These are the syllables [the syllables used as the title of this article; see below] used by oldsters in rural regions of the South to intone the major scale, exactly as they were used in the British Isles long before Shakespeare. Indeed, the Elizabethan fa la la is no more than a conventional reference to the habit of singing any part-song first with the tonal syllables, so that melodies may be learned before words are attempted. So, still, is the custom in all those parts of America where The Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony are used as singing books.
The former is common in Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. It has been reissued four times since its first appearance in 1844 and has sold upward of five million copies.
Southern Harmony, published in 1835, sold a half-million copies before the Civil War, then was out of print till the Federal Writers’ Project of Kentucky, under the sponsorship of the Young Men’s Progress Club of Benton, Marshall County, reprinted it in facsimile in 1939.
By far the most celebrated in musicology circles of all the American song books, since Dr. George Pullen Jackson, of Vanderbilt University, revealed it to the learned world in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, its usage among the folk is confined today to a very small region in southwest Kentucky. William (“Singing Billy”) Walker, its author, considered it so highly that he, ever after, signed himself, even on his tombstone, A.S.H., meaning “Author of Southern Harmony.” Today, it is used by about forty old people who meet, every year, at the County Court House of Benton and sing from nine till four.
I went to hear the Southern Harmony singing this year, lest it cease to exist before another, though most of the ancients looked healthy enough, I must say, and sang with a husky buzz, and a handful of youngsters of forty or more seemed active in perpetuating the style and repertory of it all.
The style is that of all back-country vocalism: a rather nasal intonation, a strict observance of rhythm and note (plus certain traditional ornaments and off-tones), and no shadings of an expressive nature at all. Each song is sung, first, with the Fa Sol La syllables and, then, with its words. Various persons take turns at leading. The effect of the syllable singing is rather that of a Mozart quintet for oboes; the effect of the verbal singing rather that of a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century motet.
The repertory is all the grand and ancient melodies that our Protestant ancestors brought to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most are pentatonic and hexatonic, many of them Dorian or Phrygian in mode. The part-writing is French fifteenth-century. There are, usually, three parts: a bass, a tenor (the melody), and a treble. Both of the latter are doubled at the octave by women and men, making of the whole a five-part piece. Since chords of the open fifth are the rule, and parallel fifths common, the addition to these of constant octaves gives, to the whole, an effect at once of antiquity and of the most rigorous modernism. Each part is a free melody, constantly crossing above or below the others; no mere harmonic filling attenuates the contrapuntal democracy. There is something of the bagpipe, too, in the sound of it all, as well as in the configuration of many of the tunes.
Though the words are always sacred words (often of high poetic quality), neither the Southern Harmony nor Sacred Harp singings are, strictly speaking, religious manifestations. The proof of that is the fact that they have never become involved in the sectarian disputes that are the life of religion. Religion is, rather, the protective dignity under which a purely musical rite is celebrated. That rite is the repetition, year after year, of a repertory that is older than America itself, that is the musical basis of almost everything we make – of Negro spirituals, of cowboy songs, of popular ballads, of blues, of hymns, of doggerel ditties, of all our operas and symphonies. It contains our basic conceptions of melody, of rhythm, and of poetic prosody. It contains, in addition, the conception of freedom in part-writing that has made of our jazz and swing the richest popular instrumental music in the world.
To persons traveling southward, I do not recommend the Southern Harmony singing as the best introduction to this richness of style and repertory. The ancients are too few in number and too note-bound, and the singing is far too slow for nervous city tastes. Easier to find, on any summer Sunday, and more lively in tone and rhythm are the devotees of the Sacred Harp. The style and repertory are similar, but the vigor of the rendition is greater. If possible, buy a book and learn to sing yourself from the square and triangular notes. It is more fun that way.
From: “Fa Sol La Fa Sol La Mi Fa,” by Virgil Thomson, in Music Reviewed, 1940-1954 by Virgil Thomson (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), pp. 39-41. Originally published in the New York Herald Tribune on May 26, 1941.