On every Saturday or Sunday of the year, if you know where to go, you will find people in the United States, Canada, even Europe singing from an oblong red-brown book called The Sacred Harp. Sometimes called shape note or fasola singing, Sacred Harp is a tradition of communal sacred singing that developed in New England after the American Revolution, migrated south and west, and was preserved for generations in Appalachia and the deep South, bringing communities together to sing four-part hymns and anthems. During a July heat wave I ventured to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where nearly two hundred singers have assembled for the annual Sacred Harp singing convention.
Mid-morning, a woman from Chicago named Judy Hauff walks into the steamy basement, running late. As serendipity would have it, the assembled singers are in the middle of singing one of Hauff’s own songs, “Granville.”
Judy Hauff is in unusual company in having three of her compositions in the latest edition of The Sacred Harp (1991), most of whose songs date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even more unusual, she is the only one of the living composers whose songs have fully entered the mainstream of the canon. I’ve never been to a singing where at least one of them wasn’t called by a song leader. (Part of the Sacred Harp tradition is that everyone who attends the singing and wants to can choose and lead at least one song.) After the closing benediction, while the Kalamazoo people are moving chairs and packing up leftover food, we talk in a side room. I’m interested in a particular song of hers called “Wood Street,” which begins: “When we our wearied limbs to rest / Sat down by proud Euphrates’ stream,” one of many references to the famous Psalm 137 in the song.
The text is attributed to the Tate and Brady psalter of 1696, Hauff’s tune to 1986. The piece is memorable in several ways. It has a powerful rhythmic drive to it, a tangible groove, produced by the counterpoint of the voices in the chorus, with its repeated lines: And Zion was our mournful theme…. On willow trees that withered there. I mention this propulsive quality to her.
“Yes, I had heard that I could have put it in a duple time, but I thought no, I want that kind of relentless [Hauff makes rhythmic beating noises]. It just seemed to fit. It seemed to fit the words and the mood of—what do I want to say?—that their grief was unassuageable. It was something that they had to go through; they couldn’t go around it, they couldn’t skip it. They had to go through this step, this diaspora, this punishment for whatever reason it was. So there’s no stopping and breaking in the song, it just keeps going. I like that kind of inexorable feeling about it.”
There’s also a strong modal sound to the song, I point out, something that sets it apart from most other songs in the collection.
“Oh yeah, I’m the big Dorian mode freak in The Sacred Harp; they’re like ‘Oh Judy, she’s gotta have the raised sixth.’ But I find that it makes a song so incredibly distinctive, it sounds like a different piece of music to me. Maybe not to other people—maybe they don’t even hear the difference—but I hear it strongly. It has a strong effect on me.
“And when I heard some of the older Southern singers doing it, naturally, they didn’t know they were doing it of course, but when I first went down in the mid-eighties and heard these older Southern people doing it I thought, Oh, my God. That book by George Pullen Jackson where he talks about it, and I thought, Really? And then I heard it first-hand, and I thought, Oh wow.
“Well, ‘Granville’ [another of her Sacred Harp songs] didn’t mean to have it, ‘Agatite’ does, and so does this. I just said, I’m gonna write it in. And I thought, if I don’t mark it all, the Yankees will flat it, and the Southerners will probably sing it correctly. But if I mark the accidental, I will force everybody north of the South to do it and I’ll just tell the Southerners not to pay any attention to the natural sign, just sing it. But I think everybody pretty much does it now with the raised sixth. I don’t know how to describe it, you know. I don’t know how it affects you, I just know how it affects me. It would sound terrible without it to me.”
I ask Hauff why she named the song “Wood Street.”
“All the tunes in the book are place names because the tunes are separate from the words in this literature. So, at the time I wrote this, there were like seven Sacred Harp singers in Chicago who lived on Wood Street. I myself live on Granville, and other friends of mine live on Agatite. So I thought, well, if you can name things ‘Wells,’ and ‘Abbeyville,’ and all these other place names, I’ll just, you know, I can’t name them ‘Chicago,’ but I can do different streets. So that was it. Ted Mercer [another venerable Chicago singer who also has a composition in The Sacred Harp] still lives on Wood Street.”
Why was she drawn to the text of Psalm 137?
“I was raised as a Roman Catholic so I really did not know a good history of the Jews. I just didn’t. I’m not a scholar at all! And being Roman Catholic I certainly never studied the Bible and learned verses, because they’re like, ‘We’ll teach you what that means!’ So I was comparatively ignorant next to all the other people that I’ve been singing with that grew up studying the Bible closely. So I was just borrowing from other tune books, you know, I’d just look through for texts that I liked. So sometime in my thirties or forties I just started in reading books about the history of the Jews, the Diaspora, and it just seemed a dreadful story, such a loss of glory, totally annihilated. So it struck me: the sense of loss they must have felt, certainly, expressed in these words.”
So was her interest in the psalm mainly historical, or was she interested how the psalm resonates with people today?
“Well, it was more historical. I thought, Gee, if I could go back in time and see what really happened…. I mean, obviously the Bible is tremendously slanted for sympathy to the Jewish people. It’s like: Oh, those Canaanites, they’re just a bunch of idol-worshippers, get ’em out of here, right? But the same thing is going on today: Oh, those Palestinians, get ’em out of here. It’s like they were depersonalized in the Bible, the Canaanites. They were nobody, they were nothing. They were not chosen people, certainly.
“And I wonder if it was kind of like it is today, where one group is trying to push the other out. In the old days, you know, We won. Our side won, the Jewish people won. Nowadays they are not having such luck, you know, they aren’t having the same kind of luck. So, I find those echoes very interesting: that really nothing’s been solved. Nothing’s been solved. The old enmities are there.”
I ask Hauff about how people have responded to “Wood Street.” She admits occasional misgivings over donating the song to The Sacred Harp rather than selling it to a publisher; she would have been receiving royalties from it for some twenty-five years.
“People love this song like I cannot tell you. I was stunned at the reaction to this song. I mean, I liked it, it satisfied me, but then, you know, there’s other things I have written that have satisfied me. But people came back to me—not the people in the South; they were not particularly interested in it, they could take it or leave it—but the people in the North, the new singers, the twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, forty-somethings. People from Seattle to Maine to California and everybody in between just come swarming up to me: Sign my book. It’s my favorite song in the book. Favorite song in the book.
“I’m like, well, thanks—I’ve certainly hit a nerve with it. And I was very surprised and very pleased. I don’t exactly know what the nerve was, but it obviously.… That howling and misery, I think, reached people, and they thought: Yes, that’s the way it is. You know–something.”
This article is an adapted extract from Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 by David W. Stowe.
Featured Image Credit: “Hymnal book” by jh146. CC0 via Pixabay