Why Are We Called “The Joe Beasley Singing”?

Our Singing is called “The Joe Beasley Singing” because Joe Beasley began it as a traditional Sacred Harp Singing back in 1988.

Joe was born on March 15th, 1929 and raised in Winfield, a very small town in northern Alabama, a part of the country in which Sacred Harp Singing has always been a very large and strong part of family and community activities. In that area, there are many families of fine singers and Joe’s family, on both sides, was one of those families. He and his younger four brothers and five sisters grew up working on the family farm, singing Sacred Harp and other shape note, church and gospel music. Their parents also sang as they worked and Joe’s mother also sang the old Anglo-American folk songs.

Joe was not only an avid music lover, but an avid lover of literature and all learning as well. He often plowed the fields with a book propped against the plow handles as he worked and learned a song or read literature at the same time. At home in leisure times he would lead his younger brothers and sisters in singing. While still a teenager Joe traveled to the Grand Old Opry in Nashville as president of the fan club of one of its stars. In high school he was in the drama club and on the school newspaper and wrote for the local paper as well. With his interests and abilities, he of course went on to college after graduating from high school in 1948, providing an inspiration and motivation to his younger siblings, most of whom also went on to higher education. He first went to the University of Alabama and later transferred to Wayne University in Detroit, Michigan where he pursued his interests and dreams in journalism and drama. He interrupted his career pursuits in these areas with a three-year enlistment in the Coast Guard.

During these years he acquired reel-to-reel tapes recorders, one of which he had shipped to Winfield. There he took his love and historical interest in Sacred Harp to the next level by recording local singings in the area. He also hoped with these tapes to interest friends back in Detroit in starting a singing there. This desire was not fulfilled since the Northerners in Detroit didn’t know what to make of this strange sounding singing and the transplanted Southerners were not interested in continuing something they considered backward and old-fashioned. Indeed, around this time in the late 1940s and ‘50s, for various sociological and logistical reasons, the importance of Sacred Harp singing in the South was waning. But Joe was not discouraged and whenever he returned home for a visit he continued to record and sing Sacred Harp, especially in his local communities where the custom was still strong.

Joe’s career ambitions had become centered in drama and he became part of a performing professional theater group which also used his tape recording for background sounds. In pursuit of his theatric aspirations, he moved to New York City around 1960 where he attended drama classes and attained parts in off-Broadway plays. In the late ‘60s, Joe tired of the unsteady, intermittent work in the theater and, after trying a succession employment opportunities in New York, settled into managing the computer accounting for a firm in the Garment District. With more a more reliable career, Joe now had more spare time to pursue his lifelong music interests.

By this time, country had “discovered” folk music and Joe was not long in finding connections with others in New York City who did know what to make of the Sacred Harp, shape note, and gospel music he so loved and wanted to share. Around 1978, he joined the Pinewoods Folk Music Club. Some people in the club were actually singing Sacred Harp music and were enthusiastic about including someone who was actually a part of that tradition. Joe was soon leading regular singings of Sacred Harp, shape note and gospel music as part of the Pinewoods Folk Music Club activities. Joe held these in his apartments, first in Manhattan and then in Queens, and club members fondly remember his Southern cooking and warm hospitality. They especially remember the sense of humor with which he related the traditions of Southern Sacred Harp singings.

In 1988, Joe decided to split the activity, turning over the mostly gospel portion to another club member and forming his part into a “real” traditional monthly Sacred Harp singing, in which the participants primarily used the red Sacred Harp book, always sang the notes, and followed the singing with a potluck supper. He also loved to take people to the annual weekend National Sacred Harp Convention in Birmingham, Alabama and the other regional annual conventions that had spread with the popularity of Sacred Harp into the North. When traveling to Birmingham, he took his singing friends home with him to experience the real local community singings that had been part of his life.

And thus he continued for several years during which Joe was able to retire from his full time job. Then in 1995, Joe began having pain in his back which became increasingly severe. It finally became so excruciating and disabling that he went into the hospital multiple times for diagnosis and relief. On the last hospital visit, the diagnosis of advanced bone cancer was finally made. We asked then and still ask today why it was not diagnosed sooner, but it was too late and, in just days, on October 5th, 1995, he left us.

After a period of shock and grief, those of us who had regularly attended Joe’s singings decided they should go on and Dick Schmeidler, who had an apartment in Brooklyn, invited us there. We sang at Dick’s for 2 1/2 years, until he retired in 1999 and moved to Massachusetts. Ann Folke Wells spoke to her pastor at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, and with the September singing in 1999 we began singing there, where we still sing today.

So, when you attend the Joe Beasley Singing, you are part of one of the first, if not the first and longest, regular traditional Sacred Harp singing to be held in the North since the custom died out there in the early 1900s. And the Joe Beasley Memorial Sacred Harp Album CD you see on our table contains some of those singings Joe recorded as a young man back in the 1950s.

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