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

Hoboken Style: Meaning and Change in Okefenokee Sacred Harp Singing

Laurie Kay Sommers, Independent Scholar

Published: 
17 August 2010
Overview: 
Karl Musser, Map of Okefenokee Swamp, 2007.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Karl Musser, Map of Okefenokee Swamp, 2007. 

This essay explores "Hoboken-style" Sacred Harp singing of the Okefenokee region of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. It considers the history of this tradition, distinctive characteristics of this variant of Sacred Harp, and how "Hoboken-style" leaders have negotiated rapid change while maintaining core values of memory, legacy, and spiritual meaning. Sacred Harp singing in the Okefenokee dates to the mid-1800s, but, remarkably, local singers rarely sang with outsiders until the 1990s. Two important sound recordings from Florida Folk Festivals (1958 and 2000) serve as sonic benchmarks and as points of analytic departure for understanding the recent hybridization of Hoboken-style singing.

"Hoboken Style: Meaning and Change in Okefenokee Sacred Harp Singing" was selected for the 2009 Southern Spaces series "Documentary Expression and the American South," a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship about documentary work and original documentary projects that engage with regions and places in the US South.

 

Introduction:

 
"Coronation" (#63), sung by Hoboken Sacred Harp Singers, led by Silas Lee, Florida Folk Festival. Courtesy of Florida Folklife Collection, State Library of Florida, May 4, 1958. Lyrics & Music

On May 4, 1958, singing school teacher Silas Lee, from Hoboken, Brantley County, Georgia, took a small group of Sacred Harp singers to the Florida Folk Festival (FFF) stage. The singers had traveled from the Okefenokee region of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida to the town of White Springs. They sang three songs from the B.F. White Sacred Harp Cooper Revision, to polite applause.1

This was the first of two late-1950s appearances at the festival by the Hoboken group and the only one recorded. The 1958 recording is a sonic benchmark in this local variant of Sacred Harp. Silas Lee pitched the singing quite low, so the singers could sing the melodies slowly in a richly ornamented style influenced by their own tradition of Primitive Baptist hymn singing. For well over a century, Sacred Harp and Primitive Baptist hymnody have been mutually influential genres in the Okefenokee region.

Although Sacred Harp became a mainstay of the Florida Folk Festival, the Hoboken FFF appearances were an anomaly. Hoboken singers rarely sang with or for outsiders again for nearly fifty years. Instead, this singing community became more insular and tied to Primitive Baptist beliefs, especially those of the Crawfordites, the most conservative of local subsects who take their name from nineteenth-century south Georgia elder, Ruben Crawford. By the 1990s, participation had shrunk to a small cadre of Crawfordites, and the community legacy of local Sacred Harp was in jeopardy.

In 1994, cousins and song leaders David and Clarke Lee of Hoboken launched an effort to change their Sacred Harp tradition in order to save it, achieving modest celebrity status among the national Sacred Harp singing network. Visits to Hoboken’s monthly sings became “pilgrimages” to the wellspring of the “ultimate traditional Sacred Harp singers.”2 The Hoboken annual All-Day Sing3 in March, writes Kiri Miller, “has swelled to become one of the largest Sacred Harp gatherings in the country,” drawing as many as several hundred singers, an exceptional number for a one-day singing.4

Laurie Sommers, Clarke Lee (left) and David I. Lee walk time at the 2001 All-Day Sing, Hoboken, Georgia. Clarke Lee (left) and David I. Lee walk time at the 2001 All-Day Sing, Hoboken, Georgia. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.
 
David I. Lee leads "Coronation" (#63) at the Silas Lee Memorial Sing at the Florida Folk Festival. Paul Butterfield, recording engineer, Laurie Kay Sommers, fieldworker. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, May 28, 2000. Lyrics & Music

I met the Lees and attended my first Hoboken sing in January 1997 and began to document the singers and sings as part of the South Georgia Folklife Project at Valdosta State University (1996-2006). My recorded interviews combined with participant observation provide the primary source material for this essay. I also involved Hoboken singers in public programs, including their return to the Florida Folk Festival in May of 2000. Nearly fifty members of the Lee family from Georgia and Florida joined with other singers for the Silas Lee Memorial Sing. I had shared with David Lee the 1958 festival recording discovered in the Library and Archives of Florida; he deliberately repeated history (and created another sonic benchmark) by opening the sing with the same three songs led by Silas Lee in 1958, three years to the weekend from the death of the elder Lee at age 85.

As Johnny Lee, Silas's nephew and David's father, remarked that day, "A lot has changed since 1958 …[What has not changed are] this book (the Cooper revision of The Sacred Harp), the heritage, the legacy, the memory, and the meaning. The deep spiritual meaning has not changed.”5

Laurie Sommers, Members of the Lee Family pose at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, White Springs, Florida, after the Silas Lee Memorial Sing at the 2000 Florida Folk Festival.
Members of the Lee Family pose at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, White Springs, Florida, after the Silas Lee Memorial Sing at the 2000 Florida Folk Festival. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

This essay chronicles continuity and change in "Hoboken-style" Sacred Harp, using recordings from the 1958 and 2000 Florida Folk Festivals as points of departure: 1958—illustrating the style that had evolved in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida, largely independent of the other Sacred Harp traditions; and 2000—demonstrating the increasing hybridization of the new public face of “Hoboken-style” with traditions from Alabama, Florida, and elsewhere.6 I pay particular attention to factors which shaped Hoboken’s distinctive style and to the core values which make the singing meaningful to local singers. The focus is Sacred Harp singing, but the Okefenokee regional tradition cannot be understood without examining its symbiotic relationship with Primitive Baptist hymnody.

Members of the national Sacred Harp network (myself included) now inextricably link this Sacred Harp variant with Hoboken, Georgia, and with the Lee Family as its exemplar and cultural ambassador. David Lee emphasizes that this is not just a Hoboken and Lee family tradition but a community and regional tradition.7 For locals who have always sung Sacred Harp, it is simply “the way we sing.” Outside interest in performance practice—“how we sing”—misses the point of “why we sing” and the core values of memory, legacy and spirituality.

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The Okefenokee Region:

The area that gave birth to Hoboken-style Sacred Harp lies in and around the Okefenokee Swamp of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida.

Karl Musser, Map of Okefenokee Swamp, 2007.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Musser, Map of Okefenokee Swamp, 2007.

Francis Harper, Cypress head and water lilies on Chase Prairie, Okefenokee Swamp, May 1912.
Cypress head and water liies on Chase Prairie, Okefenokee Swamp, May 1912. Photo by Francis Harper, courtesy of Delma Presley.

When Silas Lee’s group came to the FFF, the local economy still revolved around turpentine and logging, herding free range cattle and hogs,subsistence agriculture (“farming for groceries”8), and the railroad with its great crossroads in Waycross, Georgia and continuing south through Florida.

In 1910, the demographic breakdowns for Charlton County, Georgia—the heart of the Okefenokee region of Georgia—were 73 percent white, 25 percent black, and 2 percent other. Census figures exclude a small population of American Indian descent, primarily Cherokee and Creek, who escaped the Trail of Tears and took refuge in remote regions such as the Okefenokee. The great swamp also was a hiding spot for runaway slaves, Civil War deserters, and anyone wishing to elude the authorities. Oral accounts and historical research suggest that there was little African American participation in Hoboken-style Sacred Harp or the Primitive Baptist churches frequented by many singers.9 The “Swamper” families who lived at the fringes of the Okefenokee and on islands scattered across its interior were primarily of European-American descent, mixed with some (often unacknowledged) American Indian ancestry. “As early as the 1760s, their forebears started moving into the southern colonies, over the objections of the British loyalists. Most of them were Scots from Northern Ireland, or Scots-Irish, though some had traces of English, Welsh, French, and German."10

Francis Harper, The Chesser family putting fodder out to dry, Chesser’s Island, Okefenokee Swamp, 1922.
The Chesser family putting fodder out to dry, Chesser's Island, Okefenokee Swamp. Photo by Francis Harper, courtesy of Delma Presley, July 1922.

The region’s distinctive culture was shaped by the geography of the great swamp. Beginning in 1912, naturalist and folklore collector Francis Harper documented the music, tales, customs, hunting and fishing, material culture, and speech of the Swampers. Their oral traditions included unaccompanied ballads, local songs, fiddle and banjo tunes played for frolics, and the yodels or hollers used to signal over long distances, to gather free-range hogs or cattle, or for the sheer joy of hollering.

