David Ivey

2013 National Heritage Fellow
David Ivey
Photo by Allison Whitener

Jo Reed: That's "I'm Going Home," from the movie, "Cold Mountain"... it's sung by Sacred Harp Singers in Alabama, including 2013 National Heritage Fellow, David Ivey.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

There's a lot of excitement around the NEA this week. The National Heritage Fellowship Concert  takes place  on Friday, September 27.   Some of the nation's best Folk and traditional artists will come together at the Lisner auditorium in Washington for evening of music, conversation, and fellowship.    Some of the 2013 National fellows who'll take the stage this Friday are: singer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, Irish fiddler Seamus Connolly,  and Sacred Harp Singer David Ivey.

Sacred Harp singing traces its legacy back to colonial New England-- from there, thanks to itinerant singing masters, it spread to other parts of the United States, taking particular hold in Alabama and Georgia. The Sacred Harp hymnbook was published in Georgia in 1844 and gives the tradition its name. David Ivey isn't just a wonderful Sacred Harp singer, he's also instrumental in both maintaining the musical tradition and bringing it into the 21st century, to new participants.

Ivey is a founding director of the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association,  He  co-founded, with Jeff Sheppard, Camp Fasola in Alabama, the first-ever summer school devoted to Sacred Harp singing  and in 2003, he participated with music producer T Bone Burnett to make the Sacred Harp recordings that were included on the soundtrack of the movie Cold Mountain.  

And in case you're wondering what exactly is Sacred Harp Singing, here's David Ivey to explain.

David Ivey: Describing Sacred Harp is actually sort of difficult for us. The best way to know what it is is to hear it, but I'll try it, just a type of traditional shaped-note music that-- with the style going back to at least the Revolutionary War days, the Colonial days. We sing with a group of people. It could be 20 people. It could be 100 people. We gather together, sit in what we call a hollow square in four parts, and it's sort of full-voice singing. Sometimes people will say it's loud and we're not each singing loud, but we sing really naturally, the way our voices are made to be used to sing, and it's just a wonderful sound. The harmonies are really unique and different and not modern, I might add, and it's just a type of singing that we get a lot of joy out of doing.

Jo Reed: Okay. So, from that, I have a few questions. First of all, what are shaped notes?

David Ivey: Shaped notes were first used, actually, starting around 1800 the idea was invented, and people have been singing syllables, different syllables, fa, sol, la and mi, to indicate different tones in the scale, actually, for many years, and then in, again, around 1800, the shaped-note systems invented that put a triangle for a fa, an oval for a sol, square for la and a diamond for mi and placing those on a staff, and by first teaching the singers the scale and having them master it up and down so they understood the intervals and had them really-- just a part of them in their head, then the idea was they could open a new song and sight-read more easily by reading the shapes. So, what we do is still in that tradition of learning the song by shapes and our all-day singings, which is the way this music is carried on today. We turn to a song. We first sing through the shapes or the syllables, some say, and then we sing the words.

Jo Reed: I see.

David Ivey: So, even though we know the songs, we think that by singing through the shapes, one, it's fun; and, two, it sort of gets the tune in our head so that when we sing the words, we're ready to do that even better. And for many of us who sing Sacred Harp, it's a form of worship. The words are definitely spiritual words and mostly from English poets like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. So singing the notes prepares us to be able to really sing the words better, we think.

Jo Reed: And when you say you're sitting around a hollow square, the voices are seated together, so the altos are together, the tenors are together?

David Ivey: Exactly.

Jo Reed: Okay.

David Ivey: So, the hollow square is very special to us. First of all, the parts are seated together, and so that enables the singers to sing better if you're singing by other folks doing your part. Then the leader comes to the middle of that hollow square, and in the Sacred-Harp tradition we have-- everyone who sings has a chance to lead. We do not have one song leader or song director. So, in turn, all of the singers are called and get to come to the middle of the hollow square, so they get also this real reward when they sing of being there right in the middle of all that sound coming at them from four directions. And then the other thing that's real special about it is we're not performers per se. We're not standing and looking out to an audience. We're singing for each other and for ourselves, so we're facing each other, so we're looking at-- and across the square we're looking into the faces of the people we're singing with. And you just have to experience to know how special that is in and of itself.

