Dan McCurry
Some Reflections on Holy Week
at the
Choctaw Singing School
April 13-18,2003
Union, Misissippi

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian” President Andrew Jackson is purported to have declared. In this week before Easter 2003, Jews are celebrating their Passover liberation from Egyptian bondage while Kurds and Iraqis greet the fall of another genocidal demagogue who followed in the steps of men such General George Armstrong Custer, Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot.

In a much quieter fashion than in Baghdad, the small Mississippi town of Union also hosted a liberation gathering of “distant cousins” whose very appearance together put the lie to the hopes of General Custer and others who have sought to destroy the Native American community.

The  Trail
From the first notes held in the Choctaw harmonies of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” Native American cousins from both the Oklahoma and Mississippi ends of the Trail of Tears bent the traumatic legacy of that Trail back onto itself in a festival of traditional hymn singing whose words proclaimed a 2,000-year-old victory of hope and deliverance.

Joining that circle were a contingent of southern fasola shape note singers who discovered that they were also cousins, both in blood and in spirit, to these Choctaw Elders.

As the Choctaw had preserved the hymns which had survived the spiritual fire of the Trail of Tears so their paler skinned cousins from the Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony traditions brought to the singing festival the original tunes which the Deep South ancestors of these  “ear scorching” tune smiths had carefully written and preserved from times before the Trail of Tears began.

Here in these central Mississippi counties whose earth will be forever marked by the blood of some of the South’s gravest racial atrocities, Choctaw raised up to the Spring time sky hymn tunes whose every word and beat were measured out in those slow cadences shaped by the weary miles and daily deaths of their own departure from these very same lands in the l830s.

While these Choctaw tunes might sometimes resemble note-for-note their counterparts in the shape note hymnbooks held in paler hands, the harmonies created by these mostly elderly Choctaw women were songs of liberation every bit as powerful as those African American spirituals calling all enslaved listeners to  “follow the drinking gourd” which rang out from secret church meetings held in these same lands in the mid-1800s.

The Tracks
Although this interdenominational group reflected a broad spectrum of Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Pentecostals and those Presbyterians whose missionaries first came into the Choctaw nation, the daily and nightly whistles from the train yard just next door were a constant reminder that we were not gathered in the First Baptist, First Methodist or First Presbyterian brick edifices on top of the hill.

Our pillows were crammed flush with the black boards, bunk beds were stacked in the Sunday school classrooms and mattresses were flung down beside the dining room tables of an independent Missionary Baptist Church clearly open to do"God's business" in a style which welcomed the multitudes.

Here was a congregation with a spirit of Christian hospitality which opened up its doors to these Choctaw and White sisters and brothers crowded into this space even while the Smyrna Baptist membership itself was busily preparing for the church’s 35th anniversary at this site.  While these surroundings might seem humble to outsiders, our singing, laughter and prayers reached not only to the hilltops of Union but also to the heavens beyond.

This was no Hilton Hotel and Convention Center crowd. Indeed the singers and their music would have seemed mostly out of place anywhere but in such a rural or small town hall whose walls have protected, but never contained, the onrushing flood of melodies historically generated by this shape note tradition.

The Dust
“ The school teachers still wash out my grandson’s mouth with soap whenever he speaks Choctaw,” an Oklahoma grandmother declared to the knowing nods of others gathered around her. “After this week I’ve decided to start my own Choctaw language class in the backyard .  I’ll use these hymns for the first lessons. If  I don’t my family soon won’t be able to talk The Language at all.”

Such loss is another language which the shapenoters also speak.  With every month “regular singings” are moved to quarterly or annual affairs because there are not enough singers to properly form a Square. With every year another announcement comes that an annual singing must be closed because of too few people in attendance. In regions of the Deep South where monthly shape note singings were once almost as common as county court houses, now small “singing churches” are permanently closed with spider webs and dust gathered on the windows, the pews and the pulpit.