Francis Harper, Hamp Mizell with his two-mile swamp holler, Okefenokee Swamp, 1930.
Hamp Mizell with his two-mile swamp holler, Okefenokee Swamp, 1930. Photo by Francis Harper, courtesy of Delma Presley.

Harper’s field documentation mentions only two styles of religious music: Primitive Baptist hymnody and Sacred Harp.

He did not photograph or make sound recordings of hymnody, perhaps because Crawfordite belief did not permit him to do so. He did, however, make the earliest known photographs and sound recordings of local Sacred Harp in 1922 and 1944 respectively.11

In the summer of 1944, Harper borrowed a battery-powered tape recorder from the Library of Congress and recorded seventy-five minutes of Swamper music and narrative. Sacred Harp singing was the only religious music recorded, including four songs from the Sacred Harp, Cooper Revision sung by four members of the Chesser family.

 

Chesser Open House radio program, part of the Sounds of South Georgia radio series. Produced by Laurie Kay Sommers and aired on Georgia Public Radio, 2005 and 2006. The annual Chesser Open House celebrates lifeways of the Okefenokee on Chesser’s Island at the Chesser Homestead, located in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge outside Folkston, Georgia. Members of the Chesser family play a prominent role in this event. The program features recent field recordings and those from the 1944 Francis Harper recordings. This project was supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Francis Harper, Members of the Robert Allen Chesser family sing Sacred Harp on the porch, Chesser's Island, 1922.

 

Francis Harper, The "Chesser Quartet", Chesser's Island, 1944.

Members of the Robert Allen Chesser family sing Sacred Harp on the porch, Chesser’s Island, Okefenokee Swamp, 1922. Photo by Francis Harper, courtesy of Delma Presley.   From left; the “Chesser Quartet” of Harry Chesser, Kate Chesser Rider, Roxie Chesser Renshaw and Tom Chesser, making Sacred Harp recordings for Francis Harper, Chesser’s Island, Okefenokee Swamp, August 20, 1944. Photo by Francis Harper, courtesy of Delma Presley.

Harper’s notes on the 1944 Sacred Harp recording session of “the Chesser Quartet” state that he was trying to re-create the evening sings on the porch that he first photographed in 1922. Nearly twenty years later he staged a singing for his recording machine, with forty to fifty members of the Chesser family as audience. As he observes in his field notes, this is hardly a typical singing context, but these seminal recordings nonetheless illustrate key characteristics of regional Sacred Harp vocal style, among them the slow tempos, low starting pitches, and ornamented vocal lines which are even more apparent in the 1958 FFF recording. By the time Harper recorded the Chesser Quartet, however, the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge had begun to displace Swamper families. Some traditions, such as Sacred Harp and Primitive Baptist hymnody, successfully transplanted to surrounding locales in Georgia and Florida. Others disappeared. Sacred Harp and Primitive Baptist hymnody are the most enduring of the musical traditions Harper observed, due in large part to the strength of local Primitive Baptist religion and worldview.

Primitive Baptists of the Okefenokee Frontier:

The Primitive Baptist faith was the dominant religious practice along the Okefenokee frontier through WWII and a key force in community religious, social, and cultural life. The term “primitive” refers to members' desire to follow the ways of the original or “primitive” Christian church. Clusters of like-minded Primitive churches band together in associations, rather than organizing as part of a formal denomination. As Delma Presley observes in Okefinokee Album,

Whether the questions concern organized missions, church-supported seminaries, or musical instruments, Primitive Baptists tend to respond that 'these things are foreign to the Bible and to the old ways.' For their stubbornness and deep-seated conservatism, they have become known as 'hardshell' Baptists. They insist on using real wine at communion and on washing the feet of brothers-and sisters-in-the-faith, just as the New Testament commands.12

The oldest surviving meeting houses date to the early nineteenth century. High Bluff, Brantley County, Georgia, and Sardis in Charlton County, Georgia, both were constituted in 1819. Pigeon Creek of Nassau County, Florida (no longer in existence) was founded in 1821, the oldest Baptist Church in the state.13 These spare, wooden buildings served as gathering places in the sparsely populated piney woods. Weekend meetings, and especially the annual or Big Meeting, fulfilled social and spiritual needs for rural families.

 

Big Meeting at Rome Primitive Baptist Church radio program, part of the Sounds of South Georgia radio program. Produced by Laurie Kay Sommers and aired on Georgia Public Radio, 2005 and 2006. Rome Primitive Baptist Church is a Bennettite church, part of the Alabaha River Association of Primitive Baptists, a group that followed Elder Richard Bennett (as opposed to Reuben Crawford) after the late nineteenth century split in south Georgia. Field recordings at Rome Big Meeting were made by Laurie Kay Sommers on 24 October 2004. This project was supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Laurie Kay Sommers, High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church, Schlatterville, GA, 2001.
High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church, Brantley County, constituted in 1819, moved to its current site near Schlatterville in 1822. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2001. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

The practitioners of Hoboken-style Sacred Harp historically have been Crawfordite Primitive Baptists, a subsect whose strict discipline and doctrine follow the interpretations of Reuben Crawford, an influential nineteenth century elder in the Alabaha River Association of Primitive Baptists. From the late nineteenth century, when Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South14 experienced their heyday, through the 1940s, the Crawfordite Primitive Baptists had as many as eighteen churches on either side of the Georgia/Florida line, a significant number for such a rural area. The ultra-conservative Crawfordites sought to continue most practices “as in the time of Uncle Reuben.” Since their formation in the 1870s, they have isolated themselves even from other Primitive Baptist associations.15 This isolation and conservatism fostered both the creation and the preservation of the region’s distinctive variant of Sacred Harp and intensified its relationship with Primitive Baptist hymnody. Crawfordite belief and isolationism was also a key factor in the 1990s controversy over Sacred Harp, discussed in more detail later in this essay.

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Primitive Baptist Hymnody:

 

#209 from Primitive Hymns, recorded during an unusual singing context—a hymn sing requested by an out-of-state visitor, held after meeting at Sardis Primitive Baptist Church, Folkston, Georgia, and at a private home. Laurie Kay Sommers, fieldworker. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, February 16, 1997. Lyrics

Primitive Baptist hymn singing is one of the oldest genres of European American Protestant music in the American South, pre-dating the introduction of Sacred Harp singing, although both traditions drew on a common corpus of orally transmitted tunes. Many Primitive Baptists use Primitive Hymns by Benjamin Lloyd (1841), a compilation of poetic texts organized according to topic which reflect Primitive Baptist belief and discipline. Hymn texts are sung to memorized tunes in the appropriate meter, and singers frequently use alternate tunes and adjust the tune to fit the words. Lloyd completed Primitive Hymns at a time when many Baptist churches were abandoning practices of a cappella singing with word-only hymn books in favor of hymnals with printed music used with instrumental accompaniment. Lloyd’s was a “new” compilation which preserved the long-established worship practice of lined and unaccompanied hymn singing. In her study of Primitive Baptist hymnody, Beverly Patterson describes how the absence of notation fosters rhythmic and melodic freedom and “serves some Primitive Baptists as a stimulus to the kind of heartfelt interpretations they believe were characteristic of the generations before them."16 As folklorist John Bealle has observed, subsequent generations of Primitive Baptists have associated this little book with their love for the “old sound.”17

Crawfordite hymnody is part of this larger tradition of unaccompanied congregational singing among Primitive Baptists.

Their slow tempos mark them among the most conservative of their faith.18 Slow tempos allow time to meditate on the spiritual import of the text and to elaborate and embellish the tune. Crawfordites remain so tied to the old ways that they reject the most recent (1906) expansion of the hymnal from 700 to 705 hymn texts. They have subsidized special printings of the "700" hymn version by using the pre-1906 plates.19

 

David I. Lee with Clarke Lee (harmony) illustrate differences in vocal practice as Silas Lee would have sung “Show Pity Lord” at a Sacred Harp sing and then at the Primitive Baptist meeting house. Laurie Kay Sommers, fieldworker, recorded at the home of David and Kathy Lee, Hoboken. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, February 15, 1997.

Shape-note songsters like The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844 just three years after Lloyd’s hymnal, incorporate some of the same tunes and texts used in Primitive Baptist hymn singing.

For Crawfordites, Sacred Harp became the only approved music outside the hymns of the meeting house. Certainly, they were surrounded by secular oral repertoires like those documented by Harper, the music of the public schools, and even popular music of the day. Before an individual joined the church, these genres of music were part of his or her everyday life. But Sacred Harp singing was uniquely situated to meet social and spiritual needs.