Jo Reed: So, it's a singing that invites participation, then, since there really isn't an audience.

David Ivey: We do have people come and just listen, but it is a singing for singers, definitely, and we value-- what we call folks who don't sing but who come, we call them listeners and we value them just as much as we do singers, but it's really an attraction for people who want to sing. And this singing comes from a time in our country, when people weren't asked when you meet someone, they say, "Do you sing?" They would ask, "What do you sing?" So it comes from a time before just being entertained by music when just regular folks, common folks, were making music. And so, we invite everyone. Some have better voices than others, but that's not important to us. What's important is that people want to sing and want to join in.

Jo Reed: Now, it's a tradition that began in New England, if I did my research correctly, and it was very, very popular there, moved to the South and really took hold in the South and stayed popular in the South after it faded from New England. First of all, do we know how it made that move to the South, and, second, do you have a sense of why it was embraced so deeply, especially in Alabama and Georgia?

David Ivey: It seems that this form of music, Sacred-Harp music, shaped-note music-- and it's called Sacred Harp because of the book we sing from is called "The Sacred Harp." There were dozens of these oblong shaped-note books with four shapes in the 19th century, and the one that we sing from just happens to be the one that has really survived. It's always been a music of country folks, I would say. It's never been a music that flourished in the city, and I think as folks modernized in cities, the music, I would say, just kept getting pushed to the frontier, and that was to the west and to the south. And that's how it's been preserved. Now, today, and since the mid-'80s we've sort of had a rebirth of Sacred Harp across the country out from the South really all across the country and also even into Europe. And that growth has really been in the cities, but the tradition from the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries really came down to us through country people singing in little country churches or in courthouses, in other community meeting places, and without ever being the hymnbook or the music of any church denomination.

Jo Reed: There's also a hand movement involved in the singing. Can you describe it and tell me what it signifies?

David Ivey: Well, and that is a little odd to some people to see what we're doing with-- we're moving our hands. Of course, what we're doing is using our hands to motion to keep time and to indicate to all the singers the beats and how to-- where we are in singing. So, for the most part, the time is kept up and down, the arm going down and coming up, and so also we can go down, down and up, but when people come into the singing and they look around this square and see people all around the square with their arm going down, of course the leader is who we're following, the person who's in the middle of the square at that moment, but often at our seats we're also keeping time so that we can be with and keep up with the leader. One thing that's really important to Sacred-Harp singers is that we stay together, as we call it, that we-- we're really forgiving of folks who maybe hit a note that's not there, one that they just didn't get, but one thing we really like is to keep together with our time, and watching the leader's motion of his arms and keeping time and doing it with them really helps us stay together.

Jo Reed: You come from a singing family. You grew up in a family that was involved in Sacred-Harp singing. Was it just natural that you would join in too?

David Ivey: I guess it was. Like I say, I'm very fortunate to have been born into a family that was singing Sacred Harp, so really my first musical experience would've been Sacred-Harp singing. The music is used then and now in the church I grew up in as its music. It's the only hymnbook used, so just going to church services we would sing Sacred Harp, and then also we have all-day Sacred-Harp singings at this church and others in the area, so I would go with my family to that. So, my entire life I've loved the singing. I've never gone away from it. Some people, they'll grow up and they'll go to singings as children, and then they might, as they get older, go 10 or 20 years and not be involved, but not me. I moved to West Palm Beach when I graduated college, and I was only able to live there about two years because it was a Sacred-Harp desert. There was no singing within-- I had to drive 12 hours to get back to Alabama, north Alabama to go to singings, and so I was motivated pretty well to look back for work in north Alabama so I could get back up here and be able to go to singings on weekends.

Jo Reed: So when you were a kid, they were pretty central to your life.

David Ivey: Very much so, and they still are. People who sing Sacred Harp, it really takes effort to get to the singings, and it's not something you just get up-- you don't do it by going to the same church every Sunday. You might have to drive 20 miles or 50 miles or 150 miles to get to these singings. This weekend I plan to go to the Chattahoochee Convention, which is near Carrollton, Georgia, and that's from here it's about a three-hour drive that I'll do to get to that singing, and that's not uncommon for folks who love the music, but it's been a very big part of my life. For at least 20 or 30 years, we sing Sacred Harp at my dad's house when we get together for our Christmas celebration, so we have our big Christmas dinner. We sing Sacred Harp and then we open gifts.

