Today I’d like to make the first in a series of posts on the poetic songs of the Ozarks. This will include both sacred and secular music and in posting these song traditions I hope to show people the beauty and true sophistication of the poetics of Ozark people who have for so long been viewed as uneducated and without a culture. That of course isn’t true, and being 27 days into this project I think I’ve been able to show just how much culture we have. It’s amazing to me to look at people who may not be able to read a book or write their own name, but who have memorized song upon song with complicated rhyme schemes and imagery.
The first tradition I’d like to look at is Sacred Harp singing. Sacred Harp is a style of Protestant Christian hymnody that developed in the South at the last half of the 19th century. It traces it’s roots back to earlier New England styles of singing (look into Shaker hymnody for some interesting similarities) and can also even be traced back to much earlier forms of English and Scottish Protestant singing. Sacred Harp has had a place in Ozark culture for a long time, and while there may be only a few singing groups left who still use “The Sacred Harp” the sounds of the tradition can still be heard in the old styles of singing of country churches all over the area. For those who are interested there’s a wonderful documentary on Sacred Harp Singing called “Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp”.
Sacred Harp is an interesting music form that uses shape notes rather than the standard music form to indicate what tones the people should be singing. Here’s an example of the tune “Amazing Grace” or “New Britain” as it’s named in “The Sacred Harp”:
The shapes of the notes indicate degrees of the scale, not particular pitches. Having shape notes means that it’s easier for people who can’t read music to be able to follow along, which is why this style of music became so popular in the South, particularly among rural people.
Here are a few of my favorite Sacred Harp hymns, recordings of these hymns can likely be found on Youtube:
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot!
Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!
Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!
Ye fleeting charms of earth farewell,
Your springs of joy are dry;
My soul seeks another home.
A brighter world on high.
I’m a long time trav’ling here below,
I’m a long time trav’ling away from home,
I’m a long time trav’ling here below,
To lay this body down.
Farewell, my friends, whose tender care
Has long engaged my love;
Your fond embrace I now exchange
For better friends above.
Forgive the song that falls so low,
Beneath the gratitude I owe.
It means Thy praise however poor,
An angel’s song can do no more.
Great God, and wilt Thou condescend
To be my Father and my Friend.
I, a poor child, and thou, so high.
The Lord of earth, and air and sky.
383 Eternal Day
Oh what are all my suff’rings here,
If, Lord, Thou count me meet
With that enraptured host t’appear
And worship at Thy feet?
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again
In that eternal day.
Oh what hath Jesus bought for me,
Before my ravished eyes?
Rivers of life divine I see,
And trees of paradise.
I see a world of spirits bright,
Who taste the pleasures there,
They all are robed in spotless white,
And conqu’ring palms they bear.
159 Wondrous Love
What wondrous love is this!
Oh, my soul, oh my soul!
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse
For my soul?
When I was sinking down,
Sinking down, Sinking down,
Beneath God’s righteous frown
Christ laid aside His crown
For my soul.
To God and to the Lamb,
I will sing; I will sing;
Who is the great I Am,
While millions join the theme,
I will sing.
And when from death I’m free
I’ll sing on; I’ll sing on;
I’ll sing and joyful be,
I’ll sing on.