Gospel singing might bring about a number of images to mind: modern mass choirs, fiery vintage small group gospel, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, James Brown (and Rev. James Cleveland) in Blues Brothers, old Southern gospel, or spiritual bluegrass. I think very few people would immediately think of Sacred Harp singing.
Sacred Harp is a form of shape note singing, which was developed as a form of notating music such that four shapes on either a line or a space indicate the eight notes of the scale, allowing easier sight-singing than standard notation. (See the scale graphic below.) Sacred Harp was a hymn book written using shape notes in 1850s. It’s been sung in pretty much the same way since that time, largely in the American South. If you’re curious on more of the details, check out this page on how Sacred Harp is sung.
I like the music and I like the idea of the music. Usually there is a different conductor for each song, conducting in the center of singers lining four sides of a box. The singers run through the
melody tune once on solfege before running through the song once. They then move right on to the next conductor and the next song. There’s no practicing or rehearsing songs. My favorite idiosyncrasy in the style are that the singers just sing. There are usually no pretenses of being polished.
This is, in many ways, truly American music: democratic, individualistic and unpretentious. This is (usually) not music done for performance, not something practiced to death. People sing because they want to create the music, not because they want to be perfect. And the singers usually sing in their natural voices, not trying particularly hard to blend in perfectly with the group. That said, beautiful music comes out of Sacred Harp conventions and groups.
Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Convention – Invocation (mp3, recorded 2006, from I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings)
If you want more information, I’d encourage picking up any of the CDs I’ve plucked tracks from here. They’re all worthwhile, with my favorite being the first, Southern Journey, Vol. 9. There was also recently a documentary, Awake My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp that came out two years ago. I haven’t seen it yet, but from the trailer (below), it looks really interesting.
trailer for Awake My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp
For those that aren’t content just listening to the music, Sacred Harp singings still happen all over the country and right here in the Bay Area where you can join in singing. You can still buy the Sacred Harp book either at some of the singings or from the publisher.
And, as if that’s not enough proof that this music is still out there, there’s a compilation, Help Me to Sing of current artists coverings songs from the Sacred Harp. It will includes Elvis Perkins doing a version of “Weeping Pilgrim” which Perkins has been doing for a while (and that I’ve been previously impressed with). That compilation comes out October 14.
Update: For a limited time, you can watch Awake My Soul on Pitchfork.tv.