Summer camp continues tradition of Sacred Harp singing
by Jennifer Cohron
Jun 17, 2012 | 2821 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An instructor at Camp Fasola makes a point about the notation used in Sacred Harp songbooks. Photo by: Jennifer Cohron
An instructor at Camp Fasola makes a point about the notation used in Sacred Harp songbooks. Photo by: Jennifer Cohron
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There was a time that boys and girls in the South spent part of their summers in singing school.

A typical session lasted between one and two weeks as the children learned about the cherished art of shape note singing, also known as Sacred Harp and fasola.

Today’s generations are largely unfamiliar with the practice, which teaches singing through sight reading using a four-shape system.

"People are so busy with Little League, dance and TV that you can't get their attention for five days in a row," said David Ivey, director of Camp Fasola.

Ten years ago, Ivey and other Alabamians who love Sacred Harp singing decided that the best way to reach today's youth was in a camp setting.

Camp Lee in Anniston began hosting the modern-day singing school in 2003.

When organizers of Camp Fasola realized that many adults wanted to attend as well, they opened up the program to all ages.

Camp Fasola now holds a session for adults each June at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo and another for youth in July at Camp Lee.

People from 19 states, as well as Ontario and England, were in the area last week for Camp Fasola, which was scheduled to coincide with the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Birmingham.

One of the special guests at camp this year was Frances Robb, whose Winston County ancestors helped write the edition of "The Sacred Harp" songbook that is still in use today.

"My great-uncle Paine (Denson) said there was nothing like standing in the middle of the square and hearing those voices coming at you," Robb said.

Shape note singing, which is performed a cappella with singers arranged in four sections that form a square, has its roots in 18th century England and arrived in America around the time of the Revolution.

The first shape note songbook, "The Easy Instructor," was printed in 1801. Dozens of similar publications followed as instructors traveled from town to town leading singing schools and selling their books.

Although most of the tunes were written by New Englanders, the music found its true home in the South.

"It has always been a music that was suited for rural folks," Ivey said. "Folks in the city could get pianos and organs and make modern types of harmony, whereas country people didn't have those instruments and were more likely to hold on to an older style of singing just like they did with religion."

By 1900, shape note singing had been forgotten in most parts of the nation. However, in the South, hundreds of people turned out for annual singings at the courthouse square.

The turn of the 20th century also saw several revisions of the popular songbook "The Sacred Harp," which was first published in 1844.

Camp Fasola uses an edition released during the Depression by the Denson family of Winston County.

Brothers Seaborn and Thomas Denson were so instrumental in spreading Sacred Harp from Georgia to Texas that their efforts are commemorated in a monument on the courthouse lawn in Double Springs.

Both men died before the version of “The Sacred Harp” that still bears their family name was released in 1936.

Robb, Thomas Denson’s great-granddaughter, said she was not raised to carry on the Sacred Harp tradition.

“My grandparents decided when they moved off the farm to the big city of Cullman that it was the kind of music that the kids should make their own minds up about,” Robb said. “They continued to go to singings and the kids went with them sometimes, but they were never the kind of leaders that the Densons had been.”

Robb, a historian and lecturer associated with the Alabama Humanities Foundation, wrote an article several years ago on the Denson brothers for the online Encyclopedia of Alabama.

She was surprised when the article generated responses from as far away as Europe.

Robb attributes the Densons’ international fame to a series of Sacred Harp recordings captured in August 1942 in Birmingham. The songs are part of the Library of Congress’ folk music collection and have been released in several different formats.

The Great Depression, although devastating for American families, was the catalyst that led to preserving this musical heritage.

“People were looking for something they could depend on and look back on as a positive in a really chaotic world. Discovering the music that was in American communities was a big part of that,” Robb said.

Ivey, a fifth generation Sacred Harp singer, noticed a resurgence of interest in America’s first church music in the 1980s.

He said the timeless tunes are now being taught in cities and small towns across the country.

This fall, Camp Fasola will be expanding to Europe for the first time with a retreat in Poland.

Ivey pointed out that many of the melodies used in Sacred Harp were once secular tunes that immigrants brought to the United States. English hymn writers such as Isaac Watts and John Wesley are responsible for the bulk of the lyrics.

“Now the music is coming full circle,” Ivey said.