Jo Reed: There are a lot of traditions associated with Sacred Harp. From singing the notes before the words to sharing a meal, a potluck meal, called "dinner on the ground."

David Ivey: One thing that, about the Sacred Harp tradition is we're not re-enactors, but we have-- I think our traditions are important, because they've been shown to work and keep the music alive and help keep the overall tradition alive. So, traditions such as having dinner on the ground at lunch, well, that was practical. People brought lunch and because they couldn't leave and go and come back. It was one of those things. And today at a lot of places we could dismiss and run out somewhere for lunch and then come back, but what's also developed with that with that tradition is the social and the fellowship time that goes with sharing a meal together. The tradition of, as I mentioned earlier, singing the notes before we sing the words, that really came out of the singing-school practice, where we were learning the songs with notes, but, as I mentioned, it really helps us when we turn to that page and we may not have sung it in a couple months. To sing those notes, it helps us to more easily get the tune in our head and out of our mouth, actually.

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So, it's a real practical matter, y'know, I learned from my father and my grandfather and that's how the tradition's been passed to us today, and we don't have recordings from the mid-1800s, but we think we probably sound and sing much like the folks did then.

Jo Reed: Well, you've worked very hard at keeping the stylistic traditions of Sacred-Harp singing alive, and part of the way you did that was by starting a-- well, you started a singing school in your church, and then from there you went on to start a camp. Tell us about that camp.

David Ivey: The way Sacred Harp has really come down through the decades and people have learned it-- of course, they learn it from their families, as mentioned, but the instruction has been-- in the singing, what we call a singing school, and it's just-- there was a time when folks would have these singing schools for one or two weeks and they might gather-- just like they go to school, take their lunch and be drilled on the intervals and be taught the seven modes of time that we use and what the notation means and then practice those songs. And when I was young in the '60s, I was fortunate to go to some weeklong singing schools that would be done at night, but what sort of happened in our modern world is it's hard to get anyone's attention for five days or six days or five days in a row. So, some of us were bemoaning that and started thinking, well, how do we do this? How do we get enough time with people so we can teach the traditions and how to sing? And we came up with this idea of doing a summer camp dedicated to singing and with the idea that it'd be attractive to young people, who was our target, really, because when you invest in young people and teach them something, the payoff is-- continues for a long time. So, Jeff Shepard and I sort of ventured out. We found a camp in Anniston, Alabama, and started in 2003, held our first Camp Fasola. Again, our idea was this would be for young folks, and then adults would start, "Hey, can we come too? This sounds like fun." And so we talked and we thought that we wanted to model the camp after Sacred-Harp singings, and Sacred-Harp singings, all age groups are together. We don't have any nurseries or there's no age-group separation or grouping. We're all together, from the very eldest to the very youngest. And so, we said that makes sense, and then the older folks can support and be there for-- to help the young people learn. So, we grew the first year from about 70 to within about 5 years we had about 140 and turned away many, so we added a second camp week and now hold two camps per summer. One is more oriented for youth and one more for adults, just from a practical matter of organizing it. And then in 2012, we had a third camp, and that one we held in Europe, in Poland. We've had 11 years of a lot of success and a lot of fun with Camp Fasola.

Jo Reed: Now, let me ask you. If I'm somebody and I know nothing about Sacred-Harp singing other than I like it but I've had no experience with it-- it has not been part of my family's tradition-- would I fit in at Camp Fasola? Would there be a place for me?

