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Georgia Music Magazine: Remembering Sacred Harp Patriarch Raymond Hamrick (1915-2014)

For Georgia Music Magazine.

Andersen’s Jewelers, quietly tucked into a corner building at the intersection of downtown Macon’s Cotton Avenue and Second Street, is seemingly like any other nondescript small town storefront that hasn’t succumbed to the pressures of progress over the last several decades. Wood and glass display cases are lined with antiquated instruments and watches are adorned with handwritten paper tags. Nothing about it seems extraordinary. But unbeknownst to the vast majority of casual passersby, the man inspecting watches just inside the doors of the shop was known worldwide as a prolific songwriter and a patriarch to thousands of Sacred Harp singers.

Raymond Cooper Hamrick, who passed away on Nov. 24th, 2014, at the age of 99, began his work at Andersen’s in the 1930s and continued to work in the shop well into his nineties.

As he worked on watches, his mind was also occupied by song. He would often pause to scribble ideas on whatever scrap sheet of paper was nearby – amalgamations of squares, triangles, circles and diamonds in four part harmony. When his watch work for the day was completed, he’d revisit those scraps, developing the best ideas into fully formed songs.

“[He was] one of the most prolific songwriters of any time that’s ever come out of Georgia” says Matt Hinton, who – along with his wife Erica – produced the award-winning documentary, Awake, My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp. “He had a profound sense of melody, harmony and composition.” With no formal musical training other than brief shape-note singing schools, Hamrick was able to write hundreds of tunes in the style of 18th and 19th century shape-note songsmiths. Several of those songs would be selected for inclusion in the most recent 1991 revision of the Sacred Harp hymnal, and since then, they have become some of the most beloved in the book. His compositions “Lloyd” and “Christian’s Farewell” rank among the most popular at singings around the world. Several years ago, “Lloyd” was one of the top three most performed songs, and it remains consistently in the top five. Several hundred of Hamrick’s other songs have been collected in the Georgian Harmony, which is now in its second edition.

Many more of his songs remain to be heard. Beyond those that were carefully tweaked for publication in the Sacred Harp and the Georgian Harmony, Hamrick left behind a trove of material – he was constantly writing and recording until the end of his life, testing out new ideas. In the days before the availability of four-track cassette recorders, he fashioned his own method of putting himself to tape using two stereo reel-to-reel players, allowing him to listen back to himself singing all four parts of a song.

Others involved and interested in the Sacred Harp community recognized this prolificness and sought out Hamrick for his expertise and advice. He corresponded with anyone willing to reach out, from early shape-note historian George Pullen Jackson to authors, scholars, students and young songwriters eager to learn. He was a dedicated historian of the Sacred Harp, constantly amassing knowledge of the hymnal and its compilers, thinking and writing on the subject and curating a collection of songbooks to inform his studies.

Hamrick also did much to spread knowledge of Sacred Harp singing beyond the borders of Georgia, where the first edition of the hymnal was published in 1844. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was part of a group of singers that travelled to folklife festivals and other events around the country to take part in ‘performances,’ demonstrating the style and evangelically spreading knowledge of the Sacred Harp. The fruits of those efforts can be seen today, as the uniquely Southern style of singing can be heard in unlikely places around the country from the Pacific Northwest to New England as a new generation takes interest in the subject. Its popularity has grown worldwide as well – singings regularly happen as far away as Korea or Australia, and a Sacred Harp camp takes place every other year in Poland. The spread of Sacred Harp singing owes much to Hamrick’s humble stewardship of the tradition, diligently researching its history while serving as a beacon for a younger generation of singers.

Hamrick described his best-known song “Lloyd” as coming to him in a dream of a visit to Heaven. Surrounded by an endless chorus of faceless singers clad in white robes, he heard them performing “the prettiest music” that woke him from his sleep. He quickly notated their sounds in shape-notes in the darkness of his bedroom, but upon falling back to sleep, he was disappointed to realize that he couldn’t slip back into the dream. Now, Hamrick has surely rejoined that chorus as they join in harmony with the hundreds of other groups around the world singing his most beloved songs in tribute to an extraordinary songwriter.

[For Georgia Music Magazine, Issue 35]