Sacred Harp Minutes presents an expanding collection of data from the proceedings of Sacred Harp singings in a queryable database, making it possible for scholars and singers to ask a range of new questions about Sacred Harp’s sonic past. The database is a collaboration between Emory University, the University of West Georgia, the Sacred Harp Publishing Company (SHPC), and the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association (SHMHA), and is directed by Jesse P. Karlsberg, Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) senior digital scholarship strategist and vice president of SHPC. The database will initially feature roughly 17,000 singings from 1945–present, including data from fifty annual volumes recently digitized by Emory’s Digitization Program and twenty-five born digital volumes.
Sacred Harp is a style of group hymn-singing in four-part a cappella harmony. A form of shape-note singing, the style adopts a music notation system that aids in sight-singing in which notes of different pitches feature different shapes corresponding with the syllables “fa,” “sol,” “la,” and “mi.” Singers use a tunebook titled The Sacred Harp at “singing conventions” where participants take turns leading the group in a song or two of their choice. Since the book’s first publication in 1844, secretaries have recorded and published “minutes,” listing the the names of leaders and page numbers of chosen songs from The Sacred Harp at these singings. Published in an annual volume known colloquially as the “big minutes” since 1945, the minutes comprise a remarkably granular and comprehensive record of the decentralized lived experience of a music culture across its community of practice. The database featured on this website draws on five sources of minutes data:
- The born-digital minutes recorded by secretaries at 6,113 singings between 1995 and 2019 and edited and published by SHMHA.
- Data extracted from thirty-one printed annual collections of the minutes of Sacred Harp singings in the Pitts Theology Library Theology Reference collection published by SHPC and a consortium of Alabama singing conventions. These volumes date from 1961, 1963, and 1966–1994 and include the minutes from approximately 7,000 annual singings.
- Data extracted from eleven additional convention-published annual collections held by the Annie Belle Weaver Special Collections of the Ingram Library of the University of West Georgia. These volumes date from 1952–55, 1957–60, 1962, and 1964–65 and include the minutes from approximately 3,000 annual singings.
- Data extracted from two additional convention-published annual collections held by the Sacred Harp Museum of the SHPC. These volumes date from 1947 and 1950 and include the minutes from approximately 100 singings.
- Data extracted from six additional convention-published annual collections in the private collection of Roma Rice and Margaret Keeton, Sacred Harp singers from West Alabama. These volumes date from 1945–1946, 1948–1949, 1951, and 1956, and include the minutes of approximately 1,500 annual singings.
Pitts Theology Library, the University of West Georgia, and the Sacred Harp Museum hold three of the four most comprehensive collections of Sacred Harp minutes. The volumes from these three libraries and from private collections were digitized by the Emory Digitization Program.
The database will share a data model with SHMHA’s minutes submission and editing process, enabling the ingest of minutes from future years. In future stages of this project, the advisory board will collaborate with university archives and individuals holding minutes pamphlets recording the proceedings at singings not included in the “big minutes” to enable their addition to the database.
The data from fifty pre-1995 minutes volumes was digitized after a successful proposal to the Emory Libraries and Information Technology Digitization Program. The volumes in the collection of the University of West Georgia, the Sacred Harp Museum, and private individuals were temporarily loaned to Emory for digitization. The resulting page images were checked for accuracy and completion by a crowd-sourced team of forty volunteers drawn from the contemporary Sacred Harp singing community, and were then processed using two types of optical character recognition (OCR) software. Two teams drawn from the project’s volunteers are now manually correcting the OCR results following a format specification determined by the advisory board. Board members will then merge the two sets of corrected OCR and adjudicate discrepancies to arrive at an accurate representation of the minutes text. In tandem, members of the advisory board will agree upon a unified data format for the information from both data sources. Volunteers will then process the data to match the agreed upon database format, publish the format to the web, and develop an API so that others can easily access the data.
FaSoLa Minutes App
“FaSoLa Minutes” is an app for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets that that offers new ways to view and search the minutes of Sacred Harp singings from The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition since 1995. Singers can use the app to identify the song that’s been stuck in your head all morning, to learn more about the favorite songs of your singing friends, to read up on a singing you hope to attend, decide on a song to lead when the one you were planning on singing has already been used, and much more. Scholars can use the “FaSoLa Minutes” app to identify shifts in the makeup of singings, popularity of songs, and participation of individuals in this music culture. The app is available in the App Store and on Google Play for $4.99 (proceeds benefit SHMHA). SHMHA hosts a more limited web-based interface for browsing Sacred Harp minutes data. Read a review of the “FaSoLa Minutes” app by Clarissa Fetrow and an explanation of its entropy number by David Brodeur and David Smead.
