Please welcome my guest, Chloe Webb, author of The Legacy of the Sacred Harp (TCU Press, 2010). Here, she gives a brief history and explanation of Sacred Harp Singing, along with the delicious recipe that a group of us now request she bring to every potluck supper. It's wonderful.
****My grandmother, Terry Dumas Nolan, used to say there was never a better feast on earth than at an all-day singing and dinner on the grounds, “food and music to feed the soul.” In Union Parish, Louisiana, fresh butter beans and homegrown tomatoes were everyday fare, but desserts—such as coconut cake with lemon filling or peach ice cream from a hand-cranked freezer—were special enough to beg the recipes.
I heard Grandma sing only the alto line of the four-part Sacred Harp music, and I concluded that the music had no melody. Hearing the other three parts in her head, she often burst into song loudly and enthusiastically. The music is sung a capella, with no instrumental accompaniment. The tenor part, on the third line of the four lines of music, is sung by both men’s and women’s voices, and generally has the melody, although all four parts are needed to form the complete sound. The top treble line is also sung by both men and women, with women usually singing an octave higher than the men. Usually only women sing alto, the second line down, although occasionally a man might find the alto range suits his voice comfortably. The bottom line, or bass, is naturally for men’s voices. But would-be singers are encouraged to try several parts to find the best fit. And not being a good singer is not a good excuse for not singing; there are no auditions. Everyone is welcome to sing Sacred Harp.
The music is interchangeably called Fasola, shape note, or Sacred Harp singing. The term “fasola” refers to the “fa-sol-la“ solfege system of music that assigned syllables to each note in an octave. Most of us learned this as the “do-re-mi” system, which came later. Fasola, used by Shakespeare in his plays, was the system of music the first colonists in Jamestown would have sung. Later, a distinctly American invention assigned a specific geometric shape to each syllable, which corresponded to each note in an octave. “Shape note” music became immensely popular, especially because it could be sung by even illiterate singers; anyone could read the four shapes: “Fa” is a triangle, “Sol” is a circle, “La” is a square, and the less-often sung “Mi” is a diamond. Even life-long singers sometimes get syllables mixed-up, so singing “La” all the time is perfectly acceptable. The only thing that’s unacceptable about singing Sacred Harp is criticizing someone’s singing.
A full morning of singing whets big appetites, and the table is always crowded with photo-worthy dishes. The food is not actually served “on the ground,” although in the rural South, the table is customarily outside in a covered pavilion built especially for the purpose of all-day singings. The pavilion might be lined with benches, or sometimes only makeshift seating is available. A country church ordinarily has an adjacent cemetery, and I can vouch that an alabaster stone makes a very good spot to take a brimming plate. There’s something reassuring about being close in spirit to those whose voices once sang the same words and the same tunes.
A Sacred Harp salad recipe that has recently become known as mine is not mine at all, but came to me in a circuitous manner: from a Tucson singer, Paige Winslett, who got it at a California singing from someone who said it was from Alabama. In further tracking, Paige found on the Internet, “What Got Me Interested in Shape Note Singing Salad” from Jane Spencer in North Carolina. Jane says it is also called Bok Choy Salad, but she renamed it. She was not singing shape note music when her mother (Dorothy Lane) kept bringing back great recipes from all-day singings, so the salad was the starting point for her. She says, “Mama got this recipe from ‘some man’ and she can’t remember who. So if you are that ‘some man’ who brought this dish to a singing, please let us know.”
What Got Me Interested in Shape Note Singing Salad
Jane Spencer (2005)
1/2 cup butter or margarine
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup sesame seeds
(2) 3-oz. packages of Ramen noodles (any flavor, broken up)
3 oz. package sliced almonds
2 lbs. bok choy
4 stalks green onions
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (I use balsamic)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Melt butter over medium heat, add sesame seeds, sugar, broken noodles and almonds. Brown these, then cool to room temperature.
Wash and chop bok choy and onions and place them in a bowl.
Mix dressing ingredients.
Add the seed/nut/noodle mixture and dressing to the bok choy and onions just before serving.
“Eternal wisdom has prepared A soul-reviving feast;
And bids your longing appetites The rich provisions taste.”
From “Odem” #295 in The Sacred Harp, 1991 revision
Words, Isaac Watts, 1707; music, Leon McGraw, 1935
Chloe Webb, Fort Worth, Texas