hamrick adopted at the advice of older composers who instructed “that each part should be a singable tune of its own.”8 Sacred Harp singer and music theorist Robert Kelley finds “Hamrick’s very melodic bass parts,” full of flowing lines comprised of step-wise motion in contrast with much music in which “the basses skip around,” among the most distinctive and enjoyable features of his music.9 Indeed, even Hamrick’s alto lines are remarkable for their wide range and melodic interest. Hamrick attributes his commitment to writing melodic alto lines to an admonition from legendary Sacred Harp leader (and alto singer) Ruth Denson Edwards, who, after singing an especially boring alto part out of The Sacred Harp, remarked to Hamrick, “Don’t you ever write an alto line like that!”10
In addition to “Millard,” his song included in the 1960 Original Sacred Harp, Hamrick contributed two songs to the 1966 edition of the tunebook, “A Parting Prayer”11 and “Penitence” (p. 571). Five more of Hamrick’s compositions appear in the most recent 1991 Edition: “Christian’s Farewell,” “Invocation (Second),” “Lloyd,” “Nidrah,” and “Emmaus” (pp. 347, 492, 503, 540, and 569t). Although Hamrick was particularly fond of some of his earlier tunes, he judged many of his later efforts more favorably. At his own urging, “Millard” was removed from the tunebook in 1966 and “A Parting Prayer” replaced with “Emmaus” in 1991. His songs added to the 1991 Edition are popular and much loved by Sacred Harp singers. “Christian’s Farewell,” for example, is now the second most widely used song to take the parting hand at the end of a singing, trailing only William Walker’s eponymous “Parting Hand” (p. 62). Hamrick’s “Invocation,” “Nidrah,” and “Emmaus” have steadily increased in popularity since their publication, climbing from practically unknown to comfortably enmeshed in singers’ repertoires.
Yet one song of Hamrick’s stands alone. Hamrick tells of awaking one night, in the middle of a dream that featured an angelic choir of singers, stretching “as far as the eye could see,” singing a beautiful melody. Finding a pen and paper, he jotted down what he remembered of the tune before falling back to sleep.12 He harmonized the melody after waking and titled it “Lloyd,” a dedication to two Sacred Harp singing friends (Loyd Redding [1915–1985] and J. Loyd Landrum [1931–2016]) and to Benjamin Lloyd, compiler in 1841 of Primitive Hymns, a collection from which Hamrick drew many of the hymn texts that accompany his music. “Lloyd” regularly ranks among the most popular songs sung at Sacred Harp singings; in 2010, it was the most popular of all, outpacing perennial favorites such as “Hallelujah,” “New Britain,” and “Northfield” (pp. 146, 45t, and 155).13 As Hamrick has said, “the singers just took that one up and made it their own.”14
Hamrick has also contributed to The Sacred Harp through participating in the tunebook’s revision process and serving the non-profit that keeps it in print. Hamrick was a member of the music committee that edited The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition. From 1986 to 2002 he served as president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. In his role as committee member for the 1991 Edition, and as a respected advisor to members of the 1960 and 1966 committees, Hamrick shaped the content of the book, drawing on his own interests and background. He suggested several compositions by eighteenth-century New England writers that were later added to the tunebook, including favorites such as “Beneficence” and “Portland” (pp. 486 and 556). He contributed the alto part added to “Stafford” (p. 78). Hamrick also encouraged the addition of compositions meaningful to other South Georgia Sacred Harp singers, strengthening ties between the communities he and McGraw represented; relations had frayed after the removal of a much-loved song from the 1936 Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision. Hamrick and McGraw ensured that the song, Elphrey Heritage’s “The Savior’s Call” (p. 489), was restored to Original Sacred Harp in 1960.15 Hamrick also facilitated the inclusion of tunes in the 1991 Edition attributed to South Georgia singers J. Monroe Denton (“Lebanon,” p. 354t), David Grant (“Humility,” p. 50b), and Joyce Harrison (“Haynes Creek,” p. 466). Hamrick wrote about the process of editing the 1991 Edition in a previously unpublished essay meant to describe the process for the benefit of future generations of singers. His cleverly titled “The ‘Ins’ and ‘Outs’ of Revision,” the first and only essay on the revision of The Sacred Harp written by a music committee member, is included in this issue of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter.