- Mark T. Godfrey, lead developer, iOS developer
- Mike Richards, Android developer
- Lauren Bock, designer
- Jesse P. Karlsberg, project manager
Minutes and Directory
Every year, SHMHA publishes the Minutes and Directory of Sacred Harp Singings, a print volume compiling the proceedings at all Sacred Harp singings held during the previous year and submitted to the minutes book’s editors, along with a directory of coming singings and other information. Minutes are submitted by secretaries of singings and compiled by the editorial committee. The cost of the book is largely funded by a small fee collected from the donations of singers on the day of each singing. Each singing then receives ten books per singing day in return, which are distributed free of charge to thousands of Sacred Harp singers across the United States and beyond. The minutes book includes:
- Directory of all scheduled singings for the coming year, including detailed driving directions
- Directory of all known local singing groups in the United States and abroad
- Minutes of all singings from the previous year
- Singers who have died in the previous two years
- Birthdays of singers
- Names, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of over 2,000 singers
- Instructions for submitting minutes
The Sacred Harp Minutes project will enable more streamlined production of future annual volumes of Minutes and Directory and will also renovate the minutes submission process, creating a mobile-friendly web-based submission process that ingests data from secretaries to feel both the print minutes book and the database featured on this site.
- Judy Caudle, editor
- David Ivey, associate editor
- Joan Aldridge, associate editor
- Chris Thorman, lead production associate
- Carolyn Deacy, production associate
Mapping Sacred Harp’s Shifting Landscape
For its first hundred and twenty years, Sacred Harp singing was confined almost exclusively to six southeastern US states: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee. Beginning in the 1960s, with the support of southern singers, folk music enthusiasts in other parts of the country began forming their own conventions, modeled closely on the long-established format of historical singings. Growth in Sacred Harp outside the South since that time has been continually accelerating. Nathan Rees is using data from Sacred Harp Minutes including singing location names and corresponding GPS coordinates to map Sacred Harp singing’s recent spread.
For most of the twentieth century, minutes were published almost exclusively for singings in the six states named above; the 1985 Minutes Book documented singings in just two additional states: Kentucky and Connecticut. By 1995, there were entries for 175 singings, thirty of which took place in eighteen states outside the original six. The minutes for 2015 include a total of 289 singings. Alabama still holds the most, with ninety-two, but ninety-five singings took place in twenty-seven US states outside Sacred Harp’s pre-1970s territory. In addition, the 2015 minutes include thirty-three singings held across seven countries outside the United States.
- Nathan Rees, lead researcher
- Rob Dunn, GPS specialist
Elective Tempo in Decentralized Music Cultures
Using Sacred Harp Minutes data to systematically identify songs from The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition represented in a corpus of recordings featuring 3,890 songs at Sacred Harp singings, this project uses a custom-designed beat tracking system to analyze how tempos selected by practitioners of this decentralized music culture correspond to historical prescriptive instructions for appropriate tempos. Singers at Sacred Harp singings take turns leading songs and have discretion over tempo. The 1844 Sacred Harp prescribed tempos in seconds per measure for each of the book’s seven “moods of time,” though as Allen Britton noted, “whether or not the exact tempos ascribed to the various signs was strictly observed in practice we cannot tell” (1949: 239). A 1911 revision to the book’s introduction removed these instructions. This project assess conventional wisdom among singers, which holds that tempos have increased during the twentieth century, determining that tempos for some moods of time have indeed increased, but that observed tempos for a majority are remarkably close to original prescriptions. The project suggests new approaches to extracting tempo information from beat onset data and structuring corpora used to evaluate beat tracking systems.
- Jesse P. Karlsberg, lead researcher
- Mark T. Godfrey, lead developer
Amateur Recording Identifier
The digitized minutes also make it possible to associate dozens of previously inaccessible private collections of home-made Sacred Harp singing recordings with time and place by computationally listening to songs and matching them to minutes. Numerous Sacred Harp singers from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas have collections recordings they or their singing friends and relatives made at Sacred Harp singings since the 1950s on transcription discs, open-reel tapes, audiocassette tapes, or in born-digital formats. Few of these recordings have been digitized and many lack identifying information. The Sacred Harp Museum of SHPC has partnered with Osiris Studio in Atlanta and a team of scholars to offer at-cost digitization and archiving of these recordings with the goal of preserving them and increasing the breadth and accessibility of a corpus of known Sacred Harp recordings for additional research. Using a custom-designed computational listening program designed by a music information retrieval expert, the team matches sequences of songs identified in the recordings with information from the Sacred Harp Minutes database to determine likely matches for these unidentified recordings.
