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Last week I took a microphone to a “singing” that happens regularly at the University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where a group gathers to sing four-part a cappella spirituals from a book called The Sacred Harp. We’ve had several listeners over the past few months write in to suggest producing a show about this folk singing tradition (and we have been looking for a music show). Developed in the southern United States in the late 19th century, it’s called Sacred Harp singing, after the title of its song book, and there are now groups all over the country who meet weekly to sit in a square and sing together.

The sound clip here is of the University of Minnesota Student Singing last week. Each singing begins with an hour of song, followed by brief announcements and a short break, then another hour of song. Any of the participants can propose a song, stand in the middle of the hollow square (the name for the square sitting formation), and direct the rhythm. There is no official leader. The first thing you’ll hear on this recording is preparation for the song: a woman announces the number, 455. You can hear silence as people find the page. A bus goes by outside. Then they begin to tune, deciding where the pitch of the song should be. They raise the pitch. They sing the first chord together, then the whole song once through on the syllables fa, sol, la, mi. Then, finally, they sing the song once through on the words, “I want a sober mind, an all sustaining eye.” After the song is over the next song is proposed, and they begin again (though, as you’ll hear, there is no rule against a joke in between).

I am fascinated by this tradition, in part because of its unusual musical notation, which you can see in the image above. More deeply moving, however, is the enthusiasm these songs inspire in the singers and the communities that grow up around the songs. Small groups are proliferating all over the country. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association lists singings in 35 states. From Hoboken, Georgia, where there is a group of singers (mostly family, mostly Baptist) who have been singing together for so long that they don’t know how long, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the singing takes place above a bar, people in many parts of the United States are finding connections across the hollow square.

I am moved by the joy and kindness these people demonstrate to each other, and I am excited about one woman’s project to arrange Leonard Cohen for her Sacred Harp group. Maybe there, some day, we’ll find our music show.


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23 Comments

Thanks for posting this Alda. I have enjoyed singing Sacred Harp music for over 20 years. For the past seven, I have done most of my Sacred Harp singing at University Baptist Church, where this was recorded. That night I left just as Alda was setting up the microphone. It's kind of odd to have a recording of the singing. It captures a part of the experience, but not the whole thing. Each individual brings their own flavor, their own needs, their own vocal timbre. We then raucusly share all of that with each other in the sacred space that the singing allows us. You'll notice that no one part dominates, just as no one person dominates. Something sacred happens when we give of our selves in song to each other, to God, to our deepest longings. That's what Sacred Harp music does for me. It lifts me out of my doldrums and helps me to see beyond myself. That's sacred work, if you ask me.
Doug Donley

Nice blog about Sacred Harp!

FYI, the book was first compiled in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White, but shaped notes were invented in 1801 or 1803, I can't remember which. And this style of music existed in New England in Colonial times, though singing in the square probably originated later.

We have a singing convention at the end of September, 2 days, all day with potluck lunch at noon. Everyone come! No singing experience necessary.

That's pretty cool. I've just been getting back into this singing, and find myself throughout the week with phrases, verbal or musical, going through my head ("fly------and fly"). I love liturgy (in my own Lutheran tradition and others), but there's something totally engaging about Sacred Harp singing. As a life-long musician, I've been nourished most deeply and directly by hymnody and singing--though I only found my voice to sing when I joined the Lutherans 9 years ago. Sacred Harp expands and deepends that, with no need to hold back for fear of "bawling," as John Wesley would caution against.

And yes, let's do Leonard Cohen--"Sisters of Mercy" perhaps? :-)

On a related "note," I am part of the Mennonite faith, which has traditionally had a culture of singing 4-part a cappella hymns. There is nothing (except maybe a Sacred Harp gathering) like a Mennonite hymn sing. At Goshen College, where I work and which is a Mennonite college, when we have hymn sings on campus, many of the college students are so enthusiastic that they are shouting out the next number to sing before the previous one has been completed.

Over the years, with the Mennonite church's emphasis on global understanding, the hymns that are sung have become more diverse and represent more than our Russian/Swiss/German heritage. Yet, the song dearest to the hearts of many Mennonites is what we refer to as "606" (the page number in an old hymnal), or "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." It has been even called the Mennonite anthem. When the group Sweet Honey in the Rock performed at Goshen, they requested the audience to sing "606" for them. And at the college's soccer games, fans sing "606" when the clock hits 6:06.