Laurie Kay Sommers, Singing from Primitive Hymns at Sardis Primitive Baptist Church, Folkston, Georgia, 1997.
Singing from Primitive Hymns by Benjamin Lloyd after a service at Sardis Primitive Baptist Church, Folkston, Georgia, 1997. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Shared Singing Contexts:

The singing communities of south Georgia and north Florida historically shared singing contexts similar to those of other white, Protestant shape-note communities throughout the rural South. Primitive Baptist meeting was one such context. Each church held its meeting one weekend a month; on the other weekends, members and the community at large visited another church in the Alabaha River Association. In addition to hymn singing during the service, members gathered to sing hymns before the start of the service, a practice which continues today. Fellowship at a nearby home after meeting might also include singing. David I. Lee recalls, for example, how he and his cousin Clarke Lee would “sing for their supper” after the conclusion of the weekend worship at the meeting house.

They would prepare a big meal and a lot of people would go by and enjoy being together. Clarke and I, as young men, would be called into the kitchen, …and since none of us had radios and none of us had televisions, I guess...the ladies that were in there cooking, we were their entertainment….And so while they …cooked and bustled about the kitchen, Clarke and I sat there and sang from memory, or we’d gather up the books we needed and sing out of the hymn book or sing out of the shape-note book. The one thing that it guaranteed us was that we were the favorites of the lady, and so we got the biggest and the hottest biscuit, and we got the biggest piece of cake or the first piece of cake.20

The annual or Big Meeting typically included a Sacred Harp sing on Saturday evening. This network of churches, then, disseminated and maintained the Crawfordite style of hymnody and fostered the symbiotic relationship between the two genres.

Home-based singing from Primitive Hymns and The Sacred Harp was another important context for maintaining and disseminating singing styles. David’s mother, Delorese Conner Lee, recalls that during her childhood in Nassau County, Florida, her family sang from the Cooper revision of The Sacred Harp (published in 1902 and now the book of choice for local singers)21 while sitting together on the porch, around the dining table, and during the evenings of the annual or “Big Meeting” of their Primitive Baptist church. At most of these gatherings, the family also sang from the Lloyd hymnal. Delorese learned by hearing her mother, Carrie Hickox Conner, who grew up in the Okefenokee south of Waycross, Georgia.22 When Delorese married Johnny Lee of Hoboken, nephew to Silas, it was a marriage of the already intertwined Georgia-Florida singing tradition, as well as a love match. Their eldest child, David I. Lee, was raised in northeast Florida until he was 15, when the family moved to Hoboken. David’s boyhood memories resound with Sacred Harp:

My earliest memories go back to when I was sitting in a chair and my feet were sticking out in front of me. I wasn’t big enough for my feet to touch the floor. And holding a book in my lap, singing by myself....We’d sing anywhere that we’re together, whether it be a funeral, a wedding, a baptism, a group of people around a dining room table, in the kitchen, beside the river.23

All of these contexts also included hymn singing.

Laurie Kay Sommers, Singing from Lloyd's at a Lee family baptism, Brantley County, Georgia, 2001.
Singing from Lloyd’s at a Lee family baptism, with Elder Clarke Lee (back to camera), on the banks of the Satilla River, Brantley County, Georgia, 2001. Afterward, they also sang from The Sacred Harp. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

In the early 1950s, Brantley County Superintendent Herschel Herrin and song leader Silas Lee initiated monthly Sacred Harp sings at the Hoboken School. In Nassau County, Florida, singers periodically gathered in small buildings like a renovated egg house or a simple building constructed just for singing. As David Lee remembers it, “Everybody in our family sang, everybody…They learned from their elders and once a year they’d have a singing school at the schoolhouse.24

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Sacred Harp Singing Schools:

Singing schools are the traditional means for teaching Sacred Harp.

 
Segments from a singing school led by David I. Lee, held before the regular January sing at Hoboken Elementary School. Bill Muntz, videographer, Laurie Kay Sommers, fieldworker. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, January 2001.

In the Okefenokee region, early singing schools occasionally were held in the Primitive Baptist churches (outside formal worship), but more frequently took place in rural country schools.

Laurie Kay Sommers, David Lee holds a singing school, Hoboken, Georgia, 1997.
David Lee holds a singing school at Hoboken Elementary School before a regular monthly Sacred Harp sing, Hoboken, Georgia, 1997. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Itinerant singing school teachers like Silas Lee disseminated Sacred Harp singing styles throughout their geographic sphere of influence:

The first sing that I tried to lead was in 1932. From then I went on to lead sings and singing schools in north Florida and all over south Georgia ….That has been almost 50 years ago. Most of the time I was the only one that could lead a sing.…When I would go down to Florida for a singing school I would leave on Thursday, and I would pay my way to Hilliard or Callahan. We would have the sing for three days straight. We would start on Friday after lunch, on Saturday at about church time which was 10 a.m., and on Sunday at the same time. And we would sing for as long as we could hold out. The singing school would last for about eight weeks. We would average about 25–30 people and maybe a little more after word got around. Those were the Hoover days [the administration of Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933], so nobody had much. Most of the time, I was offered pay but never got much. Of course, I had syrup and biscuits and maybe some turnip greens and generally enough money for the bus or the train. I always stuck it out because I loved it, and I have continued to follow it.25

Singing school teachers learned from their predecessors, as one teacher passed the mantle to the next generation. Silas Lee’s mentor was his father-in-law, Martin Dowling. Dowling’s mentors can be traced back two more generations, to his maternal uncle Bill Guy, and his father Lazarus Dowling, the latter a Confederate veteran who is remembered in Dowling family history as a Sacred Harp song leader, singing school teacher, and deacon of High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church, Brantley County, Georgia. Dowling is the first documented example of singing school teachers who also led hymns at the meeting house.

Lazarus Dowling, courtesy of Elvera Dowling Lee, date unknown.

 

Laurie Kay Sommers, Grave marker of Silas Lee, Brantley County, Georgia, date unknown.

Lazarus Dowling, the region’s first documented singing school teacher, courtesy of Elvera Dowling Lee, date unknown.   Grave marker of Silas Lee with Sacred Harp notation and lyrics, High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Brantley County, Georgia, date unknown. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Singing schools were important contexts for renewing community ties, expressing religious sentiment, sharing local food traditions, socializing, and courtship. Silas Lee recalled, “It used to be told that out of every sing, there would be a wedding. Sings were a place to gather people.”26 Johnny Lee first saw his future bride, Delorese Conner, at a Silas Lee singing school held at a vacant Conner family house in Nassau County, Florida. Throughout the singing school season, recalled Martha Mizell Puckett, all the countryside would “come out, and join in, and sing for sheer joy. They would bring their dinner and stay all day long from 10:00 a.m., until 4:00 p.m.” A local family fed and housed the singing school teacher for the two days per month of the school, and “it was understood that there would be an evening sing held at that home with the school master leading the singing. Friends and neighbors would come from near and far….All the song books would be brought forth and the singing would begin and would last until late in the evening. Then the lady of the house, assisted by her daughters, would bring out the cakes, pies, cookies, coffee, milk, buttermilk, and fruit juices, and everyone would enjoy the refreshments. According to the season would be the menu, boiled or parched peanuts, or great pans of peaches, Lecont pears, scuppernong grapes, and sugar cane juice—what ever the time and the season afforded.”27

Laurie Kay Sommers, Dinner on the grounds at Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church, Hoboken, Georgia, 2000.
Dinner on the Grounds at Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church, Hoboken, Georgia, during the Tri-State Sacred Harp Convention, October 14, 2000. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

 

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Characteristics of “Hoboken-Style”:

By the early twentieth century, Okefenokee region singing had evolved apart from the web of singing conventions and convention etiquette found elsewhere in the South, perhaps due to its remote location and the influence of the isolationist Crawfordites. Sings had a single male song leader, unlike the more democratic practice of a different leader for each song common in most southern singing conventions. Accounts of Martin Dowling’s singing schools provide the earliest descriptions of distinctive features of Hoboken-style, among them the practice of walking time, the drone, and an emphasis on the sacred nature of the singing.28 These three features were formally taught in singing school. A fourth characteristic—distinctive aspects of vocal style, such as pitch, ornamentation and tempo—was learned informally rather than at singing schools. It was simply the way everyone sang.

 
David I. Lee walks time to "The Heavenly Port" (#378), Tri-State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church, Hoboken, Georgia. Bill Muntz, videographer, Laurie Kay Sommers, fieldworker. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, October 14, 2000.

