“Like Cords Around My Heart”: Sacred Harp Memorial Lessons and the Transmission of Tradition

Abstract

Sacred Harp singing is a participatory American vernacular hymnody tradition with historical roots in New England and the rural South. This article addresses “memorial lessons,” ritualized lament speeches that play a key role in transmitting community values to new singers. Because of their reliance on oral tradition, their emphasis on memory and personal relationships, and their emotionally charged juxtaposition of speech and song, memorial lessons define, confirm, and perpetuate particular conceptions of “traditional singing.”

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Figure 1: The Hollow Square.

Figure 2: Shape-note notation.

Reprinted from McGraw 1991.

The front bench of the treble section at the 2007 Midwest Sacred Harp Convention in Chicago.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Beer.

Anne Heider leads a tune at the 2007 Midwest Sacred Harp Convention in Chicago.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Beer.

The hollow square at the 2007 Midwest Sacred Harp Convention in Chicago.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Beer.

Singers lead a tune at the 2009 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention in Northampton.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Keyes.

George and Jean Seiler lead a tune at the 2009 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention in Northampton.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Keyes.

The front bench of the tenor section at the 2009 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention in Northampton.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Keyes.

The front bench of the bass section at the 2007 New York State Sacred Harp Convention in Rochester.

Photograph courtesy of Kevin Griffin Moreno.

A singer leads a tune at the 2005 Chattahoochee Musical Convention, held at Wilson’s Chapel (near Carrollton, Georgia).

Photograph courtesy of Kevin Griffin Moreno.

The hollow square at the 2009 Keystone Sacred Harp Convention in Philadelphia.

Photograph courtesy of Kevin Griffin Moreno.

Singers lead a tune at the 2009 Keystone Sacred Harp Convention in Philadelphia.

Photograph courtesy of Kevin Griffin Moreno.

“Save, Lord, Or We Perish” (224).

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Community Music School of Santa Cruz.

Memorial lesson by Marcia Johnson.

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Community Music School of Santa Cruz.

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