In September 2005, at the annual Sacred Harp singing at Haynes Creek Church in Loganville, Georgia, several singers were talking with Hamrick about how much they liked his music in The Sacred Harp when he volunteered that he had many songs he had written that had not previously been published. As Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony singer John Hollingsworth recounts elsewhere in this issue, he immediately offered to typeset these songs if Hamrick were willing to provide them. Hamrick agreed to give Hollingsworth a few songs, which Hollingsworth then typeset and brought to various South Georgia singings, where the gathered singers took some time at the end of the day to sight-read them. [John Hollingsworth recounts the process of compiling The Georgian Harmony in detail elsewhere in this issue.—Ed.] Hamrick continued to share compositions in small batches, and in short order, the South Georgia Sacred Harp Singing Convention voted to compile and publish these songs in a collection to make them more widely available to Sacred Harp singers. The resulting tunebook, The Georgian Harmony, debuted at a singing in September 2010 at Liberty Hill Church near Barnesville, Georgia, attended by Hamrick and a large group of singers from across the United States. This first edition of The Georgian Harmony includes ninety-two of Hamrick’s songs (including the six also published in The Sacred Harp). A compact disc recording of the debut singing, edited by John’s son Bill Hollingsworth, was published in early 2011.
In the summer of 2011 Hamrick gave Hollingsworth a second batch of around 100 unpublished tunes written across Hamrick’s entire period of compositional activity and embracing an even wider stylistic range than the songs included in the first edition of The Georgian Harmony. A community of singers inspired by Hamrick’s creativity, generosity, and talent assisted the composer, whose energy had declined since the publication of the first edition, in ensuring that all the songs met Hamrick’s own high standards. Singers again began meeting regularly to workshop the songs, this time taking notes on their copies of the sheet music which Hollingsworth compiled and shared with Hamrick, who then drew on the suggestions in editing songs and preparing them for publication. The South Georgia Sacred Harp Convention published an enlarged second edition of The Georgian Harmony, featuring a total of 179 songs, in the fall of 2012.
The process of compiling The Georgian Harmony catalyzed a great burst of inspiration in Hamrick, yet coincided with a period when the singer, then in his mid-90s, saw his work-life and participation in Sacred Harp singing “tapering off—regretfully.”16 Hamrick composed over 40 percent of the music in the first edition of The Georgian Harmony after he had turned ninety; he wrote many of the songs after the editing process was already underway. Yet the new second edition contained relatively few new songs, and as the project drew to a close, Hamrick’s output waned. He remained an active participant at Sacred Harp singings into the fall of 2014, traveling to a gradually diminishing range of singings as getting around became more challenging in his late 90s. Nonetheless, Hamrick continued working a few hours a day, three days a week, at Andersen’s Jewelers in Macon, into the early 2010s, a shop he owned for fifty years before finally selling it to an apprentice.
Singers embraced The Georgian Harmony. The South Georgia singers, with Hamrick’s consent, established five annual singings from the book, and singers gathered across the country—in Maine, New York, and the Pacific Northwest among other locales—to try out the songbook’s tunes. Among the South Georgia annual singings from The Georgian Harmony was a birthday singing, established in 2012, and held on the Saturday before the second Sunday in June. In 2014, the event was moved one week later so that it would fall on June 14, Hamrick’s actual ninety-ninth birthday, and occur during a weekend when singers who had traveled to Alabama for Camp Fasola and the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention would be able to drive to the event. Hamrick was in great spirits at his ninety-ninth birthday singing, joined by an extraordinary class of more than sixty singers from across the United States and beyond. He was touched by the love singers showed in including the day in their plans and impressed with the quality of the singing, perhaps the largest and best yet held out of the tunebook.
