Sacred music has played a part in my life as long as I can remember. My father used to sing hymns to me as he was making my breakfast when I was a child, having sung all of his life. Both of my sisters took piano lessons, and music always resonated through the house in one form or another.
When I was 19, the music director at my church approached me and said, “Your father has a beautiful voice. I’ll bet you can sing, too.”
That began a 30 year musical journey which has led me from singing at a Methodist Church in Midtown Memphis, Tennessee to singing on the York, England Grand Hotel staircase, and has included singing sacred music ranging from Bill Gaither’s “Because He Lives” to Faure’s Requiem in Latin. I’ve sung in 40-voice choirs, in Southern Gospel Quartets, on Contemporary Praise Teams, and have had the privilege of leading the singing in church services.
Yesterday, at the young age of 53, I experienced something musically that I’ve never experienced before:
I participated in a 5-hour Sacred Harp singing.
“Sacred Harp?” What is Sacred Harp?
I’m glad you asked.
Sacred Harp is a uniquely American tradition that brings communities together to sing four-part hymns and anthems. It is a proudly inclusive and democratic part of our shared cultural heritage.
Participants are not concerned with re-creating or re-enacting historical events. Our tradition is a living, breathing, ongoing practice passed directly to us by generations of singers, many gone on before and many still living.
All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required — in fact, the tradition was born from colonial “singing schools” whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing and our methods continue to reflect this goal. Though Sacred Harp is not affiliated with any denomination, it is a deeply spiritual experience for all involved, and functions as a religious observance for many singers.
Sacred Harp “singings” are not performances. There are no rehearsals and no separate seats for an audience. Every singing is a unique and self-sufficient event with a different group of assembled participants. The singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side, all facing inwards so we can see and hear each other. However, visitors are always welcome to sit anywhere in the room and participate as listeners.
Why is it called “Sacred Harp”?
Technically, our style of singing is “shape note singing” because the musical notation uses note heads in 4 distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading, but it is often called “Sacred Harp” singing because the books that most singers use today are called “The Sacred Harp,” with the most prominent of these being the 1991 Denson edition. The term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice — that is, the musical instrument you were given at birth.
In 1844, The Sacred Harp was just one of more than 100 oblong hymn books published in the U.S. It has been continuously updated ever since. Along with other hymn books from the era, a handful of which are also still published and used, its repertoire of over 500 4-part a cappella hymns, odes, and anthems is part of the foundation of our vibrant oral tradition. There are dozens of living composers still actively writing new tunes within the traditional styles and shape note format. Other shape note books still in use today include Christian Harmony (using a 7-shape notation), New Harp of Columbia, plus several others, including some entirely new collections such as Northern Harmony.
So, you ask, what are “shape notes”?
The four shape note system used in the Sacred Harp came into being during a whirlwind of American invention. Nothing and no institution was above diddling. This particular shape system was but part of an endless tinkering with music notation that 18th and 19th century Americans indulged in. Little and Smith with the Easy Instructor invented and patented of the four shape note system, but it was but the latest in a long line of experimental music notations.
Spirituals in the Southern Uplands
This notation reform which combined music notation with solmization practice ignited the oblong shaped note tunebook golden era (1801 – Civil War). Books such as Repository of Sacred Music, Kentucky Harmony, Southern Harmony, Sacred Harp, Hesperian Harp, and Social Harp were just some of the dozens produced during this era.
Then came the ominous cloud of the “Better Music Movement.” With this movement came the do re mi fa sol la ti do solmization system which had long replaced the simpler fasola system in Europe among the musically literate. In the urban north the victory of Mason and his ilk was complete with the eradication from the churches and communities of such scourges as the “patent” notes and the “crude music” of composers such as William Billings.
The south was far more resilient in preserving their ways. But even here the long arm of this movement was felt, and thus the seven shaped note system was born. With the exception of the editors of a handful of books Southern shaped note tune compilers largerly accepted the belief that the seven syllable (“one for each note”) solmization was superior to the old fashioned fasola approach. Chief among those leading the charge to this trough was “singing Billy Walker” (compiler of the four shape Southern Harmony) with his Christian Harmony. Although a variety of seven shape notations were invented, the emerging standard was created by Jesse Aiken.
Through his personal presence and intimidation tactics he gradually bludgeoned music publishers into agreements acknowledging his notation standard. Other notable books published in this format were Harp of Columbia (and the New Harp of Columbia), Harmonia Sacra.
During the era of late 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century legions of seven shaped small books were published in southern book mills. The music published in these books were mostly gospel and revival tunes. The people singing this music had a raging thirst for the new and according to GP Jackson, it was not uncommon for singers at a seven shape singing convention to show up and sing out of a book just published and never before seen by any of the singers. With the coming of modernity to the rural south this vigorous flood of music publishing dwindled, and currently there exists only a few seven shaped tune books still in publication.
For those of you who think that I possibly have lost what little mind I have left, I can only answer your concerns with an explanation that you may or may not understand.
I currently attend a contemporary church. I am being filled spiritually as I never have been before.
However, I have also been feeling a gentle, but firm tugging at my soul for a while now. As if a strong, but gentle hand is leading me back to use a sacred gift that was given to me a long time ago.
The experience which I had yesterday, was like the re-opening of a special birthday gift, long forgotten.
And I want to experience that feeling again.