Category: Music and Dance

Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism

By Kiri Miller. 2007. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03214-1 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Duncan Vinson, Suffolk University and St. Anselm College

[Review length: 1059 words • Review posted on July 8, 2008]


In the first decade of the twenty-first century, conventional wisdom holds that the United States is deeply divided between “red states” and “blue states,” partly on the basis of religion: witness the map that circulated during the 2004 presidential election in which the South and Southwest are labeled “Jesusland,” while the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast are labeled “United States of Canada.” It is fortuitous, then, that Kiri Miller has provided a timely ethnographic account of a nationwide musical community, Sacred Harp singers, that “live[s] against the grain of present-day American political life” (44).

Superficially, the Sacred Harp phenomenon of the last thirty years embodies a social divide similar to the red/blue state divide. One hears talk of a musical style maintained by both “traditional” singers (often a shorthand for “rural, Southern, Christian, politically conservative”) and “revivalists” (“urban, Northern, secular, politically liberal”). The more one spends time among Sacred Harp singers, however, the more this opposition becomes suspect. Traveling Home (like John Bealle’s excellent Public Worship, Private Faith) delves below the surface and demonstrates that while the cultural differences that underlie this opposition are real, the practices of the Sacred Harp convention--singing in a hollow square formation, singing the shapes (i.e., solfège syllable names, each represented by a differently shaped notehead), the memorial lesson for singers who have died, and networks of obligation with other singing conventions in distant places--create a space where singers transcend these cultural differences. For Miller, a “sincerity akin to faith” (185) binds together singers of diverse backgrounds within the hollow square; “the hollow square will reconfigure space into place [and] the convention protocols will reconfigure strangers into family” (202).

While Bealle’s research focuses on “folksong” as the root concept for interpreting Sacred Harp, Miller focuses on “diaspora.” One of the advantages of speaking of Sacred Harp singing as a diaspora is that Miller can transcend well-worn notions of “tradition” and “revival.” While she recognizes that Sacred Harp singing is not like an ethnic diaspora in every respect, she makes a convincing case that “diaspora consciousness”--“being ‘at home in transience’” (206)--describes the combination of longing, travel, and pilgrimage found among Sacred Harp singers. The hollow square becomes a “portable homeland” (47), and The Sacred Harp tunebook, with each song linked in memory to specific events and individuals, becomes a “portable graveyard” (98).

Traveling Home is based on ten years of fieldwork at an impressive range of singing conventions in the Midwest, the South, and New England. Miller draws on her experience of singing both in the Midwest and in New England to argue that these regions of the diaspora are as different from each other as they are from the South. She tactfully discusses the different relationships diaspora singers have toward the oral and written traditions that link new singers to the past. Miller also demonstrates that singers in the South are hardly monolithic. Traveling Home is the first major work to document the impact that the Lee family of southeastern Georgia has had on Sacred Harp practice since the late 1990s. Miller makes a provocative observation: while the Lees’ previous isolation from other Southern singers has made them celebrities (as wellsprings of supposedly unpolluted “tradition”), similarly isolated groups with idiosyncratic traditions (particularly in New England) are criticized as lacking respect of tradition. Miller’s discussion of this irony sheds light on the nature of authority within the Sacred Harp community.

Several features of her fieldwork are particularly strong. For example, she does an excellent job of explicating the importance of the memorial lesson, an aspect of the Sacred Harp tradition to which more musicologically oriented scholars have not given as much attention. Also, she gives the hymn texts found in The Sacred Harp as much attention as the musical settings--unlike, for example, the pioneering scholar George Pullen Jackson, who canonized Sacred Harp as American folksong primarily because the melodies resemble those of Anglo-American secular ballads and songs. Miller weaves quotations from Sacred Harp songs into her narrative frequently, almost as an evangelical Christian author would weave in quotations from the Bible. She also examines the ways in which Sacred Harp singing has been represented in the media. The most important recent development in this area has been the inclusion of Sacred Harp singing in the film Cold Mountain and the subsequent performance of a group of singers at the Oscars ceremony. Miller’s treatment of this episode is one of the highlights of the book.

In the area of religion, Miller argues that “diaspora” and “tradition” do not neatly map onto any specific religious commitments. To her credit, she recognizes that some diaspora singers arrive with Christian commitments, that there are important differences in tradition among Southern Protestants (such as the distinction between proselytizing and predestinarian traditions among Baptists), and that the contents of The Sacred Harp are theologically diverse. However, her arguments about religion could be more focused if, rather than characterize singers by the presence or absence of belief (“Christian” versus “secular”), she concentrated on how singers’ faith is lived out in practice. For example, at one point Miller argues, “Regardless of the strength of their religious convictions, Christian singers who attend a lot of Sacred Harp conventions are not the most church-oriented members of their home communities” (34). But “attending church” does not mean the same thing in every Christian tradition. It is not unusual for an evangelical Christian (as opposed to a mainline Protestant or a Roman Catholic) to practice his or her faith among a variety of congregations, parachurch organizations, and prayer groups; the “home congregation” may not play as central a role. In short, some of the cultural differences that Miller glosses as “secular” versus “Christian” could also be interpreted as differences within Christianity.

These minor reservations should not take away from Miller’s accomplishment in Traveling Home. This book should join John Bealle’s Public Worship, Private Faith as the two most penetrating and subtle ethnographic accounts of Sacred Harp singing. I wholeheartedly recommend the book to all interested in traditional music, issues of tradition and revival, diaspora and nostalgia, and religious life in the United States.

Works Cited

Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Jackson, George Pullen. White Spirituals from the Southern Uplands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

Minghella, Anthony, dir. Cold Mountain. Miramax, 2003.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.