Set Your Fields on Fire, Volume I: Introduction
Set Your Fields on Fire
A Collection of Sacred Music
It is amazing how a small idea can snowball into something much bigger. In 2000, when Mick Buck started the Regional Music Project at the University of West Georgia, I am sure no one—including him—had any idea that we would tap into the treasure trove of musical heritage that has, to date, filled three CDs with recordings by local artists. And I certainly had no idea that I would eventually have the pleasure of overseeing this project for the Center for Public History.
While it is challenging to being the work of documenting and preserving a region’s previously undocumented musical heritage, it is equally daunting to take over in the middle of the process, trying to figure out where we had been and where we needed to go. But the excitement of discovery was more than enough to propel me forward into countless interviews, new friendships, group singings, Spirit-filled churches, and other manifestations of the sacred music legacy of West Georgia.
My own involvement in this project began in the fall of 2004, when I interviewed Mrs. Vernice Parham of the gospel group The Long Sisters. On the appointed day and time, I pulled slowly into Mrs. Parham’s driveway, got out of my car, and introduced myself to a man working on a truck in the yard. When I asked where I might find her, he told me, “She’s not home yet, but she’ll be here in a minute.” Soon, a car pulled up in the driveway, a woman emerged from the passenger side and began walking toward me. Nervously, I extended my hand and started to introduce myself. But before I had the chance to speak, Mrs. Parham threw open her arms, hugged me, and said, “Hello, Doll.” When I asked her how her day had been, she responded, “Blessed in the Lord.” This was my introduction to West Georgia’s culture of gospel music.
When producing an album of regional music, one needs to understand what that region is. West Georgia, as we at the Center study it, runs from east of Atlanta to the Alabama line, north to Rome, Georgia (the gateway to the North Georgia Mountains) and south to Newnan, Georgia. It sits in the piedmont of the Appalachian mountain chain and is largely rural.
Gospel music from groups like The Long Sisters or bluegrass-gospel from the local group the Bluegrass Five represent regional styles of sacred and gospel traditions with roots as old as the American colonies. Sometimes tragic, like the spiritual songs born in slavery, often otherworldly, like the Sacred Harp songs that face death so readily, the varied, regional types of songs found on this CD share the outlook that there are better times ahead, perhaps in this life, perhaps in the next.
Sacred music in the Southeast developed virtually simultaneously among white and black communities. As white groups began singing shape notes early in the nineteenth century, so too did African Americans. A shape-note system developed in the United States that enabled men and women, without formal training, to “read” music. Originally, there were four shapes used to denote the seven notes of the musical scale: Fa, Sol, La, and, occasionally, Mi. Tune books such as The Southern Harmony, first published in 1836, and The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, used the four-shape system.
The shape-note songbooks strongly influenced the way in which southern people performed sacred music. These books opened up the singing tradition to many new people in both white and black congregations who did not have to know how to read sheet music. Since the appearance of these shape note books, shape not singing has endured several ebbs and flows in popularity. With the development of gospel music and the quarters that accompanied this new genre at the turn of the twentieth century, shape note singing became less popular. Soon it was identified largely with the South, where it remained more popular than in other parts of the country.
In the West Georgia region, the tradition has remained popular. Local white singers use The Sacred Harp, which has gone through many editions since its first publication. In subsequent editions, including the most recent in 1991, editors removed unused songs and added newer ones, but The Sacred Harp remains much the same today as it was in its first edition.
A Sacred Harp singing is not a concert or a performance. Rather, participants are expected to become part of the singing, regardless of how well they sing. I have sat beside some people who had no understanding of the shape notes, and I myself make frequent mistakes on the shapes and the tune. But that is not the point. The singing is an act of community and worship. It is a tradition almost two hundred years old that relies on the participation of the community, not merely on those members who might qualify for a record contract. With different version of the book in print, Sacred Harp varies by community, as different groups declare loyalty to their preferred edition. The regional division among Sacred Harp singers can be seen at large singings which draws singers from a broader region. One locality prefers certain songs that might be sung less frequently in another. At a recent singing in western North Carolina, a woman led a song I had never heard in West Georgia. The man next to me looked equally puzzled and the singers in general were rather quiet and reserved, indicating a lack of familiarity with the song. After the song ended, the man casually leaned over to me and remarked, “She must be from Alabama.” This was not intended as a criticism, but as a simple observation. People from different areas, using different books, sing different songs. Today, with Sacred Harp singing enjoying a resurgence in popularity, one can find Sacred Harp or shape note singings in almost any part of the country. Several take place overseas in countries like the United Kingdom.
A tradition represented on the album that was once more popular is African-American shape note singing. The practice has more in common with white shape note rituals than differences, but sadly it is in decline. Many of the black shape note singers featured on this album are retired, and there are few young people who have taken an interest in this folk tradition to ensure its survival.
Black shape note singers in Carroll County use a hymnal first published in 1951 known simply as “the Red Book.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, black singers in the Deep South might have used The Sacred Harp, but in West Georgia, “the Red Book” seems to have become most popular. It contains recent, mid-twentieth-century gospel songs as opposed to The Sacred Harp, which contains much older hymns.
The similarities between white and black shape note singing expose a common past. In both traditions, singers sit in a hollow square. The leaders and singers keep time with their hand and sing notes before singing the words. Not only are the performance practices similar, but the songs can be familiar as well. Songs like “I’ll Fly Away” are popular among both black and white congregations.