David Ivey: You're exactly the person we want. In camp we assume no knowledge of music, really, and we start with the very basics, with the rudiments. Our book has a section in the front on the rudiments of music, and we just start there with what are lines and spaces and staffs and clefs and the shapes of the notes and how do we put these to make a scale, teach the minor scale and the major scale, teach the seven modes of time and then things like notation, about repeat marks and so on and so that folks have those basics. And then we practice them, so in the camp we will have the rudiments classes, but then we will follow that later with just the time to sing and learn songs. We have classes on things like dinner on the ground, so what are the important things about this tradition and how do you do it and how does one, when they fix this hot dish at 7:00 A.M. have it where it's still warm at noon when they put it out on a table at a country church, how to key the songs. And then, so we do that all day, and interspersed we put recreation time in there for the kids to let them have time to have that sort of fun, and then in the evening we'd all come together for Sacred-Harp singing. So we sort of put to practice, then, in the evening all of the elements that they've learned in the day, both the music and their traditions. It's just fun.

Jo Reed: Is Sacred Harp music still being composed, or are you drawing from traditional music exclusively?

David Ivey: We think that one of the key reasons that the book we sing from, "The Sacred Harp," is still alive and even vibrant today is because it's always had tunes in it from living authors. So, the book has always- it's been in print continuously since 1844, and it's been revised and had songs added to it in the mid-1800s, in the early 1900s and then two or three other times, like, in 1936, 1960, 1971 and 1991. So, in the latest revision in 1991, songs were added from probably 15 or so people who are living who we sing with all the time. So, that has a way of keeping families involved. They say, "My granddaddy's song is in the book, and this is important to me," and they go and take dinner. Even if they don't sing, they might go to singings and support it and take dinner. So, it's very much a living tradition, and the other key, I think, is that the style of music that has been added through the years is- sometimes you can sing a song and you don't know if you're singing from a tune that was written in 1990 or was it written in 1790. So, that's what's important. We still have the same form of music and the same sound when we sing together even with contemporary tune-writers.

Jo Reed: David, I just want to come back to something, although Sacred Harp singing is about worship, it's completely non-denominational.

David Ivey: It's completely nondenominational, and it is a worship experience for many, but it's not a requirement. People come and sing this from all different faiths or sometimes from no faith. And so there's no litmus test and you don't have to sign up or join anything to sing with us, and that's-- as I've noticed that for a lot of people who come to this now who didn't grow up singing, that's very attractive to them that they don't have to believe a certain thing or a certain way to be able to join in into this type of singing and this type of worship. Someone asked me one time, "Well, how do you feel about"- he says, "You're a Christian and you grew up. This is an important part of your spiritual life, and how do you feel about singing with an atheist?" And I tell him, "I think it's a great opportunity that we're happy to have them singing with us, and what better could be going on from someone who's a believer is to have atheists join in with them?" And people are, I think, touched in different ways, and that's for each person to find and explore and discover on their own.

Jo Reed: Well, Sacred Harp music has really enjoyed an amazing resurgence, pretty much since the Bicentennial. What do you think accounts for that?

David Ivey: That's a question that we discuss quite a bit, and it's hard to explain. When I was growing up on Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama in the 1960s, if we had someone come to a singing at Liberty Church, say, and they were from 100 miles away, it was very unusual. But some people believe that folks who grew up, say, in the '60s and really enjoyed types of folk music somehow found Sacred Harp then in the mid-1980s. That was when the spread really started happening pretty quickly. We've had other events like Sacred Harp-- we had two Sacred Harp songs included in the "Cold Mountain" movie and are on the soundtrack, so people would hear this type of singing that they only-- 30 years before they could only have heard it if they had stumbled on a country church practically. So I had a family attend camp the first year because they had heard this music at the "Cold Mountain" movie, and they flew here from California, a family of four, never having had any other experience with Sacred Harp than hearing the song from the movie and then folklorists like Alan Lomax and their recordings through the years. He has recordings from the '40s and then especially his 1959 recording at FIFE, people started finding those, and Sacred Harp, the sound either hits you and you just are totally taken with it, or it's something that you might not even understand musically. I'll say it that way. I had a friend here in Huntsville, who-- this was about 20 years ago. He was driving home from work and on our public radio station here they played a Sacred Harp song. And so the way he described this to me, he says, "I pulled into my driveway, and I could not turn the car off. I was just totally taken with it," and then from there he started searching until he found, well, there's a Sacred Harp singing here in Huntsville. And he attended our singings for about 15 years until he died. So, I think people come to it a lot of different ways, and once a few people in Chicago or in Seattle or in Minneapolis or Washington, D.C., started hearing it, then their friends learned about it. So, it just sort of had to get a start, I guess, and get a little toehold in these places and then start spreading. And the other thing that really played into this is that the Southern traditional singers whose families had been keeping this going for so long, when the folks started coming here from other places in the country, they really embraced them, and not only embraced them but would go and help them start their singings in these places like Chicago. And then from there, the friendships developed and it's just become a community not only national but now also into Europe. And we have people singing in Australia, even.

