Saturday, December 22, 2012

GHP 1985. 
We didn't have yearbooks, so we bought journals and signed them for each other.  I can't quite describe what it was like being dropped down in a group of teenagers who could quote literature to each other with total sincerity because we all LOVED IT. Or whatever our particular intellectual enthusiasms were.  It was a place where intellectual enthusiasm wasn't "weird"; for the first time in our lives for most of us, it was currency.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I don't know where to start.  My friend Spencer Cox is dead.  My first reaction to the news was to admonish him, on Facebook, that he wasn't allowed to die, dammit, and if he'd just admit it was one of his jokes I wouldn't be mad.  Because.  It couldn't be true.


"What would give light must endure burning." - Viktor Frankl

I met him in 1985, at the Georgia Governor's Honors program.  We were admitted in a particular major, based on nominations and competitive applications and interviews, then we could choose a minor. Six hundred high school students from across the state, and even in that crowd of bright and talented teenagers he stood out, like a shooting star wisecracking across the sky. We were Philosophy minors together.  He was loud, alternately vulgar and erudite (sometimes both at the same time), fast-talking, vivid, good-looking, charismatic, and kind.

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of someone else." - Judy Garland

He was also gay, and quite vocally so.  This was Georgia, in the mid-Eighties; this was high school.  Many of us had never met someone who was openly gay in person...even those of us who were gay ourselves.  It didn't quite register with me then how brave he was to be that open; I think I just figured things were different in Atlanta.  They were, but not that much.  He was just fearless.

I remember him as a laughing, dark-haired dark-eyed boy, full of energy, one of the elusive Drama majors (they were always in rehearsal).  According to him, I was so weird he decided I was going to be the next Flannery O'Connor.

I'm not Flannery O'Connor yet, and I'm in my forties.  Like Spencer.  Flannery died in her forties.  Like Spencer.  I still have time, maybe.  I don't know. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.  I think creative people fear dying with our art unmade, we scribble and paint and act against the darkness.

"Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.” - Flannery O'Connor

I am wary of making him out to be a saint (I can hear his voice in my head saying, "Why not? Go ahead and write me a fagiography, honey") but what I mean is that we polish real goodness up until it seems unattainable.  Spencer as an adult was a chain-smoking, debaucherous enfant terrible with a scathing wit so sharp it could sever limbs. He could be maddening and, in the words of many of the descriptions of him written in the last 24 hours, caustic.  He was also a genuinely decent and compassionate human being who accomplished real, valuable and lasting good in the world, not merely for his immediate circle or community (which is the normal lot of even the best people) but for literal millions he didn't know and will never know.  He was valiant.  He looked killing bigotry in the eye, battled it and won.

You and I could be like that, even a little.  We don't have to be perfect, be even-tempered, or have our closets organized before we are allowed to accomplish great and valuable things.  Not everyone has his gifts, but I believe that he accomplished what he did through a combination of cussedness and moral compass.  I believe those are available to all of us, like grace.

"All we can do is go around telling the truth." - Carson McCullers

Many of us who knew him when we were young have said that he changed our lives.  He didn't do it with a self-help book or a weight loss program or a religion.  I don't think he did it on purpose.  He did it by being himself.

I was raised Southern Baptist when that was very different than it is now, at least in some places.  They used to ordain women.  My predominantly white church, in a tiny place in north Georgia that wasn't even a town, was attended by a black man.  We had a copy of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret in our church library.  The Fundamentalists had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention in 1981, the same year I was baptized, but had not yet consolidated their grip over the denomination or run the moderates out. This is context.

The local churches in Valdosta would come and get students from the Governor's Honors Program for services.  I decided to go, possibly so that if my mother asked if I'd been I could say, "Yes."  I had already experienced creeping Fundamentalism, mostly from my friends at school.  People I had known since kindergarten were telling me that Satan was in rock music and role-playing games and starting to go to the Church of God and being loudly Christian in a way that made me want to bring up Matthew 6:5.  None of that prepared me.

The church I went to first of all had posters on the wall of their Sunday School room depicting the racist interpretation of the Curse of Ham, which I had never seen before and it shocked me.  I didn't feel sure enough of my ground to challenge anyone over it; I was conscious of being far from home and dependent on someone else to get back to campus.  I remember wondering if there was a way for me to leave without causing a big stir. 

There wasn't. I went to services, where the preacher proceeded to declare that America was fighting God's enemies and therefore all our wars were justified and therefore anyone who didn't believe that  was against God. 

