Preserving Alabama’s Musical Heritage: The Alabama State Council on the Arts Processing Project

In early June 2019, ADAH Appraisal and Collections staff teamed up to process records from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The records came from the office of Folklife Specialist Steve Grauberger, who served on the Council from 1998 until his retirement in 2017. As part of the Council’s mission to promote arts activities in Alabama, Mr. Grauberger recorded musical performances at churches, rehearsals, conventions, and other cultural events. His most significant contributions are hundreds of hours of field recordings of gospel and other folk music.

Alabama is to gospel what Mississippi is to the blues. No other state has such a rich, active, and well-documented tradition of gospel music. Perhaps the most significant part of this collection is its field recordings from the Sand Mountain and Wiregrass regions of Alabama, two hotbeds of gospel singing. One can hear diverse musical styles in these regions, from bluegrass, to gospel, to blues, to shape-note music.

Shape-Note Music from Wiregrass and Sand Mountain

There are two shape-note systems of singing: four-shape or “Fa-So-La,” and seven-shape or “Do-Re-Mi.” Sacred Harp uses the four-shape system and is performed a capella (voice only, without instruments). Unlike standard musical notation, Sacred Harp music uses printed shapes – ovals, diamonds, squares, and triangles – to help untrained singers read the music. Sacred Harp singers sit in a square with bass, alto, tenor, and soprano parts facing each other on each side. The National Sacred Harp Singing Convention is held in Alabama every June and draws singers from all over the United States.

Sacred Harp flourishes in both the Wiregrass and Sand Mountain regions of Alabama. Named for its tall native grass, the Wiregrass region in southeast Alabama – particularly the cities of Troy and Ozark – is the epicenter of African-American gospel.  Mr. Grauberger recorded extensively in this region.

Seven-shape note music is lesser known than Sacred Harp, yet extremely influential. Sand Mountain, a region spanning from northeast Alabama to southwestern Georgia, is a hub for both Sacred Harp and seven-shape note congregational hymn singing. Many popular hymns derive from this tradition, including “I’ll Fly Away,” “Victory in Jesus,” and “Standing on the Promises.” The collection features ample seven-shape field recordings and songbooks.

Gospel, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Folk Music

Other highlights of the collection include the following field recordings:

  • Jubilee singers in the Jefferson County Quartet tradition, including but not limited to the Ensley Jubilee Singers, the Delta Aires Quartet, and the Shelby County Big Four.
  • The Sullivan Family Band: Margie and Enoch Sullivan and their family of St. Stephens, Alabama performed bluegrass gospel for over fifty years.
  • Blues guitarist J.W. Warren; blues harmonica player David Johnson, and blues one-man band Sonny Boy King.
  • Fiddler Noah Lacy of Jackson County, Alabama.
  • The Baldwin County Polka Band.
  • Mariachi Garibaldi of Montgomery, Alabama. (Fun Fact: Mariachi Garibaldi performed at the grand opening of the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s “Alabama Voices” exhibition in February of 2014.)

Processing the Collection

Folklife field recordings from the Alabama State Council on the Arts contain a variety of formats, from digital audio tapes (DAT), to cassettes, to compact discs (CDs), with performance recordings from as early as 1927 to as recent as 2015. Most of the recordings are audio recordings, but some consist of photographs and videos. After conducting an initial survey of the records, ADAH staff divided the field recordings by physical format and arranged them chronologically. We separated publicity records, including radio shows and other productions produced by the Council.

Explore Alabama Folklife

Researchers interested in Alabama folk culture and music can explore the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s Archive of Alabama Folk Culture (AAFC). The AAFC features fieldwork gathered by the Alabama Folklife Association, a partner program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Researchers can access the most recent materials from the Alabama State Council on the Arts by visiting the Research Room at ADAH. While Reference staff are unable to provide access to some format types (DAT and reel-to-reel recordings, for example), they can provide access to the bulk of the collection. We recommend contacting Reference staff ahead of your visit to ensure that proper equipment is on hand.

References

Brennan, Grey. Henagar: The Sound of (Sacred Harp) music. Sweet Home Alabama. Retrieved from https://alabama.travel/road-trips/henagar-the-sound-of-sacred-harp-music

Mahala Church, Mobile, Alabama (2009, August 24). National Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2416

Olliff, Martin T. (2018, November 29). Wiregrass region. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-4048

Reyes, Luisa Kay (2019, March 5). Southern shapes. Alabama Bicentennial. Retrieved from http://alabama200.org/media/bicentennial-blog/southern-shapes

Willett, Henry (1995, April). Voices raised, singing praise: Two centuries of sacred sounds in Alabama. Alabama State Council on the Arts. Retrieved from http://arts.alabama.gov/traditional_culture/folkwaysarticles/VOICESRAISED.aspx

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