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Cold Mountain Soundtrack


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I'm told the sountrack includes music from the White Stripes, as well as the folk music talked about below...

For a Timeless Song Style, a Chance at the Big Time

December 23, 2003


FULTONDALE, Ala. - The Mount Pleasant Home Primitive

Baptist Church on the outskirts of Birmingham is a long way

from Hollywood, literally and figuratively.

So it was a little strange one Sunday to hear a group of

people in the tiny bare-walled church swapping stories

about Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of "The

English Patient," who was pronounced by one elderly

Alabamian that day to be "a pretty decent guy."

A woman near him agreed, but as she loaded her paper plate

with lunchtime chicken casserole, she added, "I do wish

they'd hold the premiere in New York instead of out in


Her preference was only practical: she and a handful of

others would soon fly to the premiere of the new big-budget

movie directed by Mr. Minghella, "Cold Mountain." They

would also hear their own clear, strong voices booming from

the theater's speakers as they watched the movie for the

first time alongside the director and two of its stars,

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

When this Civil War drama opens nationwide on Christmas,

the hope among these singers is that it will accomplish

something more meaningful than a glamorous trip to

Hollywood. They hope it will introduce their kind of music

- a powerful and beautiful but relatively obscure form of a

cappella choral singing known as Sacred Harp - to a broader


The music, also known as shape-note or fasola singing, has

been waiting a long time for that attention. The style of

singing, whose rudiments stretch back at least to

Elizabethan England, flourished in Colonial New England and

in its present form took deep root in the rural South,

where it is still sung today in four-part harmony. But many

of its practitioners - whose parents and grandparents and

great-grandparents sang it in little churches and town

squares throughout the South - fear it could die out. So

they are waiting eagerly to see whether the use of Sacred

Harp music on the movie's soundtrack, released on Dec. 16,

could do for their music what the soundtrack for "O

Brother, Where Art Thou?," the Coen brothers comedy, did

for rural blues and bluegrass. (The "O Brother" album

unexpectedly sold more than five million copies and won the

album-of-the-year Grammy in 2002.)

In early reviews of the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack - which

also includes performances by Alison Krauss and the White

Stripes' Jack White - several music writers have called the

Sacred Harp singers a revelation. Anyone who has ever

listened to recordings of such singing (the musicologist

Alan Lomax has made several well-regarded field recordings)

will know why.

But to attend a weekend singing, as they are called, is to

experience the music in the full-throated way it was

intended and to understand why the Sacred Harp tradition

has endured in a world that seems to have passed it by.

The singing at the Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist

Church in November was an annual gathering known as the

Alabama State Convention, now in its 104th year, and it

drew more than a hundred singers from 17 states, including

many veterans from Alabama who had lent their voices to the

soundtrack. Singers, among them farmers, welders, lawyers

and retirees, began arriving at the hilltop church on a

sunny Saturday morning in cars and pickup trucks and vans,

and the singing began even before the appointed starting

time of 9.

"All right, let's get started," an elderly man said at

8:55, and suddenly the narrow, fluorescent-lighted church

was full of the almost deafening sound of harmonizing


One thing that becomes immediately clear to the visitor at

a Sacred Harp gathering is how much such singings care

about singing to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The release of the movie and its soundtrack were hot topics

over the weekend. But many of the older singers in

particular appeared wholly uninterested and seemed to

regard the subject as a distraction.

"Basically," said Elene Stovall, a singer from Birmingham,

"you could stand Nicole Kidman or Jude Law up in the middle

of the room here, and a lot of these people would not know

who they were. And if they did, they wouldn't care anyway."

There was some brief conversation about other topics,

chiefly concerns about the church's floor being carpeted,

which would dampen the sound. Occasionally singers would

also pause to dab a little peppermint oil on their tongues

to help gird their vocal cords for the two-day choral


But mostly they just sang song after song, happily and with

little interruption, their triple-forte voices rising and

the harmonies broadening and converging, ringing out like

bell tones. In traditional fashion the singers sat facing

each other in what is known as a hollow square, with basses

on one side and the trebles, altos and tenors on the other

three. Singers stood up in turn in the middle of the square

to lead songs, which are sung from an oblong

burgundy-colored book called "The Sacred Harp," which was

compiled in 1844 and revised only four times since.