Hamrick had extraordinary foresight in preserving the legacy that his many decades of experience singing, thinking, collecting, and writing about Sacred Harp represents. He donated his tunebook collection, correspondence, and papers to Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library, where they enhance a collection of English and American hymnody and psalmody that is the second largest in the country. He continued to serve as a mentor, as Shaun Jex demonstrates, exchanging letters and sharing information in person with any interested singer. I visited Hamrick in the spring of 2014 to record an oral history interview as part of the fieldwork for my dissertation. During a conversation that stretched to over four hours and is now preserved at the Sacred Harp Museum and the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives, Hamrick shared an extraordinarily broad range of insights on the early New England composers, the history of shape-note music, and Sacred Harp performance practice, as well as about composition and his own deep involvement in the style. When he had difficulty recalling a name or date, he consulted notebooks where he had kept “a notice of just about everything that I think I [may] have to go back and look up,” recording much of his personal involvement in Sacred Harp and the information he had collected through correspondence and consulting his tunebook collection.17
Hamrick died on November 24, 2014. The Sacred Harp Publishing Company awarded him its posthumous citation, designed 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.” John Plunkett presented the citation to his daughter Patti at the 2015 Middle Georgia Sacred Harp singing, an event dedicated to Hamrick’s memory. Other singers in the South Georgia Convention shared remembrances of Hamrick at singings throughout the year. A great class of more than fifty singers from across Georgia and Alabama sang favorite songs of Hamrick’s from The Sacred Harp as well as his own compositions in that book and The Georgian Harmony at his funeral in Macon. Hamrick was memorialized by others beyond the Sacred Harp community as well. The UK newspaper The Guardian and Georgia Music published obituaries, and Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity, honored Hamrick by publishing a video of him leading at the 1982 Holly Springs singing. Long a kind and humble mentor to Sacred Harp singers and aspiring composers, Hamrick was, with his gentle wit, remarkable memory, and disarming charm, a delightful presence at singings and a treasure to the many people in the Sacred Harp world and beyond who made his acquaintance.
Parts of this essay were published in an earlier form as “Raymond Cooper Hamrick: Sacred Harp Craftsman” as the “Historical Profile” in Georgia Music News 72, no. 2 (Winter 2011): 74–76. Thanks to Georgia Music News past editor Mary Leglar for permission to adapt this essay for the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Thanks to John Plunkett and Stephanie Tingler for their feedback on an early draft of this essay, to Patti Hamrick Dancy for her feedback on a more recent draft, to Robert Kelley for sharing his insights on Hamrick’s compositional style, and to Todd Harvey of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and Debra Madera and M. Patrick Graham of the Pitts Theology Library of Emory University for their assistance in accessing Hamrick’s materials in these two archives.
- Jerome de Gratigny, Composing Sacred Harp Music with Raymond Hamrick, YouTube video (Macon, GA: Image 9 Media, 2010), http://singwithunderstanding.com/media/. [↩]
- George Pullen Jackson to Raymond C. Hamrick, ca. November 1950, Box 3, Folder 3, Raymond Hamrick Papers, Archives and Manuscript Dept., Pitts Theology Library, Emory University. [↩]
- Raymond C. Hamrick, “The Curious History of Shape-Notes,” Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News 2, no. 4 (September 20, 1965): 4. [↩]
- A. M. Cagle et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, 1960 Supplement (Cullman, AL: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1960), 572t. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, personal communication, November 21, 2005. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, personal communication, April 23, 2006. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, personal communication, July 30, 2006. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, personal communication, March 21, 2007. [↩]
- Robert Kelley, personal communication, October 24, 2011. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, personal communication, March 21, 2007. [↩]
- Hugh McGraw et al., eds., Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision, 1966 Edition (Cullman, AL: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1967), 569t. [↩]
- Matt Hinton and Erica Hinton, Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, DVD (Atlanta, GA: Awake Productions, 2006). [↩]
- Judy Caudle, Shelbie Sheppard, and Chris Thorman, “Song Use in The Sacred Harp, 1995–2015,” Fasola.org, January 2015, http://fasola.org/minutes/stats/. [↩]
- Hinton and Hinton, Awake My Soul. [↩]
- On “The Savior’s Call” and its composer, Elphrey Heritage, see Jesse P. Karlsberg and Christopher Sawula, “Elphrey Heritage: Northern Contributor to the Nineteenth-Century Sacred Harp,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 3, no. 2 (November 12, 2014), http://originalsacredharp.com/2014/11/12/elphrey-heritage-northern-contributor-to-the-nineteenth-century-sacred-harp/. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, personal communication, November 21, 2005. [↩]
- Raymond Hamrick, interview with the author, Macon, GA, April 3, 2014. [↩]