Walking time is taught at singing schools today. Song leaders walk the perimeter of the central hollow square (the characteristic spatial arrangement for Sacred Harp singers, with the tenor, treble, alto, and bass sections each forming a side of the square and the song leader in the middle). As they walk, their feet keep strict time with the meter of the tune. “Some people think the leader is dancing, but it’s not dancing,” explains David Lee. “We are Primitive Baptists, and we don’t dance [laughs], but it’s a way of establishing the beat of the song.”29

The origins of walking time are unknown, although at one time it may have been more widespread in south Georgia. Ward’s History of Coffee County [Georgia] appears to describe the practice—without using the phrase “walking time”—in singing schools held in 1875 by “Singing Tom” Davis of Montgomery County, Georgia. Singing Tom stood in the center of a “pen” formed by four benches of singers, gave the “key note sound all around, and then as they sang he walked around and around. When a part, like the bass for instance, seemed weak, he would jump like a cat to the bass seat and join in with the bass and pull them out of their trouble, and so on with all the parts.”30

Another quite different custom of “walking your time” occurs among black Sacred Harp singers [called the Wiregrass Singers since 1971] in sections of Lower Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.31 This tradition is more dance-like and influenced by an African aesthetic than is the south Georgia variant, and it is unclear whether or not the two traditions influenced one another. In a personal communication about her doctoral research with black shape-note singers, ethnomusicologist Doris Dyen recalled a conversation during the early 1970s with one-hundred-year-old Nancy Casey, mother-in-law to the founder of the Wiregrass Singers, Dewey Williams. Casey mentioned a white man from Georgia who once came to teach singing schools.32 Could this be a possible link between the two versions of walking time? We will probably never know. Among white southern singers today, walking time is unique to Hoboken-style.

Several variants of droning are documented from around the South but are rare in current practice.33 In Hoboken, for example, drones today are more often re-stagings of tradition rather than vibrant ongoing practices.34 A drone commonly closes a singing school. For a select group of harmonically suitable songs, the singing school teacher gives the bass, tenor, and treble each their starting note to hold or drone as they march around in a circle. Facing the marchers, and arranged inside the circle, stand a group who sing the actual notes and words.35 The drone evokes a spiritual synergy of movement, chord, and sound which powerfully affects the singers. “I think it has subliminal qualities,” says Johnny Lee, “that would be difficult if not impossible for most to put into words.”36

 
Rare demonstration of a drone led by David I. Lee, "The Gospel Pool" (#444), requested by Laurie Kay Sommers so that it could be filmed; held at the close of the monthly Sacred Harp sing at Hoboken Elementary School. Bill Muntz, videographer, Laurie Kay Sommers, fieldworker. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, January 20, 2001.

Most significant is the spiritual aspect. “To me,” writes current song leader Clarke Lee, “Sacred Harp is the truest and purest form of religion that I have ever experienced. The Sacred Harp song book has songs, hymns, melodies, and all the wonderful glories of its own self, yet to get to the heart of the matter, I believe we must sing spiritually.”37 As John Bealle observes in Public Worship, Private Faith, “Many generations [and] countless thousands of people have found this music to be genuine expression of piety and grace,” sung with an “atmosphere of reverence and worship.”38 In the Okefenokee region, the spirituality of Sacred Harp is palpable. “Our people can sing their love for each other in ways that they can't talk about,” says David Lee. “There's another place that we go when we're singing, and I don't know how to get to that place, except to go there by singing…. There's things that take place at these sings, there's power exhibited that people can't contrive. There is something here that had to come from Above. We can't make this up."39

Laurie Kay Sommers, Clarke Lee leads All-Day Sacred Harp Sing, Hoboken, Georgia, 1997.
Clarke Lee leads at the 1997 All-Day Sacred Harp Sing, Hoboken, Georgia. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Sacred Harp and Primitive Baptist hymnody shared a common core of singers, a common repertoire of tunes, overlapping oral traditions and performance practices, shared singing contexts, and a Primitive Baptist worldview that linked the two styles in all but actual practice: Okefenokee region singers never sang meeting house hymns at singing schools or “called” sings [publicly announced sings open to the community], and they never sang Sacred Harp at meeting house worship services. Sings in this area differed from the mainstream in that they did not open and close with prayer, in order to rigorously distinguish Sacred Harp from worship, despite the religious nature of the texts.40 Crawfordite singers had a special reverence for The Sacred Harp book, giving it semi-divine status. Because of this view, they did not compose new songs, as was common elsewhere, “as that'd be like writing a new chapter to the Bible and asking them to read it at church.”41 As David Lee explains, “The attitude is that these [Sacred Harp] books were handed down from Above so they were sacred things. So you were careful with those books. You wouldn’t change or alter anything in those books any more than you would the Bible.”42

A fourth stylistic feature, vocal practice, reflects the tempos and ornamentation of local Primitive Baptist hymnody.43 This feature is clearly illustrated in the 1958 FFF recording.

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The 1958 Florida Folk Festival: A Sonic Benchmark

 
"Firm Foundation" (#72), sung by Hoboken Sacred Harp Singers led by Silas Lee, Florida Folk Festival. Courtesy of Florida Folklife Collection, State Library of Florida, May 4, 1958. Lyrics & Music

Of the four songs sung at White Springs in 1958, the rendition of “Firm Foundation” (#72 in the Cooper revision) is most illustrative, serving as a sonic benchmark for Hoboken-style as it had emerged over its first century.

Although Silas Lee pitches all four parts, only three parts are audible: men and women singing the tenor or melody line, one or two female altos, and men only on the bass. Alto parts were new to Sacred Harp with the Cooper revision, and large alto sections were not present in Okefenokee region singing until the 1990s. More typically, singing in this area had treble, tenor, and bass, with emphasis on tenor and bass. This song unfolds at a slow tempo influenced by the meeting house (quarter note equals 52 beats per minute on a metronome), beat in 4/4 time as opposed to the 2/2 tempos common in many other Sacred Harp traditions. Song leader Silas Lee pitched the song a fourth below the printed notes, so the singers could more easily navigate the slow tempos. Vocal lines are richly ornamented, an unselfconscious “transitioning between the notes” as David Lee describes it, where the embellishments of the meeting house spill over to Sacred Harp.

You add those extra notes on purpose, because it'd be mighty spare and dry without it. So you get a whole different tune out of it. . . . I think the page is restrictive . . . you can use that as a guide. The notes in that book is like a skeleton. When you have a complete skeleton you still don't have person, and when you got just them notes you still don't have a song. You got to flesh it out. . . And I think that's where that ornamentation is. We put that stuff in automatically and do it all the time.44

As David’s generation was growing up, singers frequently sang without the book, reinforcing oral transmission of tunes and the practice of ornamentation.

Would the “sound” of Silas Lee and his little band of singers have seemed distinctive to audiences at the 1958 Florida Folk Festival? The answer depends on the familiarity of the audience with Sacred Harp, but organizers likely invited the Hoboken group to represent Sacred Harp as a genre, not for any particular way of singing.45 By contrast, at the time of the 2000 FFF appearance, Sacred Harp aficionados had a sophisticated awareness of the varied styles of southern singers and singing families, including “Hoboken-style,” due to proliferation of sound recordings, communications via the Internet, and personal visits to singings.

