I am a huge fan of Sacred Harp or Shape Note singing. I heard a lot of this type of music growing up in Alabama. Alabama is one of the few places the tradition has endured over the years. Originally thought to have originated in England in the eighteenth century, the singing flourished with the publication of two songbooks, The Sacred Harp by B. F. White and E. J. King in 1844 and William Walker's Southern Harmony, published in 1835. It gets the name "shape note" because the notes on the scale each have a distinct shape.
The singing is always a cappella and the singers sit in a configuration known as a hollow square.
The sound is totally unique. I love it, though some people find it just annoying. Hey, some people find opera annoying. What you may ask does this have to do with cookbooks?
A "singing" usually occurs in a rural church and families travel for miles to attend them. They have to eat, so an elaborate communal meal is served in the middle of the day, "dinner" to Southerners. Since most of these lunchtime dinners are outside, they are known as "dinner on the ground" and they feature prominently in Sacred Harp singings. Kathryn Eastburn's book A Sacred Feast looks at both the singing and eating involved in this tradition and has produced a history/cookbook from her travels to churches around the country.
The most famous, popular culture use of Shape Note singing, says Eastburn, was evidenced in the movie Cold Mountain where:
"Nicole Kidman waved her ivory fingers up and down, beating time in the traditional Sacred Harp fashion, and made eye contact with Jude Law across the hollow square. The movie ended up with a bunch of Academy Award nominations, including one for its musical soundtrack, featuring a group of Alabama Sacred Harp singers. In February 2004 some of those singers flew to Hollywood, dressed up in long black dresses and solemn suits and appeared on stage at the Academy awards ceremony next to Alison Krauss, who, the fashion commentators told us, was wearing diamond-studded $250,000 shoes. Sacred Harp hit the big time."Nicole Kidman and diamond shoes aside, Shape Note has hardly hit the "big time." If you want to see a great example of a singing check out the documentary, Awake My Soul by Matt and Erica Hinton. The film features singers from Georgia and Alabama and provides both a history and an emotional connection to this art form. After spending seven years compiling the documentary, the Hintons released a two-disk set of music.
One disk featured the traditional singing from Henegar, Alabama. The second disk featured traditional shape note songs, sung in a conventional format, with singers running the gamut from Elvis Perkins to Doc Watson, Matt Hinton explains:
"As a musician, it's almost impossible to sing Sacred Harp without wondering what the songs would sound like in another context. That curiosity, combined with my desire to make Sacred Harp more known to a culture which has largely ignored it, led to the creation of Help Me to Sing. At its core, I see it as a way of opening a door to a musical tradition that very many people are unfamiliar with. As far as I'm concerned, Help Me to Sing is the hook. Real Sacred Harp singing, as heard on the Awake My Soul soundtrack? well, that?'s the fish. It just so happens that in this case, even the bait wound up being extraordinary."
Awake My Soul/Help Me To Sing was my favorite CD of 2008 and it made dozens of "Best Of" lists. Check out their web site to order the DVD or CD.
Back to the food. The recipes come from the singers and A Sacred Feast offers many traditional Southern dishes, turnip greens, red velvet cake, fried pies and barbecue. And there are a few quirky surprises like this recipe from Bozo Willis. Its name is derived from the fact that one can buy four boxes of cornbread mix for a dollar.
Bozo Willis's Dollar Store Dressing
4 boxes cornbread mix
1 46-oz. can chicken broth
2 dozen eggs,hard boiled and chopped fine
2 sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed
2 sleeves saltine crackers, crushed
1 to 2 stalks celery, chopped fine
2 onions, chopped
Prepare dressing according to package directions. Bake and crumble into two large aluminum baking pans. Saute celery and onions in vegetable oil. Mix in cornbread, remaining dry ingredients and poultry seasoning to taste. pour in hot chicken broth until mixture is soft but not too wet. Let sit in refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours to mingle flavors. Remove from refrigerator and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until completely heated through. If mixture becomes too dry, add more broth.
For a taste of Sacred Harp listen to Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Convention sing:
Antioch, 277. mp3