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V/A - I Belong To This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings

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Artist: V/A

Album: I Belong To This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Feb. 1, 2007

The Sacred Harp style of hymn singing is a venerable tradition of the American south. It has been kept decidedly alive to this day, in not only its purest form, but also in its deep influences upon other streams of American music, from bluegrass to soul and rock. I Belong To This Band, a companion to the film Awake, My Soul: The Story Of The Sacred Harp, culls selections from nearly a century’s worth of commercial and field recordings to present a wide-ranging and satisfying overview of this powerful - and often idiosyncratic - musical and cultural heritage.

The Sacred Harp hymn repertoire, along with its stylistic conventions of harmony, voice-leading, context and presentation, has remained intact since at least the Civil War era. Most importantly, Sacred Harp has continued as a living tradition, with large choirs still assembling in the open air to socialize and sing. I Belong To This Band offers a good helping of recent recordings of this phenomenon, and even removed from their full context, these are compelling audio artifacts. One need only listen with good headphones to the recent field recordings of The Henagar-Union Convention from the Sand Mountain region of Alabama to hear the way these massive assemblies of voices channel passion and fervor through tradition. Especially engaging are the ways simultaneously solid and other-worldly tonalities and timbres can drift, the democratic and natural way space is made for a wide range of individual vocal timbres within the whole. With its literate and ancient texts riding modal mountain-lonesome melodies over the imperatives of powerful rhythmic pulse, this is stirring stuff on many levels.

The historical component is where this collection provides some real surprises. Commercial recordings from the likes of Roswell Sacred Harp Singers reveal a more intimate, homely, parlor-sitting aspect of the tradition. A yet more surprising taste of the intimacy and personal expression possible within this mostly communal art can be heard to great effect in recordings by Sacred Harp patriarch S.Witt Denson. Early in the 1960s, and apparently against the advice of family members, Denson was multi-tracking and overdubbing his own piano and voice to layer interlocking parts, like some sort of gospel Les Paul .

Among the more vivid recordings here are those of The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers from 1928 (with a young Witt Denson directing). There's a rough-edged, yet perfectly-pitched clarity and elegance to these sides that points to the timelessness of Sacred Harp, giving solid evidence that these bedrock sounds are at the heart of the interchange that has enriched so much American music, from Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys' vocal blend to hard, Southern quartet gospel like the Soul Stirrers; to Nashville, Motown, Chicago and far, far beyond.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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