(September 11, 1930–August 2, 2013)
Quintessential Sacred Harp Man
Jeff Sheppard was the quintessential Sacred Harp Man. And, always, Shelbie was at his side.
After his family, Sacred Harp singing was Jeff’s life. He was a blue collar worker for Sacred Harp – doing whatever was needed, often behind the scenes, to preserve Sacred Harp traditions, to make our singing better, to support and extend Sacred Harp singing to other parts of the country and world. Jeff did this without fanfare. He didn’t seek or expect attention for what he did. He just put one foot in front of the other and did a soldier’s work for the cause for all the right reasons.
Since the 1970s when he and Shelbie moved back to north Alabama, Jeff was the person that many singings depended upon to key; to keep the class together; to chair; and to attract other singers, especially over a wide area of east Alabama and for some singings in west Georgia. Jeff also provided this leadership for all the large conventions in the South and for new conventions and groups that sprang up across the country. Jeff, along with a handful of others of his generation, helped rebuild the Alabama State Sacred Harp Convention from a low point in the 1980s to a now thriving convention.
Generosity and Hospitality
Jeff and Shelbie were generous and hospitable. While I know that they have opened their home to many, many singers, I will just tell you how my family has personally experienced their welcoming spirit. Karen and I, as well as our three children, have stayed countless nights in their home while traveling to singings or just as a stopping point between Huntsville and Auburn. Every time we attended a singing anywhere near Anniston, Jeff would ask us to go home with them.
Not many folks know, but Jeff and Shelbie spent their own money to buy the equipment and supplies needed to produce the Minutes book when Shelbie took on that enormous job in the 1990s. They would not accept reimbursement because they wanted to accumulate a little rainy day fund for the Minutes in case of hard times.
A Great Singer
Jeff Sheppard was a great Sacred Harp singer. I personally have never sung with a better singer. His accent, rhythm, and tone were the best. He was a model for beating time. He could sing every song in the book. He sang tenor, treble, and bass parts well. I just loved singing beside him.
On the front bench, his keying was always spot on, just right for what the class was ready to do at that time of day. Many of us learned so much by listening to him key songs. And when Jeff was on the front bench, he would keep a class together. And just occasionally, when needed, he would get our attention and admonish us to watch the leader. If Jeff was at your singing, you were confident that you would have a good one.
Fun and Funny
Of course, all of us know that Jeff knew how to have fun. He also knew how to help others have fun and relax. He used his humor to help people feel comfortable, to feel welcome, and to feel appreciated. He would poke fun at himself so that people would know that he was fully approachable.
Beneath all that joking, though, Jeff maintained high standards about how we should conduct singings, how we should conduct Camp, and how we should treat each other.
Vision and Care for the Future of Sacred Harp
Finally, Jeff had vision.
He had a heart for future generations of singers, even those he would never meet. He wanted young people to have an opportunity to learn Sacred Harp “the right way.” Jeff had the wisdom to organize the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association in 1999 as a non-profit to be dedicated to meet this need. Then after a few more years of discussion of the idea of a camp program for teaching Sacred Harp, Jeff searched for and found a suitable place to hold the camp. That was the breakthrough we needed at that time. And you know the rest of that story.
Jeff’s vision, his spirit, his caring, and his high standards are imprinted all over Camp Fasola forever.
We Sacred Harp people lost a great and generous friend on August 2nd, and we miss him.
The words from the song “Arnold” perhaps can give us a measure of comfort:
Come let us join our friends above
That have obtained the prize;
And on the eagle wings of love
To joy celestial rise.
Let all the saints terrest’rial sing
With those to glory gone;
For all the servants of our King
In heav’n and earth are one.
(Spoken at Jeff Sheppard’s memorial service on Sunday, August 4, 2013.)