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Essays from the The 2000 Christmas Revels Program Book:

What Keeps a Tradition Going?

Sheila Kay Adams and the Unbroken Chain

by Jerome Epstein

A RECENT book entitled All That is Native and Fine looks at the White Top Festivals that took place in Western North Carolina in the 1930's. Many will not know that it is because of one of those festivals that you are sitting in the audience of the Revels today. John Langstaff, at the ripe age of 13, was taken by his teacher Carol Preston down to the Appalachian Mountains to the White Top Festival in 1934. It is from that extraordinary experience, about which Jack has spoken many times, that Revels (as well as Folk Music Week at Pinewoods Camp) ultimately comes.

The book with its extensive documentation makes it abundantly clear that the educated people who ran the festival were quite convinced that the living rural tradition of music and song was in imminent danger of dying out. If the older singers and players of that time were not collected and presented, and the younger people encouraged to "learn it the right way," we would be left with only these popular styles, these dreadful "revival" singers who just didn't get it, and the real tradition would be dead. It seems quite funny actually looking back at it from the standpoint of 66 years later, but the same view is widely held today.

I am of the opinion that the tradition has never been stronger than it is today. There have never been more people singing old songs in the old ways and for the old reasons than there are today. Every few years we find another "last generation" of traditional source singers. The chain remains unbroken in spite of the bombardment of mass media, of hyper-arranged versions of traditional songs, of gross commercialization. It remains unbroken because people like Sheila Adams at some point in their lives made a choice. In Sheila's case it was primarily because of the intense personal interaction she had with her "Granny" (actually her great aunt, the wonderful singer Delly Norton). I think this made her seek out other great traditional sources, such as the legendary Tommy Jarrell. But this choice was not automatic, any more than it was for a city person; Sheila, every bit as much as someone who grew up in New York or Boston, heard popular music, heard Bluegrass music and saw the "show-biz" aspect of music, but she deliberately chose to sing old songs in the old ways.

Sheila is from the mountains of Western North Carolina, and many of her relatives were singers and players of the old songs. The songs her relatives sang were collected by Cecil Sharp when he came over from England in 1916. There is a nice connection between Sheila and John (Jack) Langstaff, even though they have never met (although I expect they will have by the time you read this). Pinewood Camp has an archive of historical material on the camp, on the Country Dance & Song Society from its earliest days, and a substantial set of Cecil Sharp's letters. I was showing Sharp's letters to Sheila when she was there in 1996, and we found a letter from Sharp, written from Asheville in 1916 just days after he had come from collecting in her home area. Sharp was extolling the incredible quality of the material he was finding, and his words brought Sheila about to tears. It was as if she had found roots in a place she had never been. As it was Jack who created Folk Music Week at Pinewoods, it was because of Jack that Sheila was able to make this connection with her own past. A kind of closing of a circle, and part of the unbroken chain.

So why does someone make the choice, as Sheila did, to sing the old songs and continue in the tradition? Well, it is surely some combination of the person and the music. These songs, and the old ways of singing, continue because they are so powerful, so basic, so close to our elemental humanity. They reach us where we live in a way that over-arranged, popular versions never can. And yet it is still a statement about any person who makes a life's commitment to the old songs (I hesitate to say "a life's work," since very, very few actually make a living this way).

Even someone raised with the tradition all around has to learn how to do it. It is so much more than learning the tune and the words, and it is that part that most urban singers never get. There is a reason (or reasons) why a singer with a beautiful voice can put the listener to sleep in a long ballad, but some old guy with a cracked voice that can barely hold the tune is utterly riveting. Ask Jack Langstaff. He heard the old singers at the age of 13, having never heard anything like it ever before, and was immediately hooked.

The art of the great singer of traditional songs is much closer to that of a great actor than it is to the art of an opera singer. It is the art of narrative, of declamation of text, of timing, of all the little things with the voice and the throat that give speech its character, but which cannot ever be put down on paper. Some of this is in the speech patterns that one learns unconsciously as a child. But it is not necessary to be from Appalachia to be a great singer of traditional folk songs. At some point a singer has to realize that there are things that the older generation of great singers are doing that must be figured out and made one's own. Not with the intent of just copying the older singer (though one usually starts that way), but to develop a personal sense of style that is one's own and is true somehow to the ethic from which the song comes. No one can write a recipe for how to do this, and thus no one can fix a definition of who or what is a traditional singer.