Being the same person who stood up in my eighth grade class and told off the teacher when he said that women should keep to their place, I seriously considered standing up and saying something.  But it was not my church.  It was most definitely, decidedly, unequivocally not my church, and I was sixteen.  I kept my mouth shut.

When I got back to campus, I was incoherent with outrage.  I saw Spencer and made a beeline for him, because of all the people there I figured he would understand.  I sputtered out some kind of report of what had happened, and expressed regret that I had not said anything.

He laughed, said, "Oh, I love you" and hugged me.

I was bemused.  I wasn't sure what I had done to earn this praise.  Generally speaking, growing up girl in the South means you get told to "be nice" a lot.  Righteous anger in women is not viewed with favor by the world at large.

Spencer thought it was awesome. 

It was just a little thing, but little things can be important. I was frequently ferociously indignant in the way that only an idealistic teenager can be, and most people tended to argue with me or temporize or smooth it over or present the other side of the story as if I didn't know it or generally let me know that it made them uncomfortable.  My parents did not discourage me, but they didn't explicitly encourage me either.  Spencer is one of the first people I can remember listening to me rave about something that was wrong in the world and expressing effusive approval.  I mean, my eighth grade class applauded, but my teacher gave me the first D of my life and got away with it, so that reaction was mixed.

Perhaps more importantly, he did not offer a critique.  He didn't tell me what I should have done, or what he would have done in my place.  He loved my indignation and regret, and didn't second-guess me.

It was a shift in perspective, leading to a shift in thought, leading eventually to a shift in action.  I came to believe that speaking up was not just OK, it was vitally important, and that in fact we have a moral obligation to speak up when things are not right.  While many moments and many ideas have reinforced my convictions along the way, that conversation was one that stands out in my mind, twenty-seven years later.  I'm pretty sure that Spencer was not trying to impart a moral precept.  He was just being himself, true as an arrow.

This is what we mean when we say that knowing Spencer changed us.

"SILENCE = DEATH" -- AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power

They meant it literally, in the case of AIDS; the silence surrounding the disease, the unwillingness of politicians to even mention it except in opprobrium and bigoted rhetoric, the dearth of public outcry; all this meant that people were dying...and would continue to die unless something changed.  That was a stark example of a universal truth.  Much of the time it is more subtle. Silence in the face of abuse, of corruption, of injustice, of hatred, leads to death of the spirit.

Spencer and the other people who were part of ACT UP and TAG might have been fighting for their lives and in some cases losing them.  Many of them died of the disease before the treatments he helped bring about became available.  Spencer now is gone too.

But they were not silent.  They acted up, they spoke out, they fought AIDS.  Their spirits were and remain very much alive.

Speak up.  It is the only way.  Speak truth.  It matters.

"How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?"--Carson McCullers

Monday, December 3, 2012

Strumming the Sacred Harp

 This article was originally published in Flagpole Magazine, April 8, 2009. Photographs by Andrew Flenniken.

Not everyone loves it; H.L. Mencken reportedly described it as “a cross between a steam calliope and a Ukrainian peasant chorus.” Mencken notwithstanding, it sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. Four groups of singers face the center, raising their voices for no one but the song leader and themselves, harmonies meeting and diverging, wild but measured, eerie and joyful. This is Sacred Harp music.

Sacred Harp is one example of a larger American shape-note tradition which began in the late eighteenth century, drawing from the rural church-singing tradition in England but adding innovations of composition and especially notation. A seven-note scale is represented by four (or sometimes seven) shapes which give the tradition its name. The purpose of the shapes is to make sight-reading easier; the larger purpose is to make music accessible to all. Singing-schools sprang up in New England and beyond, teaching the populace how to make a joyful noise. It may have been this populist and inclusive impulse which really disturbed Mencken, who was a cheerfully obnoxious elitist, but it contributed significantly to the original popularity and later resurgence of the style.
Hugh McGraw, in blue sweater, sings along.
Once popular all over the newly minted United States, the shape-note style eventually fell out of favor everywhere except the rural South. By the mid-twentieth century, the number of people who knew and practiced this uniquely American musical tradition had dwindled down to only a thousand, in a few churches in the deep South. However, a resurgence of interest in the style has occurred in recent decades, helped along by Hugh McGraw, Raymond Hamrick, and a group of others who published a new revision of the classic shape-note hymnal The Sacred Harp in 1991. First published in 1844, the title page reads “The Best Collection of Sacred Songs, Hymns, Odes, and Anthems Ever Offered the Singing Public for General Use.” That claim is supported by the fact that it has been in continual use since its first publication, with only four major revisions.

