Set Your Fields On Fire, Volume I: A Collection of Sacred Music
When producing an album of regional music, one needs to understand what that region is. West Georgia, as we at the Center define it, runs from east of Atlanta to the Alabama line, north to Rome, Georgia (the gateway to the North Georgia Mountains) and south to Newnan, Georgia. It sits in the Piedmont of the Appalachian mountain chain and is largely rural.
Gospel music from groups like The Long Sisters, or bluegrass-gospel from the local group the Bluegrass Five, represent regional styles of sacred and gospel traditions with roots as old as the American colonies. Sometimes tragic, like the spiritual songs born in slavery, and often otherworldly, like the Sacred Harp songs that face death so readily, the varied, regional types of songs found on this CD share the outlook that there are better times ahead, perhaps in this life, perhaps in the next.
Many of the songs on this album might be heard anywhere in the Southeast—and throughout America—but the West Georgia musicians have woven them into the folklife and values of their community. These community values give popular songs like “Great Speckled Bird” a new and different meaning than they might have elsewhere.
Set Your Fields On Fire, Volume 2: A Collection of Sacred Music
When the Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia began its research into the music traditions of western Georgia, no one could predict what we would find. A treasure chest of jewels, the artists from the West Georgia region illustrate a variety of southern music traditions. Our research soon revealed the strong religious influence that permeates much of the region’s music. After producing two CDs that explored a range of local music genres, we turned to focus more exclusively on these sacred and gospel traditions.
This CD, Set Your Fields on Fire, Volume 2, contains sacred music from both the white and African-American communities of western Georgia. We drew upon historic recordings of groups performing in the region throughout the twentieth century beginning with the Allen Quartet in the 1920s, one of the first gospel artists from western Georgia to record. Several of the tracks showcase musicians and singers who performed live on Carrollton’s first radio station, WLBB. The selections from Alton Stitcher, the Akers Trio, the Holmes Family, the Velvetones, Maumina and Pam, the Sewell Singers, and the Hite Family, which comprise some radio and some home recordings, illustrate the array of southern gospel music popular in the community from the late 1940s, when the station opened through the 1990s.
These rich music traditions offer insight into the values and beliefs of the community. Many of the groups featured here are family ensembles, through which singing traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Artists also recall their roots in shape-note and church singings, which taught them the harmonies still so popular in gospel music. Musicians incorporated into their repertoire selections from the old gospel song books popular in the early twentieth century as well as more contemporary songs. Some of these artists performed live on local radio stations, providing greater visibility for their groups. Few groups became professional artists, yet music was still a powerful calling. Through their music, these artists could pursue their passions and share their religious beliefs with their community.
“Everybody’s Tuned to the Radio”
“When I first set foot in Nellie Storey’s home on the outskirts of Carrollton, Georgia, to interview her for a university oral history project in the fall of 2000, little did I anticipate where our initial meeting would lead. Eighty-four-year-old Nellie’s vivid and detailed recollections of life in Carroll County during the 1930s and 40s took hold of my imagination, transporting me back in time to a world of hillbilly music, barn dances, and live radio programs. But more than anything, it was the aging reel-to-reel tapes and fragile 70-rpm acetate discs she entrusted to my care that opened a window into the past.
As a reflection of that by-gone era, this unique collection of banjo and fiddle tunes, cotton patch boogies and ballads, sanctified singing, and down-home radio chatter pays tribute to the pickers, singers, preachers, and radio personalities who helped shape, preserve, and promote rural music traditions in West Georgia. Selected from hours of historic, previously unreleased recordings, it evokes the ambiance of live music programs by local entertainers on a small-town radio station in the South during the years following World War II.”
James Michael Buck
I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling
“My name is Alton Stitcher and I have some old recordings you might want to hear.” No sooner had I picked up the phone than the affable-sounding fellow at the other end of the line made it plain what was on his mind. Stitcher’s call had been prompted by a newspaper article publicizing my search for musicians and recordings from the post-World War II era of live country and gospel music programs on a little radio station in Carrollton, Georgia. Swallowing the bait, I made an immediate beeline for his house, tucked away in the woods off a gravel back road between Carrollton and Villa Rica.
The songs on this collection are a reflection of the eighty years or more that Alton Stitcher has been making music in one form or fashion. During his lifetime, the world around him has transformed itself in strange and disturbing ways, yet the man and his music both seem impervious to the negative effects of these changes. In reality, his job as a mill worker was only a cover for his true calling: digging down deep into the mother lode of American folk, gospel, and country music in order to communicate the sincerity, tenderness, and truth of his own heart. As long as artists like Alton Stitcher live among us, the soul of man will never die.
Mick Buck, 2003
God Was In Us, ‘Cause We Sung
“And I’m goin’ tell you, God was in us, ‘cause we sung…”
– Richard Backers
On a chilly winter afternoon in early 2010, members of the United Shape Note Singers gathered in Ray Backers’ living room, a small but cozy space in rural west Georgia. The room was comfortably warm, thanks to a small heater that had been set into the old fireplace, and quiet chatter punctuated with laughter greeted visitors as they came in the door. Arranged on sofas and chairs around a coffee table filled with snack and soda, a group of seven men and women gathered to talk about an important part of their lives and memories. They were drawn together by the opportunity to share their passion for the music that they sing and the faith and heritage that it represents. As they each told their stories, they transported their listeners to lamp-lit evenings where children followed shape notes with little fingers, humid Sunday afternoons filled with music and laughter and white-washed churches where singers sat swaying in creaky pews. On that January day, the music that the United Note Singers sang became more than music. It became a way to connect with living history.
As part of the Center for Public History’s Regional Music Project, students at the Center began documenting the tradition of shape-note singing in African American communities in Georgia in 2010. Although the Sacred Harp style of shape-note singing is relatively well known in the rural South, very few are aware of distinctive characteristics of the African American tradition. African American shape-note singers employ a seven-note system, syncopated rhythms, and a uniquely emotional singing style that differentiates their music from that of the Sacred Harp tradition.
Those who carry on the shape-note singing tradition in modern African American communities often remember members of their family who also sang shape-notes and find themselves drawn to the practice by both the beauty of the music and the timelessness that it represents. Unfortunately, as those who remember and practice shape-note singing grow older, the tradition is in danger of being lost. In an effort to document and preserve this rich part of Georgia’s musical history, the Center for Public History collected oral histories from contemporary note singers and have produced an album that features shape-note singing groups from the west Georgia region.
Students and staff at the Center for Public History have had the pleasure of working with the United Shape Note Singers, an active note singing group that draws members from communities throughout west Georgia.
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