White Springs is only one hundred miles from Hoboken, on the other side of the Okefenokee Swamp, but the singers rarely traveled this distance to other sings. The two 1950s FFF performances represented both a geographic and a cultural leap. Sacred Harp singers describe theirs as singer's music, not listener's music, so even today, a stage presentation of traditional singing communities is rare outside festival contexts. More significantly, this performance would have been controversial among members of Crawfordite churches. In the Crawfordite worldview, singing on stage would be frowned on as “a show,” drawing inappropriate and unwarranted attention to the singers. The Hoboken singers present were church attendees, not actual members, and as such not bound by the church’s strict codes of conduct.46

As remarkable as it was, the 1958-59 detour to the FFF had no lasting impact on this unique singing tradition. The recording disappeared into boxes of tapes destined for the Florida Folklife Collections of the State of Florida Library and Archives. The singers returned home, and for the next several decades continued, if not intensified, their self-imposed cultural isolation. Lee family lore recounts how a recording of north Georgia Sacred Harp had such fast tempos that it wasn’t even recognizable as Sacred Harp. Before joining the church, several singers recall visiting Sacred Harp conventions near Cordele, Georgia, but they preferred their own way of singing and stopped attending.47 For the most part, “We never sang with anybody except ourselves,” David Lee explains. “And because of that isolation, we developed a completely different way of singing this music. We were perfectly content with what we had at home, because the entire community was involved in our singing.”48

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Post-World War II: Factionalism and Resistance to Change

By the time of the 1958 FFF, the community Delorese Conner Lee associated with her girlhood—where one’s fellow singers were neighbors, family, and brothers and sisters of the Primitive Baptist faith—had begun to fracture. The long religious and cultural domination of Primitive Baptists was on the wane. As historian John Crowley notes, after WWII, “the combined effects of desertion of the southern countryside where their main strength lay, the pressures of town and city life, aggressive proselytizing by other denominations, competing worldly entertainments, and their own divisiveness resulted in a sharp and accelerating decline in numbers.”49

Stephen Marini has suggested that southern singers imbued Sacred Harp with connotations of the vanishing world of agrarian, intergenerational, intimate religious and civic community that existed in many areas prior to 1950. Sacred Harp became a symbol of the old ways with their “web of relationships, culture, and sacrality.”50 Marini argues that Sacred Harp is the only remaining southern institution able to express this web of relationships. By contrast, the Crawfordites of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida refused to abandon the old ways and preserved their Sacred Harp and hymn singing traditions not as a symbol, but as a living legacy of the old ways. They had always sought isolation from the mainstream culture; as the world around them increasingly changed, they strengthened the boundaries that kept them apart. “We didn’t have any other kind of music,” says David Lee (born in 1954). “I was raised in a home without radios and without televisions. Because we were Primitive Baptists, we did not partake in instruments of any kind. The only style of music that we had anything to do with was our style of [hymn] singing, our style of Sacred Harp. I never had anything to do with any other kind of music.”51

Not long after attending the FFF, Silas Lee gave way to the next generation of leadership. Sacred Harp in the Okefenokee became more associated with and dominated by the religious principles of Crawfordite Primitive Baptists, views that were increasingly unpopular and anachronistic among their non-Crawfordite neighbors. The spirit of inclusion championed by Silas Lee gradually disappeared, and with it the traditions of community-wide participation. Sings became small, in-group gatherings of Crawfordites and their families. Factionalism developed. By the early 1990s, Clarke Lee—then the local song leader—was frustrated and discouraged to the point of abandoning the tradition. David Lee persuaded him to “make one last effort.”52

“Voices from another world”:

Around this same time, local singers began to discover the Sacred Harp network of singers across the United States. David’s cousin gave him a recording of the National Sacred Harp Convention in Birmingham, and David played it repeatedly. He also learned about singing conventions around the country through reading Buell Cobb's book, The Sacred Harp.53 They realized for the first time that others sang Sacred Harp. Up until that time, “We actually had the feeling that we was the last ones on earth that sang Sacred Harp,” David Lee explained. “We had no idea how mistaken we was!”54 In June of 1994, Clarke received an invitation to a sing in Tallahassee; upon request from a Tallahassee sing organizer, the shipping agent for Sacred Harp books had forwarded names of those in the area who had ordered books, including Clarke's. David and Clarke attended, beginning a momentous process of change in their local tradition. David said, "We got our eyes opened to what Sacred Harp could be. And reminded us of what it used to be."55 A year later they held their first public sing in a local Missionary Baptist church and began to rebuild a threatened tradition. In the following months, the Lees attended sings throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, re-creating the fellowship and joy of singing they had experienced growing up: "This is what we were used to, this is what we've been missing.”56

Unknown to the Lees, a home-recorded tape of a 1980s family sing was captivating singers in the national Sacred Harp network.57 "The voices heard were clearly extraordinary and in a style different from any we had previously heard,” said Minnesotan Keith Willard. “It seemed to be from another world."58 Singers knew the tape came from near Waycross but hesitated intruding on what seemed a private, in-group tradition. When the first All-Day Sing in fifty years was held in the Hoboken School in December 1996, it attracted visitors from eight states. Three years later, singers flocked from twenty-eight states. In October 1996 David and Clarke Lee for the first time hosted the Tri-State Sacred Harp Convention, which meets alternately in lower Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, and Hoboken.

David I. Lee, All-Day Sing at Hoboken School, Hoboken, Georgia, 1996.
The historic 1996 All-Day sing at Hoboken School; from left, Clarke Lee, Elvera Lee, Silas Lee, and David I. Lee. Photo courtesy of David I. Lee.

The 1990s: “New-Style” Sacred Harp

Since 1994, when the Lees first "raised the tent flap and peeked out,"59 their world has changed dramatically. The most wrenching change occurred at home, where Sacred Harp was of such significance that a perceived violation of its core tenants caused a schism that severed families, church members, and a singing community. In 1996, the same year David and Clarke Lee revived the All-Day sing at Hoboken School, they were thrown out of their church because of their "new style" Sacred Harp. The “new style” Sacred Harp promoted by David and Clarke adopted the practice, widespread elsewhere, of opening and closing with prayer. These actions violated the Decorum of the Alabaha River Primitive Baptist Association which forbids members from praying with or associating with other religious societies and denominations. New Sacred Harp, for the Crawfordites, had become “worldly entertainment accompanied by Religious practice.”60 Participation of visiting singers, for whom Sacred Harp was folk music or “Americana,” not religious expression, further exacerbated tensions.61 This schism underscored the extent to which Sacred Harp had merged with Crawfordite Primitive Baptist identity and ideology. The schism also revolved around a breach of traditional modes of performance practice, although this was secondary. As explained by song leader Wilson Wainright, Crawfordites felt “new” Sacred Harp deviated too far from inherited practice. It was simply too fast and too loud, drawing unseemly attention, for singers who were “trying to sing the way Uncle Silas did.”62 As new Sacred Harp spread nationally, private Crawfordite sings continued in homes and in association with Big Meeting.

Advocates of new Sacred Harp joined with members of the national Sacred Harp network, who warmly embraced the Lee Family as “quintessentially authentic”63 and linked their unique style to Hoboken. David and Clarke opened their tradition to a national network of singers with whom they share a passion for singing but often little else. The Lees sent invitations to their sings via http://www.fasola.org (the most complete Internet site for information on Sacred Harp). Visiting singers disseminated glowing email testimonials on the listserv describing their first visit to Hoboken. The Lees, in turn, have prompted the moniker “Hoboken slow” as a tempo descriptor in national Sacred Harp discourse and have infused their profound sense of spirituality into previously more secular singings in the Sacred Harp network.64 Two official CDs of Sacred Harp from the monthly sings in Hoboken Elementary School, “Sacred Harp, Hoboken Georgia 1996” and “Hoboken City Limits,” were produced in collaboration with David Lee, and many visitors to Hoboken made personal recordings. The tradition has been featured in publications, exhibitions, and documentary radio and film. All of this is a remarkable turn of events for a singing community that had been unaware of the rest of the Sacred Harp network just a few short years before.

Laurie Kay Sommers, David Lee leads a singing school in a private home as part of the Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Convention, Boulder, Colorado, September 26, 2003.
David Lee leads a singing school in a private home as part of the Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Convention, Boulder, Colorado, September 26, 2003. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

Organizers of conventions across the country and in England invited Lee Family members to lead singing schools on "Hoboken style." Inviting traditional singers to lead singing schools is not new for many northern Sacred Harp conventions, but it was new for the Lees. "We were asked about our style of singing,” says Johnny Lee, “how did we do it, could we show or teach them, etc. and we were at a total loss to understand. We weren't doing anything but singing."65 Through interactions with singers across the country, David Lee became an articulate spokesman for his singing community. Since Sacred Harp network singers are already good singers, these out-of-town singing schools are tutorials of memory, place, and Sacred Harp tradition through story and song. Lee infuses his singing schools with personal experience narratives of growing up in a Sacred Harp singing family and community.

 

Continuity and Change:

While Hoboken has emerged as epicenter and public voice, other locales of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida continue the tradition more quietly. But Hoboken’s public voice has changed. The distinctive sound, especially the richly ornamented vocal lines, is morphing. To learn about the now “old” Hoboken-style, one needs to attend one of the special out-of-town singing schools described previously. Back home, David and Clarke Lee are prepared to lose vocal hallmarks which distinguished their singing community for generations in order to attract more local people to the tradition. Singing schools still take place in Hoboken, and David and Clarke still teach "walking time" along with the note shapes, scales, and rhythms. The local style of singing still is learned informally, but unless they are part of the small group of Crawfordite singers, the next generation of Okefenokee singers hears less and less of the old unique sound.

