Review x2: A Sacred Feast and The River Witch

It’s been almost a year since my last big singing, so for the past month or so I’ve had Sacred Harp on the brain in a major way. And since the next best thing to singing Sacred Harp is reading about it, I’ve been doing just that.

A Sacred Feast, Kathryn EastburnFirst came a non-fiction, A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground. While on a quest to research both her family’s roots and the old Baptist hymns of her childhood, author Kathryn Eastburn keeps coming across references to “Sacred Harp.” What starts as a writing assignment for Texas Highways quickly becomes a personal obsession, and eventually A Sacred Feast itself. This book covers the basic history of the Sacred Harp, as well as singings—and food!—in Texas, Alabama, Seattle, and elsewhere. Eastburn includes dozens of recipes sent in by singers, many of which I’m planning to make for upcoming singings I attend.

The River Witch, Kimberly BrockNext up was Kimberley Brock’s novel The River Witch. Roslyn Byrne rents a house on Manny’s Island, Georgia, hoping to escape the sadness and pain of a car wreck and miscarriage — and her Southern mama’s well-meaning but frustrating behavior and advice. But the swamps of Georgia are full of ghosts, including Roslyn’s. Old Sacred Harp recordings bring back memories of her grandmother, as well as of the past Roslyn wishes she could forget. This is the first novel I’ve seen or read that mentions Sacred Harp, and I wanted to see if Brock could capture the art form’s magic and use it in a work of fiction.

Coming home

Although these books approach Sacred Harp from vastly different perspectives, the core theme of each involves returning home: Eastburn because she wants to reconnect with her heritage, and Roslyn because it’s what she needs to do in order to heal.

I enjoyed both books, but Eastburn’s spoke to me on a much more visceral level; the introduction alone had me in tears because the author managed to put on paper the exact feelings I felt at my first big singing, a grab bag of shyness, excitement, and a deep humming and ringing in my bones that was caused only partially by the music’s ear-splitting volume.

I didn’t grow up singing Sacred Harp, but looking back it seems it’s always been with me. The notes in the hymnals at my grandparents’ church follow the four shapes of the Sacred Harp; my grandmother found the 1907 Cooper book I have somewhere in her parents/in-laws’ possessions; and old songs I’ve always loved—like “Up From the Grave He Arose” and “Wondrous Love”—have turned out to be variations of Sacred Harp tunes.

It’s interesting to see how things come full circle.

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4 thoughts on “Review x2: A Sacred Feast and The River Witch

    1. It’s a little odd and dark—anything set in the deep south these days involves hoodoo and superstition and other odd things—but you’re welcome to borrow my copy. 🙂

  1. Two more to add to my waiting list. They both sound good. I’ve been smitten with sacred harp for years and have included on my bucket list the desire to go to a real singing. I went to a local one here in upstate NY a few years back and was disappointed as the “regulars” were not very welcoming and there wasn’t any real leadership, someone who was any good at it. I was hoping to get some instruction, if only just by observation and listening. I didn’t go back. I’m tempted to start my own group and we’ll all learn together.

    Thanks for the review.

    1. A fellow Sacred Harp lover, awesome! I’m sorry your experience wasn’t a great one; if it’s any consolation, that’s far from the norm, and I think you should give it another chance, maybe just visit a different group.

      Looks like there are about five groups that meet in NY state: (scroll down to New York in the list of states). Maybe one of them is close to you?

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