Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers

Desire for Piety: Songs From B.F. White Sacred Harp

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Desire for Piety was recorded by the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers at the Union Grove Baptist Church in Ozark, AL, at a weekend singing in April of 1993. Though Sacred Harp music is typically associated with rural white Southerners, the Wiregrass Singers represent over a century of African-American involvement in the tradition, demonstrating a vitality equal to that of the more dominant white singers. The roots of the Sacred Harp date back to 18th century New England, where singing school instructors taught congregations to sing by note; during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, different shapes came to represent the components of the European scale, fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi, and the phenomenon of unaccompanied "shape-note" singing spread into the South, where it entered the traditions of blacks as well as whites. The term "Sacred Harp" did not gain widespread use until the 1844 publication of a book of tunes, new and old, written in shape notation by singing teacher and composer B.F. White. White's songbook -- titled The Sacred Harp -- has remained the most popular of the shape-note hymnals in the Deep South, and its subsequent revisions are still used by both white and black groups. Desire for Piety, which is named for one of White's compositions, draws entirely from this collection. (The Wiregrass Singers also sing from Judge Jackson's 1934 publication, The Colored Sacred Harp, and they have recorded an additional album of tunes from that book.) Often characterized by unusual harmonies bellowed at a thundering intensity, Sacred Harp music is seldom if ever a source for casual listening; Desire for Piety nonetheless offers a valuable perspective into the tradition and is of particular interest for its documentation of the black shape-note singing legacy. The most powerful moment of the disc, and one worthy of endless re-listenings, is its final track, "Give Me Just a Little More Time," a gospel tune led by Dewey Williams, patriarch of the Wiregrass Singers. Propelled by Williams' relentless, weary voice (he would die two years later at 97), the group sings, books closed, with the relaxed and joyful spirit of a vibrant religious and musical community. Like the human saint pulled between the physical and spiritual realms of this world and the next, the singers proclaim reverently in the paradoxical conclusion of the song's refrain: "I'm ready when you call me, Lord/Give me just a little more time." As in each of the group's performances, every word resounds with profound spiritual conviction and eloquent style.

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