All to say that Mennonites and music may be a good addition to the music show you are planning. Some recommendations of people to talk with: Mary Oyer (professor emeritus of music at Goshen College) or Ken Nafziger (professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.).

Jodi,

You might be interested in knowing that a Sacred Harp singing happens every month (first Sundays in the afternoon) in Goshen at the home of Matthew Lind. See http://www.entish.org/sh/mish.... for more details. There is an annual singing in Goshen as well.

Its typical to only see what you want to see. A group like this is small because it protects itself from those it perceives do not belong.

I would suggest that, before making such a comment, you actually spend some time (not just one visit, but over a period of months) visiting our group, or another Sacred Harp group -- preferably several, to get a comparison of the culture in each group, which does differ a bit though the fundamentals remain the same.

I would also suggest that it is not fair to lump every small group of human beings together with every other small group, and state that they all have the same problems or characteristics.

We make a concerted effort to attract and welcome newcomers. But we are volunteers. Our group does not have an advertising budget. Twice a year we put up flyers for our convention; the rest of the time our information is available on our website. Sometimes we're given wonderful free publicity, such as in this blog. We rely on these things and on word of mouth.

Often, people find us on their own because, sometimes even without knowing it, they have been searching for Sacred Harp, and when they hear it, they say to themselves, "I HAVE to do this." So it isn't entirely our influence that gets people in the door.

I will say that in the Sacred Harp community as a whole, there is a great deal of discussion about ways we can make newcomers feel welcome.

Do a little in-person research before making a blanket comment.

Actually, Mr. Fox, I would suggest that the Sacred Harp community as a whole is one of the most "inclusive" groups you will find, especially among musicians. We require no musical training of you, no particular talent, just a willingness to participate and learn our tradition.

We do expect a certain amount of respect, however. My church is one of a few churches who still use this music in our regular worship services, so I am particularly attuned to that respect issue.

As for your comment, I assure you that if you give the music and its singers a chance, they will welcome you. It costs you nothing to try. In fact, every person in this group goes to quite a bit of expense to support their two major singings by hosting visitors from out of town and feeding all of the attendees, both singers and nonsingers alike.

As Martha suggests, spend some time getting to know these folks. You won't regret it.

Alda has written such a wonderful description of the experience of a Sacred Harp sing. Even though the singing occurs in the "hollow square", it's always an open square- with newcomers welcomed and encouraged to join in. The community singing of Sacred Harp often seems to happen "under the wire," perhaps because, it's not about money and not about performing. Alda, when you are in your home-town again, you, and any reader, would be warmly welcome to join us in Tallahassee Fl where we sing twice a month!

One thing I've been thinking about lately is what a relief it is to read music. That activity occupies a part of my brain that is normally busy busy busy, and I find making music so useful for turning that part of my mind off for a little while. When I sing the mental chatter dies down, and that silence of mind lets other, deeper, and more communal experience in.

I'm so appreciative of you sharing your experiences here. I think the urge to join in song is a deep part of our humanness - I know it nourishes me - and I love to hear about how communal music-making feeds your spirits.

You know, they might consider teaching music reading in school. <g></g>

Shaped notes have been considered as a way to teach music in schools. There is a Smithsonian publication (8 1/2" x 11", maybe 10 pages) to that effect. It was published in 2000, I think.

The first shape-note tunebook published was "The Easy Instructor" in 1801. Although much of the music in various editions of "The Sacred Harp" is from eighteenth-century New England, to my knowledge, there were no New England shape-note books until the 20th century. Shape-note tunebooks were compiled, printed, and published in New York State, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia prior to the Civil War. One Canadian tunebook was published in both shape-note and round-note editions. The music we think of today as "Sacred Harp" music was at one time widely distributed, whether in shape-note or round-note tunebooks. This is a somewhat long-winded response to Martha Henderson's comments.

As much as I appreciate Leonard Cohen's music, I can't think of any song of his that would lend itself to an idiomatic shape-note arrangement. I doubt Leonard Cohen will ever write a shape-note piece of his own. But the poem "A Villanelle for Our Times" by Cohen's mentor and friend F.R. Scott would lend itself to a New England style set piece.

The Sacred Harp tradition is actually very ancient. It has descended from the hymnody of the New England colonies. Our shape notes were patented in 1798 by singing masters looking for a way to teach sight reading in their singing schools. Over the next few decades the shape note notation became very popular with hymn book compilers. Sacred Harp was gradually pushed out by the music reform movement which was critical of our harmonies and rhythms. But it persisted in the mountains and rural south

As a life-long Sacred Harp singer from the deep South (Georgia, Alabama, and now Tennessee) and an "honorary" Minnesotan after just over a year there singing with the Minneapolis-St. Paul singers, I can vouch for the love this particular group of singers has for this sacred music. Although many initially came to the genre thinking it was folk music or maybe just something different, many have realized over the years just how sacred the music really is. Some even consider these singings their primary worship services.