Now there are regular “singings” all over the United States and well beyond. The South, especially Alabama and Georgia, is still the center of the tradition and if you attend a singing in Ila, Georgia, or Jasper, Alabama, you may encounter people who have driven down from Michigan or New York just to come and sing. For those who are fascinated by the form it is a powerful draw. There are shape-note singers who grew up with it in churches where the hymnals are still in ongoing use, or who heard about it from older relatives, but many more simply ran across it somewhere. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, religious and musical, and may or may not be interested in Christian sacred music or folk music per se. They simply come for the singing.

Musicians and Hollywood have taken notice: Three hymns from The Sacred Harp appear in the movie Cold Mountain (“I'm Going Home,” #282, “Vernon,” #95, and “Idumea,” #47). The soundtrack for Cold Mountain was compiled by T-Bone Burnett, the same man who brought you the “old-timey” sounds of O Brother! Where Art Thou? Georgia filmmakers Erica and Matt Hinton made a documentary about Sacred Harp titled Awake, My Soul. The soundtrack, called Help Me to Sing, features recordings of traditional Sacred Harp singers on one disk, and various musicians performing songs from the book on a second. On disk two you can hear Doc Watson singing his own version of “Idumea,” sometimes called “And Am I Born to Die?”; Rayna Gellert and John Paul Jones harmonize on “Blooming Youth” (#176), while Danielson performs a quirky, weird version of “Sermon on the Mount” (#507). Tracks by Liz Janes, Innocence Mission, The Good Players, Mac Powell, John Wesley Harding, Jim Lauderdale with Jeni & Billy, Cordelia's Dad, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Tenement Halls, Woven Hand, Richard Buckner, Sam Amidon, Rick Moody with Nina Katchadourian, Tim Eriksen, DM Stith, Murray Hammond, and Elvis Perkins in Dearland also appear. Other musicians have drawn on the shape-note tradition for inspiration or performance as well; “The Dying Californian” ( #410) is one of the tracks on the VOCO album Blink, while #47 is the title track on Am I Born to Die? An Appalachian Songbook by Mason Brown and Chipper Thompson.
Judy Mincey leads the singing.
The unique harmonies of the choral style are in quartals of fourths and fifths rather than the triads of thirds you are familiar with, whether you know it or not, from most of the music you hear. It is polyphonic, meaning no one part stands out as the tune, and the chord changes frequently; this is what gives shape-note its stately unexpectedness and feeling of movement across the four parts. That explanation does nothing to convey the effect those harmonies have on the hearer of the music, who often as not soon becomes a singer of it. Judy Mincey, in describing how she got interested in shape-note, said, “I had a dulcimer I wanted to play and got interested in old music that way. Then I heard some people singing shape-note and it just blew me away...When you get up in the middle there and listen to it coming from all around, it just makes the hair on your arms stand up.”

With traditional Sacred Harp, or the other shape-note traditions such as Southern Harmony or Christian Harmony, the point is not performance, but participation. Everyone who attends a singing is not only allowed but encouraged to sing, and nearly everyone who sings eventually gets up and leads a song. Singings are orderly, focused, and cheerful, accompanied by food and a good deal of laughter. Everyone is welcome, and welcome to sing. That is its power; among other things, it is a living folk musical tradition that has yet to be packaged or professionalized, and is easy to access if you are simply willing to put in the effort and time to show up and do it. It has a spiritual core which is inherently democratic and resistant to co-option. Along with the wild beauty of the harmonies, the music is participatory in its very essence. It is meant to be sung, not only listened to, and you are supposed to sing loud.

Athens is close to shape-note central; there is a regular monthly singing at West End Baptist Church, and another in Ila, just down the road. The system is intended to be easy to learn and if you have any choral singing experience you will find it very easy to pick up (though you may have to unlearn some of your trained-in habits). If you need a little more preparation, regular singings at the Emory Presbyterian Church in Decatur include a short explanation of the shape-note system and an opportunity to sing a probably-familiar tune in the shape-note style.“Old Hundred,” also known as “Doxology,” should be well-known to anyone raised in a Christian church in the U.S. There are also frequent “singing schools” and two yearly week-long camps held within driving distance: Camp Fasola in Nauvoo, Alabama (a second session in 2009 will be held in Anniston), and Camp Doremi (seven-shape system) held at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. More information about local singings and events can be found at, and national listings, resources, and general information about shape-note can be found at
Come on down. Bring a covered dish. And sing loud.

Singers as well as song leaders mark time with their hands in a characteristic style.