These sights are permanent wounds in the hearts of so many of the singers gathered in Union. They know loss. All who could get off from work or who were retired answered the call to “come spend the week in Union” to sing with the Choctaw and help to find their tunes. They call it a “singing festival” but they are serious as death.

The Spirit
While Union, Mississippi cannot match Baghdad’s claim as the “cradle of civilization”, those Choctaw and Anglos who attended were clearly aware that this gathering was forging a powerful tool of cultural revitalization.

To the casual observer we were mainly showing how music could be used to renew the Choctaw language. But a far deeper spiritual ferment was at work.

For those whose lives, both White and Choctaw, were shaped by the land thefts, murder and suffering of the Indian Removal, this inter-racial gathering allowed the shame of Andrew Jackson’s final solution for Native Americans to “be given voice,” and to be acknowledged in song. But in those self-same harmonies of hymns blended from Choctaw to English and back again, there was a declaration of wholeness beyond the burdens of this shameful past.

In testimonies as powerful as any exhibit at the National Holocaust Museum came the words and musical cadences of survival from Trail and federal reservation. Beyond the rumble of cars from the nearby rail yard came the Choctaw’s musical echoes of the orchestras of Auschwitz, the tune makers of Treblinka and the children’s choruses of Terezin.  Without a word of this history being spoken, Passover, Easter and a thousand other physical and spiritual liberations of captive peoples were celebrated each day in every pew.

The Silence
Seldom more than a soft footstep away from each singer was a microphone or a camera to record the slightest nuances of tone in each song’s rendition. For the Choctaw this allowed a rich harvest of their harmonies.

Many of the fasolers however correctly chomped at the hindrance that such recording did to their traditional foot stomping verses and tsunami choruses. Yet from the midst of these silences, as much as in the melodies themselves, time and again singers would declare their sense of the spiritual presence of those Elders who first shaped this legacy.

In the tradition of some Native Americans, messages were passed along by runners carrying knotted ropes. The words were not in the knots but in the spaces between. In Union as well the silence, sometimes, spoke loudly.

The Spark
This singing school almost did not happen. Four persons require mentioning.  A dying Choctaw husband whose wife spent months listening to and transcribing his overflowing memory of the old tunes. A rural Alabama lad whose New York loneliness sparked the organization of many Sacred Harp singings all over Gotham and whose death challenged his family to continue this tradition. A Choctaw baritone whose voice endowed his Baptist preacher son to hold up this musical tradition both in Oklahoma, in Mississippi and throughout the South. A Cherokee Elder in a Chicago hospital who demanded that his part-Cherokee chaplain rediscover just what a healing ministry this music could be. From such an unlikely quartet spread across many states and many years came the sparks fanned into flame by so many others.

The Committee
Only one of the above is still living to know about this singing school.   Even among those gathered, some were especially precious.  Picture an elderly Choctaw mountain woman around whom are gathered four of the leading experts in shape note music listening intently as her so soft voice struggles through the pages of the Choctaw Hymnal, Uba Isht Taloa. Here was a fertile mind acknowledged by all to hold the richest collection of hymnodic memories throughout the Choctaw Nation. She is asked to sing only a verse, or a portion, while the shape note experts record and then strain to identify what melody and from which tune book this Elder is singing. Hours go by without a pause in the work of this self-proclaimed “listening committee.”

Smiles of satisfaction are frequent as the fasolaers can collectively verify many of her tunes. Forty tunes are for certain. Many others are possibilities.  For this “Old Woman”, a title of respect given to singular elderly Native American women, comes the delight of finally have a tune name from the “long book” source which is now seldom seen in Choctaw churches.  Had this one Old Woman and this handful of fasolaers not come together to correlate these tunes, the singing school would have been far less successful.

The Class
Picture a tall white haired Alabama Primitive Baptist Elder (minister) standing before  a crowd of elderly Choctaw women gathered to “learn the shapes.”  Their first task is to balance, one on each knee, the heavy volumes of Christian Harmony and Sacred Harp that many have just seen for the first time. Then comes the task of putting name and tone to those squares, triangles, circles, and diamonds which constitute the fasola musical alphabet.  “Confused” is the usual expression on the faces of such first-time students.