I have sung with folks from California to Florida, Minnesota to Louisiana and parts in between (and even some folks from abroad), but with the exceptions of my home church and family, the Minnesotans are some of my favorites! Take the opportunity to join them sometime soon! I say "join them" vs. "go listen" because this "participatory" music (and the singers) won't let you get by very long with just listening! The singers will give you a "loaner" book and some guidance on how to get started. You'll likely wind up with a mentor or two for good measure,! Relax and enjoy the experience!

Hugs and love to all of my Minnesota singer buddies!! I hope to join you around the hollow square VERY soon!

I have been singing (off and on) Sacred Harp for more than 15 years, and have found all groups welcoming. I was raised in a small sect that sang a cappella. When I left the church I missed the singing -- sacred harp is perfect for me because it fills that need and gives even more -- and without judgment.

I’m a nice Jewish boy from da Bronx. I’ve been singing Sacred Harp/Shape Note/Fasola for about 28 years but have been most active in the past 20 years: singing in various places from Hoboken, Georgia; to a church across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria (St. Barts on Park Ave); in Poway, California with my sister; and the Lower East Side sing over the bar just moments away from Katz’ Delicatessen on Houston St. where you can get great pastrami.

It’s not about the where, but rather with whom you’re singing. I have had the pleasure of singing with most of the people who commented on this thread, they are part of my Shape Note family. When I get to sing in the square with them I truly feel the transcendent presence of a higher power and I am touched deeply by it. I feel my experience joins with others of different faiths and practices headed down the same path and makes my appreciation of my own path much more meaningful.

We store the files of our lives on the great hard disk in the sky but choose our own operating system to access it.

SING ON!

I was introduced to shape note singing when my life was teetering on the edge of personal and financial ruin. The love that total strangers extended to me helped me survive and heal. Every time I go to a singing I once again meet old and new friends, all united in raising our voices together. Singing tunes that have been sung in a musical style that goes back to our earliest settlers, praising God, mourning our trials and tribulations and just joyously singing together. Gathering together in small groups in a home, or singing with hundreds of other people in Birmingham, and Chicago, and everywhere in between. We sing joyously at weddings, and with tears streaming down our faces at funerals.

We sing with young children who bring a chair into the square so they can rest their book as they lead with the grace taught to them by their elders. We sing with older people who don't remember much about their lives today, but they lead their lessons by memory of the many years they have been singing these tunes. We sing with new singers who come because they love the music which is different from anything they have ever heard before. We sing with and honor the people who have been singing a long time and who take the time and money to travel all over the country teaching us newbies their traditions and the different styles and "how to do it right".

Thank you, all my singing friends. "All is well, all is well" Virginia Douglas

A note from San Antonio, TX
I too am a life long singer, from a family that has been singing sacred harp since the mid 1800's. Sacred harp singing lets the leader take a printed tune and make it his/her own, you can lead it at any speed you like, no matter what others think of the tempo, it is the leader's choice. You can lead one verse or multiple verses, repeat as many times as you wish. Singers love to have new people come to sing or listen. My grandfather use to tell people: If you don't like this music, you had better get away from it because it will 'get ahold' of you and never let go.
That is as true now as it was when he told people in singing schools many years ago.
"Let's Sing On!"

Sacred Harp singing transports one to a spiritual/non materialistic place that feeds the soul. I find there is nothing else quite like it for me that can bring such absolute and pure joy. Listening to the recordings of the music does not begin to describe the joy of actually singing. I only wish more people could discover this form of music.
Kristine

BIG BUZZ
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All You Will Ever Need to Know About God
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All The Best
Steve Adam

I wish I had come across this blog sooner. Thanks Alda so much for doing this and for providing a space to share with others the power and experience of Sacred Harp Singing. One interesting and important aspect of Sacred Harp Singing is that it is a participatory form of music. A singer from the South once said he would travel miles and miles to sing this music, but would not walk across the street to listen to it. Recordings do not do it justice and often they don't necessarily sound very good, in my opinion. You really have to sing this music to believe it! And all are welcome to give it a try regardless of musical experience. All are welcome to join us in the square!