An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Place and Pluralism: The “Georgia Harmonies” Traveling Exhibition

Posted on June 5, 2012 by

Jesse P. Karlsberg, Emory University

in Current Events
Posted on: 
June 5, 2012

Jesse P. Karlsberg, Emory University

Debby Holcombe, Cover of booklet for "Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music," 2012. Image courtesy of the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia.
Debby Holcombe, Cover of booklet for "Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music," 2012. Image courtesy of the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia.

On April 14, the exhibition “Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music” opened at the Harris Arts Center in Calhoun, Georgia. The first of a dozen stops in Georgia of “New Harmonies” (a project of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program), the exhibit focuses on the connections between musical cultures and place. Events and performances at each of the small towns at which the exhibit stops feature musics with historical ties to the town and region, and present-day roots in the area.

In Laurie K. Sommers’ Southern Spaces article, “Hoboken Style: Meaning and Change in Okefenokee Sacred Harp Singing,” the author describes the “Hoboken style” of Sacred Harp singing in south Georgia’s Okefenokee region, where “Georgia Harmonies” will stop (and feature Sacred Harp singing) in the summer and fall of 2013. Sommers details how some Okefenokee residents understood Sacred Harp singing as a regional, rather than religious denominational practice. This way of thinking about the style rendered broader participation possible and facilitated increased exchange with singers from other regions of the United States, a process which in turn precipitated changes to regional singing practices.

James Robert Chambless, Michael Thompson and Joyce Walton lead a song at a Sacred Harp singing, Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, Bremen, Georgia, June 2, 2012.
James Robert Chambless, Michael Thompson and Joyce Walton lead a song at a Sacred Harp singing, Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, Bremen, Georgia, June 2, 2012.

Sommers’ account demonstrates how associating a community-based music with place (rather than solely with family, religious denomination, race, ethnicity, or another cultural marker) creates openings for individuals who fall outside the group previously associated with the music to participate. By connecting varied forms of “roots music” otherwise identified with racial or religious groups with the towns and regions where they occur, the “New Harmonies” exhibition likewise has the potential to introduce such music to new people, and to bring practitioners of different musical styles together. This certainly happened in my case.

Ann McCleary, Members of the United Note Singers sing shape-note music, Sweet Home Baptist Church, Hiram, Georgia, February, 2011. Image courtesy of the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia.
Ann McCleary, Members of the United Note Singers sing shape-note music, Sweet Home Baptist Church, Hiram, Georgia, February, 2011. Image courtesy of the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia.

I traveled to Calhoun on Saturday, May 5 to participate in a Sacred Harp singing held in conjunction with the traveling exhibition. The event attracted a group of perhaps a dozen long-time white Sacred Harp singers like myself, thirty or so listeners from the Calhoun area, and three participants in a related predominantly-black shape-note singing community who had long heard of Sacred Harp singers but had a scheduling conflict with the annual Sacred Harp singing in Calhoun and had never had an opportunity to attend. Over lunch I and a couple of other Sacred Harp singers shared histories and information with these visiting singers, who were members of an association of black shape-note singers called the United Note Singers. The next day, four other white Sacred Harp singers and I traveled to Marietta to participate in a shape-note singing under the group’s umbrella at Zion Baptist Church. Members of both groups were grateful for the opportunity—precipitated by the Smithsonian exhibition’s association of our respective musical styles with place—to meet, share histories, and compare and contrast our musical practices.

 

“Georgia Harmonies: Celebrating Georgia Roots Music” was held in Calhoun from April 14–May 24 and will stop in eleven other locations across Georgia through November 26, 2013.

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