- Mark T. Godfrey, lead developer
- Jesse P. Karlsberg, lead researcher
- Michael Graves, audio digitization specialist
- Nathan Rees, outreach coordinator
- Jonathon M. Smith, outreach coordinator
Articles and Presentations
- Rees, Nathan K. “The Sacred Harp ‘Minutes Book’: Centering Tradition for an Expanding Community in the Digital Age.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History & Criticism 30, no. 1 (March 24, 2020): 60–80.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P., and Robert A. W. Dunn. “Mapping the ‘Big Minutes’: Visualizing Sacred Harp’s Geographic Coalescence and Expansion, 1995–2014.” Southern Spaces Blog, January 23, 2018, https://southernspaces.org/2017/mapping-big-minutes-visualizing-sacred-harps-geographic-coalescence-and-expansion-1995-2014.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P., and Mark T. Godfrey. “Seasonal Songs.” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 4, no. 2 (December 31, 2015). http://originalsacredharp.com/2015/12/31/seasonal-songs/.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P., Mark T. Godfrey, and Nathan Rees. “The Cold Mountain Bump: Hollywood’s Effect on Sacred Harp Songs and Singers.” The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 3 (December 31, 2013). http://originalsacredharp.com/2013/12/31/the-cold-mountain-bump/.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P. and Mark T. Godfrey. “Greatest and Ungreatest Hits.” Presentation presented at the Camp Fasola Singing School, Double Springs, AL, and Anniston, AL, 2019.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P., Nathan K. Rees, Mark T. Godfrey, and Robert A. W. Dunn. “‘In Sweetest Union Join’: Recovering, Identifying, and Sharing Historical Sacred Harp Recordings in Private Collections.” Panel presentation at the Association of Recorded Sound Collections Conference, San Antonio, TX, 2017.
- Quinn, Ian. “Mapping Musical Taste in the Sacred Harp Community.” Presentation presented at the Analytical Approaches to World Music Conference, New York, NY, 2016.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P., and Mark T. Godfrey. “Assessing Tempo in Practice: Analyzing the Correspondence of Sacred Harp Tempos to Historical Guidelines Using a Tempo Estimator.” Presentation presented at the Analytical Approaches to World Music Conference, New York, NY, 2016.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P. “Querying the Sonic Past: Digitization, Data Design, and the Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings.” Presentation presented at the Inertia: Momentum Conference, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, 2016.
- Karlsberg, Jesse P., Mark T. Godfrey, and Nathan Rees. “True Stories from the Sacred Harp Minutes.” Presentation presented at the Camp Fasola Singing School, Double Springs, AL, and Anniston, AL, 2013.
This project’s hosting and some other infrastructural costs are funded by two non-profit organizations, SHPC and SHMHA. The University of West Georgia’s Annie Belle Weaver Special Collections at the Ingram Library and the Sacred Harp Museum at SHPC loaned volumes from their collections to Emory for digitization. Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library, ECDS and Library and Information Technology Services contributed technical expertise, digitized pre-1995 minutes volumes, and supported the project’s file-sharing infrastructure.
- Will Fitzgerald, Github
- Judy Caudle, SHMHA
- Mark T. Godfrey, Shred Video, Inc.
- Brandon Wason, Emory University (Pitts)
- Jesse P. Karlsberg (Project Director), Emory University (ECDS) and SHPC
- Ian Quinn, Yale University
- Chris Thorman, SHMHA
Laura Akerman, Melanie Albrecht, Mairye Bates, Cathryn Bearov, Kevin Beirne, Donna Bell, John Berendzen, Adam Berey, Stacey Berkheimer, Justin Bowen, Marie Brandis, Morgan Bunch, Steve Cackley, Leigh Cooper, Kate Coxon, Emily Crespo, Michele Cull, Thom Fahrbach, Bentley C. Fallis, Clarissa Fetrow, Ann Riley Gray, Merv Horst, Sarah Huckaby, Stephen Hutcheson, Robert Kelley, Jordan Lewis, Juergen Lohnert, Porter Lontz-Underhill, Nancy Brooke Mandel, Dorothea Maynard, Judy Mincey, Marian Mitchell, Angela Myers, Linda G. Ring, Michael Ruhl, Dawn Stanford, Melissa Stephenson, Mary Amelia Taylor, Tivey, Judy Van Duzer, and Micah John Walter.
- Allen Tullos, Wayne Morse Jr., Michael Page, Stephanie Bryan (ECDS)
- Lars Meyer, Kyle Fenton, Bonnie Woolger (LITS Digitization Program)
- M. Patrick Graham, Richard “Bo” Manly Adams Jr., Brandon Wason (Pitts Theology Library)
- Shanee’ Murrain and Blynne Olivieri (Annie Belle Weaver Special Collections, University of West Georgia)
- Jason Yang (Emory, Computer Science)
- Sara Brumfield, Ben Brumfield (Brumfield Labs)
- Hannah Alpert-Abrams (National Endowment for the Humanities)
- Joel Chan (Amazon)
- David Ivey, Judy Caudle, Angela Myers (SHMHA)
- Karen Rollins, John Plunkett, Michael Hinton (SHPC)
- Roma Rice, Margaret Keeton, Judy Greene