“This Sacred Harp is a living tradition,” says David Lee. “And because it's a living tradition it's going to change and evolve… You have to move ahead, because the alternative is to die. I think Hoboken still has a voice, but I think that voice is different than it was twenty years ago… I want to see this tradition continue.”66 Sacred Harp is not about “how we sing,” but rather “why we sing.” By singing in fellowship with one another, singers find spiritual meaning, what Johnny Lee calls the "inner music" that "touches the soul as well as the ear.”67  

 
This program on Sacred Harp in Hoboken is part of Wiregrass Ways, a 13-part radio series aired on Georgia Public Radio. Laurie Kay Sommers served as fieldworker and script writer.This project was supported in part by an award from the Georgia Council for the Arts through the Appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, 1998.

The 2000 Florida Folk Festival:

 
David I. Lee leads "Firm Foundation" (#72) at the Silas Lee Memorial Sing. Paul Butterfield, recording engineer, Laurie Kay Sommers fieldworker. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, May 28, 2000. Lyrics & Music

The 2000 FFF recording of the Silas Lee Memorial Sing captures the emergent, hybrid Hoboken-style sound six years into the change process. Although this sing had outside participants, including members of the Sweetwater Sacred Harp Singers from Gainesville, Florida, nearly fifty members of the Lee family attended. The entire event became a memorial lesson for Silas Lee, a Sacred Harp convention practice the Lees had encountered only a few years prior. The obvious sonic difference between 1958 and 2000 was the sheer number of singers and the audibility of all four vocal parts, including a full alto section similar to what the Lees had first heard in 1994 when they sang at Tallahassee. Songs were pitched higher (and only a half or whole step below the printed notes), in keeping with the faster tempos adopted after increased exposure to other singings. “Firm Foundation,” for example, was sung at sixty-six beats per minute, as opposed to fifty-two in 1958--still slow by national standards, but fast by those of Hoboken.

At the faster tempos the ornamentation is less audible and pervasive. Some song leaders walked time, but the practice is now a more symbolic gesture to heritage. Given the context of this particular event, song leaders were selected for their relationship to Silas Lee. Until the recent changes, sings in this region had a single male song leader. David and Clarke adopted the widespread practice of multiple leaders in order to “involve more of the people in this tradition, and give them more chance to experience the music than it used to.”68 Despite changes in performance practice and vocal style, singers emphasized the essential sacred nature of the singing, even in this secular festival context. Clarke Lee compared Sacred Harp to “soul food” for those who were raised on it and encouraged everyone that “if it lifts up your heart to sing to the Lord, that’s what we want you to do.”69

Laurie Kay Sommers, D. Johnny Lee leads at the Silas Lee Memorial Sacred Harp Sing, Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, Florida, 2000.
D. Johnny Lee leads at the Silas Lee Memorial Sacred Harp Sing, Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, Florida, 2000. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

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Legacy and Meaning:

Along both sides of the Okefenokee, a cluster of neighbors, family members, and brothers-and sisters in the Primitive Baptist faith created and sustained a unique variant of Sacred Harp. Never part of a church service, Sacred Harp was intertwined with Primitive Baptist hymnody, featuring similar slow tempos, lower starting pitches, and ornamentation. Much of the singing was done from memory, fostering a fluid orally transmitted tradition, rather than strict adherence to the printed page. Other distinctive features of this tradition include a deeply felt spirituality, walking time in a counter- clockwise fashion according to the meter of the tune, and use of the drone. This combination of characteristics gave local singing its uniqueness. Within the protective boundaries of their Primitive Baptist faith, local singers created their own recognizable “voice.” David Lee calls Sacred Harp “a way of communicating. We're always singing to each other and for each other.”70

Laurie Kay Sommers, David I. Lee and Johnny Lee share their love for each other and fellow singers, 1997.

David I. Lee, seated, and his father Johnny Lee, share their love for each other and their fellow singers within the hollow square, 1997. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library

 
"Brown" (#511), sung at Hoboken Elementary School during the monthly Sacred Harp sing, recorded by Laurie Kay Sommers on 18 January 1997, shortly after the historic All-Day Sing in December, 1996. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, January 18, 1997. Lyrics

This local music community remained self-contained for generations, maintaining their tradition of Sacred Harp outside the mainstream of southern singing conventions. When internal strife caused a split, it initiated a period of transition and change. The Crawfordites retained the old-style practice as they understood it and perpetuated a strong boundary of separation. David and Clarke Lee felt that the joy and sweet communion that had once characterized their tradition was gone. Participation dwindled, jeopardizing the legacy for the next generation. As Silas Lee said in one of his final interviews, “People don’t look for it, and they don’t have the heart to beg for it, anymore. We have put it under denominations, and it is sad. That’s what the threat is now. Splitting it up over denominations. B.F. White didn’t organize to be denominational….White organized it to be ‘Sacred Harp’ just like the name says….Keep the good thing a-going.”71 David and Clarke promised Silas to do just that, preserving the legacy of their forbearers by shattering the old in-group boundaries and opening their singing to new practices and a new network of singers.

Along the border of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida, Sacred Harp continues in both its old and new forms. It still accompanies rites of passage such as weddings, funerals, and river baptisms. Sings still occur during Big Meeting and at singing schools. The historic connections between hymnody and Sacred Harp have been incorporated into the annual All-Day Sing in March and the tri-annual Tri-State Convention every third October. The evening after the Sacred Harp sing, visitors and locals alike are invited to sing from Lloyd’s Primitive Hymns at Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church in Hoboken, the new church home for many of those who were thrown out of the Crawfordite churches over “new Sacred Harp.”72

 

This recording of #598, a common meter hymn from Lloyd's Primitive Hymns, comes from a hymn sing held at Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church, Hoboken, on the Saturday evening of the Tri-State Sacred Harp Convention. Visiting singers are provided with both The Sacred Harp and Old School Hymnal, the two most frequent sources for tunes. On this recording the Lees refer singers to the tune for #505 in The Sacred Harp, "Cleansing Fountain." In this context, singing from Lloyd’s sounds more like Sacred Harp than would be the case in an actual Primitive Baptist meeting. Courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collection, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library, October 14, 2000. Lyrics

Laurie Kay Sommers, David Lee joins singers from Minnesota, Alabama, and Georgia, Tri-State Sacred Harp Convention, Hoboken, Georgia, 2000.

David I. Lee, center, joins Minnesota singers Steven Levine and Jim Pfau (left), Syble Adams from Alabama (second from right), and Amy Lee from Georgia (far right) in singing out of the Lloyd Hymnal at Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church, Hoboken, for an evening hymn sing during the weekend of the Tri-State Sacred Harp Convention, 2000. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of South Georgia Folklife Collections, Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections of Odum Library.

For much of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida, Sacred Harp today is a heritage, not a way of life, labeled as such on road signs now posted on the state routes entering Hoboken and in a new social studies unit for Brantley County eighth graders.73 For the singers of this music the most important things remain: memory, legacy and spiritual meaning. “It’s bigger than we are,” says David Lee “It’s a precious thing that was given to our little group of people.”74

Laurie Kay Sommers, Sacred Harp sign, Hoboken, Georgia, 2009.
Sacred Harp sign posted at Hoboken city limits, October, 2009. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

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Recommended Resources:

Print Materials:

Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith, Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
———. A Guide to the Film Sweet is the Day: a Sacred Harp Family Portrait. Alabama Folklife Association, 2001.

Cauthen, Joyce. Ed. Benjamin Lloyd’s Hymn Book: A Primitive Baptist Song Tradition. Montgomery, AL: Alabama Folklife Association, 1999.

Cobb, Buell Jr. The Sacred Harp, A Tradition and Its Music. University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Crowley, John G. Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South. University Press of Florida, 1998.
———. “The Sacred Harp Controversy in the Original Alabaha Primitive Baptist Association.” The Baptist Studies Bulletin (Mercer University), Volume 3, no. 7 (July 2004).

Harper, Francis and Delma E. Presley. Okefinokee Album. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981.

Jackson, George Pullen. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

Marini, Stephen A. Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Miller, Kiri. Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Patterson, Beverly. The Sound of the Dove: Singing in Appalachian Primitive Baptist Churches. University of Illinois Press, 1995.

 

Video/Audio:

Hinton, Matt and Erika. Awake, My Soul: The Story of Sacred Harp. Awake Productions, 2006. http://awakemysoul.com

Lee, David I., compiler. Hoboken City Limits: Sacred Harp Singing in a Small Southern Community, Hoboken, Georgia, March 16, 2002, (CD), Rosemount, Minnesota, LoudHymns.Com, 2002.

