- Cullman, Alabama

March 21, 2014

Sacred sounds: Buell Cobb writes Sacred Harp memoir

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— The Cullman County Museum will be today’s setting for a walk down memory lane with Buell Cobb.

Cobb’s book, “Like Cords Around My Heart, A Sacred Harp Memoir” will be on display Sunday, March 23, 2014. The discussion and book signing will begin at 2 p.m. at the Cullman County Museum. Light refreshments will be served.

Buell Cobb grew up in Cullman. In college at Montevallo, and later at Auburn University, he became involved in Sacred Harp singing. You might be familiar with this music, its having come from Europe in the decades before Reformation times there, but most of the younger generation will more likely recognize it’s melodious harmonies as the hauntingly beautiful songs heard in “Cold Mountain.” T Bone Burnett, a well-known American musician, songwriter and record producer, was instrumental in bringing together the director with a group of local Sacred Harp singers who preformed two songs in the movie.

It’s called shape note singing, or four-part harmony. It speaks of the rolling hills and misty hollers of our Southern homeland. It needs no accompanying instrument, save for the human voice.

A central figure in the book, Ruth Denson Edwards, may have taught you, your parents, or maybe even your grandparents at East Elementary. She was a fourth-grade teacher there for many years.

She would have been a familiar sight to those who were present at the Sacred Harp Conventions which have been held in the Cullman County Courthouse (past and present buildings) for over a century, and is still held there to this day. “The Cullman Courthouse gatherings of the Sacred Harp method is the last of the annual courthouse singings to be held,” says Cobb. “That annual event is held the second weekend in July. Everyone is invited to join this meeting, you don’t have to sing, but you are welcome to join in, or just sit and listen.”

Mrs. Edwards’ father, T.J. Denson, was instrumental in teaching Sacred Harp singing from here to Texas in the 1930s.

In years gone by, followers of this technique traveled by wagon, horse and buggy, and afoot to attend “singings” where crowds gathered from miles around to take part or just to listen to the unforgettable melodies and heartfelt lyrics. Often these meetings were part of a church service followed by dinners on the grounds.

Grassroots movements throughout the South, and as far away as Atlanta and New York, have spurred a renewed interest in this singing style. Perhaps because of its religious background, or maybe just because it’s something almost anyone can learn, it has held its popularity through centuries when other musical styles have come and gone. There are even camps where it is taught to newcomers of the genre. “One of them is held at Camp McDowell near Double Springs and Jasper, in June, with a youth camp in Anniston in July,” said Cobb.

Mr. Cobb spent a lot of his formative years visiting his Granny Cobb, who lived in Cullman. She was a huge influence on his life, and an endearing figure in his book, being quite the eccentric character of whom family legends are made.

Her home was located at 102 Interbitzen. She was, in Cobb’s words, “a spitfire who was always up for a good argument”. Her antics in the neighborhood include running off drunks by brandishing a pistol and engaging in shouting matches with any of them who came too close to her property.

As Cobb gained his maturity, he became fascinated by the old-timey shaped note singing and took it up himself. At one time, he was the president of the National Sacred Harp Convention.

The Convention is a gathering of groups of Sacred Harp singers from all over the country, and at times from as far away as Europe. In the mid-19th century, these singings usually lasted for three or four days. Nowadays, the gathering is normally over the course of two days. The oldest of these conventions was the Chattahoochee (Georgia) Musical Convention.

Cobb describes Sacred Harp singing as “unaccompanied community singing in four-part harmony from a collection of hymns and anthems, along with a few moralistic or patriotic tunes”.

Some examples of songs one might hear at a Sacred Harp meeting would be recognizable to almost anyone who grew up in the South, songs like “Wondrous Love”, “Amazing Grace” and “The Promised Land” are among the more familiar standards.

Sacred Harp singing knows no denomination. Cobb quotes Earl Thurman, one of the leaders in the 1952 Chattahoochee Convention, as saying, “The Chattahoochee (Convention) has never concerned itself with dogmas, doctrines, or articles of faith. Participation in its activities is open to all, regardless of church affiliation. Feelings of prejudice and intolerance melt away under the spiritual warmth of songs like the immortal “Ballstown.”

According to Cobb, an accurate description of a group of Sacred Harp singers might consist of “Ordinary-looking people of various ages and other demographic factors attending classes, having lunch, going through perfectly ordinary motions — but somehow attuned to, or led by, a voice the rest of the world didn’t, couldn’t hear…”

This is Cobb’s second book on the subject. The first deals primarily with the method and history of Sacred Harp. His latest book, however, deals more with the personalities of the people who keep this tradition alive. Cullman residents will be familiar with names like Childers, Kilgo, Aldridge, Knight and Odem.

While in college at Auburn University in the late ’60s, Buell Cobb was a member of a Sacred Harp quartet, which performed live on Alabama’s first public television station (which in fact, would later become Alabama Public Television) in the wake of the death of Alabama’s beloved governor, Lurleen B. Wallace.

The director of the segment on which the quartet would appear wanted the solemn occasion to be marked by songs that represented “native music and tradition from the rural South, and rural Alabama in particular, and songs that dealt with death as well”.

But Sacred Harp music also deals with life, with being happy, in a glorious, shouting, rejoicing kind of way. If you have never heard this music, you can find out more about it by attending today’s book signing at the Cullman County Museum. Come prepared to be entertained, energized and touched by the Sacred Harp.