Sacred Harp singers keep tradition alive
by Brian Anderson
Sep 06, 2011 | 6322 views |  0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
EDWARDSVILLE –- Although the rain persisted outside, the voices of the men and women who gathered to sing at the church in Cleburne County completely took over the inside.

A wet Labor Day morning couldn’t put a damper on the annual Shoal Creek shape note singing gathering in Edwardsville Monday morning. Every pew of the tiny historic Shoal Creek Church in Talladega National Forest was filled, as about 50 people participated in traditional Sacred Harp singing.

Shape note singing –- sometimes called Sacred Harp singing –- is a traditional Southern style of hymnal singing dating from the 1800’s.

Shape note singers don't think of themselves as performers for an audience, as evidenced by the layout of the church at Shoal Creek -– four sections, all facing the center of the room. Instead, shape note singing is a community event, for everyone to partake in, pracititioners say.

According to the Shoal Creek Church’s Preservation Society Secretary Joseph Jones the little log cabin sanctuary was built in the 1890’s, but was abandoned by its congregation around 1914. For the majority of the church’s history, it has been known only as the home of the annual signing that takes place every year.

View and listen to an audio slideshow of the singing

“Since 1920, this singing is the only scheduled event for this church,” said Jones, a resident of Huntsville who nevertheless calls Shoal Creek home. “I’ve been coming here as long as I’ve been going anywhere,” he said.

“Home” is an accurate word for many who return to Shoal Creek year after year. The friendly community interacted like old friends, singing songs that come as second nature to them. Participants could sign up to lead the room in hymns of their choice. While the rain refused to go away Monday morning, it never did drown out the voices of the singers, nor did the lack of sun provide much annoyance to the regulars at Shoal Creek.

“Most of these people know all these songs by heart,” Jones said, referring to the numerous singers without a song book. “The absence of light is no great problem.”

Some in attendance at Shoal Creek have been singing the songs since before they could even remember. Anniston resident Jeff Sheppard said he’s been to Shoal Creek every year since 1961.

“My parents brought me here when I was just a little fellow,” Sheppard said. “I’ve been coming my whole life.”

Hugh McGraw has him beat by almost a decade. The Bremen, Ga. resident said the first time he attended the Shoal Creek singing was in 1951. Although he doesn’t do too much singing anymore, McGraw said it’s the communal experience of seeing familiar faces that brings him back to Shoal Creek every year.

“They might move off long ways, but when it comes back to Labor Day, they’re out here singing,” McGraw said.

Or at least they used to be. Over the years, McGraw said, it has been easy to see a drop in turnout.

“There used to be so many people they couldn’t fit in the church,” McGraw said. “They’d be hanging out the windows singing.”

It’s a slow decline that Sheppard has recognized too, especially in the loss of singers from the immediate area.

“If anything there’s less people now then there used to be,” Sheppard said. “There used to be a lot more local singers.”

According to Henagar resident Blake Sisemore, it’s a sign of what was once a great tradition in the area, being forgotten.

“There used to be a lot of singers from Cleburne County,” Sisemore said. “It was well known in the area, but it slowly dying out, you just got a handful of people from Cleburne singing.”

Cleburne County isn’t the only place the tradition still carries on. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association’s website has over a hundred annual listings throughout the country for gatherings of shape note singing. Sisemore said the shape note singing community is built on word of mouth, and Jones said it wasn’t unusual for events such as the one at Shoal Creek to attract singers from all over the country.

And, apparently, even from across the sea.

Daire O’Sullivan and Eimear O’Donovan, students at the University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, traveled to Alabama just to take part in traditional shape note singing.

“Sacred Harp singing began in Cork three years ago as a module in the music course,” O’Donovan said on how the two got interested in singing.

Interest in shape note singing has been aided in recent years with technological advantages that have changed the community from being based in small rural area, to a constantly moving organization.

“The whole tradition is based on the idea of community,” O’Sullivan said. “People will email you, or find out on Facebook, and there’s websites with listings which is a great help.”

The church, in the meantime, won’t be going anywhere, and won’t be seeing a whole lot of attention for quite some time. The only event scheduled next year for Shoal Creek Church is the shape note singing gathering for the first Monday in September.

“There’s no charge,” Jones said. “The door is never locked.”

Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546

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