But the tradition itself knows. Somehow the tradition is itself a living and breathing thing. The greater public that holds and carries this art in every generation keeps what it likes and discards the rest. And even though most "folk music" that one hears "on the circuit" is a pale imitation, the real thing is always there and always continues. The chain remains unbroken, and there is a new generation of "older source singers" from whom the young who really understand can learn. And Sheila Adams, through a process that no one can fully understand, will carry that tradition and pass it to yet another generation.

So as you enjoy this performance of the Revels in this theater, be aware that you are doing much more than just being entertained. You are a witness to--and a part of--the passing of a living tradition.


Shape Note Hymns and the American Singing School Tradition

by Stephen Marini

FIVE songs in this year's Christmas Revels come from a style known as the American Singing School tradition or shape note singing. The American Singing School began in the early 1720's as a reform of late Puritan worship in New England. Following the teachings of John Calvin, the Puritans sang only the Psalms in unison at worship. In 1640 they published their own translation of the Psalms, called The Bay Psalm Book. After 1698 they used tunes from John Playford's 1672 Collection of Psalm Tunes for their Sunday services.

The Puritan translations were cumbersome at best, and the singing was further complicated by the practice of "lining out," in which each line of the text was read by a deacon or precentor before it was sung back by the congregation. By 1720 the level of vocal performance had declined so drastically that Boston ministers Thomas Walter, John Tufts, and Cotton Mather wrote tracts denouncing it. They called for the creation of schools that would teach the people "regular singing," or singing by rule. Walter and Tufts both published short introductions to music notation and vocal practice in 1721 and Walter convened the rst singing school in America in 1723 at Boston's First Church.

The singing school spread quickly after the Great Awakening (1734--1745), a powerful religious revival that brought increased interest and energy to worship practices. The Awakening also transmitted two important new influences from England to America: the hymns and metrical psalms of Isaac Watts (1674--1748) and the country parish style of choral music epitomized by the works of William Tans'ur (c.1700--1783). The former supplied powerful lyrics like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun," and "Joy to the World" while the latter introduced four-part harmonic settings ("plain tunes") and fugal refrains ("fuguing tunes") that expanded the emotional range of New England sacred song.

In 1770 William Billings of Boston (1748--1800) combined these elements in The New England Psalm Singer, the first collection of original sacred music composed by an American. This tunebook included 135 plain tunes, fuguing tunes, and anthems composed in a highly original style based in the country parish tradition; more than three quarters of Billings's texts were drawn from Watts. Billings would go on to publish three other major collections between 1778 and 1794 which established him as America's first great composer.

Billings also conducted singing schools in Boston and southeastern Massachusetts and trained new singing masters who carried the singing school to every corner of New England. "Bethlehem" on our program is a classic Billings fuguing tune setting of the popular carol "While Shepherds Watched their Flocks" (1700) by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, first published in his 1778 collection The Singing-Master's Assistant.

Around 1800 the singing school acquired a new system of music notation. Generally attributed to William Little in his 1801 tunebook The Easy Instructor, the new system was called "shape notes" because it printed the noteheads on the staff in four different shapes. These shapes were correlated to the syllables of the sung scale which in early America were the English "fa-so-la-fa-so-la-mi" instead of the Italian "do-re-mi" used today. Singing school students learned the fa-so-la-mi system by ear, then read scores that were printed in shapes representing the syllables: fa=triangle, so=circle, la=square, mi=diamond. Little's new aural-visual approach to music literacy proved to be highly effective and soon a flood of shape note tunebooks appeared to serve the singing school as it spread rapidly south and west from New England across the new nation.

In those new regions the singing school repertory reflected new religious, musical, and cultural influences. From the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, tunebooks took the exalted poetry of Charles Wesley, Samuel Stennett, and other English evangelical writers. Musically, the singing school embraced solemn spiritual ballads and lively camp meeting songs from the Second Great Awakening (1799--1835). "Exultation" is a camp meeting song presented at this Revels, a 1767 birthday hymn by Charles Wesley with a vigorous dance tune setting from The Southern Harmony (1835), one of the greatest and most enduring Southern tunebooks, edited by Georgia Baptist singing master William Walker.

