Florida Folklife Program
Florida Music Train: Sample from "Notes to Musical Selections"
CD Track 2:
Florida Storm. African American sacred harp hymn, Southeast Alabama and Florida Union Sacred Harp Singing C onvention, Campbellton, Florida, 1980.
Culture: African American
Collectors: Doris Dyen and Peggy Bulger, Florida Folklife Program
Performers: The Southeast Alabama and Florida Union Sacred Harp Singing Convention performed "Florida Storm" at their 1980 annual sing and meeting. The group includes singers from the Florida panhandle and southeast Alabama. The Southeast Alabama and Florida Union Sacred Harp Singing Convention are over one hundred years old and convene regularly to sing sacred harp. The use of this style of singing among African Americans dates to Reconstruction. The singers still use as their main book The Sacred Harp, a tune book compiled originally in 1844, which contains a mixture of hymns, revival spirituals, fuguing tunes, and anthems, some of which date to the 1700s. African Americans also sing occasionally from The Colored Sacred Harp compiled in 1934 by the black composer, Judge M. Jackson, a native of Montgomery County, Alabama.
Description: The sacred harp singing style originated in colonial New England as a means to teach congregations to sing. By the mid-1700s, itinerant singing school masters were using religious "four-shape" tune books in which different shaped note heads were assigned to the European musical scale of fa, sol, la, and mi. Seven shape-note songsters were developed later. Singers do not literally read music, but rather learn the interval relationships between notes of different shapes. The tradition declined in the northeast but gained strength in the Deep South and Appalachia, where various sacred harp hymnbooks still are published.
Shape-note singing has been a part of Florida's musical life since the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Found among blacks and whites, the tradition is particularly strong in the Florida panhandle area, and is related to similar traditions in Alabama and Georgia. Singers frequently cross state lines to attend annual sings and conventions. "Florida Storm" comes from The Colored Sacred Harp, one of the few known compilations of religious songs composed by African Americans. The term "colored" reflects preferred terminology of the time of publication; compiler Judge Jackson (1883-1958) included seventy-seven songs composed by black singers from southeast Alabama and northwest Florida.
The shape-note tradition features three or four part singing, usually without instrumental accompaniment. Singers frequently sit in a hollow square formation, grouped according to voice part (treble, alto, tenor, and bass). Throughout the Florida-Georgia-Alabama region, black song leaders follow the custom of "walking time," crossing back and forth in front of the seated singers in a dance-like or march-like manner. The seated singers add to the rhythmic vitality of the songs by tapping their feet on the first and third beats of each measure, and by beating time with their hands along with the leader. A different singer leads each song; leaders include children as well as adult men and women. The songs usually are sung first with syllables that correspond to the printed shapes ("fa-sol-la-mi"). The group then repeats the tune with words. Words usually are religious in nature, but sacred harp singing does not occur within a regular church service but rather at a "sing" where the singing session is often preceded by a short, church-style service including prayer and a hymn or spiritual.
"Florida Storm" was recorded at the 1980 convention of the Southeast Alabama and Florida Convention, held at the Bethel C.M.E. Church in Campbellton (Jackson County). It is probably the most popular selection from the Colored Sacred Harp, and was composed by Judge Jackson in 1928, based on a pre-existing broadside ballad text about the 1926 hurricane in south Florida. African American singers view this as a cautionary tale and, as is the case here, often interject sermonettes or moral commentary between verses. The song leader in this performance is Henry Japeth Jackson, a son of the composer.
September 18th, nineteen hundred and twenty-six The people cried mercy in the storm; Their cries were too late, their crying was in vain Crying Lord have mercy in the storm.
Chorus: The people cried mercy in the storm The people cried mercy in the storm; The colored black and white stay'd awake all the night Crying Lord have mercy in the storm.
A pity and a shame all the people in the rain But God showed his mercy in the storm; It was very sad that they lost all they had Crying Lord have mercy in the storm.
The wind with a mighty sound laid many buildings down But God showed his mercy in the storm. Night comes on you know they had no where to go Crying Lord have mercy in the storm.
The streets were all a mess it was so no one could pass Mothers look'd for children in the storm; Fathers tried in vain it was a shame I know Crying Lord have mercy in the storm.
The doctors got the news so many that were bruised Together with the Red Cross on the train; They all came in haste to see about their case Crying Lord have mercy in the storm.
Notes: This section drawn liberally from the album notes to Drop on Down in Florida by Doris J. Dyen (see below), and Wiregrass Notes: Black Sacred Harp Singing from Southeast Alabama, Alabama State Council on the Arts and Humanities, 1982, with notes by Doris J. Dyen.
Source: Drop on Down in Florida Recent Field Recordings of Afro-American Traditional Music, LP record, Florida Folklife Program, Florida Department of State, 1981. Field recording by folklorists Doris J. Dyen and Peggy A. Bulger, with recording engineer Dwight DeVane, August 23-24, 1980, Campbellton, Florida.
Card, Edith. "The Tradition of Shaped-Note Music, A History of Its Development," Foxfire 7, ed. Paul F. Gillespie and students. Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1982. Pp. 280-292.
Cobb, Buell R., Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, Athens: University of Georgia Press., 1978.
Willett, Henry, ed. In the Spirit: Alabama's Sacred Music Traditions (with CD). Montgomery, AL: Black Belt Press for the Alabama Folklife Association., 1995.
Willett, Henry, ed. Notes by Doris J. Dyen. Wiregrass Notes: Black Sacred Harp singing from Southeast Alabama. Montgomery: Alabama State Council on the Arts and Humanities, 1982.