A small clapboard chapel sitting in a grove of first-growth live oak and evergreen trees beside a large community cemetery. The church is not unlike many small Protestant churches throughout the Deep South. Inside has been updated through the years. It is air-conditioned and has a fellowship hall attached that is even larger than the chapel. The seating is arranged in an open square pattern to facilitate singing in the Sacred Harp tradition that characterized today's service. Each row of seats has a portable footrest to accommodate foot washing, which is also a practice in Primitive Baptist Churches. The fellowship hall has a fully-equipped kitchen and permanent dining tables with an accordion door separating it from the main part of the church. One certainly gets an impression that church dinners may be almost as important as the services themselves!
Because of the nature of the gathering it was difficult to get a feel for the church itself and its membership. However, the beauty of the group, the maintenance of the buildings, and the ambience itself would lead one to believe that a most hospitable congregation worships here. The church is certainly a great host: today's event has been occurring annually here for over 50 years with few breaks in time. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association serves as a clearinghouse and index of resources for the Sacred Harp community, which is (as described on their website) "a loosely knit society of people who love Sacred Harp singing, [with] no central organization or authority."
Barrineau Park is an unincorporated community in Escambia County, Florida, at the extreme western edge of the Florida panhandle on the border with Alabama. It is a picturesque rural community of low hills, farms, creeks and woods. It was named after William Capers Barrineau of South Carolina, who moved there in 1900 and bought over 11,000 acres of land for turpentine and timber. After the timber supply was exhausted, he brought in about 50 families, mostly German Hungarians, to farm the land in intensive small truck farms that actively produced vegetables for the market. Today Barrineau Park serves as a semi-rural bedroom community for Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama.
Joe Nall, retiring chairman of the Association; Ryan Bowman, chairman elect.
What was the name of the service?Annual Shape Note Singing Convention.
How full was the building?
About 80 per cent. People were in attendance all the way from Wetumpka, Alabama, some 20 miles northeast of Montgomery, and Tallahassee, Florida, some 250 miles to the east.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Everyone who was acquainted greeted each other heartily, and everyone else was introduced immediately. Each person brought their own song book unless, of course, they didn't own one. A supply was available for purchase.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Convivial, friendly and casual.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Joe Nall: "Everyone, let's have a prayer and get started."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Sacred Harp songbook.
What musical instruments were played?
No instruments are used for Sacred Harp singing.
Did anything distract you?
People ambled around, in and out, as they felt moved.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The entire session was devoted to the singing of shape note music, interspersed with prayers and a memorial to members of the group who had died since the last session in 2012. Shape note singing, also known as fasola or Sacred Harp, is a uniquely American musical tradition dating from the 19th century that relies on four distinct shapes to aid singers in mastering the notes to a hymn or song. Singers face each other in a square formation and practice the melody using the syllables "fa sol la" as opposed to the full complement of solfege syllables. Shape note singing is characterized by a raw, earthy sound and rich harmonies. Two songs in the shape note style were featured in the motion picture Cold Mountain. (See the One Thing Remembered question below for an example of how a well known hymn is first sung "fasola" and then in the characteristic sound of the style.) The Sacred Harp, a songbook first published in 1844, introduced the concept of fasola to rural congregations throughout the South. Today, the repertoire of fasola includes psalm tunes, fuguing tunes, odes and anthems by colonial and early American composers, settings of folk songs and revival hymns, as well as many contemporary songs by living composers.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing. The musical experience is – or can be – spiritually uplifting. It is wonderful to experience the way in which one's ancestors may well have worshiped in the infancy of this country. Three to four hours of historical music and enthusiastic singing is an unmatched event.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The prayers did get a bit lengthy in that they were extemporaneous and all-encompassing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
What you would normally expect to happen after a service like this, namely ...
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
... "Dinner on the grounds." Such dinners are a buffet of everything good your grandmother or mother ever prepared: the ever-present fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, cornbread, biscuits, yeast rolls, turnip greens and collards, purple hull peas, stuffed eggs, and on and on. The desert table fairly groaned: pound cake, chocolate chip cake, pecan pie, Coca-Cola cake, banana pudding, berry cobblers, along with sweet Southern iced tea (as well as unsweetened), coffee and fruit juice. Everyone sat down with everyone else and reacquainted themselves from previous singings. They related stories, both happy and sad, about those not present.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – This was a once-a-year event and so would not be a candidate for being a church home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely! It certainly included "all kinds and conditions of man" and almost all levels of musical sophistication.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Appalachian song "Wondrous Love".