The music is called shape note because the heads of the

notes in the book are given distinctive shapes - squares,

triangles, diamonds and ovals - to indicate pitch. The

melodies of the songs can often be traced back hundreds of

years to English and Scottish folk tunes. Many of the

lyrics, nearly all religious, date from the 1800's, and

they lend the songs evocative names like "Panting for

Heaven," "Sweet Affliction" and "The Last Words of


Yet for all the religious trappings of the singings, they

have nearly always existed apart from church services.

"Altogether the tradition is a curious blend of the sacred

and the secular," writes Buell E. Cobb Jr., whose book,

"The Sacred Harp: The Tradition and Its Music," is one of

the definitive histories of the phenomenon.

Perhaps because of this mingling of religious and social

tradition, the singings themselves and the communities of

friends and acquaintances that form around them can be

remarkably inclusive. In addition to many singers who were

brought up in Primitive Baptist churches and came to the

music as a form of worship, the Birmingham singing also

attracted longtime singers whose backgrounds were either

not religious or not Christian.

One woman from near Chicago described herself as an atheist

Jew. Charles Franklin, a photographer from New Orleans who

has been singing for more than a decade and documenting

singings around the South with his camera, is a Buddhist.

But he said that despite his religious differences with

many of his fellow singers, he was "very much appreciative

of the spiritual aspects of the singing."

"To me, if you don't get that," he said, "you're missing

the whole point."

The question that remains as the movie opens of course is

whether the record-buying public will also appreciate that

spiritual quality, which is much more pronounced than that

of the "O Brother" soundtrack. While bluegrass and rural

blues exist at a distinct remove from pop music, Sacred

Harp can seem to be on another planet altogether, with

haunting, ancient harmonies and lyrics that make Ralph

Stanley's "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow" sound like a

jingle by comparison. (In the Sacred Harp song "Ye Heedless

Ones," to cite one example, the message is unvarnished: "Ye

heedless ones who wildly stroll/The grave will soon become

your bed/Where silence reigns and vapors roll/In solemn

darkness 'round your head.")

"I don't think it's going to become the cool new thing

really, in the `O Brother' sense," said Tim Eriksen, a

longtime singer who helped arrange the recording session

for the two Sacred Harp songs on the soundtrack. "I don't

know if the general public is quite ready for this. But a

lot more people are going to hear it, and that can only be

a good thing."

Comparisons to `O Brother' are only natural. The producer

of that record, T-Bone Burnett, is also a producer of the

"Cold Mountain" soundtrack, and in the summer of 2002 he

traveled with Mr. Minghella to a small church in Henagar,

Ala., to record the Sacred Harp songs, which were performed

by 63 singers who were paid $200 each for their efforts.

(The original idea had been to take the singers to a studio

in Nashville, but the producers were eventually persuaded

that there was no substitute for recording the songs in the

clapboard country church, Liberty Baptist, where singings

have been held for decades.)

Mr. Burnett's label, DMZ, which he formed with Columbia

Records and the Coen brothers, also plans to release

another album of songs from the Liberty church singers in

the spring. And the Coen brothers, Mr. Eriksen said, plan

to include a Sacred Harp song on the soundtrack of their

movie "The Ladykillers," which is planned for release early

next year and will star Tom Hanks.

Many of the singers in Birmingham that weekend, in the

midst of their excitement, were a little worried that

joining the ranks of soundtrack singers might be a mistake,

that they might be overly commercializing their music.

Would tour buses start to show up in front of the doors of

their churches? Would talent scouts and agents appear in

the pews? In the end, many said, they felt it was worth the

risk to keep their music from disappearing.

"Everybody needs this music in their lives," said Amanda

Denson, a veteran singer, smiling fiercely. "They just

don't know it yet."


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