Jo Reed: You mentioned "Cold Mountain." You worked on that with T-Bone Burnett. How did that come about?

David Ivey: The primary Sacred Harp contact and person that worked on that was Tim Eriksen, and Tim's a folk singer and a Sacred Harp singer from Massachusetts, and I've known Tim probably before that experience maybe 10 years or so. And so he was involved with T-Bone Burnett there and doing other songs, other folksongs, for the movie, and his voice is used behind some of the actors. But Anthony Minghella knew about Sacred Harp and brought up that he was interested in that, and Tim already had that knowledge and was a part of our community, so Tim called me, actually, and said, "Hey, do you think you could get some Southern singers to come to Nashville to a studio? They're interested in recording some songs maybe for use for this movie." And I said, yeah, probably, but what do you think about the idea of bringing the producers down to Sand Mountain in Alabama to Liberty Church, where the singers are, and letting them record it there in a real setting? And he offered that idea to them and they took us up on it, and Anthony Minghella and T-Bone Burnett and their-

Jo Reed: And Anthony Minghella is the director.

David Ivey: He's the director of "Cold Mountain," came down, and they were very gracious. They just- they really allowed us just to have a Sacred Harp singing. They said, "We just want you to gather like you usually do and sing and select songs and sing." And he had a couple of songs that he thought he might want to use, and we did sing those, but turns out that he didn't select those to use. He selected other songs that we sang that other folks just selected during that evening of singing together about two hours. And, one, it was a wonderful singing and a lot of good, talented singers.

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So, when we heard a few months later that they were going to use some of the music and some of our songs, some of our singing, we were real happy about it. And then they were kind and invited Sacred Harp people to go to some of the opening movie events, and we were part of an A&E special that was done on the words and music of "Cold Mountain." There was just a great experience around it, and that was fun, and the important thing for us is that other people got to know about our singing from it.

Jo Reed: And you have been named a 2013 national heritage fellow, so congratulations on that. How did you find out?

David Ivey: Well, that is just a wonderful award, and I'm so appreciative of it and humbled by it, really. And I found out from a telephone call from the NEA director, and it was very much a surprise. When I learned how many nominations there were, I was even more surprised, but I really feel like it's an award for all the Sacred Harp people. I owe so much to people who've taught me and done all the work to keep the traditions and to keep the music alive and to bring it to us. So, it's wonderful to receive it and it's- I'm looking forward to the time with the other winners of the awards, and we're just looking forward to singing there in Washington for the event, so..

Jo Reed: And I look forward to hearing you, David Ivey. Thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.

David Ivey: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: That was 2013 National Heritage Fellow and Sacred harp singer, David Ivey.

You can hear David and other Sacred Harp singers perform live at The National Heritage Fellowships Concert which takes place here in Washington DC  in the Lisner Audiortium  on Friday, September 27, 2013 at 8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. go to  lisner.org    for tickets and more information. and if you can't make it to Washington DC, we're live streaming the concert on our website at arts.gov.

You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts of I'm Going Home and Idumea performed by David Ivey and the Sacred Harp Singers, from the Cold Mountain soundtrack, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Excerpts from , "I'll Seek His Blessings" (page 542, "The Sacred Harp, 1991 Revision") recorded Liberty Church, Henagar, Alabama, July 1, 2012 and "Morning Prayer" (page 411, "The Sacred Harp, 1991 Revision") recorded Liberty Church, Henagar, Alabama, July 1, 2012.

All  taken from The Sacred Harp, 1991 revision,  recorded  last summer in Liberty Church in Henagar, Alabama by Nathan Rees.

The "Art Works" podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to "Art Works" at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Sacred Harp singer David Ivey both preserves the tradition and widens the circle.