Lee, David I. and Keith Willard, compilers. Sacred Harp, Hoboken, Georgia, 1996 (CD), Digital Sound Technology, 1999.

Murphree, Wayne. Hoboken in Seattle. 21 February 1998, Seattle, Washington. Produced by Wayne Murphree Ent., Inc., 25735 Alabama Hwy. 71, Flat Rock, AL 35966; 256-632-2474.

 

Links:

Dudley, William, producer. Hoboken-Style Sacred Harp from the Silas Lee Memorial Sing, Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 2000, for the Florida Humanities Council, aired June 2000. In Radio Archives, South Georgia Folklife Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Odum Library, Valdosta State University, http://www.valdosta.edu/library/find/arch/folklife/radio.html

Kilmer, Miriam. A Shape-Note Singing Lesson, Grades 3-8, Smithsonian in Your Classroom, October, 2000, http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/shapenote.pdf

Metzner, Jim, producer. Pulse of the Planet radio series, "Shapenote Singing Intro," "Shapenote Singing David Lee," "Shapenote Singing Hoboken," "Shapenote Singing Meaning," aired November, 2000, in Radio Archives, South Georgia Folklife Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Odum Library, Valdosta State University, http://www.valdosta.edu/library/find/arch/folklife/radio.html

Payne, Will, producer. The Sacred Harp of Hoboken, WaterTower Films, 2006
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVqhRAoLQpc&feature=channel_page

Sabol, Steven L., compiler. Sacred Harp & Related Shape-Note Music
http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/resource/

Sacred Harp Exhibit, online exhibition, South Georgia Folklife Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Odum Library, Valdosta State University
http://www.valdosta.edu/library/find/arch/folklife/sacredharp.html

Sacred Harp finding aid, South Georgia Folklife Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Odum Library, Valdosta State University
http://www.valdosta.edu/library/find/arch/folklife/findingaid/sacredharp.html

Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association
http://www.fasola.org

Steel, Warren, compiler. Sacred Harp Singing
http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/harp.html

Wallace, James B. “Stormy Banks and Sweet Rivers.” Southern Spaces, 4 June 2007,
http://southernspaces.org/2007/stormy-banks-and-sweet-rivers-sacred-harp-geography

Wiregrass Ways radio programs, Singing Schools, Hymn Lining, and Hollering, WWET Valdosta, Peachstate Public Radio, South Georgia Folklife Project, in Radio Archives, South Georgia Folklife Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Odum Library, Valdosta State University
http://www.valdosta.edu/library/find/arch/folklife/radio.html

Research for this essay received support from the National Endowment for the Arts' Folk and Traditional Arts Infrastructure Initiative, the Georgia Council for the Arts Folklife Program, Valdosta State University, and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Community Folklife Program. A version of this article without illustrative media, “Legacy and Meaning in the Changing Sacred Harp Tradition of the Okefenokee Region,” will appear in Essays in Florida Folklife (working title), Tina Bucuvalas, editor, to be published University Press of Mississippi. Special thanks to Johnny Lee, David I. Lee, and Delorese Conner Lee who commented on earlier versions of this essay and supported my efforts to document their tradition and tell their story. My colleagues at Valdosta State University were an immense help while doing the research for this essay, especially historian John Crowley with his deep knowledge of local Primitive Baptists, videographer Bill Muntz, and archivists Deborah S. Davis and Michael O. Holt. Delma Presley made his extensive collection of Francis Harper’s field materials from the Okefenokee accessible before donating the collection to Georgia Southern University. Many Sacred Harp singers from southeast Georgia and northeast Florida have allowed me to record events and generously provided interviews, family photos, and sound recordings. This project is as much theirs as it is mine.

