Warren Steel, University of Mississippi Professor of Music and Southern Culture, is in the unique position of being both a scholar of musical culture and also a participant, said Charles Gates, professor and chair of the Department of Music.
Steel recently authored a book, “The Makers of the Sacred Harp,” published by the University of Illinois Press, and he and his wife, Anne, a Latin teacher, travel around the country participating in this unique style of singing that dates from Colonial times.
“Dr. Steel’s respect for and active participation in the culture of Sacred Harp singing greatly informs his research in its history,” Gates said. “Is it unique to be both a scholar of music culture and an active participant in the culture. I have met few people who are conversant in as many areas of knowledge in the arts, humanities, religion, and literature as Dr. Steel. Simply having a conversation with him is an educational and enriching experience.”
Steel took up his first instrument at the age of 6. He heard some Sacred Harp songs on a recording as early as 1963, and immediately found a songbook in the public library. “The Sacred Harp” is an oblong songbook first published in 1844 by B.F. White and E. J. King. The music is printed in “patent notes,” wherein the shape of the note head indicates the syllables FA, SOL, LA , and MI. The songs include psalm tunes, fuging tunes, odes and anthems by the first American composers (1770-1810), and also folk songs and revival hymns (1810-1860). The current 1991 edition contains many songs in these styles by living composers.
Sacred Harp singing doesn’t involve playing the harp, but rather people singing with no accompaniment.
“Sacred Harp singing is a non-denominational community musical event emphasizing participation, not performance,” Steel said. “Singers sit facing inward in a hollow square. Each individual is invited to take a turn leading, standing in the center, selecting a song, and beating time with the hand.”
“This style of singing stems from singing schools in the Colonial period,” Steel said. “Preserved in the rural South, Sacred Harp singing (also called fasola singing or shape-note singing) is making a major resurgence in cities and campuses throughout North America. North Mississippi is fortunate to have traditional all-day singings within easy driving distance. Most singings last from about ten in the morning till three in the afternoon, with an hour break at noon for dinner on the grounds.”
Steel started participating in Sacred Harp singing in Boston in 1972 after finding a group of singers who gathered twice a month to sing from The Sacred Harp.
“That summer I drove with three others to Alabama to attend an all-day singing at a country church,” said Steel. “In 1973 I moved to Ann Arbor, MI, where I helped local singers found an annual all-day singing. What attracted me at first was the concept of participation. I liked the music much better than that of typical church or gospel hymns.”
Participants in Sacred Harp singing value being connected with supportive, loving individuals and with a distinctively Southern culture. Steel said people at singings avoid contentious subjects such as politics or religion, but they all agree that for the blessed, the afterlife consists of singing, specifically singing Sacred Harp songs, forever.
Steel believes the resurgence of interest in Sacred Harp can in part be traced to music-lovers who are disgruntled with the music industry and the concept of musical sound as a commercial commodity that can be bought and sold.
“Sacred Harp singers need only a songbook and an empty room to make music together,” Steel said. “Some singers identify strongly with the strong theology of the poetry, but others who may reject the theology can still admire the conviction and eloquence of the verses, as well as that of the music.”
Professor Steel maintains a web site on Sacred Harp Singing.[youtube]ZAnp3zZckbM&feature[/youtube]
Warren Steel leads a performance of Sacred Harp 285, Arnold, in Goshen, Indiana on July 14, 2007, at the Michiana Singing Convention.[youtube]_P8UdDwG_sw[/youtube]
In October 2010, Warren Steel discusses his work on Sacred Harp music for the Botkin Lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.