Strong Songs of the Dead

The Pagan Rites of Sacred Harp
Th. Metzger

First edition. Published July, 2024.

Hardback (ltd. ed.) isbn: 978-1-943687-34-3
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Sacred Harp singing is a uniquely American synthesis: religion and release, the loud sound of olden times and the joy in the ever-present now, traditional practices that hold together hundreds of raw, raucous human voices. It’s sometimes asked, “Why does the Devil get all the best music?” In this case, God (or as author Th. Metzger claims - the gods) gave to America a wild gift.

Birthed before the U.S. was a nation, ebbing and swelling across the centuries, Sacred Harp singing is not just a collection of old hymns, but a vibrant social phenomenon, drawing in singers from far beyond the church. Driven into rural backwaters, where it hung on during its lean decades, in the twenty-first century, it is experiencing a renaissance, after northerners ventured to get the taste and feel, not just the sound, that has survived in pockets in the Deep South. Free and democratic, this is music for amateurs in the truest sense, that is, for those compelled by love, rather than a desire for money or accolades. Underneath the thin veneer of piety, singers – both old and new – feel a powerful, insistent, heartbeat.

Strong Songs of the Dead is the tale of a journey, not a mere travelog, but venturing back into ancestral time, to that place called by some “That Old Weird America.” Th. Metzger goes in with eyes and ears wide open. And he goes deep, in more than one case singing in the heart of the earth, as though to discover the secret subterranean well-springs of the sound. The living and the dead, the lost and the found, strangers and dear friends, join him on this journey.

A current of darkness runs through Sacred Harp singing; and neither does Strong Songs of the Dead shy away from grief, loss, and longing. Like the songs at the heart of the story, the chapters of Metzger’s memoir are short, plentiful, and unrestrained, yet they all lead to themes of heartfelt living and holy dying. There is tragedy here, but through all that pulses a passionate vitality, an irrepressible cry for life.


Reviews

"Thom's book is an authentic and emotional journey into shape note singing. He provides a realistic interpretation of a very personal and profound practice which reflects my own experience of this music. Thom has a writer's eye to pounce on the strongest lyrics which are powerful and full of meaning. I loved this book."
Kelly Macklin, editor, Shenandoah Harmony

"An instant classic. Recalling Nick Tosches’ Country and Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, Th. Metzger’s immersive and confessionally textured study of marginalized American hymnody comes as near as words can to capturing the ungovernable spirit-essence of backwoods-protestant song and ritual."
Chip Smith, publisher and editor, Nine-Banded Books

“Metzger weaves the long past and the present with a gem-studded, coal choked narrative that tells the reader everything they need to know about who sang, who sung, who sings Sacred Harp, and what happens when they do, and why.” 
Steven Sherrill, author of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

"Th. Metzger's Strong Songs of the Dead succeeds spectacularly in juxtaposing the fiercely living world of Sacred Harp singing with his parallel theme: ever-present death that resonates through lyrics, rural cemeteries, and the singers themselves.”
Christian Goodwillie, Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives, Hamilton College.

"Metzger writes vividly and imaginatively while making his own eclectic sense of an experience at first intensely foreign to him.”
E. Fulton, hymnologist

"Metzger's work and voice resound in strange harmonies, leaving you wanting more… But what we do have here is lovely: a highly intelligent book about the power of the human voice."
Carl Abrahamsson, author of Occulture: The Unseen Forces That Drive Culture Forward

“Th. Metzger explores the multivalent contradictions of Sacred Harp singing in a highly personal, engaging series of vignettes, at times assuming the role of informal anthropologist and others the stranger in a strange land. This book will engage both insider and casual reader unfamiliar with this deep-rooted American tradition.”
Nick Pappas, Independent Scholar

“This intimate portrait of the Sacred Harp subculture, which Thom Metzger and wife Eileen have embraced with deep, ecstatic fervor, offers the author's most spiritual yet grounded book to date: the literary equivalent of a Joe Coleman painting, but suffused with a Hildegard von Bingen soundtrack.”
Derek Owens, author of The Villagers, and Memory's Wake

"Metzger's project is to describe a phenomenon that is widely shared but eludes communication in language.This work revels in the personal rather than indulging in the academic custom of removing the teller from the tale. The reader will come away wanting to do the thing, to engage in shape note singing in a group, and Metzger assures us that it's just a matter of showing up and trying."
Sarah Perry, author of Every Cradle is a Grave