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Singing for their supper: An all-day singing -- shared voices, shared table

 

After a morning session of sacred harp singing, Mike Hankins of Vernon, Alabama, and other participants in the first annual Memorial Sacred Harp Singing presented by the Columbus Arts Council Saturday dug into a potluck lunch at the Rosenzweig Arts Center.

After a morning session of sacred harp singing, Mike Hankins of Vernon, Alabama, and other participants in the first annual Memorial Sacred Harp Singing presented by the Columbus Arts Council Saturday dug into a potluck lunch at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

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Hearty soups, this one made by Jeanette Basson and her brother-in-law, Chestly Basson, were welcomed by Saturday’s singers.

Hearty soups, this one made by Jeanette Basson and her brother-in-law, Chestly Basson, were welcomed by Saturday’s singers.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Jim Crownover of Steens made a bowl of savory Hoppin’ John for the potluck.

Jim Crownover of Steens made a bowl of savory Hoppin’ John for the potluck.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Beth Imes’ vegetable soup is flavored with a touch of chipotle.

Beth Imes’ vegetable soup is flavored with a touch of chipotle.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Jan Swoope

 

 

There's a certain communal beauty in a potluck meal. A tacit trust that you'll pitch in and not go away hungry, an element of pleasant anticipation, as in, "Wonder what goodies we'll have today?" When the goodies come sandwiched between morning and afternoon singing sessions, there is an added harmony in breaking bread together. 

 

On Saturday, 50 or so participants took part in the first annual Sacred Harp Singing presented by the Columbus Arts Council. The center of the main gallery was transformed into a choir room as voices raised hymns, odes and anthems written long, long ago. The vocal art form, sung a capella, has roots in colonial America and the Deep South. It's often known as shape note singing because the notes are printed in distinct shapes and are assigned names, such as fa, sol and la.  

 

For more than a century, the traditional format for sacred harp gatherings has been an all-day singing and potluck. Saturday's singers enjoyed their meal at noon.  

 

"The food was wonderful," said participant Emilie White. "There's that quality we see in potlucks and covered dish suppers at church -- that no one knows what anyone else is bringing, but somehow there is a balance and everyone's tastes are satisfied." 

 

Spiral cut ham, chicken, pot roast, soups, vegetables and breads (including Anne Freeze's muffins with jalapeno, topped with melted cheese) anchored one half of the buffet tables. A variety of desserts filled the rest. 

 

"It was a very traditional table. I was surprised to see the soups, and I really appreciated them. Both of them were delicious," said White, who remembers her father describing the "singing schools" he used to attend growing up near Scottsboro, Alabama. Singing schools suggest sacred harp or shape note singing. "I think sacred harp singing is in my roots," White remarked. 

 

 

 

At the table 

 

Hearty homemade vegetable soups made by Beth Imes and by Jeanette Basson with her brother-in-law, Chestly Basson, suited the season on Saturday. 

 

"I don't know that I followed a recipe," said Imes. Her aromatic soup is a blend of split pea base, two types of lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans, carrots, celery, hominy, red bell peppers and other ingredients, including a touch of chipotle.  

 

Imes, who participated in the singing with her son, John, has been interested in the unique song form for some time. 

 

"An uncle of mine gave me a sacred harp book many years ago; I've always loved the idea of it," she said. "I loved the four-part harmony of voices, the position of the chairs, with each part facing the center, making a square, and that everyone was encouraged not only to select songs, but to lead." She described the rhythmic music as "almost like chanting," especially when the group sang the fa-sol-la notes, prior to singing the actual lyrics. 

 

Jim Crownover is song director for the Steens Church of Christ. He came Saturday to find out what sacred harp singing is all about. 

 

"I saw it in the paper and have been singing four-part harmony all my life. This, though, was a new experience for me," he said.  

 

Crownover doesn't just sing well; he cooks, too. 

 

"I cook with my wife, Brenda. What I know, she's taught me," he smiled. He prepared Hoppin' John for the potluck, a savory combination of rice, kielbasa sausage, black-eyed peas, sauteed onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic. "And if you're from Louisiana, you might put in a little hot sauce," he quipped. 

 

The singing, he said, was uplifting, "especially to realize this has been going on for hundreds of years; most of the songs were from before the Civil War." 

 

 

 

Past to present 

 

The choral music was particularly moving to Joyce Hunt of Columbus. She brought with her a copy of "The Sacred Harp" tunebook published in 1936. It had belonged to her grandmother, Annie Lou West McGee of Caledonia. 

 

"She loved sacred harp and participated in what she called fa-sol-la," explained Hunt. She remembers being a child, sitting next to her grandparent at singings, fascinated that there were no instruments and that everyone sang the names of the notes instead of words.  

 

"Saturday, just sitting together and closing my eyes and hearing those voices in one accord singing like they were, took me back to those old-fashioned country fa-sol-la singings," Hunt said. "It reminded me of that wonderful heritage that seems to be slipping away, so I'm so grateful we have people of all ages keeping it alive." 

 

While several singers at the arts center were taking part in their first sacred harp experience, participant Marleen Hansen was very familiar with it. She hails from Luray, Virginia, where nearby, an annual singing in an historic log meeting house built in the 1700s still takes place the first Sunday of every August. At the Columbus event, she watched people from varying backgrounds and communities come together to share in that same an age-old tradition.  

 

"People who sing together breathe together, they harmonize together. Even if they don't know each other, they're doing this because they love it," she said.  

 

At all-day singings, they also eat together, each contributing something good to the greater whole, just as their voices do to every song. It's a fine way to feed both soul and body.

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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