Gospel music, which developed in the nineteenth century, differed from the more sedate hymns that had been the predominate form of sacred music until that time. Popular among both black and white audiences, gospel songs featured simple lyrics and catchy melodies that made them easy to remember. These songs were preformed for an audience, rather than being sung directly to God, thus giving gospel music a quality that was absent from Sacred Harp singings.
Unlike shape note singing, southern gospel, at term generally referring to white gospel, unquestionably centers on performance and entertainment while maintaining a Christian message through song. Southern gospel has become a competitive business with groups continually striving to outperform others to gain a wider audience. This commercialization of a form of sacred music sparked the debate over whether this music can be enjoyed as both entertainment and sacred music simultaneously.
Regardless of such tensions, southern gospel is definitely full is definitely full of showmanship. As southern gospel evolved during the twentieth century, it became more and more of a performance. Many gospel groups have adopted flashy outfits, increasingly spectacular stage shows, and electric guitars, basses, and drums. Today, some groups even use a pre-recorded music track, fed into a sound system, in order to recreate the full sound of a band, without actual musicians. This innovation puts the focus entirely on the vocalists and their skills, and audiences seem to care little about the music’s source; they just want the gospel.
Southern gospel singers range from individuals who perform in their home churches on special Sunday occasions to professional groups wit theatres in places like Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Bronson, Missouri. Some semiprofessional groups maintain day jobs at the same time as touring. At the local level, southern gospel is no less performance-oriented and no less spectacular than that of professional groups.
Gospel music has largely replaced shape note singing in the black community. Many of the gospel artists today barely remember shape notes but recall that their parents and grandparents sang them. Today the shape note tradition has given way to more modern practices such as anniversary singings and gospel performances. Compared to white traditions, gospel singing in the African-American community contains strong participatory elements, but remains performance- based.
Anniversary singings take place when a local gospel group celebrates their anniversary by singing together. For example, The Long Sisters celebrated their 29th anniversary in January 2005 at their home institution of Antioch Baptist Church in the community of Clem, just outside of Carrollton, Georgia.
Because African-American gospel focuses on participation with a tendency towards entertainment, an even like an anniversary singing will showcase the energetic performance style and flamboyant outfits of the various gospel groups. Brightly colored suits with matching shoes and hats on male quartets, and sequined, bright dresses with matching shoes for female groups make the sanctuary of the host church come alive.
It is customary for groups to perform at another group’s anniversary to thank them for the opportunity and compliment their hard work and service to the Lord. Such compliments may also involve a statement about the inevitable hardships of life like, “I know it hasn’t been easy….” Words such as these show the community’s focus on overcoming hardship, a them unfortunately well-known to the black community, and they comfort not only the group celebrating an anniversary, but the whole church.
Anniversary singings are generally well known gospel events in the local community and are advertised from the pulpit of local churches so that the public is sure to attend and support the singers on their special day. These events, which encompass such genres as spirituals, gospel blues, modern gospel, and traditional gospel, keep gospel music alive in black communities today.
In addition to anniversary singings, gospel groups like The Willing Workers perform in other churches and community centers throughout the Southeast. The instruments used in both southern gospel and black gospel are similar: electric bass and guitar, keyboard, and drums. Rather than looking in the paper, one might be more likely to learn about the upcoming gospel singing in the African-American community by looking for flyers on the door of a local church or by word of mouth.
A later development within white music was the emergence of bluegrass gospel. Musician, singer and songwriter Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass music in the 1940s, when he combined mandolin, guitar, five-string banjo, upright bass and fiddle to give a livelier feel and hard-driving edge to more traditional country, folk, and gospel songs. Bluegrass groups incorporated a number of older gospel tunes such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Great Speckled Bird” into their repertoires. As bluegrass bands took to the radio on nationally networked programs like the Grand Ole Opry, they expanded their audience and spread the bluegrass style to new regions.
Bluegrass gospel never developed the flashy shows of southern gospel, but its fast tempos and catchy melodies make a performance well worth seeing. Local bands like the Bluegrass Five might perform in a church, festival or bluegrass/gospel barn in the West Georgia region. Such barns are not for animals or hay, but take their name from the old practice of using barns as music venues.
Bluegrass barns can be large, professional operations that seat 5,000 bluegrass gospel fans, or they can be small, more intimate places. They host a range of groups, from professional, A-list bands like Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, to equally professional, but more locally-known bands like Southern Dogwood or the Bluegrass Five. There is little question about the performance and participation qualities of a bluegrass gospel event. In between shows, many members of the audience, camped in RVs and tents around the venue, take out their own instruments and learn new songs and licks from one another. Far from being a traditional concert, bluegrass gospel shows are often community events that actively involve the audience as well as the band members.
Many of the songs on this album might be heard anywhere in the Southeast—and throughout America—but the West Georgia musicians have woven them into the folklife and values of their community. These community values give popular songs like “Great Speckled Bird” a new and different meaning than they might have elsewhere.
The songs presented here can be heard bluegrass/gospel barns, church singings, bluegrass festivals, concerts and other sacred music. Some of them, such as southern gospel concerts, focus on performance, while others, such as Sacred Harp and African-American gospel events, focus on participation. But the variations between these different musical styles along with the differences between communities only strengthen the historical ties and values placed on them by the community. The West Georgia community relates to and identifies with this sacred music, and residents often continue to perform it as they have for generations. We hope you identify with it in some way as well. While the music is from West Georgia, its message is universal.