The most important singing school tunebook of them all is The Sacred Harp, compiled in Georgia by Benjamin Franklin White and E. J. King and published in 1844 in Philadelphia. This collection survived the rapid decline of the singing school after the Civil War and has been preserved to the present day by a loyal band of traditional Southern singers along with a large number of new singers who have gathered around the book since 1975. Our program includes two spiritual ballads from The Sacred Harp, narratives of religious experience set to plain tunes that were especially popular in the upland South. "Sacred Throne" is a 1709 visionary poem by Thomas Ken set in 1825 by Hugh Wilson to a Scottish folksong. "New Britain" is arguably the greatest American singing school tune of them all, an immensely popular anonymous antebellum plain tune setting, also of Scottish folksong origin, for "Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound," John Newton's moving 1779 hymn of personal salvation.


The Underground Railroad:
Escape and Revolution

by Byron Rushing

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is a particular part of a much larger story. It is part of the story of escape as a strategy of liberation from enslavement and the revolution of the abolition of slavery. The Underground Railroad was a system of relatively organized escape. It depended on the existence of white abolitionists and of black and Native American abolitionists in free sections of the country. These conditions did not come together until after the American Revolution. The Underground Railroad was a product of the growing abolitionist movement in the United States.

The American Revolution offered an unprecedented opportunity for freedom for Africans. In the North, about 5,000 black men volunteered to fight in exchange for their liberty. In the South, in 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, offered to free "Negroes able and willing to bare arms" for the loyalist cause. Tens of thousands of blacks joined the English forces in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia--where over half the entire slave population were reported to have left their masters. The historian Gary Nash calls the American Revolution "the largest slave uprising in our history." By the end of the war, there were as many as 80,000 to 100,000 fewer slaves on Southern plantations.

The American Revolution also energized the underground opinion of abolitionism. At the end of the summer of 1775 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John:

"There has been in town a conspiracy of the Negroes. At present it is kept pretty private, and was discovered by one who endeavored to dissuade them from it They conducted in this way to draw up a petition to the Governor, telling him they would fight for him provided he would arm them, and engage to liberate them if he conquered I wish most sincerely, there was not a slave in the province; it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have."

Most Africans who escaped from slavery did so without guides and "safe houses." They escaped to the South--to Florida and to Mexico--and to the West--to native American territories--as well as to the North.

"Underground" means secret, concealed. Most of our knowledge of escape by the enslaved comes not from descriptions of this secret system but rather from the pleadings of the masters of the enslaved who claim to have lost their property. These are usually found in newspaper advertisements and in letters. Here are two: In 1798, Elisha Pitkin and David Hills placed an ad in the Connecticut Courant--

$10 REWARD: Run-away from the subscriber two Negro Servant Boys about 17 years old, one named Peter, the other Gad Peter had on and carried away with him a cloth coloured great goat, with large yellow buttons, a brown plain cloth coat and vest, 2 pair jean trousers, 1 pair colour'd tow cloth do, 1 new yellow and green striped nankeen coat, 1 old striped do., sundry other articles, as shirts, &c.--Gad had a light gray coating great coat, 1 striped nankeen coat, 1 light colour'd plain cloth and 2 fustian do. 2 vests, one spotted calico the other plain cloth, 2 white tow cloth and one cotton shirt, 2 pair fustian trousers, 2 two cloth do. 3 pair stockings, 1 pair blue striped cotton, with sundry other articles Reward $5 each: It is supposed they are gone to Boston for employ as waiters, or on board said vessel

Gerald W. Mullen, author of Flight and Rebellion, studies these ads because, he says, they are the only place where slave masters are honest describing their slaves.

On July 17, 1803, John Rutledge wrote to Harrison Gray Otis from Wethersfield [Connecticut]. In that letter we find this private "runaway ad."