Yet, using only blackboard, chalk and a disarming manner that simply compels learning, the Baptist Elder makes it happen. Slowly come smiles of recognition as this master of music education leads classes acknowledged even by long time singers as the most balanced and appropriate they’ve ever witnessed. At the end of two classes, the Choctaw write and then sing their first collective shape note song. The tradition has been passed.

The Echo
Here is a moment that cannot be pictured. The crowd is too large. The two Choctaw mountain women are too small, too soft-spoken and too far away. Yet their voices suddenly fill the sanctuary with a sound few there have previously heard. Their tune title may be “Green Fields” the experts on the side benches agree. Yet some sections are exactly from “ Idumea.”

Whatever the title of their tune, the melody that we are hearing now would have been welcomed as familiar in the farthest reaches in the Isle of Lewis of the Scottish Outer Hebrides even into the l930’s. Now it is dead even there as elsewhere.  But it is alive this night in Union, Mississippi.

For the early Calvinist Presbyterians, only the Psalms were fit to intone musically within the sanctuary. And in that fashion which faced all congregations before the advent of choirs and singing masters, the “song leader” would begin to line out a Psalm with barely a two second pause until the congregation would join to repeat the words in whatever key or tempo each individual worshipper felt appropriate for that particular Sunday.

To the modern ear the closest approximation to this  cacophony  of early Presbyterian Psalm chants are the recorded sounds of “whale music.” Indeed some historians contend that for these seafaring island people, the sounds of the ocean were indeed “God’s voice” to be accompanied as would an angelic choir.

Early Presbyterian missionaries of the l820’s worked out of this same tradition teaching  first teaching their Native American converts this answer-call back method of psalming. Only later did congregational hymn singing come into wide use amongst these Calvinists.

Far from its North Sea roots, this psalming style in a shape note tune was held up by two Oklahoma Choctaw women in a form as close to how the first Presbyterian missionaries would have taught as the modern ear will ever hear.  This is a rare jewel.

“Oh, that’s not one of our hymns,” the women declare. “ We sing it a lot. But we call it
‘The Chickasaw Song’. We borrowed it from somewhere.”  The spirit of the missionary truly has stayed alive.  Calvin, Knox, Watts, the Wesley brothers and all the  19th century’s saddle sore circuit riding preachers and singing masters would have been so proud!

The Hand
“It’s an old Choctaw farewell ceremony. Too few of our people know it. But for those who participate, it’s an experience they want to come back to again and again.”  This comes in the words of a Choctaw judge from one of the outlying cabins where each hot afternoon after lunch groups of Choctaw women would gather on the porch to sing the old songs of both pew and plaine.  This judge, although small and female, speaks with a voice of authority that is not to be denied.

Many hymns will suffice for this leave-taking. The judge, who is our leader, selects New Britain (Amazing Grace) in Choctaw simply because she knows it best. Each verse is repeated many times.

 In the dimmed sanctuary all of the male shape note singers line up outside of the circle. Anglo women gather on the other side.

First comes a word of blessing and farewell from the oldest male Choctaw elder. Then the visiting Anglo men walk quietly into the circle filling in from front to back. Women follow suit lining the other side.

From out of the back of the Oklahoma crowd now slowly comes their oldest woman who leads the Choctaw women up to the visiting Anglo women. All women somberly shake hands around the circle until they finish and fade back into the sanctuary now as a choir continuing to sing.

Not a hand is missed. Not an eye is avoided even though now most of the eyes in White faces are misted over with tears of regret and joy. A large burly Alabama man stumbles over his feet with tears streaming down.  Finally the visiting women begin their own handshake and hugging, as Anglos must do, until all of the visitors have shaken hands with one another.

