Sacred Harp: Is Old South Nostalgia Around Dinner Well-Placed?

JULIE BOTNICK (this article was first published in October 2012)

Guests gather around a table at Sacred Harp. Photo by Julie Botnick.

My first Sacred Harp convention was in Lenox, Massachusetts in October of 2011. I was completely blown away by the sound of 82 people singing in full voices in the high-ceiling room, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires. It was more beautiful and spiritual than anything I had experienced. Our small weekly singings, the class on American hymnody I was taking at the time, and the seminal Lomax Sacred Harp recordings hadn’t prepared me for the actual feeling of being moved by the four-part shape note harmonies.

I was also unprepared for the food.

The spread in Massachusetts was typical of other singings I have attended since: two coleslaws; root vegetables; sesame spinach; cheese and crackers; scalloped potatoes; three macaroni and cheeses; two roast hams; curried chicken; salad; sausage and peppers; stewed apples; lasagna; stuffing; barbecue chicken; pulled pork; meatloaf; potatoes au gratin; stuffed shells; corn casserole; glazed carrots; cornbread; roasted red potatoes; mashed potatoes; corn and tomato salad; homemade pickles; homemade applesauce; deli meats; pesto pasta; and a parsley, quinoa, chickpea, carrot, and feta salad; and a dessert table included that included pecan, pumpkin, and raspberry pies; brownies; bread pudding; two carrot cakes; oatmeal raisin cookies; grapes; clementines; peanut butter chip cookies; blueberry bars; gingerbread; ginger snaps; fruit salad; apple cake; cranberry strudel; pumpkin bread; donuts; and oatmeal molasses bars.

Dinner on the grounds, the potluck meal served in the middle of a daylong singing, began like most convention practices: out of necessity and the Southern church tradition. Church services have commonly featured a midday potluck meal, and when all-day singings became popular, singers quickly realized they would wilt in the heat without a refresher.

A time to impress others and nurture them, the dish one brings to a dinner can be indicative of not just a people’s culinary talents, but also their respective lifestyles, their heritage, and their familiarity with singing. There are unwritten rules of dinner on the grounds, and, like just about every aspect of Sacred Harp singing and conventions, there are politics surrounding it, especially in the South. Carl Carmer’s description of an all-day singing in Stars Fell on Alabama provides a humorous description of these politics. The narrator is at a singing with a campaigning Tom Somerville, “the vote gettin’est man in Alabama.” He says to Carmer, “Come along, boy. I’ll talk and you just keep feedin’. Every box y’ eat out’n counts a vote.” All of the ladies who had shown up for the dinner were so proud of their dishes that a healthy helping of each dish would ensure one more vote. Likewise, people did not leave their dishes, because the others would overstuff them: “The tops were off the boxes now, revealing great quantities of fried chicken, beaten biscuit, corn bread, pickles, preserves, white frosted cakes. No one dared wander far from his own boxes for fear of being gorged by friends who would be hurt by a refusal.”

Food is also a way to commune with singers who have passed away, a tangible analogy to the memorial lesson. Singers label their dishes to indicate from whom they got the recipe, or will be sure to tell everyone who inspired their choice of dish. Just as singers will write notes about which songs are sung at which conventions or memorials, singers may associate certain recipes or foods with specific singers or events, and some will even write recipes right in their songbooks. This is easily seen in Karen Eastburn’s choice of titles for the recipes she includes in her book, A Sacred Feast: “Mr. Freeman’s Wife’s Best Pumpkin Pie,” “Aunt Ruthy’s Sour Cream Pound Cake,” and “Cousin Belle’s Egg Custard Pie Filling” all make appearances. Food is at once a way of reconnecting with a past and a way to show a decidedly regional way of life, as Eastburn witnessed in Boulder, Colorado, where the food was reminiscent of Southern cooking, but with a healthy, organic, local, “Boulder” bent.

The concepts of “Southern hospitality” and “soul food” are bases of the generally welcoming tone of Sacred Harp singings and singers. Family pride is also an important theme. As an established Northern singer who has traveled South extensively told me, “They put out the food, not by this food here and drinks there, but by family group. They’re always kind of sideways inviting you to have their stuff. It’s hard not to drastically overeat when you’re down there.” Dinner is a time to show off your cooking, and also to show hospitality towards travelers.

Like many aspects of the tradition, it is difficult to separate the reality of Southern hospitality from the nostalgia of Northern singers’ views of the South. Certainly, celebrations built around food are more easily pointed to in the South. Yes, many traditionally Southern foods are more “stick-to-your-ribs” than typically Northern foods. But is the Old South nostalgia around dinner on the grounds well-placed?

One answer is that it doesn’t matter, that the reasons Northerners are highly attracted to the welcoming community of the Sacred Harp aren’t as important as the fact that they are actively furthering the goals of community-building and appreciation of the hauntingly beautiful music of the Sacred Harp. But another answer is that it does matter, and it matters because it is indicative of larger societal changes that have occurred in the last few centuries. This nostalgic conflagration of Sacred Harp with the South draws Northerners, including non-churchgoing, digitally-overloaded college students living away from family, like myself, to the tradition. Dinner on the grounds is a highly communal affair, one that is inimitable in a college dining hall and in most homes. Progressives in the New South era attacked shape-note singing because it was seen as backwards. Singers were encouraged to give up the ways of the “Old Fogies” and learn newer European modes of singing. Singing from the Sacred Harp was a way to hold onto something familiar in a changing world. Similarly, the attraction of the Sacred Harp community to many young Northerners seems to be its “authenticity” and old-timey feeling. Instead of spending six hours alone on Facebook, singers share a meal and sing hymns that are hundreds of years old, which certainly is a throwback to an older time, or at least another place. It’s eating and singing as a form of rebellious time travel.

In a way, this attitude encourages us to overlook the reasons we have become so distanced from a communal eating and singing tradition in favor of sentimentalizing a community that still holds those values. But maybe, if singers like me bring the values of sharing and community back with us, and if recipes like “Aunt Ruthy’s Sour Cream Pound Cake” continue to be made, the misplaced nostalgia and insistence that these values are imitable may be worth the error.


One thought on “Sacred Harp: Is Old South Nostalgia Around Dinner Well-Placed?

  1. My paternal grandmother grew up with shaped-note singing in the Primitive Baptist Church and did it her entire life. It was a form of worship. I can’t separate Sacred Harp from the Christian faith, the South, and good Southern country cooking. (Fried okra and creamed corn, please!) It’s good to read an article about it.

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