Pray have you heard nothing of my black guard Peter--I feel anxious to have the Rogue not on account of any use he can hereafter be to me but because it would make my other domestics think it impossible to escape & prevent their believing their stay with me to be a mere matter of favor. I think it likely that my renegade may think the danger over after some little time and then go forth from his cave, or his mountain for I suspect he is upon the Hill occupied by the devils of his colour. I wish therefore you would bid his pursuers not to relax in their search--I offered $50 for his apprehension but I believe a higher reward would stimulate his hounds and I wish you would offer one hundred dollars for taking him or more if you should think a higher reward necessary. My servant fellow is a good coachman & cook--frequently in coming from Charleston by water he has been promoted to the Presidency of the kitchen to the exclusion of the legitimate cook which makes me think it probable he may endeavor to hire himself to some Captain as a cook--the description you have to Mr. Smith of him is so particular that I think an intelligent observing constable having a copy of it & coating along your wharves & seeking on board the vessels lying there might get him. If it is possible to find in Boston a free Negro who is perfectly honest I think he might be induced by the offer of a hundred dollars to make it his business to visit every house in your Negro town every vessel in your harbour--I mention a Negro because he would be less likely than a white to excite suspicion among the blacks whom we are told by African Travelers paint the Devil white.

Three years later, three years into Peter's self-emancipation, the free Africans in Boston completed the establishment of a church--the African Meeting House--a school, and welfare and self-help organization on that "Hill." The population of Boston in 1820 was 43,298; the black population was 1,690 or 3.9%. The African Meeting House was constructed almost entirely with black labor. Funds for the project were raised in both the white and black communities. The escape of enslaved Africans in the Americas is of course part of the history of slavery. If you added up all the pages about African Americans' history, you find that most is about the black experience since emancipation. If you added up all the pages written on the history of this country before the passage of the 13th Amendment, a disproportionate amount ignores the institution of slavery and the African presence in the shaping of American culture. This is a huge hole in the American story. The first importation of Africans to the Americas was in 1505 to the Spanish Caribbean. The first Africans were brought to Brazil in the 1550's, Jamestown in 1619, Boston in 1638. That means that the history of African Americans as enslaved human beings is longer than their history as free men and women and boys and girls.

The first stop on the Underground Railroad is the plantation. We need to tell the story of slavery for three reasons. First, simply, because it is true, it happened: slavery is 246 years of the history of the United States; 360 years of the history of the Americas. Slavery and emancipation explain African American culture and psychology now. People as property, people refusing to live as captives, people adjusting and maintaining their culture and humanity as captives and fugitives, people rebelling and escaping are real stories which African Americans (and I mean all Americans of African descent) must use to orient themselves and make informed decisions about their future.

Finally America in its formation was defined by three major cultures: native American, European and African. For us to understand America we must understand the intimate and political blending of those cultures. It is no surprise the United States Constitution, written by 55 white men, 168 years into slavery, noted slaves and Indians. On the eve of the American Revolution, 40% of Virginia's population was black; Williamsburg, the capital, was 52% black. George Washington, Madison and Jefferson had a lot more interaction with African culture than Tom Menino or Bill Weld or Paul Cellucci.

I believe we might be mature enough in many places in the United States to begin to tell and listen to our whole story. Mature enough to reflect on horror, on losing; on escape, liberation, revolution and winning. Slave culture and African culture are essential parts of the invention of America. The revolution in America is the ongoing liberation of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. The time is right to bring that story out of oblivion.

(A member of the Massachusetts legislature since 1983, State Representative Byron Rushing is the former president of the Museum of Afro American History)


Back to the 2000 Christmas Revels Program Book

For more information on The Christmas Revels or to receive a free catalogue of Revels recordings and songbooks, please call 617-972-8300 or e-mail us at [email protected].


Founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971 by musician John Langstaff and his daughter Carol, The Revels has grown into a national non-profit arts organization, offering a wide Variety of recorded music and theatrical seasonal celebrations using traditional folk materials from around the world. In December 2000, The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice will be presented in eleven cities across the country: Cambridge, Massachusets; Chicago, Illinois; Hanover, New Hampshire; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Washington, DC; Houston, Texas; Tacoma, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; and St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Christmas Revels is supported, in part, by a generous grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.

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