Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Rocky Road" - Alabama Sacred Harp Singers


Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Three: "Rocky Road" performed by Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. "Vocal group with reed organ." Recorded in Atlanta on April 16, 1928. Original issue Columbia 15274D (W146091).

The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers was a vocal group from rural Alabama. The group was led by Paine Denson, A. Marcus Cagle and "Uncle Dock" Owen. Little is known of Cagle or Owen, but Paine Denson came from the musical Denson family. Thomas and Seaborn Denson, Paine's father and uncle, respectively, are considered to be the patriarchs of northern Alabama Sacred Harp singing.

In 1928, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers journeyed to Atalanta, Georgia to record a session for Columbia Records. They recorded fourteen sides, including this version of "Rocky Road," as well as its B-side, "Present Joys" (which will be discussed in our next selection). The Singers were next recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1942. A brief excerpt from an interview with Paine Denson can be heard here.


I’m enlisted on the road,
I’m almost done traveling,
Enlisted on the road.
I’m bound to go where Jesus is,
My soul shall ascend where Jesus is,
To enjoy the peaceful home of rest.
I’m bound to go where Jesus is,
And be there forever blest.

It’s a mighty rocky road,
I’m almost done traveling,
A mighty rocky road,
I’m bound to go where Jesus is.

I’ve a Father on the road,
He’s almost done traveling,
A Father on the road.
He’s bound to go where Jesus is,
His soul shall ascend where Jesus is,
To enjoy the peaceful home of rest.
He’s bound to go where Jesus is,
And be there forever blest.

It’s a mighty rocky road,
I’m almost done traveling,
A mighty rocky road,
I’m bound to go where Jesus is.


Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of choral singing that dates to the Country Parish music of early 18th century England. In the mid-1700s, the tradition was brought to the English Colonies of North America where it quickly took hold as the First New England School following the publication of William Billings' New England Psalm Singer. Billings and others established singing schools, with the aim of teaching young people sacred songs. They adopted the "shape note" method of teaching music, first introduced in 1801 with the publication of The Easy Instructor by William Smith and William Little. The shape note system assigns certain shapes to certain notes and the syllables that accompany them. For a visual aid, look here.

Sacred Harp singing takes its name from Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha King's The Sacred Harp, a hymnal published in 1844. The book has gone through numerous printings over the years, and was considered to be the second most popular book (after the Bible) among southerners.

Sacred Harp singing took root in the American South where it became hugely popular. It reached the height of its popularity around the period of the Civil War, and experienced a resurgence during the 1920s, during which time most of the commercial recordings of Sacred Harp music were made. It has experienced a similar revival in recent years. Today, most urban areas have a strong Sacred Harp singing community.

Sacred Harp music is participatory, rather than performative. The chorus is divided into tenors, altos, trebles and basses, which are arraigned in a hollow square, facing the center. At the center of the square is the leader (there is no one leader in a Sacred Harp group. Rather, the duty is shared and the role passes among the members of the group). The chorus sings in full voice. The song usually begins with the singers "tuning up" and singing the song's melody, but substituting the singing syllables (fa, so, la) for the lyrics. This is immediately followed the performance of the song, with lyrics. The "tuning up" has become traditional, and is usually included on any recordings of Sacred Harp groups for authenticity's sake.

The singers in a Sacred Harp group are ordinary people and it encourages community over virtuosity.

In their musical form, Sacred Harp songs fall into three types: Hymn tunes, Fuguing tunes, and Anthems. Hymn tunes are generally composed of four-bar phrases and contain multiple verses. Fuguing tunes have a section in which the four choral parts enter in succession. Anthems are longer works that are sung through one time.

Sacred Harp songs are not sung in church, but rather at "conventions" or "singings" gathered for that purpose. These can vary in size and can gather people from all over the country. Some will include a potluck dinner known as "dinner on the ground."

The lyrics to "Rocky Road" refer both to the travails of the material world, which will be alleviated upon death, and to the difficulty of adhering to the "Christian Life." In his A Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan describes this as the "narrow way" and distinguishes from the "easy path" which leads to ruin. The Christian is beset on all sides by temptation and by those who mock and deride him. Perseverance is rewarded, however, when the pilgrim reaches God's kingdom.

Although Smith states in his notes that a reed organ is played on this selection, it is difficult to hear at first. The inclusion of the organ on this selection is atypical, since Sacred Harp singing is usually performed a capella.


I will freely admit that it took some time for me to appreciate Sacred Harp singing. When I first heard the Anthology, the two Sacred Harp tracks were my least favorite. It wasn't until I picked up Dust-to-Digital's Goodbye Babylon, which contains several more Sacred Harp recordings, that I began to get into it. The spiritual fervor of the performances, the gusto with which the singers create a literal wall of sound, these things began to win me over. If you wish to hear more Sacred Harp music, check out another Dust-to-Digital collection, I Belong To This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings. This collection contains recordings from the '20s to the 2000s. The recent recordings are especially good, because they really give you a sense of the hugeness of the sound these groups produce, as well as the palpable joy the individuals take in making this music. I have never personally attended a Sacred Harp sing, but I would love to. If anyone has any information on Sacred Harp sings in the Northeast, please leave a comment below or contact me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com

"Rocky Road" is the third of eight selection that feature vocal groups. It is the first of two tracks in a row that features Sacred Harp singing.

The Shameless Plug Department: The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. It is my intention to do a fifth episode in the near future, although for the time being I am busy acting in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. As soon as I have more time, you can rest assured that I will do a new episode of the podcast. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

The resurgence of Sacred Harp singing has led to its spread all over the world. Here's an example recorded in Poland in 2008.



This is a trailer for a recent documentary on Sacred Harp singing titled Awake My Soul.



Download and listen to Alabama Sacred Harp Singers - "Rocky Road"

6 comments:

  1. See http://www.fasola.org and navigate to the local/regional singings page for singing near you. There are both all-day or two-day singings, and regular two or three-hour singings. By going to fasola.org you can find the group that's nearest to you.

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  2. "Little is known of Cagle..."?? Actually, there is plenty known about him. A. Marcus Cagle was famous. He has a number of songs in the Sacred Harp book. There are photos of him and recordings of him speaking. People are alive who remember singing with him.

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  3. Martha, I wasn't able to find any birth or death date regarding Cagle. If you can point me to that info, I will happily add it to the blog. Thanks!

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  4. There are singings most First Saturdays in Clifton Park but I'd recommend that you try the Albany Area All-Day Singing on Saturday, June 12, from 10 to 4 with dinner on the grounds at the Old Songs center in Voorheesville. You're right if you suspect that Sacred Harp has to be experienced to be understood. Recordings and concerts don't really do it. (If the info isn't on the fasola.org page, search "new york state sacred harp.")

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  5. Thanks for the heads up, bklynharuspex. I'll plan on attending!

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  6. Alfred Marcus Cagle aas born on Oct. 5 1884 in Easom Hill, Polk County GA, married Margaret (Maggie) Frances Denson (daughter of Thomas Jackson Denson, on July 14, 1904 at Helicon, AL. Marcus died on Dec. 19, 1867 a Milledgeville GA.

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