I have been in large Native American handshake ceremonies that included over a hundred participants.  Somewhere each month I also am usually part of a Sacred Harp singing that ends with “The Parting Hand.” There is a difference.

With the Choctaw, here was such a sense of completion. Every hand had been touched. Each face was acknowledged.  Now the Spirit allowed a release without regret.

The Years
Only those who knew this hymnody understood how closely we had come to losing so many of these elderly singers and with them lost forever their memories of the songs which had been carried from the Trail of Tears.  “ Oh if only “Doris” or “ Jim” or “Anna” were here. They knew all of the songs. They could have helped us”  Such replies were so sadly delivered in the full knowledge that in many ways we had waited far too late to hold on to much of this precious music.

Within the Choctaw memory we discovered the “Chickasaw Hymn” which is likely the last remnant of a rich and vital Psalming tradition passed down from the first missionary singing lessons.  Of the “singing . Many were too ill or busy to make the trip from Oklahoma to Mississippi.  Amongst the Choctaw this work has just begun.

So many of the other Native American nations also hold  these same shape note traditions. The Cherokee, the Muskogee(Creek/Seminole), the Ponca and many other tribes also have an oral shape note tradition which has not even begun to be explored. This year many will gather near Oklahoma City in a United Methodist Church sponsored “homecoming” where a few traditional language-hymns will be sung amongst much lamenting that the rest of the tradition is rapidly disappearing forever due simply to a neglect in collecting and disseminating it back amongst the singing-peoples.

The Remnant
Picture the craft decorated splendor of the Choctaw Nation’s Pearl River Senior Center where each day dozens of Elders come for meals and conversation. Within this slow movement of Elders there is a sudden cry as an old woman catches her heel on the carpet, twists and, in falling, badly dislocates a knee. As her joint unhinges, a crack is audible.

The “911” call is placed and a concerned circle of friends gathers around the pain wracked victim. From out of the crowd an Old Woman quietly comes to the fore. Almost kneeling she places her hand near the injured knee while whispering/humming a song/prayer over the patient.

Most of the shape note singers, and many of the Choctaw, have no idea of this accident.
Yet this Old Woman healer is carrying on a  practice of musical/spiritual healing far older than the missionaries or of modern medicine. Remnants of that tradition are most surely contained in the shape note hymns still sung by the Choctaw.

From the amber coffins of million year old mosquitoes we can extract living DNA. From the high canopies of Amazon tropical forests we are discovering an ancient pharmacopia increasingly crucial to modern medicine. Along the Trail of Tears and through the later years of trauma, these Native Americans were nourished by these hymns as spiritual survival medicine. The spiritual words were reshaped to accommodate the tunes and the tunes themselves were redesigned to fit the Choctaw’s traditions. Interweaving one with the other here is a hymnodic helix waiting to be unraveled.

There can be no doubt that within the many ways they rewrote and restyled these hymns to fit their needs, early Choctaw singers and song leaders also included the remnants of those ancient chants and melodies whose healing powers had proven themselves down through the generations. These restyled hymns held on because they “worked.”

Modern medicine calls this “music therapy” and is eagerly searching for how these modalities can be used. Within the Native American hymn repetoire’ we have a still living laboratory of this musical medicine.

“It’s Like I’ve Known You”
“Nothing so fulfilled his life as the way he left it,” some sage once wrote. The judge was correct. No fasolaer who participated in the farewell handshake circle will ever miss one again.

Within our group of singers this week we faced death in the family, medical emergencies, irritable children, late appointments, eggs boiled too hard, hoarse voices, tired bodies, discomforts and discords musically and otherwise.  Yet in the end, the music of the Spirit by the Spirit and in the Spirit made us into one body.

In the early dawn as she boarded the shiney blue and  yellow Choctaw Nation bus for the twelve  hour return ride to Oklahoma, a small shy woman held back until nearly the last. In passing she whispered only one phrase, “It’s like I’ve known you.”  Dear God, let it be so.