Uncovering the Past through Art: Sacred Harp and Forgotten Family Memories

Way back before Jordan’s Journey came out I was doing all kinds of work not only writing, photographing, and designing the book but also figuring out how this website was going to work, what I wanted to do for the book trailer, and of course the research itself. As an artist, most everything I do has some purpose or meaning behind it. This sense of aesthetic plays an important role in what sets Jordan’s Journey apart from any other genealogy book I’ve ever seen.

The book trailer has its roots back in early 2011. It started with the poem that became the script for the trailer. And after that I just let it sit for a while. Creative ideas need time to incubate. By the time I visited the homeland in September 2011 things were ready to hatch. I filmed the principal photography for the trailer early one morning on the family farm. Editing didn’t happen for at least a few weeks but by the time I did start the work, I pretty much had it all laid out in my head… down to the music I wanted to use!

The music is from the album White Spirituals From The Sacred Harp and contains field recordings of the Alabama Sacred Harp Convention made by Alan Lomax in 1959. Sacred Harp is one of my favorite types of music.

I first encountered Sacred Harp in its proper form while studying music in New York City. When Professor Andrew Tomasello first dropped the needle and introduced us to the genre, it must have sounded completely foreign to my NYC-bred classmates. But for me it sounded instantly familiar and evoked images of my childhood. Though I did not grow up with Sacred Harp music proper, the music of the East Armuchee Baptist Church of my childhood was certainly influenced by this unique American style. We even used a shape note hymnal. I’ve always kept a copy of that Christian Praise hymnal and showed it to my music professor one day. He was intrigued by this artifact of southern musical culture. For me, connecting that emotional part of my past to my new academic interests was the icing on the cake… as if fate had led me to New York in the first place. This is only one example of how creating Jordan’s Journey would not have been possible without moving away and studying art in the big city!

I unveiled the trailer on 1 January 2012 when I opened up the Jordan’s Journey web site. Undoubtedly one of the first viewers, my mother wrote me, “What is that music? Is it a Cherokee chant?” I replied and told her about Sacred Harp. Later she wrote again, “Is it fa-so-la singing? I remember my Grannie talking about singing that way.”

I had uncovered a bit of family and local history here without even realizing it. Through studying Sacred Harp I had known instinctively “my people” came from that tradition. But I had never heard mention of it in the family. And here Jordan’s Journey helped my mother remember this long-forgotten detail about her Grannie. When I told mom about how Sacred Harp was performed with the singers moving their hand up and down to keep the time she exclaimed, “That’s what Grannie used to do! I never understood why she moved her hand like that.”

“It’s part of the Sacred Harp tradition, Mom. It’s how they kept time. She was singing Sacred Harp for you.”

Mom had never heard it called Sacred Harp before. They always called it fa-so-la singing. When we went to visit Grandmother not long after that Mom asked her, “Dot, do you remember your mom ever talking about fa-so-la singing?”

Grandmother shook her head and said, “No, I don’t believe I do.” The tone of her voice indicated that she thought she should have known and was disappointed she didn’t. “No, I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s also called Sacred Harp singing,” I added.

“Oh yes!” Grandmother exclaimed. “I remember mama talking about Sacred Harp singings. Oh yes!”

I smiled, realizing just how spot on my trailer actually was. Not only did the Sacred Harp music have creative meaning, I had inadvertently unearthed some long forgotten memories about my ancestors. That little country church where I grew up indeed did sing songs that sounded an awful lot like Sacred Harp… because that’s exactly what the generations before them had sung. Counted out with every measure, singing loud for the sake and joy of singing. No expectations… just pure music.

And that’s exactly how it should be.


The above photo (click to enlarge) is of the 4th edition of The Sacred Harp hymnal. It’s from the collection of Armuchee Valley resident Delores Jackson Grigsby and originally belonged to her grandfather Clarence Ralph Jackson (1867-1929). Many thanks to Delores for helping me along this journey.

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5 Responses to “Uncovering the Past through Art: Sacred Harp and Forgotten Family Memories”

  1. Mom says:

    There is a tendency in life to let the good things slip away. Hold fast to those precious memories and don’t let them slip away.

  2. Helen Ross says:

    You have done what I have been working on for years–except mine are all in notebooks. I have history, old pictures, grave sites, and stories on my ancesters, and the families they married into. My family surname “Suit” lived in Georgia for many generations–a lot of them still do. My main areas of Georgia are Gordon, Polk, Floyd, and Haralson counties–and the Blue Ridge area.

    I feel like you, that the history of the area-and their people should forever be remembered. I also researched a bit in Trion, because my Great grandfather lived there. I have also been looking for an ole’ church hymnal book, because one of my relatives, Delos Ralph Suit wrote hymnals for church choirs, and played the piano, and his hymnals were published–but I haven’t found any of the hymnal books, except in the Tennessee archives in their special collections–would like to find one I could purchase. Thanks for keeping the memories and the history of the area alive for future generations. Helen Ross melr1@q.com

    • Helen,

      It’s great to hear from you. I’m glad you are enjoying the work I am doing. What was the name of your great grandfather who lived in Trion? Many people in my tree lived in Trion (and that’s where I graduated from high school). And the hymnal sounds very fascinating. I’d love to hear more about the hymnal. I will touch base at your email so we can correspond.

      Thanks again for leaving the comment.


  3. Debbie Cargal says:

    I remember the first time I ever heard about fa-so-la singing, I was talking to Elenor Grisgby and she told me they used to have fa-so-la singing at our church, (when she said it I though she was saying fossil singing). I went to church and told Dale Scoggins about it and he laughed, after that we got several people together and had fa-so-la singing at Bethlehem. Thank you for keeping all of this alive.

    • Hi Debbie. I only just saw your message (a lot of the blog comments have been stuck in spam lately for some reason).

      Do you remember about when you had the first singings at Bethlehem? Do you still have them today?

      And you’re welcome. So much of our unique history is slowly slipping away. I’m doing what I can to help preserve things. But I can’t do it along. Thanks for leaving a comment to share your memories. All thoughts, memories, photos, and any other contributions are very appreciated!

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