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How one Southern church forges unity through voice

The centuries-old tradition of Sacred Harp, a form of choral singing in which anyone can participate, draws people to a spare church in rural Alabama once a year.

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Dr. Eric Eliason, a music professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is one who has come to participate in the once-a-year event at Liberty Grove. He says he's taught Sacred Harp for years, but just began singing five months ago when he discovered a group meeting weekly 10 minutes from his house.

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"I thought it was a Southern thing," Mr. Eliason says, filling his plate during the customary dinner on the grounds here, spread upon a long picnic table beneath the trees. For visitors like Eliason, the home-cooked meal, prepared over several days, is exotic. Sweet potato cobbler, fried okra, Coca-Cola ham, coconut cake, banana pudding. For others, it's everyday food, another day in the South.

Though some attribute the resurgence of Sacred Harp to its vignette in the movie "Cold Mountain," Eliason says it began rebounding in the 1970s thanks to singers like Bob Dylan, who spawned a renewed interest in folk music. Dr. Warren Steel, a professor of music at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., says technology has helped fuel the movement. Mr. Steel runs a website devoted to fasola and attends singings 30 weekends a year.

Today, both he and Eliason have been invited to lead. There's no pressure. If the singers falter, they begin again. Steel says singings still fulfill their original purpose – to gather communities together in a world where religion can be divisive and the arts are a commodity. "You can't buy this," Steel says. "You can't make money off it."

Still, there is some money involved. Liberty Grove gives $3,000 in scholarships every year and is seeking a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and donations to build a music and cultural center. The purpose is to promote Sacred Harp singing, but other traditional music will be featured as well. The church has also taken advantage of technology, producing CDs, brochures, and operating a website.

Despite the publicity, everyone admits attendance is waning. There was a time when a singing like this would draw people from across the state to pile food and blankets into wagons and travel the dusty roads leading to the church. In later years, there were shiny campers and children buying snow cones from vendors, heedless to the white dresses and shirts that often fell victim to sticky-sweet rivulets of colored syrup.

• • •

Those days are gone now. The creek bed is dry, the tin dippers and wooden pails giving way to indoor plumbing and the steady beat of progress. Snow cone vendors haven't been here for years. The grounds now are spacious. A scant 40 people have gathered today in this one-red-light town of 284 people. Yet still, they come. And still, they sing.

Septuagenarian Sarah Beasley-Smith stares heavenward, her voice mingling with the others. Most of the people here today are related to her. Her mother and father met here. Her grandfather taught the singing school. She says the singings remind her of childhood and a time when she thought of this as "old folk's music."

She understands its appeal now. It's become a piece of her heritage she intends to keep alive. "It would have died if we'd kept it in the South," she says.

Seth Holloway leans against a sports car in front of the church, sending text messages and checking his MySpace page on his cellphone. A Christian music producer in Tennessee, Mr. Holloway comes home every year for the celebration he found boring as a child and admits is still somewhat tedious.

People are beginning to leave, a steady stream flowing to a slow trickle until at last the church is silent, windows lowered, doors locked. The wind kicks sand in great sweeps across the church's century-old cemetery. There is history here. Life, death, continuum.

And always, there is song.

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