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  • 1. Silas Lee chose three songs which he likely thought would be accessible to the festival audience: “Murillo’s Lesson” (#358, a secular song with text dating to the late 1700s), “Coronation” (#63, found in many Protestant hymnals as “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name”), and “Firm Foundation” (#72, also found in Protestant hymnals), during which Lee invited the audience to join in.
  • 2. Kiri Miller, Traveling Home, Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism, University of Illinois Press, 2008, 102. Miller’s book, which includes a substantive discussion of the Lee family, offers the “Sacred Harp Diaspora,” a concept of “the phenomenon of the Sacred Harp conventions that draws many travelers from far-off places rather than the local singing in an isolated area where most participants are related by blood or marriage” (page 28). I use the term “Sacred Harp network,” after Dorothy Noyes’ reformulation of the term “folk group” under the rubric of social network theory, to distinguish singers whose connection to each other is based solely on Sacred Harp as a hobby or avocation, as opposed to the deep-seated, multifaceted community ties which characterize singers in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. Noyes suggests replacing the much overused concept of “community” with “dense multiplex network characterized by frequent interaction, a high degree of solidarity, and an equally high degree of social control.” Perhaps I am a victim of the nostalgic postmodern longing for community, but, at least for the historical period through WWII, community does seem more applicable here. I use it to describe a stable cluster of neighbors, family members, and brothers-and sisters in faith that sustained Sacred Harp and hymnody for a century within one of the more isolated regions in the Deep South (see Dorothy Noyes, “Group,” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 108/430 (Fall 1995): 449-478).
  • 3. I use the term “sing” as they do in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida, as opposed to the more common term “singing” used most other places.
  • 4. Miller, 2008, 102.
  • 5. Johnny Lee, remarks at Silas Lee Memorial Sing, Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 28 May 2000.
  • 6. The term “Hoboken-style” is a term outsiders and scholars use to describe the distinctive stylistic features and performance practices of the Okefenokee region, especially as it pertains to the Lee Family of southeast Georgia and the community singing tradition centered in Hoboken, Brantley County, Georgia. This is not a term local singers from the region use to describe their tradition, although—as described in this essay—some local singers have become quite skilled at describing and demonstrating their singing tradition to outsiders. By using the term “Hoboken-style” I do not mean to limit this discussion to one community. As I illustrate in the essay, this is a regional tradition found in both southeast Georgia and northeast Florida.
  • 7. David I. Lee, singing school remarks, Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 28 May 2000. David Lee has become the primary public speaker for the public face of Hoboken-style singing. Most of the interview excerpts in this article are his, but the research behind the article encompassed many other voices and viewpoints. The song leaders and singing school teachers in this tradition, however, always played central shaping roles, and David Lee is an extremely eloquent example.
  • 8. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 9. John Crowley, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South, 99-105. Increasingly after the Civil War African Americans formed separate Primitive Baptist Associations.
  • 10. Francis Harper and Delma Presley, Okefinokee Album, Georgia Press, 1981, 24.
  • 11. Francis Harper, Special Collections, Zach S. Henderson Library, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA (photos) and American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Francis Harper, Folk Music of the Okefenokee Swamp Region of Georgia, 1944. AFS 7721-7737 (sound recordings).
  • 12. Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley, Okefinokee Album. University of Georgia Press, 1981, 29.
  • 13. John G. Crowley, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South, University Press of Florida, 1998, 23.
  • 14. The term “Wiregrass South” is an historic designation to refer to areas where the settlement pattern and resulting culture have been shaped by the wiregrass and longleaf pine ecosystem. Here I use it as John Crowley does in Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South to refer to south Georgia and north Florida in particular.
  • 15. Crowley, 109.
  • 16. Beverly Patterson. The Sound of the Dove: Singing in Appalachian Primitive Baptist Churches. University of Illinois Press, 1995, 166-167.
  • 17. John Bealle, Sweet is the Day, a Sacred Harp Family Portrait: A Guide to the FIlm. Alabama Folklife Association, 2001, 31.
  • 18. Crowley, 178.
  • 19. Joyce Cauthen, ed. Benjamin Lloyd’s Hymn Book, A Primitive Baptist Song Tradition. Montgomery, AL: Alabama Folklife Association, 1999, 92.
  • 20. David I. Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 July 2000.
  • 21. Silas Lee, however, recalled using various books during his long career as a song leader and singing school teacher in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. In addition, many songs were sung orally, “handed down to us by inspired men of old,” as stated in the preface to The Pilgrim’s Harp, also known simply as “the brown book,” a self-published compilation of words and tunes to locally sung old favorites by David and Clarke Lee of Hoboken, and Phillip Reeves of Callahan, Florida. The Pilgrim’s Harp compilers traced these songs and texts to various shape-note songsters and hymnals, among them Georgia-originated four-shape books such as The Social Harp, by John G. McCurry (1855); revisions and older editions to The Sacred Harp; classic four-shape books such as William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1854), the most popular shape-note tune book of the nineteenth century; and seven-shape compilations used for their words only, since local singers could not read seven-shape notation: the Southern Baptist Broadman Hymnal (1940), Stamp’s Baxter’s Favorite Songs and Hymns, Primitive Baptist hymnals such as The Good Old Songs: The Cream of the Old Music, compiled by Elder C. H. Cayce, and The Harp of Ages (1925). The Pilgrim Harp source material illustrates both the variety of hymnals and shape-note books influencing Okefenokee region singing, and the pervasive oral circulation of tunes popular along the Georgia/Florida state line which had been compiled into various published collections. Even though religious beliefs of Crawfordite singers encouraged cultural isolation, other books and tunes entered the tradition.
  • 22. Delorese Conner Lee, phone interview by Laurie Kay Sommers, 8 July 2009.
  • 23. David I. Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 July 2000.
  • 24. David I. Lee, 15 July 2000.
  • 25. Brantley Enterprise, “Lee’s life entwined with the Sacred Harp,” 11 December 1996.
  • 26. Brantley Enterprise, 11 December 1996.
  • 27. Puckett, Martha Mizell. Snow White Sands, Occasional Papers, South Georgia College, Douglas, 1975, 1978, page 95.
  • 28. Puckett, 94, and Lottie Lee Carter, Interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 10 May 2001.
  • 29. David I. Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 July 2000.
  • 30. Warren P. Ward, History of Coffee County. Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Reprint Company Publishers, 1978, 122.
  • 31. Among Wiregrass Singers, individual leaders accentuate “the rhythmic structure of the song by including heavy-footed swaying, with intermediary beats shown through a slight bounce after each main step.” (Doris J. Dyen, “The Role of Shape-Note Singing in the Musical Culture of Black Communities in Southeast Alabama.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1977, 292).
  • 32. Doris Dyen, electronic mail correspondence with Laurie Kay Sommers, 4 June 2010.
  • 33. Variants of the drone tradition are documented among the Old Harp Singers of Tennessee, Sacred Harp singers of central and north Mississippi—where the special drone song “Travelling to the Grave” has closed several recent Mississippi State Conventions—and among Old Regular Baptist hymn singers in Kentucky. The Old Harp tradition appears most similar to Hoboken, with “a quartet singing a lesson of four parts in the middle of the class, [while] the rest of the class would get up, hold the starting chord and march around the room in time to the music while keeping that chord.” (Larry Olszewski email to Laurie Kay Sommers on the Old Harp drone, 14 February 2002; Karen Willard, email to Laurie Kay Sommers on the Mississippi drone, 13 February 2002; Nicholas Pasqual, email to Laurie Kay Sommers, 16 February 2002 on Kentucky folk singer Jean Ritchie’s remembrance of an Old Regular Baptist drone in the liner notes to her LP Sweet Rivers.)
  • 34. Beginning in 1996, after their “discovery” of and by the national Sacred Harp network, members of the Lee family were invited to give special singing schools on Hoboken-style where they taught and demonstrated the drone. In January 2001, I requested a drone in Hoboken so I could film the event. The last previous Hoboken drone was held in 1984.
  • 35. Lottie Lee Carter, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 10 May 2001, recalls drones of the 1920s in Martin Dowling’s singing schools which sound quite similar to present-day Hoboken drones.
  • 36. Johnny Lee, email to Laurie Kay Sommers, 14 October 1999.
  • 37. Clarke Lee, Letter to Steven Levine, 10 March 1996.
  • 38. John Bealle, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. University of Georgia Press, 1997, 215.
  • 39. David I. Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 July 2000.
  • 40. John Crowley, “The Sacred Harp Controversy in the Original Alabaha Primitive Baptist Association.” The Baptist Studies Bulletin (Mercer University), Volume 3, no. 7 (July 2004).
  • 41. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 42. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, 15 February 1997.
  • 43. Crawfordites still do not allow recordings in the meeting house, so I infer historic connections from attendance at contemporary Crawfordite singings.
  • 44. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997. Ornaments per se are not unique to Hoboken. In his seminal publication, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, Buell Cobb elaborates on George Pullen Jackson’s earlier comments about ornamentation and the role of oral tradition in Sacred Harp. The most common ornaments are anticipations, passing tones, and “the optional flourishes which garland the central notes of the melody.” These types of ornaments characterize southeast Georgia and northeast Florida Sacred Harp, but use of ornamentation here was far more pervasive and integral to vocal practice. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, Cobb observed that ornamentation was more evident in the singing of black Sacred Harp singers, who were more influenced by the improvisatory traditions of the African Diaspora. At the time, however, Cobb was unaware of the white tradition of the Okefenokee region and the extent to which Primitive Baptist hymnody had shaped its Sacred Harp performance practices, and vice versa.
  • 45. How then, did a group of these singers end up at the 1958-59 Florida Folk Festival? The link may be Hoboken School, where Silas Lee and Superintendent Herschel Herrin had recently established a monthly community Sacred Harp sing. The Hoboken School Glee Club and barbershop quartet also performed at FFF, so perhaps the teacher, Miss Griffin, mentioned the local Sacred Harp to FFF organizer Thelma Boulton. According to Tollie Lee, Griffin and Silas Lee became close friends after the second FFF, and Griffin became a regular participant in the Hoboken School Sacred Harp sings. Superintendent Herrin accompanied the groups to FFF, and might have been the point person as well.
  • 46. Delorese Conner Lee, phone interview by Laurie Kay Sommers, 15 July 2009.
  • 47. Wilson Wainright, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Nahunta, GA, 4 September 2003.
  • 48. David I. Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 July 2000.
  • 49. John G. Crowley, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South, University Press of Florida, 1998, 163.
  • 50. Stephen A. Marini, Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture, University of Illinois Press, 2003, 90.
  • 51. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 52. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 53. David Lee, personal communication, reported in Kiri Miller, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism, University of Illinois Press, 2008, 101.
  • 54. Murphree, Wayne. Hoboken in Seattle (video), Wayne Murphree Enterprises, Flat Rock, Alabama, 12 February 1998
  • 55. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 56. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, 15 February 1997.
  • 57. The tape originally was given by a family member to John Garst, one of his professors at the University of Georgia and co-editor of The Social Harp.
  • 58. Keith Willard, liner notes to "Sacred Harp Hoboken, Georgia, 1996" (CD), 1999.
  • 59. Johnny Lee, Electronic mail correspondence with Laurie Kay Sommers, 14 October 1999.
  • 60. Minutes of the One Hundred and Fifty-Fourth Annual Session of the Alabaha River Primitive Baptist Association held with Oak Grove Church, Brantley County, Georgia, 12-14 October 1996.
  • 61. Crowley makes a similar point in “The Sacred Harp Controversy in the Original Alabaha Primitive Baptist Association.” The Baptist Studies Bulletin (Mercer University), Volume 3, no. 7 (July 2004).
  • 62. Wilson Wainright, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Nahunta, Georgia, 4 September 2003.
  • 63. Kiri Miller, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism, University of Illinois Press, 2008, 102.
  • 64. The Lees' profound sense of spirituality goes far beyond opening and closing a sing with prayer, common practice throughout the Sacred Harp network. Rather, they eloquently speak about spirituality as “Why we sing” and share this view at singing schools they have led across the country. They feel that their views have changed the feeling and meaning of some out-of-region sings from emphasis on fellowship and expressions of Americana to a more deeply felt spiritual event.
  • 65. D. Johnny Lee, electronic mail correspondence with Laurie Kay Sommers, 14 October 1999.
  • 66. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 67. D. Johnny Lee, electronic mail correspondence with Laurie Kay Sommers, 14 October 1999.
  • 68. David I. Lee and Clarke Lee, interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 February 1997.
  • 69. Clarke Lee, stage remarks, Florida Folk Festival, 28 May 2000.
  • 70. David I. Lee interviewed by Laurie Kay Sommers, Hoboken, GA, 15 July 2000.
  • 71. Brantley Enterprise, “Lee’s life entwined with the Sacred Harp.” 11 December 1996.
  • 72. Mars Hill is a “Bennettite” church, referring to the faction of the Alabaha River Association that split from the Crawfordites during the homestead controversy in the nineteenth century and followed elder Richard Bennett.
  • 73. Both signs and curriculum are initiatives of retired Waycross, Georgia music educator, Willie Character.
  • 74. David I. Lee, remarks from the stage of the Florida Folk Festival, 28 May 2000.